Customary Laws of the Kukis

Published on June 20, 2010

Customary Laws of the Kukis

By Priyadarshni M. Gangte

1. Introduction: Customary Law means those rules and principles which have been observed in a particular community in actual practice for a long time, i.e. time immemorial i.e. where the memory of man runneth not to the contrary (Dr. H.N. Tewari : Legal Research Methodology, Asian Offset Press, Faridabad, 1999 (Reprint), p.45). It is most commonly used to describe the largely written indigenous laws of the indigenous people especially with the tribes recognized by European powers in the colonial territories.
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 Priyadarshni M. Gangte

The basis for these laws lies in social practices accepted as obligatory. Customs and Customary Laws are not synonymous. There may be various customs without any legal authority whereas the customary laws have the sanction of the bulk of the society and if not obeyed, such violator is liable to be punished.

Custom, like law, in its widest connotation, is a body of rules which regulates the conduct of human beings vis-à-vis each other and vis-à-vis the individual and the society as well, said Paras Diwan (Paras Diwan : Customary Law of Punjab and Haryana, Publication Bureau, Punjab University, 1978;  p.8 ).

II. Social Institutions: In the study of customary law versions in their practices and usages of social institutions have to be indispensably referred to for better understanding of the same. Hence, social institutions and customary laws which have been adopted by the Kukis have to be thoroughly considered. Social Institutions, such as, marriage, marriage payment or bride-price, inheritance, divorce, birth-rite, death-rite, would therefore be dealt with for consideration.
(a) Marriage: Marriage as an institution is a social arrangement by which a couple is legitimized, said Radcliffe-brown (A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Ford : African system of kinship and marriage: 1950; p.5), in their physical relationship and their child is given a legitimate position in the society which is often determined by parenthood in the social sense. This concept of marriage is comparable to the early English and African marriage form that existed in the 19th Century as a standard form of civilized marriage.

There are different kinds of marriage of which the following are common among the Kukis –
(i) Marriage by engagement;
(ii) Konglo marriage;
(iii) Levirate marriage;
(iv) Marriage by elopement;
(v) Child marriage;
(vi) Mother’s Brother’s Daughter marriage or Cross-Cousin marriage or Preferential marriage.
(b) Marriage payment or Bride-Price: Marriage payment or bride-price or marriage price is the most important factor in Kuki marriage. No marriage can be performed unless part of the marriage payment is made in advance by the bridegroom to the bride’s family. It is a sacred institution prevalent in Kuki society. It is, however, not to be understood as a sale-price, said Parry (N. E. Parry: A Monograph on Lushai customs and Ceremonies : 1928; p.24). It is not a commercial transaction either. This practice of marriage payment is made in kind and Mithun necessarily.
Bride-Price Structure of Thadou-Kukis:
 Clan Price
1. Doungel and 2. Sitlhou 
i) selsom (10 mithuns)
ii) dahpi ni (2 big copper gongs)
iii) dahbu ni (2 sets of three different small sizes of copper gongs)
iv) Khichang ni (2 ear beads)
v) Khichong ni (2 bead necklaces)
3. Singson
i) Selsomlanga (15 mithuns)
4. Kipgen and 5. Haokip
i) Selsom (10 mithuns)
ii) dahpi ni (2 big copper gongs)
iii) Khichong ni (2 bead necklaces)
iv) Khichang ni (2  ear beads )
6. Chongloi and 7. Hangshing 
i) Selsagee (7 mithuns)
ii) dahpi khat (1 big copper gong)
iii) dahbu khat (1 set of three different small sizes of copper gongs)
iv) Khichang khat (1 ear bead)
v) Khichong khat (1 bead necklace)
Crawford is the first and only person so far to work on the customary laws of the Kuki ever-undertaken by an authority. The work did not pretend to be exhaustive and was printed in such a form as to enable officers to make their own additions. Examples of then existing court practice in the matter of loans and oaths were inserted even though they were not strictly speaking customs.

Shaw (William Shaw : The Thadou Kuki : 1928, pp.58-59) in his study on the Thadou observed several deviations from what Crawford had specified in his work. He contended that the question of amount of marriage payment among the Kukis was not definite and commented that the chiefs and wealthy persons usually claimed and paid the equivalent of ten mithuns, Rs. 200/- in cash,  2 or 3 dahpi (large gongs), 2 dahpu (set of two gongs), 2 khichang (ear beads), 2 khichong (necklaces).
He did not name any specific clan of the Kukis. He further opined that ordinary person often actually pay a couple of mithun, khichang and khichong. As in an instance, he said that a pig in some cases may be taken as one mithun and that as per his personal experience he had come across cases where Rs. 40 had stood for 4 mithuns, a jar of ‘ju’ for a khichang or khichong. Thus in actual practice the parent of the bride hardly ever received the marriage-payment in full but in the form of more or less fictitious substitutes.
He was emphatic in this regard to the effect that the parents loved to name large amounts as the ‘man’ not with any idea of getting it, but to be able to boast that their daughter was married for so much. Often when enquired as to what precisely they had received, it was found that actually a much smaller amount had been accepted in full satisfaction by a system of fictitious values. This is very similar to the practices among the Lushais, Zomis, etc. Fictitious values have more often created false pretensions of wealth and richness, which became bones of contentions later and led to unhappy marriages.

It must also be mentioned that Hutton (J.H. Hutton : Notes on the Thadou Kukis : 1929 ; p.59. Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, N.S. XXIV) was convinced to have observed the fact that the first and last number of the marriage payment by mithun must necessarily be paid in mithun (selkeng-liding by this it means that marriage payment has to be by live-mithun). The first and the last marriage payment must in no case be substituted in any form of cash or kind.

Gangte (T.S. Gangte : The Kukis of Manipur : 1993; p.95) another authority working on the marriage payment of the Kukis maintains that the marriage payment of the Singson Kuki is 30 mithuns without any other items added to it unlike the other Kuki clans. The higher rate of marriage payment among the Singsons has no origin according to him. It is said, the Singsons are the direct junior collaterals of the Sitlhous. So when their senior collateral (Sitlhous) increased the marriage payment the junior also deemed it proper to follow suit.

In this regard it is found that one common conspicuous missing fact is that of ‘Lutom Laisui’, a very important and compulsory item in the marriage payment. It signifies the importance of father and mother of the bride. ‘Lutom’ is given to the father of the bride in token expression of gratitude. Likewise, ‘Laisui’ is an exclusive item to be given to the mother of the bride for having given birth to her daughter and son from her naval. Here, it must be said that, while the father is shown respect for his paternal masculinity, the mother too is highly respected for giving birth to the child.

It is interesting to state that there cropped up differences between William Shaw and J.H. Hutton, who out of confusion literally dealt with the two terms out of ignorance of the language and meaning provided to the two items. Shaw (William Shaw, The Thadou Kukis, :1929, p. 63) attributed ‘Lutom’ as a gift given to the mother and ‘Laisui’ to the father. Hutton (J. H. Hutton, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal XXIV:1928) contended otherwise and explained that Shaw got it the wrong way round. In doing so, he explained saying that Laisui means a woman’s waist-band, while Lutom is a man’s loincloth. They were cloths for bride’s parent and further contended that it could be accounted for a money payment of Re. 1/- and Rs. 2/- respectively, that a woman can claim for property and that a Kuki woman can make in her own account.

Similarly, another feature that has not been dealt with by the several authorities in regard to Manpi which stands for principal marriage-payment that consists of one mithun on the tail of which one piece of big bead ‘khichang’ through the ear of which the tail of the mithun can be made to pass as a decorative piece. This bead is counted as equivalent to one mithun. Therefore, the Manpi or the principal mithun is counted as to bear the price of two mithuns. The principal mithun is expected to have given birth to as many calves as possible. It is believed that with such principal mithun included in the marriage payment similar number of many children are in return given birth by the bride. Therefore it is insisted that such principal mithun should necessarily reveal calf bearing.

It is also observed that the broad based marriage payment as shown above is not totally followed by different clans. As for an instance, the Haokips of Chassad lineage known as the seniormost (piba) of the Haokip take ten mithuns inclusive of the principal mithun.( Information provided by Letkhojam Haokip, a close cousin of Chief of Chassad on 19/7/2005). However, as for other junior lineages of the Haokip clan of the Kuki, the marriage payment is fixed at eight mithuns.

Another pertinent point I have observed i.e. the fact that though the marriage-payments of different clans are fixed it is customarily not paid in full throughout the life time of the bride. The practice of marriage payment is that provided the principal mithun accompanied by one or more subsidiary mithun can be paid, the remaining marriage payment be not necessarily in terms of mithuns.(Thangkhonieng, aged 94 years, Old Lambulane, Imphal, interviewed on 4.2.2000). They can be substituted in kind. Symbolically the counting could represent mithun depending on the agreement between the groom’s and bride’s parties.

It is also observed that in some societies such as that of Sumatra and Malay Archipelago, marriage payment in full (A. R. Radcliff – Brown, Introduction to the Book, African Systems of Kinship and Marriage :1950, p. 51) had to be made compulsorily so as to be eligible for father-right. By this, it implies that the children of father-right marriage payment system, the children are of exclusive possession of the father. Similarly if no payment is made at all, the children belong to mother and her kin. These South East Asian social traits could have entered the Kuki social customs during their period of origination and intermingling of their culture with tribes in Manipur.

(c) Inheritance: The laws of inheritance of the Kukis from father to eldest son exclusively irrespective of the number of sons born to the family persists. To share, or otherwise, of his ancestral inheritance with his younger brothers is entirely left at the discretion of the eldest son. Even his father cannot stop inheritance of his eldest son over his property under normal circumstances.

In case a deceased man does not have male issue, the property cannot be inherited by daughter. It has to go necessarily to his male senior lineage closed to him by relationship. Herein, the contention of Crawford (C.G. Crawford, Hand Book of Kuki Custom, Reprint :1984;  p. 1) may be mentioned in that if a Kuki has no male issue of his own, his property including his right to claim marriage price, dead-price (longman) etc. and his debts go to his eldest brother or his eldest brother’s son, if the eldest brother is dead or a failing brother, to the eldest of the nearest male line. A younger branch cannot do so until all the senior branches are extinct ‘ingam’ in Kuki  male line (William Shaw : The Thadou Kukis,:1928;  p. 67).

Some interesting but contradictory laws of inheritance also prevail; e.g. some of the old Kuki tribes such as Anal, Purum and Lamgang, divide the deceased father’s property into shares according to the number of sons. The youngest son inherits the ancestral house and supports the widow; thus it is akin to the Lushai custom (J. Shakespeare, The Lushai Kuki Clans, Part.II :1912,  p. 154).

(d) Divorce: Soppitt (C.A. Soppitt, A Short Account of Kuki Lushai Tribes, :1893, p. 15) in his work on the Kuki Lushai tribes in 1893, observed that the traditional system of divorce practiced among the Kukis since eighteenth century till the period he undertook the study was definite to say, “Once married, no divorce is allowed except for adultery and even in these cases, if there be children, it is resorted to. The adulterer is heavily fined but he/she does not otherwise suffer punishment.

It is a masterpiece of contention, which can be observed as being prevalent even today. Yet, Crawford (Ibid, P.8) observed that when a married woman did not behave as a virtuous woman should, the entire mankat (marriage payment) plus one mithun as a fine for causing disgrace (maithi) or migepman as adultery price by the adulterer to the aggrieved husband has to be paid.

In case a widow living in her deceased husband’s house has a liaison with a stranger maithi is payable even if no pregnancy follows (C.G. Crawford: Op.Cit.). This is exactly similar to the Lushai system called Uire. Divorce may also occur due to cruelty of husband toward his wife. Under such atmosphere in the family, the wife not being able to stand cruelty of her husband may ultimately ask for divorce. The Kukis belonging to strong patrilineal society give no right whatsoever to women to whom may be attributed the main cause of cruelty of husband rather than to the wife (P.C. Misao, History and Customs of The Thadou Kuki :1970, p. 38).
 In such kind of divorce the initiative often comes from the side of the wife leaving her husband’s place. The guilt presumed to have originated from the wife due to her inability to bear or to encounter her husband. Therefore, though, in point of fact, husband is the root cause of divorce the wife is implicitly alleged to have taken the step towards divorce for which she was found with fault. The husband, therefore, is exempted from any fine imposed under the normal dispute cases. Hence, the wife is penalized to return to the aggrieved husband the entire marriage-payments except the sumtansha (a pig killed by the girl’s parents for fixation of the girl marriage-payment).

(e) Birth Rite: Similar to the Lakher belief in the ceremonies of birth and naming of a child the Kuki also has an interesting legend. On such legendary belief the practice of the Kuki at the childbirth is that a provisional name is immediately given to the new born child as soon as the child comes out of the mother’s womb simultaneously with the cutting of naval cord by a split of bamboo. This provisional name is associated with the superstitious belief that unless it is done so, the ‘Thilhas’ (evil spirit) may overtake the person attending to the mother and the child. It is believed that if the Thilhas give name of the child ahead of the attending mid wives the life span of the child is under the discretion of the Thilhas. It is faith among the Kukis.

One interesting thing is the traditional process of delivery of the child among the Kuki group. A jar of ju is kept prepared with full maturity of fermentation for eight to nine months.(Thangkhonieng: op.cit).  It is distilled to be offered to the mother of the child as medicinal potion. It is a fact that with the offer of the ju to the mother her entire bowel contaminated by pregnancy and child-birth gets completely cleansed. This process gives immediate strength to the mother and good health is ensured.
In this regard there appears slight difference from the contention of Shaw who maintained that the naval cord was cut with a knife or bamboo split. However Hutton (J.H. Hutton, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, N.S. XXIV, 1928, p. 51) differed from this contention and his views have been convincingly proved. He maintained that the use of knife or any metal on occasions, such as, child birth is considered as taboo among the Kukis. He gave similar belief prevalent among Nagas as well as many other tribes e.g. the Moi of Annan, the Kayan of Borneo and Tinguian of Luzon (Ibid).

After delivery of the child and immediate offer of ju to the mother, the real name of the child is given by elders and closed relatives of the family. At this stage though provisionally the name of a boy is selected after his grandfather and grandmother lends her part name in the case of girl child. Thus, in most cases this provisional name is confirmed on this occasion.
The restriction to the mothers not to leave the house for some days among the Lakhers is also prevalent among the Kukis which is called Naolaichan. It is done after three days after birth in the case of girl baby and five days for the boy child. On this very day commences feeding of the child. The mother gives food to the child from her own mouth as birds feed their young. It is called Nao-an-mop (E. T. Dalton, Ethnology of Bengal – Tribal History of Eastern India :1872, p. 47).
This is followed by another rite called Kilhalho. It is performed after the birth and naming of the child. In the process, the part of ‘Thempu’ (priest) comes into the picture. A twisted cotton thread is prepared in the middle of which feathers of a cock is tied. Holding the two ends of the twisted thread around the neck of the child the Thempu will perform propitiation, which includes begging for the health and future prosperity of the child to God. After doing so the Thempu will tie the thread around the neck of the child with his blessings spraying a mouthful of ju around the child symbolizing purification of the child including the surroundings.

The next stage of birth rite is ‘Naopui’ (Christening of the child) performed at the residence of the maternal grandparents or uncle. According to Gangte (T.S. Gangte, The Kukis of Manipur:1993, p. 105), on this occasion the parents of the child take the following items with them.
(i) One jar of rice-beer called ‘jubel’ and
(ii) One cloth called puondum (a black coloured with two lines of white colour on the border, lengthwise).

The christening party comprises ‘Tuchas’ (representatives drawn from female relatives of the family such as aunts, sisters, etc.) and Bechas (representatives and closed friends of the family such as uncles, brother, good friends, etc.) leave for the maternal grandparents or uncle of the child early in the morning. On their arrival at the maternal grandparents or uncle’s house, the party is not allowed to enter instantly. They are stopped at the ‘Haungcha’ (verandah).
The Becha of the maternal side cuts ginger into pieces and ‘Thempu’ (priest) performs purification rite on completion of which they are allowed in the house. This signifies that the child is spotless and is not impure when they take him or her to the house of the maternal grandparent or uncle. All kinds of evil influences and bad things that may befall the child are then warded off by the performance of the purifying rite at the door with ginger. This ritual has only changed forms but is found in every ethnic community. Among the meiteis, it is by burning fires.
This follows all the ritual formalities on completion of which the visiting individuals are given a feast together with some presentation including the half portion of the sacrificial meat. Thereafter, they leave the maternal grandparents or uncle of the child’s residence with the blessings from the ‘Thempu’ of maternal side.

(f) Death Rite: Dalton (E. T. Dalton, Ethnology of Bengal – Tribal History of India :1842; p.47) found the Kukis and their cognate tribes bury their dead but even amongst the poor the bodies are first allowed to lie in estate for several days. And the corpse of great men are placed before slow fire till the flesh is effectively smoke dried and then laid out dressed and equipped for a month or two. Before the process is started, the corpse is washed and is wrapped in a cloth (William Shaw, The Thadou Kukis :1928, p. 53). Hoever, at present, if the death occurs in the morning or during the night, the corpse is buried in the (next day’s) evening. The burial takes place outside the house.

According to Gangte (T. S. Gangte, Op. Cit; p. 107), deaths are divided into three broad divisions, namely :
(i) ‘Thi-pha’ (Natural death);
(ii) ‘Senhut’ (child-hood death upto the age of three); and
(iii) ‘Thi-sie’ (unnatural death).

(i) ‘Thi-pha’ (Natural Death): As soon as the death takes place, it is informed to all the relatives of the deceased by sending messengers to their respective places. It is believed that the messengers, on their return and after they have reached the deceased’s house, ‘Kitom’ (brandishing whatever in the hands as a weapon, either scythe, gun, axe, etc.) is performed and who does not do kitom he will be sick or any misfortune may happen upon him. In the meantime, the dead body is kept for burial and the people await the works of digging of grave, funeral ceremony, etc. to be completed. As for the location for the grave, the village ‘Thempu’ (priest) selects the same accompanied by Tubul (highest Tucha) female relatives.
The digging work is first started by the Tubul, by digging at least one or two strokes with a spade symbolizing the commencement of the work, then the others follow. Right from this work gets started, the Tubul is not allowed to go to the spot nor is he allowed to enter the house till the corpse is buried. This is called Lhan chan. A separate jubel is arranged for him to be sipped exclusively by him. However he may invite others to join him. When all necessary formalities including the Phui Sam, are done with and a dedication rite by torching the well-framed corners of the grave is completed, the Tuchabul announces that ‘the grave is ready’.
The Thempu leads the funeral party, followed by others crying and kitoming proceeding towards the graveyard. The Thempu also performs kitom at intervals on way to the burial ground in the midst of others. Gunshot or blank fire is done in case the man is of fame or status. (Thangkhosei Sitlhou, aged 82 years, Keithelmanbi, Sadar Hills, Senapati District, Manipur, interviewed on 12.5.2002). Then the corpse is laid down in the grave. It is a new dimension in the funeral rites.

Immediately after burial service, a large pot of brass with beads and silver dipped in water is arranged for the Lhan Chan party, the Tubul and all the concerned persons who took part in the burial proceedings take bath, wash their hands and other parts of the body, signifying purification of defilements.

A feast called ‘Kosana’ is normally hosted by killing a mithun, or pig or a cow whatever is available and an animal that can be easily afforded as soon as possible by the deceased’s relatives Actually, ‘Kosana’ is to be performed on the day of the burial itself. However, some people arrange on other day as is convenient to them. The ‘Sangong’ (neck) of the sacrificial animal in this regard is given to the ‘apu’ (maternal uncle).

(ii) ‘Sen hut Thi’ (Infant death): The Kukis bury an infant’s corpse as soon as possible under the floor within the café of the roof at the outer wall of the house parallel to the hearth of the family without any publicity and ceremonial rites.

(iii) ‘Thi Sie’ (unnatural death): Any type of unnatural death called ‘Thi Sie’, such as by accidental fall from tree, drowning, killed or murdered etc. irrespective of their social status including the chief does receive the least possible death rite. Such death is also considered as defiled, thereby prohibiting the dead to be brought to the village not beyond the village gate called, ‘Khomol’, which is the entrance gate located before reaching the actual village site.

In contrast to this, the death of a person with fame, including the chief, received utmost possible elaborate death rites for a normal death. The brief death rites are such that the body is buried with food and drink, and with the skulls of animals, slaughtered for the funeral feast. It is particularly worth mentioning that at one time it was considered essential that a fresh skull of human victim sacrificed for the occasion, should adore the grave of a chief (E. T. Dalton, Ethnology of Bengal – Tribal History of India :1842; p. 47).
It is amazingly true that a man-hunt is deliberately organized so as to complete the rituals for the purpose. This has persisted throughout history in different communities with some regional variations. At the time of erecting a dam or a house a human sacrifice was performed clandestinely. It was considered to be auspicious, as doubt, but loss of life could never be recompensated. So it was a negative practice not to be encouraged.
In consideration of the death rites of Kukis it is observed that the general principles of the rites are based upon the belief that the soul of a man continues to exist and it therefore transmigrates in some form or the other. In this connection it may be of interest to refer to the findings of Soppitt (C.A. Soppitt, A Short Account of Kuki Lushai Tribes, :1893, p. 12) wherein he stated that on the death of a man his spirit is believed to remain for a period of one full moon in the house he occupied when living, at the lapse of that time the soul departs to a village termed “the village of the dead”, where it stays until it returns to earth (at the lapse of an uncertain number of years) in the body of a new born child.

III. Conclusion: With the advent of Christianity and modernity which brought about economic dynamism and development, most of the customary laws have either undergone radical changes or abandoned particularly in the economic domain when factors determining below poverty-lines have tremendously affected traditional economic life which was of egalitarian nature of society.
The writer, who has authored several articles and books, is a lecturer in the history department at Damdei Christian College, Manipur, India. She is the wife of late Thangkhotinmang Sielpho Gangte (T.S. Gangte), a well-known historian in the Kuki society.

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