Customary laws relating to birth and death of the Chikims

Published on November 8, 2012

By Priyadarshni M. Gangte

Birth Rite:

We are aware of the fact that in any society, modern or primitive, the birth of a child is welcome. It is an addition of a living human soul that adds to the population of the society in which the child is born. It is considered that birth of a child ensures perpetuation of the family lineage. This act of procreation is considered indispensable for a living society lest it becomes extinct.

As an inseparable and significant aspect of Mizo society the customary laws and its traditionally accepted norms with respect to both rites and rituals were investigated. Some of our inferences are highlighted which reveal a deeper sense of social responsibility. Here the tradition which has been built over the past generations has indeed become socially appreciative.

We researched into the tribal groups under our study and found that they have certain birth rites which are significant and when analyzed deeply show some common traits which throw light upon their common origin. There is no elaborate birth rite performed in the case of Lushais and Zomis, but they have some simple ceremonies at the time of birth and soon thereafter. It is most probable that in the ancient days such birth-rites must have existed.

The brief account given by Gougin (T. Gougin, History of Zomi, :1984, p. 43) mentions that the Zomi in general maintained a high tradition in regard to birth, a natural reverence for those who by virtue of birth become the chief of the village or a clan or a family that is to say the elders get a respectable place in a society. This is an universal practice but in the case of Zomi, we found this was exceptional.

With the birth of a child the mother is made to confine herself within the house for nine days if the child is a girl and for ten days for a male child. This confinement period is called Nawkhutlong (N. E. Parry, The Lakhers :1932, p. 384). While the mother is confined in the house, the father whenever he goes for work; makes a bamboo pin, and place it in the hand of the child telling it not to follow him. This is to protect the child from having misfortune, e.g. getting quashed with stone or cut with a dao or an axe.

On the fourth day the child is taken to the street of the village with a hoe and a small pot of cooked rice. While the baby is held by its mother, another woman pierce its ears with a thorn from a lemon tree or porcupine’s quill. The ceremony of ear piercing called Radeido (N. E. Parry, The Lakhers :1932, p. 384) is celebrated on the ninth day for a girl child and tenth day for a boy child. Every new born Lakher child has two names (N. E. Parry, The Lakhers :1932, p. 390). Unless the child is given two names it is believed that misfortune may fall on the child because it is feared that the God, called ‘Khazanpa’ may forget the child. This system is also practiced by the Tibetans (Ginseppe Tucci, Tibet, Land of Snows :1967, p. 154).

Normally a male child is given the name of his grandfather or anyone of the ancestors who had been a great warrior or hunter. Likewise a girl child is given the name after her grandmother or ancestress. However, it is generally preferred to give the name of a rich, wise, great warrior or famous hunter in the hope that attributes of person after whom the child is named may descend upon the child. It is also a fact that naming of a child after a friend or fellow villager is considered an insult and is imposed fine on the parents of the child by the chief and elder (N. E. Parry, Op. Cit;  p. 391).

On the Radeido day, the baby’s hair is cropped and is kept short regularly until the child is eight or nine years old after which it is allowed to grow until it is long enough to be tied in a top knot or a bun according to the sex. On the final cropping called ‘Sarang’ the child’s name is given (N. E. Parry, The Lakhers :1932, p. 386). On this day a fowl-propitiation is performed as part of the naming rite. And when the child is of two or three months old, another rite is performed called ‘Nawhri’ to protect him from all kinds of disease called ‘hri’ and ‘misfortunes’ (Ibid.).

Similar to the Lakher belief in the ceremonies of birth and naming of a child the Mizo also has an interesting legend. On such legendary belief the practice of the Mizo 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 (T.S. Gangte, The Kukis of Manipur :1993, p. 89). 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 Mizos.

One interesting thing is the process of delivery of the child among the Mizo group. A jar of ju is kept prepared with full maturity of fermentation for eight to nine months. 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 the 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 (William Shaw, The Mizo Kukis :1929, p. 51).

However Hutton (Ibid) 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 Mizos. He gave similar belief prevalent among Nagas as well as many other tribes e.g. the Moi of Annan, the Kayan of Barneo and Tinguian of Luzon (J.H. Hutton, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, N.S. XXIV, 1928, p. 51). 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 Mizos 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. One jar of rice-beer called ‘jubel’ and 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. Among the tribes of the Old Kuki, the birth ceremonies are much alike. In every clan there is a period during which the mother’s movements are restricted in some ways (J. Shakespeare, The Lushai Kuki Clans, 1912, p. 158). Among the Aimol, like the Mizo, the period is also five days in case of a boy, and three days for a girl.

Among the Anal and Purum, three days in both cases. The Chothe, Kom and Vaiphei, the restriction is for five days for both boy and girl. Among the Kolhen and the Chiru the period is extended to ten days. As for the Tikhup restriction on the mother’s movements lasts only till disposal of the remnants of afterbirth by special persons who clean up the house. It is observed that unless this is done no one may take fire flame from the fire place or remove any article from the house. And on the conclusion of such period sacrificial rites and rituals are performed.

Among the Aimol, the ‘Thempu’ (priest) pours out a libation of Ju and herbs in front of the house and invoke the child’s spirit to take up its residence within the inborn infant.(Ibid. p.159)   The name of the child is also given on this day which is similar to the Mizo system of naming. On the birth of a child, the Anal system of performing the birth rite is slightly different from others, in that the ‘Khulpu’ (priest) utters incantations, ‘ju’ and fish are distributed to the whole village to invoke the house hold gods (sakhua) so that the soul of the child is summoned (J. Shakespeare, The Lushai Kuki Clans, 1912, p. 159).

For a new born Chothe, the Thempu sacrifices a fowl and sip ju and incantates over a piece of turmeric which is then thrown out of the house. Again, on the fifth day, a fowl is killed then the name of the child is given. In the process of naming of child, the Thempu drops three grains of rice into a cup of water, if the grains sink, it is an indicative of approval of the name given but if they float, another name is to be selected. Among the Chiru, the Thempu, on the tenth day, performs the sacrifice. In this process, first it starts by planting a rakeng tree in front of the house, then the Thempu kills for the mother a cock or a hen according to the sex of the baby.

Now the parents of the child eat the cooked meat, only the flesh, the bones are not thrown or eaten by anybody, and they are buried in the house. Then two or three jars of Ju, which have been kept readied for this day, are consumed by married persons. The Thempu sips some ju and sprays it out from his mouth onto the walls inside the house muttering charms. The name giving ceremony ‘Keng-puna’ or ‘mingpuna’ follows immediately by killing two cocks or hens according to the sex of the child. The Thempu smears the blood on the infant’s forehead and navel, some of the feathers being tied with the hair of the child (J. Shakespeare, The Lushai Kuki Clans, 1912, p. 159).

The ear piercing ceremony is identical with slight variation among the old Kuki tribes as observed by Shakespeare (J. Shakespeare, The Lushai Kuki Clans, 1912, p.160). Among the Kolhen, the ear piercing ceremony is held on the tenth day and like the Chiru, name giving is also performed on this day. The maternal grandfather is obliged to give the child a pair of brass-earrings, bracelets, leg ornaments and a string of glass beads. In this connection, the name to be given is different from that of Aimol and Chiru. The Kolhen practices the custom of taking the name of maternal grandfather in the case of a boy child.

This custom is also prevalent among the Koms, giving a feast for the purpose on the expiration of the five days’ ‘Sherh’ (Sherh,  means that the house is placed under profanity for a specific number of days, on the expiry of which it is considered as having been purified). The paternal aunt performs the ear piercing ceremony. The Lamgang ceremonies are the same as those of Anal but the father is prohibited from eating the flesh of fowls during the ‘Sherh’ period and no other animal is sacrificed during such period (Ibid.). While comparing with other Kuki tribal groups, we are convinced to say that the Purum customs are simple.

The Thempu comes and mutters charms on the day of birth and returns on the third day for confirmation of the name of the child with a libation of Ju. No sacrifices are allowed. On the second day, the midwife gives the name of the child without performing ceremony and on the seventh day the piercing of ears is observed, this too, without ceremony. The Tikhup, usually celebrates the child naming ceremony in a feast on which the elders of the community are invited. A cock is killed for the child’s ritual part and ju also is served. In a poor family, where the parents cannot afford for such feast, it could be postponed till the child attains the age of two years old.

These small ceremonies which are performed among the several groups point towards a common origin and common belief system. While some ceremonies keep the individuals involved forget the pain and sufferings that arising out of the moments of delivery some others performed on account of make-belief systems for invoking longevity for the mother and child. These observations on ceremonies can be observed as common phenomenon in context of world civilizations in general and cutting across all cultural lines in India in particular.

Death Rites:

Like birth of child every society has its own funeral rites as well (Raymond Firth, Human Types, 1958, p. 145). When a member of a society dies, a group of people usually including close kinsfolk of the dead, assemble round the corpse, mourn for it, and arrange for its disposal (Ibid.). The assembly is not merely a matter of choice, but it is dictated by obligation of a strong sanction. Likewise, the mourning is also usually not left to the discretion of the mourner’s own emotions (Hindu Dharmashastras, especially Manu’s Dharmashastra and the provisions made therein have been codified in the Hindu Funerary rites).

He is expected to mourn in prescribed forms, the intensity of his grief is almost codified according to the kinship status and not infrequently he receives some material acknowledgement of these services. It may be thought that the funeral rites would be concerned primarily with the fate of the soul of the dead man to facilitate his continuity and well-being in the next world. This is often the case, but frequently this aspect receives only small attention.

There may be a little talk about the afterworld and of the soul, which has departed and few rites to ensure its safe passage and preservation. Most of the time may be occupied with feasting and exchange of goods and future arrangement for the members of his family. There is much truth in the view that the essential function of the ritual is to deal with the survivors rather than with the dead. As Radcliff-Brown has shown for the ‘Andaman Islander’ the death of an individual leaves a gap in the social group and disturbs the emotions of those who still live.

The funeral ritual provides a channel for the expression of these emotions, and enforces consideration of the role that the individual has played in the social life. Firth (Raymond Firth, Human Types, 1958, p. 145) contended that closely connected with the religion of any society is the mode in which the bodies of the dead are disposed of. Burial in the earth is the simplest and most natural mode of disposing of a dead body, and this mode is prevalent among the Mizos.

There are slight variations in the method of burial and the choice of a grave but the general system prevails throughout Mizo societies. Even the Meiteis not so long ago had practised burial of their dead. It is after the second coming of the Hindu cultural influence that cremation was accepted as the form of disposal of the dead. This becomes more popular mode as it was considered to be more hygienic than burial. Davis (A. W. Davis, Gazetteer of the North Lushai Hills, 1915, p. 14) in his study on the North Lushai Hills published in 1915 observed that among the ‘Sailo’ and other elite clans, the body of a dead man was never buried, that after death the body was placed in a coffin, hewn out of a large log and that the coffin was placed on the floor of the deceased’s house, near the fire place and was connected through a hole in the bottom with the ground below the house by a bamboo tube through which fluid of the body got deposited.

The body was then placed in the coffin, which was hermetically sealed with clay and left in front of the fire for a period of four or five months. By the end of this period, the body was fully decomposed and decayed. When only the bones remained, they were then collected and placed in an ordinary wicket-basket and subsequently kept in the house. (The use of gun is quite recent but in olden days gongs were used to convey the message or beating of drums symbolized the gravity of the serration in the village or the area). As for ordinary man, the custom was to place the corpse on the floor in a sitting posture. He was dressed up in all his best clothes. So dressed, the corpse held a levee as it were, of all its friends and relatives came together to mourn the death for one day at least.

Thereafter, the dead body was placed in a coffin and buried near the house. So we can see two different trends. However, one thing that was common was the ritual of collecting bones and burying them for posterity. Among the Lakhers, immediately after the death of a person a gun is fired (The use of pugree is a main that contribution in the belief systems of the sun communities in the North East) so that the spirit of the dead man reach the ‘Athiki’ (dead person’s place) and also to signal the villagers that the sick person is no more alive. The body is washed with warm water, the hair is greased and properly tied and also properly dressed with a loin cloth, a cloth and a puggree (A. W. Davis, Gazetteer of the North Lushai Hills, 1915, p. 14) in case of a man and with all her best clothes for a woman (N. E. Parry, Op. cit; , p. 399).

Two bamboos are placed diagonally against the wall at the back of the house, and a mat is placed across these bamboo and the body is laid on the mat in a reclining position with its feet on the floor. Just above the dead man’s head, against the wall a shelf is erected for placing rice and cooked eggs for the soul of the dead man. And it is disgraceful if flies are found sitting on the corpse, thus special attention is taken. ‘Rikia’ or ‘wake’ is held by all friends of the deceased who bring ‘sahma’ (rice beer) known as ‘Bupa’. To accompany the spirit to ‘Athiki’, mithun, pig or whatever is available is sacrificed.

Throughout this wake (Rikia) dancing with the beats of drums and gongs everyday, rice, meat and Sahma (rice beer) are placed in the deceased’s mouth. The Pupa stands on the verandah facing towards the dead body telling to go to Athikhi happily and not to worry about his relatives (N. E. Parry, Op. Cit.). After this the Pupa cuts the beam and doorway of the house with a dao. After completing these, he dances round inside the house three times, and is followed by another man dancing at a time with two more men. At the end of each round one has to stamp his feet to show that the dance is over. The dancing in this process is called ‘Rakhatla’ and the object of the same is to please the soul. ‘Rikia’ is observed for two or three days.

Lakhers burry their dead bodies in the evening near the house. The Pupa leads the burial party followed by young men carrying the corpse and the relatives, he lays down the corpse, pushes the feet first into cove at one end of the grave. And before pushing down to the grave, the wife or husband of the deceased taps the body gently with his or her hand biding farewell by telling not to worry about him or her and also to go happily to Athikhi (Ibid., p. 400). Then the priest closes the grave with a stone and also covers it with a flat stone on the grave to place meal every morning until memorial stone is erected.

In this connection, the Pupa after performing all his duties, before returning home, accepts ‘ru’ (dead man’s price), which is paid by the relatives of the deceased. Prior to this, Pupa is obliged to kill a pig. A death due consists of a main price called ‘rupi’ and the following subsidiary prices shown below (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p.420). Phavaw (a pumtek bead); Raibong (a sahma pot); Bongta (a small sahma pot); Sietla (The payment to be made because a mithun was killed for riha. This was prevalent in the olden days, but it is hardly killed , however, rice is still claimed); Pangbu (a cloth); Atu (a hoe) and Thuasang (dao) The above discussions of the death ritual is only for the chief, rich man and important persons.

However, the normal death of commoner and that which occurred due to unnatural circumstances are totally different as far as the formalities are performed. Unnatural deaths (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 406) are regarded as unlucky, and anyone who dies unnatural death as a result of being killed by a wild animal, drowned, falling from tree, in a war or in a shooting accident is known as ‘Sawvaw’. The dead is normally kept outside the village where it is closely watched by lighting fires by the relatives and friends. The next day, the corpse is brought to the village, and is kept at the verandah of the deceased’s house (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 407). After performing the rikia (wakes) it is buried before dawn outside the village in the west so the evil spirit may carry away. The grave is also different from the ordinary ones.

No memorial post or stones are erected for a ‘sawvaw’ or is ‘any food for his spirit placed in the grave’. However, if reha is observed then the head of the animal is deposited along with the corpse. The Lakhers never use coffin like Lushai and other Mizo tribes. As per Lakher custom, death ritual regarding the place where the person dies if it is a friend’s house then, the sacrifice of a pig and fowl (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 409) is a must by the deceased’s relatives for the purification of the profanity that takes place. In addition, giving of 10 rupees as a fine to the Pupa is prevalent.

These people who take part in the funeral service are as per the list of books approved by the Committee at 15% discount to cross over the kindled fire already arranged at the entrances of their respective house lest they carry the hri of the spirit. The death rites and rituals of the Lakhers, in one way, are very similar with the Meiteis. It is the practice of quenching the old fire used till the funeral ceremony is completed and the kindling of new one is commonly prevalent. And all persons who have touched the corpse have to cleanse themselves by washing their bodies with water and rice (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 404). Rice is a symbolic item for it is taken as the purest form of all things, which removes the evil smell of the corpse and other defilements.

It is pertinent to mention that while performing blessing-rituals and opening of grave women play a dominant role – First, the wife of pupa performs the blessing-giving programme in the evening of the burial day. She brings a fowl and some ‘sahmahei’ (anthawm in Mizo), sacrifices the fowl to console the souls of the surviving members of the deceased’s family (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 402) and with the blood of the fowl she anoints each of their big toe and offers them a little sahmahei. This ceremony is called Thlathleu. It is an important rite performed for bringing peace to the souls of the deceased’s family and also to protect them from evils.

It is believed that a dead person must not visit in the dream of survivors while they are asleep. Secondly, the aunt, who is the sister of the deceased, opens the grave and she is therefore, to inherit whatever items are inside the same. This is called ‘Thupahma’ which is the price of touching the evil smelling remains. It was the common custom of a Lakher or a Mizo or even any Mizo before the advent of Christianity. So a common customary law can be seen existing among all Mizo tribes. Valuable articles such as beads, gongs etc., which have been owned by the family are deposited along with the corpse. It is very curious to understand that ‘articles of value’ buried in vaults should ultimately descend in the female line in the law of inheritance (N. E. Parry, Op. cit.;  p. 411).

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 sociologist in the Kuki society.

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