Feast of Merit: A Historical Practice of The Tangkhul Naga

Tarung PC: Ursula Graham Bower
Cultural Insights

Maran Kasa/ Feast of Merit

“it was the result of their communitarian spirit. That, it was a sign of not having the idea of greediness but dominated by the spirit of sharing. The rich people had the joy in sharing their wealth with the entire villagers particularly with those who were said to be poorer. They believed that by doing such kind of entertainment the hosts did not loss anything because in return the villagers would bless them and they would continue to experience bumper harvest and their animals would also multiply without loss” – Dr Shimreingam Shimray

 

Maran Kasa means hosting of the ‘Feast of Merit’. It was like a game which the rich people could only play and win the shields. Generally speaking, it was a hosting of feast and laying commemorations but strictly speaking it was more that that. According to their custom, Maran Kasa was the most expensive at the same time most prestigious of all. There are two basic grounds of why the Tangkhul Nagas practiced such an expensive feast, feeding the entire population of the village. They are (1) General philosophy of feeding the poor and sharing of one’s wealth with the whole village. (2) A competition in order to climb the ladder of social recognition that prompted the Naga rich men to perform a series of feasts of merit around which the wheels of the Naga society revolved.[1]

In Maran Kasa, the feast was not the only important thing but equally important element was erecting the symbols of it. Among all the Naga tribes this practice existed with slight differences especially in their method of commemorating Maran. As for Tangkhul Nagas, there were two practices such as erecting Tarung (a huge tree with half-cut branches, properly hewn and carved); the other one was erecting of huge flat stones. Any of these could be done depending on the liking of the host. Most of the hosts preferred the first one so it was more popularly done.

A view of Tarung, Hunphun Village PC: Ursula Graham Bower (1937)

According to S. Kanrei, Maran Kasa was originated at Hunphun (Ukhrul) and Humpum (Hundung), the two oldest Tangkhul  Naga villages. He further writes that their Maran Kasa were the most difficult and expensive among all other villages.[2] In their practice, the Tangkhul Nagas, usually erected five Tarungs. Traditionally, in felling each Tarung cost them a pig so in total five pigs were required to fell five Tarungs. In hosting Maran one had to offer not less than twelve buffaloes, twelve cows, twelve pigs, one dog and one cat.[3] Out of those twelve buffaloes four would be borne by four elders of the Shang (Clan) to which the host belonged and the rest he had to contribute. If anyone of the elders failed to contribute a buffalo that would cause him loss of his Kharara Sakhoshai (tributary meat to the elders). Before hosting Maran, one had to undergo a series of rituals in order to decide whether he should host or not. For instance, he had to first offer sacrifices to his Shim Kameo (household deity), after that he performed divination called Harkho Khayang by strangling a cock to death and seeing which of the leg laid over the other; if the right leg laid over the left that was considered as good and reversed was considered bad. In the meantime, he had to see dreams and if all these proved favourable then only he could declare to host such prestigious Maran and offered a sacrifice of a cat to his Shim Kameo.

In spite of Maran Kasa a climbing of social ladder it was not permitted to everyone. It was allowed only to the elders of the high clans. Therefore, although one might be very rich but if he was the youngest and if one happened to be not from a high status family-line during whose forefathers’ time not hosted Maran, he could not host in his lifetime because they believed that if one takes the step which he ought not to take that would cause misfortune to his family members even to the extent of vanishing one’s lineage.

Maran was normally hosted during the winter while every citizen of the village must be present. By that time the host family and the relatives have got ready with all requirements like fire-wood, rice, animals, zam and khor (rice beer). The first two days they spent in preparation and feasting which they called Yangphat Kashai in Tangkhul (eating and drinking in order to store up strength which was to offer during the next  few days). From the third day, the menfolk started felling the Tarungs. It was not the custom to cut any tree for this purpose, the tree which had a hole inside, the half dead, the broken branches were not allowed to be used for Tarungs but only the best ones which had no defect,[4] which the host had chosen or selected much ahead of time. A Tarung had its height of about 20-30 feet. It was very hard to bring a Tarung home. So they tied branches with wild ropes at each distance and carried by a group of people with loud hohoing. Bringing home all those five usually took them around a week during which the whole villagers enjoyed eating and drinking in the house of the host at his expense.[5] The last of all the Tarungs was considered as the chief, therefore a number of rituals were involved in the process of bringing it home. For instance, at the first moment, the host prayed and called the spirit, saying: So unglo, maphui unmayonlo, nana akhava ungsarakho. (O come home, be the chief at my courtyard and look after my paddy). They brought this home in a big procession with great hohoing through the heart of the village. After bringing all the five Tarungs they had a big merry-making before erecting them yet. The act of erecting was done in such a way that they killed a cock each for the five Tarungs, cut the neck and smeared the blood with a loud sound of ho…ho… joined by the whole villagers and erected them. On the last day, the ceremony of Dharkat Kaka (dedication) was followed with much eating and drinking of new meats, zam and khor which went along with performing the rite of sacrificing the offerings to the spirits of the Tarungs and beseeching them to guard the family well.

There was another kind of Maran which they called Long Maran, organized by Longnao (members of the same Longshim/ dormitory) and the owner of the house. This was, as a whole lesser that the Maran  hosted by an individual to the entire village. For this, they spent three buffaloes and three pigs and commemorated by three Tarungs. Here, the work was not done by the whole villagers. The parents of the Longnao donated the required animals and the works were done by the members of the Longnao and their relatives. Otherwise, most of the other rituals, practices, process, etc were done similar to that of the individual’s Maran.

The said tribal custom of throwing feast can be looked from two perspectives. The first, it was the result of their communitarian spirit. That, it was a sign of not having the idea of greediness but dominated by the spirit of sharing. The rich people had the joy in sharing their wealth with the entire villagers particularly with those who were said to be poorer. They believed that by doing such kind of entertainment the hosts did not loss anything because in return the villagers would bless them and they would continue to experience bumper harvest and their animals would also multiply without loss.

It was because of such community feeling that no one was questioning about the involvement of wealth rather more people preferred to host feast of merit provided they were given the chance. That kind of understanding is fully expressed when some old people recalled and assert the value and spirit of the feast of merit. For instance, Mr. N. Shingnaisui says, “There was nothing bad in hosting Maran, every rich man wanted to host it because that was how a man could show his capacity and prove his richness in sharing with his entire villagers.”[6] So in their understanding, feast of merit was a sign of treating people with equality rather than trying to accumulate the wealth of the poorer section of the society. The rich tribals, instead of exercising the power of wealth and manipulating the means of production from the poor villagers had the feeling that everyone should enjoy the wealth that was available in the village. It was also an attempt to bring people together in gathering so that they could maintain rapport with every villager.

So in the first instance, the hosting of feast of merit had a strong community spirit. The philosophy behind the practice was simple. In a true sense, inviting people to come and enjoy feast at the expense of a rich man’s family. And at the end every participant appreciated the host for unsparingly feeding them and gave them the privilege of rest and enjoyment.

From another perspective, today anyone particularly the modern priests, the capitalists, economists and the policy makers may interpret against such uneconomic custom of distributing wealth. Because for them, wealth/money spent without investing is a waste. The ideology behind the present programmes is increment, multiplication, investment and at the end ‘profit’. For sharing can have a meaning in terms of partnership or networking through which both the parties can make profit. So a person spending huge amount of wealth and offering series of meal to the entire villagers of hundred of people would mean unplanned economy of the fools.

In today’s world money is the most powerful means to decide things. Money, with its manipulative power can make wrong right; unlawful a lawmaker and an accused a free person. Even if that is not the case, the human society evolves around the economy. All human activities have direct or indirect connection to economy. For instance, a politician, a social worker, a theologian, a medical expertise, a technologist, etc., no one is free from economy because without that human being cannot survive. So from the perspective of the present economist, it would be very difficult to justify that old tribal way of seeking social recognition through uncalculative way of spending wealth.

However, one cannot also say that the whole customary practice was wrong because that would simply mean rejection of tribal culture. And so there should be another perspective to look at the issue. That, their economic involvement in feasting may be cautioned and yet appreciate their strong feeling of community concern which resulted into the form of sharing one’s wealth with the community members.

 

Written by

Dr Shimreingam Shimray

 

References:

[1] R.R. Shimray, Origin and Culture of Nagas, p. 108.

[2] S. Kanrei, Tangkhul Khararchan, p. 92.

[3] T. Luikham, Wung (Tangkhul) Okthot Mayonza, p. 54; Maya Gachui, perhaps on the basis of his own village gives different number of most of the animals. Cf. Hao Miun Ngashan, Imphal: Goodwill Press, 1986, p. 23.

[4] T. Luikham, Wung (Tangkhul) Okthot Mayonza, p. 54.

[5] T. Luikham, Wung (Tangkhul Okthot Mayonza), p. 56.

[6] Mr. N. Shingnaisui is about 85 years of age by the time he was interviewed at Ukhrul on December 12, 1992.

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