“In the world where conflict and division, violence and destruction have gripped in we have no other option than to look for some means to negotiate between warring groups and also any means to control the situation. It is in that context of need and search the Tangkhul concept of pukreila becomes important, meaningful and relevant. It is a cultural method of fashioning peace that needs to be rediscovered and activated”
Dr Shimreingam Shimray
The status of the tribal women in North East India is comparatively better of if compared to the experiences of women in other parts of India. A freedom of mixing boys and girls in works, dances, singing and in other social moments is a fact. But that does not mean the absence of patriarchy in their society. The treatment of their traditional customs to the women is inconsistent and un-uniform. And thus, many of the earlier writers have in several occasions mentioned bias and superficial statements about the status and role of tribal women in NEI. For example, Haimendorf’s view on Naga women may be taken. They adore them without looking into the issue critically and raised no essential questions in their presentations. When we address to the question of gender we definitely look at the positive and negative aspect of the tribal customs and we also try to value the undercurrent of positive while uncovering the unjust domination.
It may be noted that most of the tribal people believed the father and not the mother as the life giver; the creative principle was male. And so the family cult belonged to men. A woman could only share the cult but she was not allowed to maintain it. Generally, it was true in the case of the Nagas that a daughter could remain attached to her family even after her marriage but even if that was the case she could only share in the cult and she was no longer a part of the family. The daughters are generally not allowed to inherit the non-moveable family property from their parents in marriage simply because the patriarchal custom considered them as ‘departing’, ‘delineating’ relation and becoming a member of another home/clan etc. and forced them to leave their home in marriage with a mere gifts of utensils and agriculture implements. Subsequently, after marriage a wife is considered to be under the control of her husband, she was kept away from her emancipation. Politically, the decision-making body at all level was formed by male representations which means control of power belonged to men. Thus, in general, the tribal women also suffered under the patriarchal structure of their traditional society.
In this piece of writing I do not intend to disprove the fact of that patriarchal unequal treatment to women but try to see certain aspect of tribal culture where women were privileged and respected. I also keep in mind the need to counter a wrong mentality of modern men which hold that ‘women’s participation is important, they should come forward’ without considering that their own culture colonizes women or even without being willing to reconsider their cultural imposition. At this point, I would dare to challenge that men folk refuse to accept that women cannot come forward unless they are welcome without reservation. Often women’s identity is refused to be fully recognized and respected. Often the recognition is limited to certain degree and never beyond. The half-hearted freedom given to women is like what Madhu Kiswar says of ‘ladies compartment in the train run by men’. Because in that kind of compartment, though women have a complete freedom to do anything inside they do not know where they are heading to. So if the men drive to a gorge they would all die without knowing why that is so. That is to say that men also need to enter into their experiences in order to understand reality. Because, there is no possibility for the tribal women to be free unless men are ready to struggle with them and help them come out from such cultural bindings. The tribals need to seriously critique on their culture and custom positively. For which I would refer to one of the cultural aspects of the Tangkhuls.
The Tangkhul Nagas are one of the Naga tribes inhabited in Ukhrul district of Manipur. They have a strong patriarchal social system in the society. Their customs of inheritance, male lineage, decision-making system, etc. are often seen as discriminative aspect against the women. In the Tangkhul traditional society women were quite often identified as ‘helpers’ whose duties were directed toward cooking, serving, child bearing and child rearing. But at the same time, they had a beautiful (hidden) attitude of respecting and honouring women. I would like to briefly uncover this attitude and reflect to contextualizing the past.
The Concept and Practice of YORLA
The term yorla (in Tangkhul) refers to a woman who got married to a man who belongs to another clan (exogamy is a strict rule of marriage), who may be of the same village or another village. So all the married women become yorla of their brothers and cousin-brothers. This term contains an idea that she has become someone who has been given away. Literally, yorla is derived from two suffixes such as ‘yor’ (sale) and ‘la’ a general suffix to female name. Thus, the term has rather derogatory meaning for which the Tangkhuls have been talking that an appropriate term must be coined to mean that concept without discriminating to women.
There are two kinds of yorla, they are: ‘yorkhok’ and ‘yorphāng’. A woman is a yorkhok to her real brother (s) and she is a yorphāng to a son(s) of her father’s elder/younger brother(s). In their context, this practice of yorla gives their women two distinct positions. (1) She is always a member of her parental home till she dies; and the parents and brother(s) are obligated to see that she is well and her right is not manipulated and denied when she lives as wife in her husband’s home. (2) She will have a time especially during the festival that she once again come back home and enjoys her birthright freedom as a member of that family.
There are many occasions where the yorla becomes very important to their parents, brothers and males of her original clan (for the Tangkhuls, when a woman gets married she takes her husband’s clan and that clan lineage is inherited to her children). For instance, from the second year of her marriage, during the Luira Festival (it is their New Year festival in the sense that this festival is observed for three days with gaiety and great feasting in preparation to begin their yearly agriculture work. This festival is normally celebrated in February every year. The name of this festival literally refers to the first dig of the earth), the father gives sāhei (a share of meat often a portion of leg) to his married daughter(s) for three years. As per their custom, the father invites his married daughters irrespective of their places and distance to come home and enjoy the feast with their family members. This sāhei is given when the daughters come to their father’s home to celebrate Luira Festival. The giving of sāhei is not limited to that of the father’s gift but especially to those women who had married to a man of another village sahei is given by all her brothers, relatives and neighbours. And as such, she would either ask her brothers to drop her share of meat to her live-in home or ask her husband’s family/clan to come and carry her sāhei. This kind of carrying meat is called as sāhei kaphung (‘kaphung’ means carrying things with basket at the back). The daughters, in response to their father invitation do not simply come to eat but each of them bring their best gift for their father. Traditionally, Haorā (man’s shawl) is the most respectful gift and most of them would come home with a Haorā for her father. And when she comes home that is the time while she can once again enjoy the rightful place in her parental home. A woman is never forgotten till her blood is lost.
Besides that father’s invitation during the Luira Festival, a yorla is always counted by her brothers in many other important occasions. In their language Yorla kakachi means inviting or asking the yorla to participate. This is still practiced by most of the Tangkhul families/clans. For instance, when marriage takes place, the father of the groom calls for yorla kakachi with the hope that his yorla would bring a good share of gift. Traditionally, the yorkhok was expected to bring a buffalo and the members of yorphāng are again expected to collect among themselves toward the amount of another buffalo. However, in the present context of competition, the kind of gift is changed from buffalo to a car or sofa set or dinning table set or other electrical appliances). But the practice of calling yorla strongly exist among them.
When the yorla come for a marriage of their brother(s), they are also treated as one of the most important groups of people in the marriage celebration. They would also try to enjoy the celebration to the maximum. For instance, prior to the day of wedding when they slaughtered animals (mostly buffalos) the stewards would leave a buffalo after the abdominal skin is cut opened. Then, those yorlas would come in without any instrument and try to take the internal parts by their own hands. Even after the event, they are not sent away empty handed but usually what the Tangkhuls call Yorla sā (share of meat) or yorla ham (pot) or yorla kachon (shawl) is given to them. The size of those gifts is decided according to the status of being a yorla.
The same kind of yorla kakachi is done when the brother/cousin-brother construct a house and when he host maran kasa (hosting of feast of merit). During these two events, yorla would be expected to come not only with meat but also with much more amount of rice and drinks. They may come with pots of food and also brew several pots of rice beer. That the yorla became good supporters of material needs.
Another time when brother(s) would call upon is when death takes place in their family. A certain messenger would be sent out to inform all the yorla about the dead in certain family member so that they would again organize themselves and bring what they call yorla kachon (shawl) at the time of death of a member of her lineage.
As such, the yorla are a good source to their brothers. In many occasions, yorla saves the face of the brothers. In other words, men who had a good number of yorla can conduct more number of prestigious events like that of marriages, maran kasā, etc. and at the same time they are better taken care in times of difficulties. One might think that the custom is taxing to those women married to others because there were series of events to which a yorla is expected to come with tribute/contribution. But it must also be noted that the collection among the yorlas was not done uniformly. In the sense that, even when the was not done uniformly. In the sense that, even when the yorphāng had to contribute to a certain total it was usually done in such a way that those who were well-to-do gave greater share of contribution at their will and asked lesser contribution from the little weaker ones.
The importance of Yorla of the Tangkhuls does not end in giving and taking tributes, attending festivals, deaths, maran kasā in her father’s or brother’s house but the fullest respect to their women is shown in time of war and conflict that there are times when their women held the most prestigious status (which no ordinary woman/man could act) in the peace making of the people. That, in the past, when war with dao and spear was in practice, while men of villages confronted in furious fight the yorla whom they called pukreila (a woman who was married to a man of another village) played a vital role in saving lives of men and stopping the war. She was the only human who could go to the middle of fierce fights and act as the mediator. A pukreila enjoyed a full diplomatic immunity. In the context of war, a neutral force belongs to women. Pukreila is a woman who became a noble citizen of that village of her husband. As such, she cannot be undermined nor can be harmed.
This pukreila has a dual citizen status in the sense that she owns the recognition of her original villagers and also favour of her present village. That neutral status of a woman is considered as the best source of mediating war. A pukreila is called as peace maker, the bearer of the torch of peace and the Red Cross bearer of Naga inter-village war. In the midst of war, at the time of hot blood, enthusiastic and emotional situation when no man’s force could control the fighting, pukreila could easily enter to the battlefield and stop the fight. According to their custom, pukreila could not be harmed by any side. She is highly respected for her neutrality, for she is related to both the villages. She has a strong binding with her parental home such as with parents, brothers and sisters and cousins. At the same time, she has equal binding her husband and in-laws. The binding to respect pukreila goes to the extent that if any harm is done to her by any person/party then the case will be taken to the court of Range Council (a council formed by several neighbouring villages) and this combined force would wage war against the accused party. Such was a seriously penalty which no village would dare to face. And thus none would dare to touch to harm pukreila.
In the world where conflict and division, violence and destruction has gripped in we have no other option than to look for some means to negotiate between warring groups and also any means to control the situation. It is in that context of need and search the Tangkhul concept of pukreila becomes important, meaningful and relevant. It is a cultural method of fashioning peace that needs to be rediscovered and activated.
Today, we do not need to think of woman only in terms of yorla / pukreila who can go in between the hot blooded men folk in war. But think in terms of empowering such status and role to the whole womanhood (both married and unmarried), married within or outside her village. So that the respect owned by women and their heart to create peaceful world would surely become capable of silencing any form of conflict and fight that prevail in the present society. Today, when we search for peace, let us recognize the presence of any woman (of our village or a woman from neighbouring village) as Red Cross bearer who always identify with reconciliation and peace process so that this redefined concept of women would serve as the greatest means of fashioning peace among different people. And thus, we do not need to think as if we are simply listening to a story of a group of people and trying to imitate from them but make it as the story of the total womanhood.
The role of pukreila was not limited to that of the battlefield. But also in times of misunderstanding, conflict, disputes, etc. For instance, when there was any dispute between two villages and when menfolk found difficult to travel to that conflicting village it was pukreila who would take responsibility to travel places to initiate the process of reconciliation. A simple example may be cited from the recent experience of peace making. That when there was a problem because of the conflict between the National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) factions led by Isaak Swu and Khaplang respectively; the situation became unhealthy when the NSCN-K served a quit notice to the Tangkhul from Nagaland state allegedly because of killing its cadres by its rival group allegedly under the leadership of the Tangkhuls. It was the Pukreilas (the Sumi women married to the Tangkhul and Tangkhul women married to the Sumis) came together and initiated peace programme. They took trouble of traveling and meeting leaders of both the factions, explaining that any act done by an individual does not amount to placing judgment on the whole community. They are said to have convened meetings between the two communities and vowed that they would continue to work toward bringing lasting peace to the land. The situation in Nagaland is said to have improved toward peace co-existence.
Today, when we talk about making our own culture relevant to the people we cannot speak of divided culture but concrete culture. And within that concept of concrete culture this value and strength of women must be accommodated with priority. So that we can affirm our understanding that for the tribals, considering women as peacemakers is not a new idea but an old hidden idea which needs to be uncovered and accepted. This challenge is not a threat to any patriarchal custom, structure and form of society rather it is a call to respect our own cultural value.
This positive tribal value of women, if made practical and realistic the whole world would love to respect and learn from us. In other words, the tribals will be able to contribute the most needed method of fashioning peace to the world. On fully acceptance of this value system by the world will become a point of change from the spirit of war to the reality of experiencing peace on earth. And when such thing happens human beings will be appreciated for recognizing the hidden value of women at an appropriate time.
In our theological talking and deliberation very often we talk about the empowerment of women. We also affirmed that theological conceptualization without a good share of feminist concern is incomplete. Such affirmation is, to me, a deconstruction of the mentality that holds, ‘women’s participation in all works of life is very important and they should come forward and take part in leadership role’ without seriously considering the factors of why they could not come forward to the front to participate and take leadership role. That fashion of casual saying has been adopted for long enough without realizing that it is not only the duty of women themselves to claim but the duty of their oppressors to realize their attitude of cultural colonization. Having said that we do not need to look for further excuses than to materializing the most needed value. A time has come for us to fully realize that we no longer need to extort that greater freedom of women.
I would further, at the end, reiterate that the privilege owned by the women of the past was not simply a right created by themselves for themselves but a value that was endowed by the society. And for that matter a status given by the patriarchal system. But today we see it as withdrawn by men. Therefore, to make tribal women important in the process of fashioning peace it is not simply the task of women alone but the society has to grant the status and the role so that they will endeavor to its fullest implementation.
Written by Dr Shimreingam Shimray
 Haimendorf ’s view on Naga women is quoted in M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trend (New Delhi: Cosmo Publishing House, 1988), 41; cf. J.P. Hutton, The Sema Nagas (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 187; J.P. Mills, The Ao Nagas (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1973), 211.
 M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trend, 59.
 The definition of the term ‘Yorla’ seems to have derived from a root ‘khayor’ meaning sale because certain amount of gift/money is paid to her family. Therefore, it degrades the value of ‘Yorla’. As such, today, Tangkhul women have argued towards changing the term into ‘Yola’ meaning the soft and gentle lady who is loved by all.
 R.R. Shimray, Origin and Culture of Nagas (New Delhi: Samsok Publications, 1985), 168.
 There are times when even pukreila acted as a spy. But that was not common.
 The women organizations of both the communities have expressed concerned and pleaded the NSCN-K to reconsider the notice on humanitarian ground. Cf. Nagaland Post (Dimapur, Monday 5, February 2007), 1; The Telegraph North East (Guwahati, Wednesday 7 February 2007), 17
1 Haimendorf ’s view on Naga women is quoted in M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trend (New Delhi: Cosmo Publishing House, 1988), 41; cf. J.P. Hutton, The Sema Nagas (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), 187; J.P. Mills, The Ao Nagas (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1973), 211.
2 M. Horam, Nagas Old Ways New Trend, 59.
3 R.R. Shimray, Origin and Culture of Nagas (New Delhi: Samsok Publications, 1985), 168.
The above text was published in Tribal Christian Theology – Methods and Sources For Constructing a Relevant Theology for the Indigenous People of North East India edited by Razouselie Lasetso and Yangkahao Vanshum (Under Tribal Study Series No. 15, Jorhat 2007). Pages 122-130