The month of May is known for the festival of Gudui Ngai, among the Zeliangrong Nagas of Manipur. The author, in the following article outlines the history and significance of this festival, while exploring the interesting practices surrounding 'ginger'.
The Zelianrong Nagas of Manipur who follow the indigenous religion Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak celebrate four major festivals in a year. They are: Gaan Ngai, Rhi Ngai, Nanu Ngai and Gudui Ngai. Gaan Ngai is a post-harvest festival which is normally celebrated in December or January. Meanwhile, Rih Ngai is a war festival. Back in the day, this festival was celebrated just before men went to war or to celebrate the merit and victory of the village in a war. Nanu Ngai celebrates the birth of children born in the previous year. Gudui Ngai marks the beginning of the plantation season for the year. The festival is observed for a day to honor Tingkao Ragwang (heavenly god) and pray for a bountiful harvest. The festival derives its name from the ginger plant which is called Gu in the local language. A unique characteristic feature of this festival is that people drink a beverage, dui, made from ginger. And so the festival name Gudui Ngai is derived from adding the two words Gu and dui, and adding Ngai as a suffix, which means festival.
The significance of ginger originates from a story in Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak. Mr. Dimrei Riamei from Chingmeirong Village, Imphal narrated a brief version of the story, “Long ago, all the gods were warring among themselves. The war was between the gods of rain, wind, river, sun and others. As the nature of the war was otherworldly, no one on earth could stop it or do anything about it. Finally the Tingkao Ragwang (heavenly god) had to intervene and stop the war. He did so by showering ginger which is his formless toes to neutralize the gods. From there men took inspiration to celebrate Gudui Ngai to pray for a good weather season that would ensure a good harvest.” The practice of crushing ginger and applying it as a paste on arms and legs, in order to prevent infections and injuries, during the plantation season is prevalent. Ginger is often carried by people while hunting in the forests,as it is believed to have sacral value that can ward off evil spirits.
The rituals in the festival are normally conducted by the Pei or village council. Early in the morning the head of the council performs a ritual called Malengkeimei. In this ritual zou-ngao (rice beer) and gutam (ginger chutney) are offered to the heavenly god. This is followed by Napkao (call for good harvest). Members of the village council visit each house in the village and sacrifice a rooster. The entrails of the rooster are hung outside the house close to the road to appease the god as an offering from the sacrifice. After this the feasting preparation starts and ginger is served as a key ingredient.
Namdigui, a government school teacher, gives a sense of how ginger is served on this occasion. She explains, “On Gudui, we normally drink ginger water throughout the day. Ginger water is prepared either by crushing the ginger to squeeze the juice out or the ginger is simply boiled in water and served. For guests who visit our home, we serve ginger soup or broth with chicken meat from the bird that is sacrificed on the occasion. The food items might look limited but the trick lies in the seasoning, and this surprise makes visiting each household a treat.”
Like many tribal festivals, Gudui Ngai is also an occasion for games and recreation. The village youths engage in Duidom Phaimei, a game of splashing water. Meanwhile the village elders sing Katu which is a ritual song sung for a good harvest. The most important event of these recreational activities is the tug of war and this activity is normally conducted in the village community ground. Although a tug of war is a common activity in any given festival around the world, but in Gudui Ngai it performs a prophetic function. The tug of war takes place between boys and girls, and also between men and women. Gungmei, who is a member of women’s society of Chingmeirong, explains, “While pulling the rope in tug of war, if the rope breaks, it is considered as an omen. It signifies impending tragic events in the form of death during the agricultural period. And in the event of women winning, a bountiful harvest is ensured.” So, the girls and the women are ritually made to win the tug of war to secure a good harvest.
Gudui Ngai is normally celebrated in the month of May in accordance with the lunar calendar. But there is no specific date to celebrate this festival. In the urban areas of Imphal, Manipur the date of celebration is fixed for the 14th of May this year. However, in the hill districts the dates are different. This is primarily because in certain regions the festival is celebrated just before sowing the paddy seeds, and in other regions the festival is celebrated on the first day after the seeds are sown in the paddy field. Nonetheless, the essence of the festival remains the same, which is to honor god for a good weather season and good health during the agricultural season.
About the author: Boniface G Kamei belongs to the Rongmei Naga tribe of Manipur, India. He is currently a research scholar at the University of Hyderabad.