As the Debbarma tribe offers the last remains of the deceased to the Dumboor Lake, they believe that the crossed over soul is finally free and ready for reincarnation. Adivasi Awaaz creator Anuprava Debbarma, writes about the last rites and rituals of the Debbarma community of Tripura, who follow the tribal practices of honouring the dead.
Rites and rituals are an important part of one’s belief and faith. These are usually prescribed according to one’s religion, culture, community and tribe. Traditionally, the people of the Debbarma tribe follow the Hindu religion. However, all tribes have their own traditional tribal rites and rituals that they have followed since time immemorial. Being Hindus, the Debbarma tribe cremates their dead but most of the after-death rituals followed, are largely dictated by their traditional tribal practices. It should be noted that while these rites and rituals are largely the same for the Debbarma tribe everywhere, there are minor variations according to one’s region and location.
The following are the after-death rituals followed by the Debbarma tribe of Tripura:
Time to see off:
The body of the deceased is placed in an open area whereby everyone can come and pay their respects and bid a final goodbye. People light candles or incense sticks as a mark of tribute or respect.
The journey begins:
The deceased person is bathed and then dressed in new clothes. They are then laid on a plank made of bamboo. The body along with the plank is wrapped with a bamboo mat. Everything used in this process mandatorily has to be brand new, due to the popular belief that the deceased would be reincarnated and hence all things should be new in his/her new journey ahead. If the deceased was a married woman, then she is dressed up as a new bride. If she was a widow, she would be dressed in plain clothes.
The funerary pyre has to be lit only by the son of the deceased. In case there are no sons, any close male relative of the deceased may light up the funeral pyre, but daughters or any other woman of the family are not allowed to perform this ritual. After this, everyone irrespective of their gender has the right to go and light up the burning pyre, individually. Everyone who attended the cremation ceremony is required to bathe after this stage. The deceased's family members are not allowed to eat before sunset on this day.
13 days of mourning:
From the day of death until the 13th day, the family members from the man’s side of the family are expected to eat only vegetarian food as a mark of austerity. Also, till the 13th day after the death, the son(s) of the deceased are required to dress in plain white pieces of cloth and consume simple food and drinks. They are required to sleep and sit solely on the ground; however, they are allowed to use a jute mat which they have to carry all the time.
However, the daughters/sisters of the deceased need not to follow this rule. They have to eat vegetarian food only for 3 days after death. After 3 days, the daughters/ sisters can offer food in the name of their deceased mother/ father or sister/brother. The food offered is called ‘Maikhwlai’ in Kokborok.
On the 7th day, the ashes are collected by the son or by any close male relative of the deceased. The ashes are kept in a pot placed inside a fenced area in the front yard of the house until the 14th day.
On the 12th day, a prayer ceremony including a ‘Kirtan’ is held which continues for the whole night and every adult of the house is expected to stay awake and participate in the prayer until the ‘Maikhwlai’ on the next day.
On the morning of the 13th day, the sons of the deceased offer ‘Maikhwlai’ with a puja conducted by the Brahmin. The Puja is then concluded by shaving off the hair of the sons. The son(s) of the deceased can now wear normal clothes. The Puja is followed by a grand feast in memory of the deceased. Before the feast, one has to eat ‘Awaan bwthai’ (sticky rice) with stir-fried ‘Elengcha’ (Water spinach). It is only after having this food, that one can have non-vegetarian food. It formally marks the end of the mourning days.
On the morning of the 14th day, the pot containing the ashes of the deceased is taken to a bank of a water body by the son along with a huge procession that includes singing and dancing all along the way. In case there are no sons, any close male relative has to perform this rite in exchange for some remuneration. This remuneration has to be in the form of kind only (not cash) such as offering a piece of land. After six months or one year (whichever is earlier), on the day of ‘Haangrai’ (Makar Sankranti), the cremation ashes are taken and poured into the holy Dumboor Lake by the family members. With this, the remains of the dead are finally set free.
On the first death anniversary of the deceased, the family members organise another funeral ceremony with a Puja followed by a feast for the relatives, friends and villagers. It is a way of remembering the dead and paying their respects. It is with all these rites and rituals that the family members of the deceased pay honour and sanctify the dead. It is believed that through all these rites and rituals the soul of the dead would be set free for reincarnation. Although few rituals followed are similar to the Hindu practices, most rites have a tribal origin.
This article is created as a part of the Adivasi Awaaz project, with the support of Misereor and Prayog Samaj Sevi Sanstha.