Translated from Kok Borok by Hamari Jamatia.
When people die they leave behind loved ones who have to deal with their sudden absence. It is, however, believed by the Borok people of Tripura that the spirit of their family member still lingers on in the physical world for upto 13 days after their death or till their bones are immersed in a river. The living, therefore, prepare elaborate meals for the spirit everyday as a way of transcending the physical world and connecting at a spiritual level. They make favourite dishes of the person and make sure to offer water, and sometimes even paan, to ensure a hearty meal.
January 13 and 14 are considered auspicious days this year as the community celebrates two festivals called Buishu and Hangrai. Many families wait till this day to immerse the bones of their deceased family members and pray for their salvation.
I came to learn about this tradition recently when I overheard my parents talking to each other about a ritual called Osti, in which we pay respects to the dead by preparing food for them. When a family member or a relative dies, that person is cremated according to the rituals of those Borok people who follow the Hindu religion. After the cremation, the bones are wrapped in fresh linen and kept in a miniature hut called Osti nog that is newly constructed.
The spirit of the deceased is said to dwell in this new home till their bones are immersed in a water body, such as a holy river or lake. Once the bones are immersed, the hut is dismantled. In some tribes, the rituals are followed for 13 days whereas in other tribes, it can continue for months. Relatives can also offer meals at their homes without having to build the miniature hut.
My mother, Bishu Laxmi Debbarma, informed me that even after the bones are immersed, family members can prepare the maikhlai, or food thali, every year on the death anniversary of the member as a form of remembrance. While preparing the food for one of her deceased family members, she said, “I shall be preparing food for two separate people today. This month, I have already prepared the food for my late grandfather.”
There is another woman in my village called Malati Debbarma, who has recently lost her husband Sukuram, who was 70 years old. After his death, the family members built a bamboo hut for him near one of the ponds. The bones were kept there at first. Later, when they finally built a small bamboo hut at home, the bones were shifted closer to the family. “Everyday, we clean the hut where my husband’s bones are kept. We keep it clean and pure for him and offer our prayers. The first rice of the day is offered to him. In the evening, we light candles and incense sticks in his memory,” she said.
In another household, a lady called Subha Rani Debbarma is also busy preparing food for her deceased nephew called Budhu Chandra. Between the sticky rice cakes and other delicacies, she has also arranged for a little alcohol. “My nephew used to enjoy a nightcap at meal times, so it is befitting that I add it to the maikhlai,” she says.
Only the best food is offered to the spirit and the spirit’s guide. There is a belief that the spirit doesn’t roam alone, but is accompanied by friends. Bishu Laxmi has busied herself in preparing delicacies of sticky rice for the offering. Usually, meat and fish is also served in an elaborate set-up.
These households will immerse the bones of their loved ones on the auspicious day of Hangrai which will be celebrated on January 14. Till then, they will continue to feed their deceased relatives everyday and maintain the bond of love that does not require their physical presence.
This article first appeared on Youth Ki Awaaz. You can read it here.