Gaan Ngai is one of the biggest festivals of Manipur. This festival is celebrated by the Zeliangrong Nagas who inhabit Manipur and Nagaland. In Manipur, its cultural significance can be ascertained from the fact that it is an official holiday. Even in the local movie industry, the festival has been featured several times. What makes Gaan Ngai distinct from other tribal festivals such as Kut and Hun, is that it is celebrated by people who practice an indigenous religion called Tingkao Ragwang ChapriakChapriak (TRC).
Here, it is important to note that the tribals of Northeast, have the highest number of converts to Christianity and so cultural festivals have taken a Christian turn. But in Gaan Ngai, traditional cultural practices take precedence over the galore of western influences. Nothing gets more rustic than to see the old folks singing and the youths dancing to the songs accompanied by the thunderous beats of the drums. It was bliss to witness people dressed in traditional attires and regalia, each beautiful and minutely distinct, walk in to celebrate Gaan Ngai.
Like many other winter festivals, Gaan Ngai is celebrated to thank the heavenly god for a bountiful harvest. The festival is celebrated for five days. In the morning of the first festive day, an animal is sacrificed for the heavenly god to thank to offer thanks for a good harvest. This ceremony is both spiritual and prophetic. The spleen of the sacrificial animal is believed to determine the future of the people. If the health of the spleen is good, the prospect of the future is good. Otherwise, certain rituals would have be conducted to cleanse the faults in the path. This is followed by Hohoing in the evening which is an exaltation in praise of god. This is done collectively by the community in rhythm, 'Ho' 'Hoi' 'Ho' 'Hoi'. The exaltation starts on a low tone and ends with a loud cry where the intention is that god, residing in the heavens, will hear it.
Gaan Ngai is more than just honoring god for the good harvest. As an annual festival it's the time for many celebrations. On the first day, food is offered to the departed souls, so that they can partake in the festival. The next day, the youths perform traditional dance at the village chief's residence to honor him. On the third day of the festival, the people celebrate the fertility and expansion of the community by felicitating the families with new children. On the fourth day, the youth climb the hills to collect a certain flower to adorn themselves. The boys adorn the dao (sword) with the flower and the girls make wreaths and put it on while dancing. On the fifth day, newly married couples are given thanks for their services in their youth and are welcomed to marriage life. To honor them, traditional dances and songs are performed.
In this spectacle, there are also setbacks and silver linings. Christianity and modernity pose great threats to the indigenous religion, Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak. Often these forces create tension in the community. Christians see the indigenous religions as irrational and primitive, and on the flipside Tingkao Ragwang followers see Christianity as a foreign divisive force. In the preparation for this year's festival, Mr. R. Dimrei Naga taught the Chingmeirong Village folks a song titled, 'Tamcha Lu'. The song is a blessing song for the betterment and development of the children. In a conversation with Dimrei, he stated, "The present generation are not really in touch with the traditional songs, so I was asked to teach them. Although they didn't know the song properly, they were really keen to learn the song." The future trajectory of TRC is not an easy one but there is hope even in despair.
Gaan Ngai draws attention to the historical indigenous way of life. The dormitory system which was central to the indigenous people has seen better days. Gaan Ngai at least partially revives this way of life. The dormitory is where Naga children used to live together and learn traditional vocation, ethics, and responsibilities. It is also where the young ones learnt how to sing and dance, and received education about their past. Gaan Ngai should not be looked at as a remnant of the past in this fast modernizing world, but rather as a living tradition.
Note: Gaan Ngai was celebrated from 15th Jan to 19th Jan.
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.