by Pr. Kungsong Wanbe
The Koirengs in the pre-Christian days believed that sickness and death were caused by some kind of evil charm, giant, evil spirit and superstition. The Koirengs did not believe that sickness and death were caused by germs and diseases.
In Koireng death of human being is called mithi(mi means man, thi means death). There were two types of death. They are: (1) Ripulla thi and (2) Sarra thi. That Ripulla thi is natural death occurring at home in a natural way due to illness, a well served death. The other Sarrathi is unnatural death or bad death such as death at childbirth, death due to small pox, tiger bite, suicide, hanging, drowning etc are considered unnatural death.
The ceremony of the natural death is very elaborate. Just before death, Thempu, the village priest says to the dying person in the form of declaration, “You pass away from my hand, you should not be afraid and you will go to the ‘Mithikhuo'( the land of death). Then the death will be washed with boiled water which is boiled with Rupee silver coin. It is believed that the silver coin boiled water will wash away the disease. The washing of the death body can be done by an elder. The dead either male or female will be put in the ceremonial Koireng dress. The wrapping of the clothes should be done from the left to right (for the living it being from right to left). The male dead will be put on the warrior dresses like lukoum (turban), khalap (a lace tying the turban at the chin) or puonsuk-hak (a tunic worn over the body). The dead will be kept in the lying posture with the head touching the post called ‘chapikung’ inside the house. The body will be kept overnight. The two toes of the dead will be tied with a black thread in order to prevent any eventual movement or getting up of the corpse due to the influence of the evil spirit (such incidents had happened in the past). The tied toes are removed just before the dead body is put inside the coffin. The body is kept overnight as the relatives in distant villages may be informed of the death. Sometimes, the funeral can be done in one day. A black or red hen of the size of a pigeon will be killed by striking at the chapikung post. This ceremony is called thipem. The chicken is cooked and tied in a basket and it will be buried along with the dead body. The nails, beaks, and entrails of the chicken are packed separately and will also be buried. The belief is that this packet is for the meal of the dog on its way to Mithikhuo.
Meanwhile the mourners will sing songs, specially the Ralngam songs, the Waila(Wanbe songs) and Kersim songs in case of a female dead. In case of a male death, seasonal songs will be sung, for example, the Maria’ or winter song, the’ Salla’ or summer song and ‘Kirula’ or rainy song. In case of overnight stay, a jar of wine called ‘Yandeina’ will be given to those who spend the night at the house of the deceased. Zupi or an ordinary wine is also served for drink. In case of the death of a village elder, a dog will be killed to entertain the mourners. During the period of the funeral, animals are sacrificed; the heads of the animals are cut off and buried along with the dead. The bodies of the animals are cooked and eaten by the mourners; a part of the cooked meat is to be buried. The idea is that whatsoever animals killed or the articles kept in the burial will be taken by the dead to the Mithikhuo. A very interesting custom is that even for a person who had died prior to the present death, articles such as clothes, materials and edibles can be sent along with the buried body of the present dead. Vegetables like pumpkin, yam, maize and potatoes etc will be boiled and buried. Bun is also made; flatten rice in 16(sixteen) packets, boiled bread (waipoul in Koireng) in 10(ten) packets and boiled arum are also buried along with the dead.
TOMB AND GRAVE DIGGING:
Every Koireng village has a cemetery across the southern gate of the village. Every family and even every clan has a common tomb. In case of a new tomb, the family of the dead will purchase the site for the tomb with an iron called Thirdam struck into the earth and wine poured over it.
The grave-digging is a very important aspect of the Koireng funeral ceremony. After digging into the earth breast deep, a hole would be bored 25(twenty five) degree sloping down. The grave diggers who are strong and able bodied young men of the village will be given wine by the thempu(the village priest). They are regarded as polluted before the completion of the funeral. They are also to be careful about injuries. It is feared that injuries received in grave digging are not good. Even stones or sods of earth should not be thrown by one digger at the other. After the digging is over (for a new tomb) a fire will be waved inside the grave by way of cleaning it. Nowadays guns are fired into the new grave instead of waving fire.
A platform made of wood and bamboo called ‘Thanterai’ is constructed near the grave and all the articles which are uncooked like the heads of the dog, pig, goat etc are kept there. It is believed that the dead may eat them during the journey to the ‘Mithikhuo’ (the land of the dead). Bow and arrows are kept in the platform. The dead body will be wrapped in thick cloth, tied from head to leg with a black and red mixed thread, put in bamboo made palanquin, taken to the grave and buried. Nowadays, the dead is kept in the coffin too. The ‘Thempu’ (the village priest) stands waiting inside the southern gate of the village holding some bamboo leaves and a pot of water. The Thempu springs water over the grave diggers and whoever coming back home from the grave for purifying the polluted. Another platform made of wood and bamboo called ‘reishuon’ is also constructed inside the southern gate of the village. All cooked edible things and cigarettes are kept by the parents, friends and loved ones of the dead whenever they pass through the village gate. At home, a basket type container made of bamboo called ‘Bour’ is hung near the water keeping place inside the house and therein is kept food every morning and evening along with all kinds of edible things and cigarettes. This food serving and keeping of edible things is continued from March to March till ‘Bourhe'( a ceremony of throwing away a type of basket) or the final farewell of the death is performed. In this ‘Bourhe’ ceremony the ‘Bour’ is carried to the tomb and buried there.
On ‘Bourhe’ day, all the tomb of whomsoever buried within the year from March to March were re¬opened and the skulls of the dead were washed with wine and re-buried inside the same old tomb. All the articles whatsoever put into the tomb were again taken out on that day and given to the ‘Makchas'(the husbands of the deceased’s sisters). The recent trend is that the tomb re-opening on the ‘Bourhe’ day is discontinued although the Bourhe ceremony is still in practice.
In case of ‘Sarrathi'(unnatural death) there is no such elaborate ceremonies. The dead is simply buried anywhere outside the village, but not at the village cemetery.
LIFE AFTER DEATH:
The Koirengs regard death as the end of life of a man in this world and going of the soul to the land of the dead. Their belief in the land of the dead is based on a popular tradition of ‘Ringlempa’, the experience and thus the Koireng view of Mithikhuo or the land of death had been transmitted to the future generations.
According to Koireng belief, the soul is reborn in the human world in the family of the grandson and granddaughter. There is a practice of putting some marks of turmeric colour on some part of dead body specially, dead child before being buried so that people may know from any future birth of a child whether the child come back or return. The Koireng view of life and death is two way life cycle of the human world to the land of death and back. According to the Koirengs, there are two kinds of souls, one is ‘Thavet’ who goes to the Mithikhuo after death, and the other one is ‘Rithasie’ who remains unseen among the humans. This Rithasie is an evil soul and is responsible for the ghostly activities suffered by ordinary people. According to the Koirengs, dreams are caused by the wandering of the man’s soul when he sleeps.
Writer is ex-secretary, Koireng Historical Research Committee, Langol Tarung, Imphal.