Gaan Ngai

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Searching a Cultural Thread of Zeliangrong

By M C Arun

Zeliangrong is a tribe or a union tribe or a dream of a unified tribe. A resolution of a political conference held in 1947 changed the course of history of Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei (or Kabui). Another cognate tribe Puimei is within the ambit of Zeliangrong; but they are not happy with the nomenclature, Zeliangrong as any syllable of the name does not represent them. There is uninterrupted history of Zeliangrong though there were many ups and downs in their journey towards a unified tribe. Against all the definitions of a tribe, the Zeliangrong has three (or more) major languages, distinct cultures; still they are happy to identify themselves as Zeliangrong. Against their wish of marching together as one group to the future, the constituent tribes are recognized separately in all the States where they inhabit. They cannot melt down the linguistic and religious differences till today (except many of them are Christianized). Zeliangrong has undergone a unique historical experience in 20th century.

The recently released book, entitled Gaan Ngai: A Festival of the Zeliangrong Nagas of North East India, attempts to fill up a gap in the emergence of identity of a collective Zeliangrong. The book is authored by Dr Jenpuiru Kamei, an ecologist and published by North Eastern Zone Cultural Centre, Dimapur. It is result of a project work under Ministry of Culture, Government of India through North Eastern Zone Cultural Centre, Dimapur.

Dr Jenpuiru did a series of field works across the Zeliangrong areas to find out the similarities of cultural practices among the constituent tribes of Zeliangrong. Her study also highlights the different clans of each tribe in the Zeliangrong. Her ethnographic introduction of each tribe is commendable. As the nature of the work is not purely ethnography (in classical meaning), she is more concern about the similarities derived from an open comparison. She takes the Zeliangrong people as an ethno-cultural entity based on five commonalities: Common origin and history; ethnic and linguistic affinities; common (similar, to be precise) social structure based on kinship and lineage; cultural homogeneity, and common (similar, to be precise) political system.

She also tries to give readers the idea of Zeliangrong religions such as Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak, Heraka cult. She treats briefly the religious legacy of Jadonang. Above the religious movements, she tries to look into the theology of various concepts such as souls among the different tribes of Zeliangrong. Meaning, she tries to give a holistic view of the people, she studies.

In spite of similarities among the cultural practices of the constituent tribes, there should be a common cultural thread. The language issue is yet to be resolved as there is no common language. All the languages of constituent tribes do have their own dialects. There is nothing common festival performed together though there may be many festivals similar to each other. This is the cultural challenge of the Zeliangrong. The author in her humble academic exercise tries to suggest that Gaan Ngai can be evolved as a common festival of the larger identity of Zeliangrong. The cognate festival of Gaan Ngai of Rongmei is Hega Ngi among the Zeme, Chaga Ngi (Gadi) of the Liangmai. These festivals are, according to Dr Jenpuiru Kamei, of same duration, same season and same purpose.

Another aspect of the book is her keen observation of adaptability of Gaan Ngai festival in different social settings. She looks into the performance of this festival in both rural and urban setting; in hill areas and valley areas, in Manipur and other States in North East India.

The work will enrich our knowledge of Zeliangrong and its identity formation. It may open new more debates around the role of culture in amalgamation of tribes. Dr Jenpuiru Kamei is more expected to explain similarities and differences of constituent tribes from an ecological framework by combining her training in ecology and her interest in culture.

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