The Feast of Merit among the Northern Sangtam Tribe of Assam


It has become customary to label the Assam-Burma border as a  “well-documented region” : among the several tribes concerning whose  ethnography virtually nothing has been recorded are the Sangtam Nagas  who comprise a small, but well-defined tribal unit in the eastern area  of the Naga Hills. The tribe is composed of two geographical separated  sections, both of which have as an integral part of their social system  the remarkable institution of the Feast of Merit, already described for  other Naga tribes in the series of monographs on the hills peoples of  Assam. During a visit to the northern section of the tribe in December  1947 I had the good fortune to witness the performance of the  culminating feast of the series, and was able to obtain information on  the main features of the remainder. The account which follows is  fragmentary, and much, particularly in respect of the ritual, remains to  be investigated.

The rules of performance.
Performance of the feasts of merit is regulated among the Sangtams by two general rules:

  1. The traditional sequence must be followed.
  2. A feast may not be given in any one year before the crops are gathered.

Otherwise a man is free to carry out any of the series whenever he is sufficiently affluent to do so.

The series of feasts.

Essentials: The first of the series is Yungti. The essentials of the  feast are (1) the killing of four pigs, (2) the supply of beer to his  guests by the feaster.

Ritual: At this, and at all subsequent feasts the giver is helped by two  ritual friends known as shyangrr myangrr. They need not belong to his  clan or village, and are in the nature of ” bond friends “. They receive  a liberal share of the sacrificial meat, and each has a reciprocal  obligation to choose the feaster as one of his shyangrr myangrr at the  next sacrifice he performs. The feast lasts one day and the pigs are  killed in front of the feaster’s house by an old man of the clan, who  dispatches them with a spear. A sacred fire is lit at the spot, from  embers of a special fire previously kindled inside the feaster’s house  for brewing beer. Further details of this are given below. No dance is  held.

A striking feature of this feast is that beer is provided primarily for  phratries other than those of the giver. Thus in the village of  Phirre-Ahirr, where there are two phratries, the component clans invite  one another as under:
Mongsarr….Are invited by….Reti-Tongrr

The feaster’s own clan are also invited, but only secondarily, and it is definitely a primary duty to invite the other phratry.
The skulls of the pigs killed are put up at once inside the feaster’s house.

  1. a) The feast entitles to a handsome cloth, patterned alternately  with broad red and blue-black stripes, each dark stripe narrowly centred  with blue. There is a broad patch of small rectangles of red wool  across the centre: these are symbols of the ferment used for making  beer.
  2. b) In some villages at least a rounded porch may be built on at the back of the living house and the field house.

The Yungti feast is repeated at a convenient interval, usually of a year or two.

Essentials : The animals sacrificed at this feast are:
One mithan – If possible bulls
One cow
One pig – If possible a boar.

The beer at the feast is provided by both the giver and closely related members of his clan.

Ritual: The ritual is identical with that described  below for the second Anitz and the Tchar Tsu festivals, except that the  mithan and the bull are simply killed in front of two forked posts, and  are not previously dragged round the village (vide infra). Members of  the givers own phratries may be asked as well.

Privileges : The giver of Anitz is entitled a) to wear a  cloth of which the ground colour is black, with several narrow stripes,  and embroidered in red with symbolic representations of mithan horns.

  1. b) To put bamboo splinters along the top of his roof, placed close  together, and criss-cross. They may also be put on the field-house,  granary, and graves of near relatives (Plate IV, Fig.2
  2. c) Rough wooden models of wagtails (Metacilla sp.) may be put on the  roof. The explanation of this is that the bobbings and pirouettings of  wagtails are reminiscent of the movements of a dancer.
  3. d) Two feathers of the Great Indian Hornbill (Dichoceros bicornis) may be worn in the ceremonial head-dress of the feaster.
  4. e) The wife may wear a fringe to her body cloth.
  5. f) She may wear a skirt elaborately striped with red and blue, and with a narrow white central strip.
  6. g) Necklaces of cornelian beads, large white discs of conch shell,  and crystal ear-rings may be worn by the women of the feaster’s  household, and by his female descendants in perpetuity.
  7. h) In some villages a hanging fringe of thatch grass ( such as all  Chang Nagas use ) may be put on the projecting roof of the house. In  others, a projecting porch-roof is put on over the door ( Plate IV, Fig.  2

The Anitz is repeated in identical manner, except that a second  mithan is substituted for the bull, the sacrificial animals thus being  two mithan and one pig. As before, the relatives help with supply of  beer. No additional privileges seem to result except that a third  hornbill feather may be worn.

This feast is very frequently combined with the next, doubtless for  economy in mithan, as only two are killed when a combined feast is held.
Essentials: a) Two mithan are sacrificed.

  1. b) Beer is provided for fellow-clansmen, and it is incumbent on the giver to produce it from his own resources.

Ritual: The ritual for the Tchar Tsu is the same as  that for Anitz with the important exceptions that the mithan are dragged  round before killing and that when the feast is given by itself no  dance is held (vide infra).

Privileges: The feast qualifies for the Tsungkotepsu  cloth of the neighbouring Ao tribe. This cloth, described by J. P. Mills  (footnote: J. P. Mills, The Ao Nagas (1926), p. 37. ), is red and black  with a central white band painted in black with figures of animals and  other symbols. They are bought by the Sangtams from the Ao villages of  Longsa and Ungma, two days journey away. I have no information of other  privileges.

III. Details of the ritual.
The date for a feast is fixed at the convenience of the giver, and may  be any time between the gathering of the harvest, and the next sowing  season. In practice they are always held between December and March.
The following account is for the combined Anitz and Tchar Tsu feasts, when the most elaborate ceremonial is performed.

  1. Preliminaries.

Six days before the sacrifice, the fire in the giver’s house is  allowed to die out and the hearth is cleaned. One of the two village  priests, known as peypurr, who seem to correspond very closely to the  puthi of the Lhota Nagas (footnote: J. P. Mills, The Lhota Nagas (1922),  p. 121.), is called in: he fetches a little earth from outside on the  blade of his dao. This he spreads sybolically on the site of the hearth.  A new fire is lit on the site of the hearth by one of the two ritual  friends of the feaster or shyangrr myangrr, who uses a fire-thong for  the purpose.

The next six days are devoted to the preparation, by ritual pounding, of  jobs tears and rice by the women of the household, and the brewing of  beer. All grain used for beer must be cooked over the new fire, which  must on no account be allowed to go out.

News is spread abroad that the feast is about to take place: the  relatives and friends from other villages are invited; and the  fellow-clansmen look over their ceremonial dress, if need be sending out  to neighbouring villages to borrow any articles they may be short of.
Two great forked posts, ten or twelve feet high, are cut from the  jungle, and are brought in by fellow-clansmen (Plate II, Fig.1): They  are put up in the nearest open space to the feaster’s house, and  alongside others still standing from previous feasts.
The two mithan are caught and tethered.

First Day.
Ropes of creeper are tied to the horns of the mithan, and they are  pulled round the feaster’s khel or section of the village by men of his  phratry in festive dress, with chants appropriate for the occasion.  During their progress it is most unlucky for the beasts to stop, and an  old man is delegated to chide them on with a long bamboo wand. The khel  circumscribed, the forked posts are reached; here the mithan are  shackled and thrown, with the head against the foot of the post. A small  cut is made in the skin over the head against the foot of the post. A  small cut is made in the skin over the heart by and old man of the clan,  who uses a spear. Then another clansman pushes in a sharpened wooden  stake which he twists about in the animals vitals until it is dead.  While it is being killed it is struck symbolically with the bamboo rod  just referred to. As the beast twists and rolls in its death agony,  water is poured on the tongue and muzzle. As soon as it is dead, the  head is cut off and is tied high up on the forked post (Plate II, Fig.  1). When the head is being tied on a small spray of cane leaves (Calamus  sp.) is affixed to the bottom of the fork, and beer is poured over  them. The meat then is then divided up:

  1. a) The meat of the head to the two ritual friends or shyangrr myangrr. This is not cut off for another two days.
  2. b) The hind-legs to the two shyangrr myangrr.
  3. c) The fore-legs to the younger sister.
  4. d) The neck to the elder brother.
  5. e) The rump and tail to the father-in-law.
  6. f) The stomach, skin,and organs of the belly to the father.
  7. g) One side to the near relatives of the mother.
  8. h) The other side and the remaining “lights” to the dancers, including the feaster himself.

In the event of a would-be recipient being dead ( or non-existent) the share goes to the nearest equivalent relation.

If the relative in question is living in another village the meat is  sent, and there is no obligation to attend the feast. An hour or so  after sun-down a short dance takes place. I did not see this in Phirre  Ahirr, but it was reproduced for me in the neighbouring village of  Chimongrr. A party of men and youths in ceremonial dress assemble at the  feaster’s house armed with spears and daos: they form up in file, with  the front rows three or four abreast and made up of the most senior men  present. They dance through the khel with slow and measured hopping  steps, chanting slowly, and with spears pointed downwards

Second Day.
I reached the place of sacrifice a few minutes after sun-rise. A fire  had been built to the side of the posts, and had just been kindled. I  was told that it was lit by one of the peypurr (priests) with embers  from the new fire in the feaster’s house, and that the kindling had to  take place precisely as the first rays of the sun appeared over the  horizon, I commented on the fact that the two mithan heads were fastened  so as to face due east, and was told by the senior peypurr that custom  ordains that the forked posts must be so orientated that the heads catch  the first rays of the risen sun. The spear and the two stakes with  which the mithan has been killed, and also the two ceremonial wands were  fastened to the posts (Plate II, Fig.1). A small tubular basket (Plate  II, Fig. 1) was hanging on one post, and I was informed that it  contained small pieces of meat as an offering to the sun and the moon.  Several large gourds of beer stood at the bottom of the posts. Hard-by  the new posts was another pair ( Plate II, Fig. 1): these had been put  up the previous year by the feaster’s uncle. The combined feast was  being given by a young man, aged about thirty, named Chanthong Pi. He  gave his first Anitz three seasons ago.

I asked to see the two shyangrr myangrr (ritual helpers): one was  pointed out, while the other, who lived a day’s journey away in the  village of Chimongrr, had not arrived in time for the feast. He came  next day to collect his share of the meat. Two women were still at work  pounding grain; the pounder placed outside the house for this part of  the ritual (Plate I, Fig.2

When a small quorum was ready, the two peypurr took each a small  leaf-cup of plantain leaf filled with beer, and a small leaf of rice,  which they sprinkled on the ground with a muttered invocation. This was  to initiate the dancing, and almost at once ten or twelve men joined  hands, and forming a half-circle started to dance round the sacrificial  posts. Their numbers increased rapidly, and there were soon thirty or so  men circling round. In contrast to the dance of the previous evening,  only the leader carried a dao, and the rest had no weapons with them.  The dancers were arranged in order of seniority, older men who had  performed all the feasts and taken heads leading. The circle was not  complete, and the “tail” was made up of a number of small boys from  eight to fifteen years of age, who were pulled in at random. This is a  regular custom, and is said to be for initiation into [7] the ritual, as  a kind of dancing-class

Occasionally the head of the semi-circle wound outwards, and the dancers  looped round, to end up dancing with their backs to the sacrifice  (Plate IV, Fig. 1). Once two dancers stood out and were handed spears.  The chain of dancers disappeared chanting down the village street, and  the pair set at each other in a “cockfight” in front of the post. This  was a particularly effective touch as the chanting line wound away out  of sight and hearing, and the hum of their singing returned back once  more. When the dancing was well under way the scene was an unforgettable  one, with the ring of richly clad, chanting, dancing figures gyrating  round the two great heads bound high above them.

The feast was not an occasion for universal celebration: people from the  other two khels of the village hardly seemed to know it was in  progress, and even the feaster’s clansmen did not all attend, and a  proportion were going about their every-day tasks. Nor was the feaster a  particularly prominent figure : he took his proper place by seniority  in the line of dancers. There was apparently no obligation for anyone  concerned with him to take an active part, and his father-in-law was  standing by in his ordinary clothes as a spectator.

The dancers dropped out now and again for a rest, according as they felt  inclined : not so the small boys, who were literally danced off their  short legs ; and every laggard was good humouredly gingered on by the  old man, with the butt end of his spear.

After two hours or so the two senior performers dropped out, and taking  each a leaf cup of beer and a little rice, sprinkled it on the ground  with an invocation; and looking towards the sun as they did so (Plate  III, Fig.1

Dancing then started up again, perhaps a little less organised than  before; and from new on short lengths of bamboo containing an uncut node  were thrown on the fire at intervals, where they exploded with a loud  report. I asked the meaning of this, and was told that it was to wake up  any sluggards among the dancers, who, replete with food and beer, might  be dozing off. During this phase of the dance, a side of mithan was  carried past and was cut up outside the feaster’s house for distribution  to the performers. Soon after this I had to leave. The dancing was to  continue all day, with intervals for food and rest, until dusk.

I was told that a cock would be sacrificed precisely at sun-down, and  set up. It must if possible be white in colour, and to use a black bird  is strictly forbidden.

Third Day.
The festival is in effect over. The two mithan heads are taken down, the  meat cut off and given to the shyangrr myangrr, and the heads are put  up on the front wall of the feaster’s house. Before they are taken down,  beer is dashed over them with appropriate invocation. During this day  the fire is kept up : it is allowed to die out by the morning of the  next day.

Subsequent Ritual.
The feaster and his two shyangrr-myangrr must remain chaste for a period of thirty days.

  1. Interpretation.

To gain a reasonably full understanding and knowledge of the Sangtam  Feasts of Merit would require a period of prolonged residence and a good  acquaintance with the language. Since neither of these conditions are  likely to be fulfilled either by myself or by other investigators it  seems justifiable to attempt a short analysis of the more prominent  features of the ritual.

In the first place, as we have seen, there are elaborate rules for the  supply and provision of beer, which in the first feasts is given to  outside clans, and in the higher series entirely to the feasters own  kindred, while it is provided sometimes by the feaster and sometimes by  his kindred. This is indicative of the complex economics underlying the  supply of liquor, which are apparently just as real and defined, if not  so obvious, as in the case of the meat.

[9] The ritual has many features of great interest. The method of  killing the sacrificial animals is the same as among the Sema Nagas ( J.  H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The Sema Nagas (1921), p. 229.] ),  and similar to that employed by the Lhota and Rengma Nagas ( J. P. Mills  [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The Lhota Nagas (1922); The Rengma Nagas  (1937). ]. As Hutton has suggested, the use of the wand to give a  symbolic blow is very probably a relic of the days when the beasts were  clubbed to death – a custom which prevailed among the neighbouring. Ao  Nagas until very recent times ( J. P. Mills [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The  Ao Nagas (1926). ] ). Similarly the use of a wooden stake to dispatch  the mithan can be ascribed either to a tabu on the use of iron or to  ritual need to use the original weapon. The use of a metal spear to make  the first cut is of course a practical device for penetrating the tough  hide. It is, I think, not impossible that these rituals go back further  still and symbolise the times when there no tame mithan, and wild  animals were trapped and killed with primitive weapons. In support of  this we may cite the Lakher tribe among whom sacrificial mithan are  first shot in ritual fashion with a bow and arrow ( N. E. Parry [  footnote: N. E. Parry, The Lakhers (1932), p. 374. ] ).
The dragging of the mithan round the feasters khel at the Tchar Tsu  feast is exactly paralleled by the western branch of the Rengma Nagas (  J. P. Mills [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The Rengma Nagas (1937), p. 186. ] )  and is an interesting link between these two tribes who are completely  cut off from each other by several ranges of hills, and for very many  generations have had no contact, direct or indirect. So far as is known  the practice is confined to these two Naga tribes and it is,  superficially at least, suggestive of a scape-goat ceremony.

The use of forked posts for erecting the mithan heads is of some  interest, and is employed also among the adjacent Chang Nagas, where I  have seen the site of a very recent feast of merit, in the course of  which mithan heads had been tied to two very small a insignificant  forked posts. Among all other Naga tribes (Lhotas, Semas, Rengmas, and  Aos) and among all other Naga tribes (Lhotas, Semas, Rengmas, and Aos)  and among the Lushai – Chin – Kuki group who erect forked posts, they  are entirely commemorative and serve no actual function. One is led to  wonder if there may not be some direct link between the heads and the  posts as a convenient means of erecting them, rather than purely as  fertility emblems ( J. H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The meaning  and method of erection of Monoliths by the Naga Tribes, J. R. A. I. Vol  LII (1922). ] ). The subject is beyond my present scope but it is hoped  to enlarge on it in a future paper.

10] It will be noted in the account of the ritual that unlike the Ao  Nagas and some other tribes, the Sangtam women play no part in the  dances or the sacrificial ritual. There is a very attractive dance  performed by Sangtam women, but it is never done at feasts of merit. It  would however be a serious error to assume that the women play no real  part in the performance of the ritual. We are bound to regard the  pounding of the grain, the brewing of the beer, the cooking of the food,  all women’s tasks, as an integral part of the ritual, which may be said  to commence as soon as the new fire is lit six days before the mithan  are killed. It is thus of interest to note how the festival is sharply  divided into (1) the preparation and dispensing of beer and food by  women, and (2) the ceremonies connected with the sacrificial animals,  everything to do with which is purely the work of the men. We may  logically assume this to be ultimately derived from an earlier epoch  when cultivation and all pertaining to it was the work of the women,  while provision of meat rested with the men: a state of affairs still  existent among some branches of the Konyak Nagas and the Dafla Tribe.  The share of the women in the ritual of the feasts of merit is as  definite as that of the men: it is not however so evident to the casual  observer.

The two essentials of the feasts are thus (1) provision of meat, (2)  provision of beer. Both food and drink are clearly of a sacramental  nature. This has been pointed out by Stevenson [ footnote: H. N. C.  Stevenson, The Economics of the Central Chin Tribes (1943). ] in respect  of the Chins, but has been incompletely emphasised by writers on the  Naga tribes. Thus, in the case of the beer, it is brewed over a special  fire, during a specified period, and from grain pounded in ritual  manner. The offering of beer before certain phases of the ceremony, the  definite rules as to its provision and distribution, the heating of a  small quantity over the sacred fire during dancing, and its consumption  by senior representatives of the gathering, are all indications of its  religious significance. The last instance is particularly interesting  since the beer is already prepared and ready for consumption when it is  heated over the fire. The symbolic portrayal of the ferment used in  brewing on the cloth connected with the Yungti feast is a further proof  of its nature.

The significance of the beer is of course well understood by the Nagas  themselves, and is one of the excuses for the total banning of alcohol  to converts of the American Baptist Mission. This was brought home to  the writer in a striking manner some months ago, when a Naga head-man, a  professed Baptist, asked for a drink of rum. In an attempt at humour I  told him I was shocked to be asked for alcohol by so devout a man, and  was told that ” the Padre Sahibs have only forbidden us rice beer, we  are not forbidden to drink spirits “.

The sacredness of the meat is implied in the elaborate rules for its  division, and even more so by the very small share allotted to the giver  of the feast, while all who participate get a share. Among most or all  other Naga Tribes, it is strictly forbidden for the feaster to taste the  meat from his own sacrifice. The consumption of even a small part of  his own mithan [11] by the feaster at Phirre Ahirr caused much comment  among Lhota Naga servants with me, who considered that such an act would  be unheard of among their people.

The dancing divides sharply into two types, quite distinct from one  another: the slow, measured progress of the torchlight dance on the  evening of sacrifice, with the performers armed to teeth, and the more  lively, rapid, circling dances done next day contrast completely. It is  interesting to note that J. H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The Sema  Nagas (1921), p. 111.]) has recorded of the Sema Nagas that the dancing  accompanying their feasts ” begins with a procession called aghoghe, in  which the dancers advance across the open space by successive threes,  carrying their spears… and hopping on each foot alternately “. He goes  on to tell how this is immediately followed by circle dances, minus the  weapons, and which exactly parallel those of the Northern Sangtams. It  appears therefore that the entirely separate dances of the Sangtams are a  continuous performance among the Semas. Hutton (loc. cit.) describes  the Sema dances at a feast as an ” amusement “. I do not see how we can  fail to regard them as an integral part of the ritual, although, on the  day of the feast, they are certainly a very happy part of the  ceremonies. The night dance, carried out after the men are returned home  tired from a day’s work, without the fortifying influence of beer, and  for a short time only, has little suggestion of recreation about it. On  the face of it this dance might well be to drive away evil spirits,  particularly since weapons are carried: this is no more than surmise,  and when I asked about it my informants were non-committal.

A remarkable feature of the ritual is the very strong element of sun  worship. The lighting of the new fire, however, for preparation of a  feast is an invariable accompaniment of many types of ritual among the  Naga tribes, and may well have no further significance than that the old  fire has become defield by indiscriminate use. As I have outlined  above: (1) the night dance is accompanied by flaring torches lit at the  new fire, (2) a sacred fire is lit at the place of sacrifice, (3) it is  lit precisely at sunrise, (4) the mithan heads must be so orientated as  to catch the first rays of the risen sun, (5) a little meat is put aside  specifically for the sun and the moon, (6) beer is heated symbolically  over the sacred fire, (7) I was told that the invocations before dancing  and before feasting are addressed to the sun and the moon [ footnote:  The large brass discs worn on their lengtas by men of several tribes of  this region appear also to be solar symbols: large discs of bamboo  sheath put up at one festival by the Chang Nagas were described to me as  representing both the sun and the brass discs.] , and in the latter  case the two celebrants had every appearance of addressing the sun

Of the many privileges attending the performance of the various feasts,  it is striking that several have a direct connection with the feast in  question. Thus, the symbols for yeast on the cloth for the Yungti feast  are commemorative of the provision of beer which seems to be more  important than the pork provided. In the Anitz, as we have seen, the  split bamboos on the house ridge, and the model wagtails are symbolic of  the dancers, while the mithan horns on the associated cloth represent  the mithan sacrificed. So also does the hanging fringe to the front eave  of the house, which represents a mithan’s dewlap. This is however a  simple adaptation of the ordinary house-style of the adjacent Chang  Nagas.

Other privileges appear to be more than the normal attributes of a man  who has distinguished himself by lavish expenditure in the interests of  the community. Of this type are the right to wear Hornbill feathers (the  sign of a rich man throughout the Naga Hills ), the clothes of both men  and women, and the right of the feasters women-folk to wear ornaments.  It is also clear that the minor privileges attendant on performance of  feasts vary from village to village, as one would expect in a state of  society where the village is the unit. Thus, in the Sangtam village of  Changtorr the Yungti feast entitles to a porch at the back of the house,  while in the village of Chimongrr, a very few miles distant, no back  porch is built, but a large front porch is put up for performance of  Anitz (Plate IV, Fig. 2

In the above account I have confined myself only to the details of  observance and the accompanying ritual of the Sangtam Feasts of Merit.  It is hoped to investigate the economic importance of the institution in  a future paper.

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