The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

'The Feast of Merit among the Northern Sangtam Tribe of Assam', by C.R. Stonor, 1950

caption: details of the ritual
caption: second day - forked posts; dancing
medium: articles
person: Chanthong Pi/ of Phirre Ahirr
ethnicgroup: Sangtam <Northern
date: 12.1947
person: Stonor/ C.R.
date: 1950
refnum: 'Anthropos', vol. XLV 1950
text: [6] 3. Second Day.
text: 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.
text: 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
text: 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 (Plate II, Fig. 2
text: 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.
text: 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.
text: 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.
text: 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
text: 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.
text: 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.