The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

typescript 'Village Organization Among the Central Nzemi Nagas', M.A. thesis by Ursula Betts

caption: Chapter seven: village rituals
caption: Hga-ngi feast; ritual concerned with the dead; sickness and death; rituals of curing
medium: theses
ethnicgroup: Nzemi
person: Betts/ U.V.
date: 1950
refnum: M.A. thesis, University College, London
note: footnotes indicated by boxes within square brackets
text: The great final feast of Hga-ngi falls in December. The first day, called Hekak-ngi, is the day on which the Central Nzemi villager comes most nearly in contact with his dead fellows, the day on which the underworld opens to admit its new inhabitants and those who have passed before come out to welcome their kin. It has for the living an eerie and fearful quality. So long as the dead are believed to remain in their houses, eating by the familiar hearth and sharing the life of the family, they are little feared, but on their despatch to the lower world at Hekak-ngi they become alien beings whose return to the upper world and the affairs of the living, whether in dreams or as the senders of sickness, can result only in grief and misfortune for those they visit. Most sickness is believed to be due to an attack on the soul by a hera, a spiritual being which is not a ghost and has never inhabited a body, and this, though distressing enough, is less full of dread than are the much rarer cases when the diviner announces that the sickness is due to the intervention of the dead. (144) Ancestors and the dead are thus not benevolent beings who continue to watch over their children, and they are not invoked and invited to help their kin. The attitude of the living towards them is one of fear, and of propitiation when it is believed that their animosity has been aroused. A small libation of beer, for example, is poured on the ground for them for every cup before the drinker sips it; failure to observe this will result in his early death. [5 [Record T86879]
text: About noon, when all these ceremonies have been completed, the village priest and his subordinates close the upper gate and then walk slowly down the street, bidding the ghosts of the year's dead take their grave-goods and go. The living meanwhile (145) stand withdrawn into front porches or the doorways of hangseoki, lest their own souls be caught up in the crowd of departing ghosts. When the tingkhupeo reaches the lower gate he closes it also, and then returns to the village, proclaiming that the ceremony is over, and that normal daily life may now be resumed.
text: On the second day, known as Hera-gwoa-le, or 'driving the spirits', the village is further cleansed of the supernatural. Householders bombard the interior of their houses with wormwood, starting at the back door and working towards the front, with the idea of driving out any lurking spirits into the village street. Wormwood is flung under beds, into the rafters, and into every corner, to the accompaniment of loud shouts. In the meantime a line of priests and elders moves down the village street, also shouting and throwing wormwood [6 [Record T86880]
text: On the third day there is no special ceremony. On the (146) fourth a period of segregation of the sexes begins. Men fetch 'clean' fire from their hangseoki and cook and eat with their sons at a new hearth not used by the women; they also use new utensils which the women have not touched. The strictest chastity is enjoined, and certain foods with a phallic symbolism, for example, the Indian aubergine or brinjal, are forbidden. On the fifth day the young men of each kienga go to the jungle to fetch wood for the mpe. The wood must be of a special variety, and is soft and white. It must be taken from an unblemished tree free of scars and knot-holes, and when felled the tree must fall straight to the ground. The tree is split and trimmed, and the youths of each kienga bring in to the village a pair of timbers 15 feet or more long and a foot or more wide. These are packed in grass and leaves to prevent fouling by animals and carefully fenced in for additional safety; damage would entail fetching entirely new timbers. On the sixth day the timbers are painted with charcoal and red earth to represent stylized human figures dressed in Nzemi cloths. Each pair of mpe is then stood up on an easel-like scaffold, those of the upper kienga at the upper gate and those of the lower at the lower gate. Shortly before noon they are ceremonially speared with small reed darts by the boys, youths, men and elders of each kienga, chanting and drum-beating accompanying the spearing. This is undoubtedly a relic of human sacrifice [7 [Record T86881]
text: At dawn on the ninth day the tingkhupeo, his assistants, and the bamboo-cutters go to the village gate. The bamboos are split in half lengthways; they are some ten feet long. The junior priest and an assistant take the end of half a bamboo in each hand and stand between them, like a pair of stretcher-bearers facing one another, while they press their hands and the bamboos against their hips to hold them firm. A spear is next thrust upright into the ground outside each bamboo to act as a marker. The senior priest then takes hold of the two bamboos for a moment and asks them to indicate whether strangers (148) will visit the village that day; if so, the bamboos are to bend and meet; if not, they are to move apart. He then lets go and watches the bamboos. If they remain inert, the answer is taken to be in the negative. Each question is asked twice and fresh bamboos are taken for each question; the code is also varied. Typical questions are whether the next year's crop will be good, whether it is advisable to cultivate the blocks of land they have chosen, and so on. The answers are noted and their accuracy tested by the arrival or non-arrival of strangers.
text: On the twelfth day of the festival the mpe are taken down and carried to the hangseoki, where they are converted into bench- tops or put to any other convenient use. On the thirteenth day there is a ceremony for success in hunting; the men of the village take their spears and guns to the village spring; each dips a corner of his cloth in the water and wrings it out, and the weapons are ceremonially 'washed' in the same way, by pouring a few drops of water over them. They then go to a point outside the village gate, and as each enters the tingkhupeo performs a brief ceremony for the success of the man and his weapon. A cock is then sacrificed at the hazoa; a feather or two is taken home by each hunter and burned in 'clean' fire from the hangseoki, and the hunter must cook and eat his morning meal on this, apart from the women. A little flesh from the sacrificial cock is taken to the hangseoki, from whence each hunter obtains a small scrap to eat. (149) On the fourteenth day the important heramui ceremony is performed at the full-scale model of the hazoa which stands inside the lower village gate [8 [Record T86882]