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PRIMAL ELEMENTS : THE ORAL TRADITION

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The Angami Fire and Water

 

Vibha Joshi

We begin with the assumption that the rationale of a people’s activities can be located in their cosmological system. Broadly speaking, cosmology refers to a set of concepts people have about the universe around them. It comprehends their relationship with nature, and the object of this conceptualization is, to quote Durkheim and Mauss (1963: 81), "not to facilitate action, but to advance understanding, to make intelligible the relations which exist between things". People relate to the world outside themselves and transmit and modify the cosmology of previous generations. As auspicious/inauspicious or a pure/impure status may be ascribed to the various entities of the cosmos depending on the type of power — benevolent or malevolent — they are thought to possess and their relative position in the hierarchy. In this context they become instruments for forecasting or divination.

The influence of this cosmic reality on human beings can be understood in relation to the gender assigned to these and the time and space they occupy. The cosmic world is seen in a time-bound framework having a direct relationship with human processes. Thus, cosmology deals with people’s conceptual systems — how people organise their views of the cosmos; how reality is ordered; and how they order their relationship with it. A cosmological understanding maps out the indigenous knowledge of the people, and it is in this knowledge that various phenomena are explicated.

This chapter focuses on the concept of fire and water, two of the five basic elements which are thought to constitute man in the Indian Sanskritic textual tradition, among the Angami Nagas of north-eastern India. The five elements — sky, air, fire, water and earth — are basic to life. All cultures in the world have specific terms for these elements and assign certain properties to them. For this chapter, I have chosen two elements fire and water because their effects are easily visible in both positive and negative senses and these find a place in the Angami thought regarding preservation of body.

Let us first look at the way these two elements are dealt with in general thought.

As a vital principle, water allows people to ward off illness and to keep death away. In the Vedas water is associated with the origin of medicines, which may be because water makes the plants of pharmacopoeia grow, or because of its intrinsic qualities. In a more positive sense, water is said to give vigour, make old men young and prolong life. Water can be ambiguous, it may fulfil a positive function. It bathes, dissolves and purifies. Essential to human life and necessary for the growth of plants, it symbolizes a generative or life-giving quality very similar to creative power. On the other hand, it can be hostile to man. There are catastrophic rains and floods; people drown in rivers and seas. These may not be taken as simple accidents but as manifestations of evil powers allied with the liquid element (Rudhardt, 1987: 356-58).

Fire with its warmth and light, fulfils a vital requirement of human life. Yet the same element can wreak destruction. Both positive and negative functions are united in fire’s role as an instrument of melting, refining, and purifying. In a religious context, fire has come to play a very large role in cult, myth, and symbolic speech. Some elements of fire worship and the use of fire in ritual and in symbolism are rooted in and developed out of practical experiences of human beings.

Methods for maintaining and transporting fire survived from olden times, so it was seldom necessary to kindle fresh fire. Conversely, life and fire were so intimately connected that widespread custom dictated that the household fire be extinguished when someone died. The development of hearths, altars and stoves as well as the collection of fuel of different kinds was influenced by practical and ritual considerations. Fire is widely used in cooking, to keep away dangerous animals, to flush out forest games, to clear forests and to harden implements (e.g., point of spears). In reli-gious rituals basic distinction is made between the purer ‘perpetual fire’ and the ‘new fire’ that is kindled with great conscientiousness and awe (Edsman, 1987: 340-46).

In the light of the above, let us see the various ways in which the Angamis perceive the elements of fire and water, the properties that are assigned to these and how they are reflected in their ritual processes. Firstly, let us delineate the use to which these two elements are put in daily life and compare them with their usage in specific rites that are performed during the ritual of Sekrenyi.

A background information on Angamis will help in the understanding of the importance which is given to these two elements.

Angami Nagas are hill people depending basically on cultivation and livestock-rearing. Angamis are one of the only two groups of Nagas out of the seventeen who practice wet rice cultivation on terraces made on the hill slopes. This allows them to cultivate the same plot year after year. They depend, to a very small extent, on slash-and-burn cultivation. Angamis were traditionally warriors, the Angami men spent majority of their time in warfare with hostile villages and taking heads. Since 1879, when the British succeeded in annexing their territory, the inter-village feuds have come to an end. With the introduction of Christianity in the region several Angamis changed their faith — approximately, 70 per cent have embraced Christianity. Angamis are patrilineal and patriarchal and practice clan exogamy.

The description of the usage of water and fire in the daily lives of the Angamis which follows here, basically relate to their traditional life-style and is taken from J.H. Hutton’s (1969) monograph on the Angamis.

No myths or legends associated with fire (mi) and water (zu) have been recorded among the Angamis. But a notion of bad fire does exist in a neighbouring group, Memi, who consider fire which burns up the house as bad fire. Clean fire is required to start the fire again. This clean fire is either brought from another village or a new fire is kindled from the fire stick (ibid., 341).

The Angamis traditionally built a fireplace with three stones. Before building a new house, the man of the house builds a fireplace. When the construction of the home is complete and only thatching is left, the fire is to be brought from the house of a Kika Kepfuma, that is, a man who has performed the Lesu ritual and has thus earned a higher social status and the right to put horns on his house. If there is no such person in the clan of the house builder then fire is brought from the house of any person none of whose children have died. This fire is taken inside the new house by the owner who wears a ceremonial dress and carries a spear (ibid., 52).

The symbolism is very clear. Fire is brought to carry good luck from the person from whose house it is brought to the new household. In the fireplace only wood is burnt and if possible it is not allowed to go out. If required it could be relit with matchs, it did not necessisate the use of firestick. It was considered a serious offence to put out a man’s fire (ibid., 56). Even now, in Angami villages the fire in the hearth is not allowed to go out completely.

Construction of a three-stone hearth also culminated the traditional marriage rituals. On the third day of the marriage the bridegroom sends three stones to form a fireplace through a messenger to his house. On the morning of the fourth day the bride makes the fireplace. On the following day the bride and the groom go to the field and, on their way home, bring a small piece of firewood. This completes the marriage ceremony (ibid., 223).

At childbirth, the mother is kept separate from rest of the household and a separate hearth is built for her in the same room as the general hearth (ibid., 214). This is still practised among the non-Christian Angamis. The building of a separate hearth relates more to the liminality of the status of mother and the polluting effect which the process of giving birth may have on the household hearth.

At the time of an illness, especially an infectious one, fire was burnt in the door-way to ward off the spirit of illness. This act perhaps reflected the destructive aspects of fire — fire that could consume everything, destroy houses, burn jhum fields, and destroy the disease-causing spirit.

Angamis know only one way of making fire, through a firestick called segomi (sego = wood; mi = fire). A piece of wood is split at one end, which is slightly notched to keep the thong from slipping. The two parts are kept wedged apart, usually with a stone. A thong of about two feet in length is made from a split bamboo. The shreds whittled from the bamboo, thatch and dry moss or cotton wool are placed in the fork of the stick and beneath it. One foot is placed at the unsplit end of the wood and the thong drawn under the fork in the notch and pulled swiftly to and fro until spark catches in the tinder, a little blowing produces a flame. This way of producing fire is resorted to only during the Sekrenyi ritual and while performing a personal ritual to ward off bad luck. During Sekrenyi omen is also read while making the fire. Fire in this way is made only by men. It is considered a male activity and a firestick is an invariable part of the items that are traditionally buried with the corpse of a man.

Fire is used primarily in three ways by the Angamis, first is the domestic fire used for cooking, second the ritual fire which is lit at a particular occasion, and third, the Angamis use fiire to clear the jhum patches. Angamis practice jhuming to a very limited extent. Another use of fire is to ward off illness-causing spirits but it is not known whether this tradition still continues.

Let us take a view of the various ways in which water is utilized by the Angamis. Here we can distinguish between the water used for irrigating the rice terraces1 — which is the principle mode of cultivation and source for subsistance — water used for washing — both ordinary and ritualistic use — and water used in making zutho — the traditional rice-beer which was the principal drink.

Water was thought to possess special cleansing properties. During the head-taking days, the warrior who brought a head to the village was required to wash his hands and mouth with water. He was supposed to throw away not only the water used for washing but also all the water found in his house. Only after this was he allowed to eat or drink. On the following day the warrior was required to go to the village spring with a spear and a shield and bathe (ibid., 238-39). Thus any bad luck which the warrior might have come in contact with or the bad luck of the man whose head was brought was washed off ritually.

Somewhat similar procedure was adopted in case of a lasting illness. In such a case a man was supposed to dig where there was no water visible on the surface until he found water (usually near a water spring). This he would fence over. He would then kill an unblemished cock, wash and cook it with this water. He would continue to drink this water till he became well (ibid., 99).

Rice-beer was usually drunk instead of water. While drinking it was a practice to set aside something for the spirit. Either a finger was dipped in the cup and touched to the forehead, or a little of the drink was tipped on to the floor, or both offerings were made. Hutton says that this activity was not connected with any particular deity and perhaps was associated with a man’s own ropfu, who might be described as combining the characteristics of a familiar, guardian angel, and the notion of a man’s individual destiny (ibid., 97-98). This is practised even now and in all probability the offering is made to the guardian spirit (ropfu) of the man. The Angami medicine men are often seen offering rice-beer in this fashion to their tutelary spirits.

These are the various ways in which the Angamis utilized fire and water. If we take the positive ritualistic aspects they assigned to the elements fire and water, we find that the cleansing aspect of water and fire are brought out in the one of the most important rituals of the Angamis, Sekrenyi. The festival is not merely a prayer for bodily health but to ensure a healthy functioning of the society.

The term Sekrenyi literally means ‘sanctification festival’ (sekre = sanctification; nyi = feast; thenyi = festival). The festival takes places after the harvest and falls on the twenty-fifth day of the Angami month Kezei (January-February) and lasts for five to seven days.

The Angamis follow the lunar calendar known as khruphr (literally, ‘to read the moon’; khru = moon; phr = to read). The festival date is fixed between the new moon day and the no moon day during the month of Kezie (January-February). The festival is celebrated on different days by the various Angami villages.

Some variations exist in the method of celebration. Certain ceremonies performed by one group of Angamis are absent in the other groups. The description2 of Sekrenyi which follows is basically the western Angami (Khonoma village) way of celebrating it. I also had an opportunity to witness the southern Angami Sekrenyi celebrations in Kidima and Viswema villages during fieldwork in January 1991. I have included my observations in the description of the festival.

The rituals performed are basically for good health of the men who performed the role of a hunter and a warrior in the traditional system. This notion of good health pertains not just to the physical body of the observer of the ritual, but also the metaphysical one. The Khonoma villagers conceptualize the body as having both physical (umo) and metaphysical (uphu) aspects.

A week before Sekrenyi rice-beer is prepared by each household. Some of it is kept separately, to be used only by the men during the performance of the ritual on the first day. This rice-beer is not shared with anyone and only the performer of the ritual may consume it. During the festival men remain chaste and do not share the hearth and their meal with women.

Sekrenyi Festival

Two days before the Sekrenyi festival, themuo keza and, kide rituals (genna) are observed.

Themuo keza literally means a dividing of meat (themuo = meat; keza = to divide). On this day several animals — cows, pigs, dogs — are killed and divided among the members of an household or the families who have contributed to the purchase of the animal.

Kide: On the day of kide wooden spoons are made, which are to be used for Sekrenyi cooking, pots are cleaned and oak wood pegs are made for making the ritual fireplace. On this day two cups made of plantain leaves are pinned on the front wall of the house and rice-beer is poured into these. It is probably an offering to the ancestors.

DAY ONE

Uphu Mesa The male members (followers of kru nanyu) of the village go down to their respective khel wells before the sunrise — as early as 2.30 a.m. to 3 a.m. These wells are cleaned a day before the ritual and no woman is allowed to draw water from them. Near the well, the men wash themselves and their hunting implements.

Mi-Ki literally means ‘pulling the fire’. After coming back from the well, a fire is made in the traditional way by the head of the family or the clan, outside of either the joint family house or the clan house. In the lighting of fire it is believed that if the spark is first produced to the right of the stick the year will be a good one for men, and if to the left, for women. From this fire a new fire is kindled in the kitchen hearth, which is to last till next Sekrenyi.

Utho-Phi A cock is strangled by each male member of the household. The position of the legs of the cock at death is observed. If the right leg crosses over the left (peza ba) it is a good omen for human health. If the left leg crosses over the right (pevi ba) the omen is good for harvest in the coming year. The entrails of the cock thus killed are taken out and predictions are made by the priest. This practice is followed in most western villages and probably the northern villages as well, with the exception of Rusoma, a northern Angami village, where it is the themu (traditional medicine man) who inspects the entrails and makes predictions. After this, the liver of the cock is cooked in the Sekrenyi pot. The pot is either purchased especially for this occasion or is kept separately and is used only for Sekrenyi cooking every year. The cooking is done with little rice, ginger and some chilli. Half of the cooked liver is thrown away ‘as if given to the enemy’, with a curse:

A ngumvu miabu hacieha, krie di puomecu puometou si ebiaeie euo

May you eat this meat, may your body not function properly and when I throw the arrow let it pierce through your heart.

After this the men eat a small piece of the cooked liver to reinforce the curse. Rice-beer specially kept for the ritual is drunk in a cup made of plaintain leaf. Before taking a sip the man tips the drink to both left and right side. It is an offering to the spirits (terhoma).

Among the southern Angamis it is misu kizie, a combination of the western Angami uphu mesa, miki, utho-phi, except that an omen is read at the time of making the fire. The bamboo string used for making the fire is broken and the length of the ends are observed. If the left end is longer it is considered a good omen for health in the coming year.

DAY TWO

Thi-Sie An effigy (thi-sie) symbolizing game, is put up on a long bamboo pole. The priest shoots the first arrow reciting a prayer for the welfare of the whole village. This is followed by the youth shooting the arrows one after the other. Predictions are made on the basis of the part of the effigy which is hit by the arrow. If the arrow hits the body of the effigy, it foretells good hunting; if it hits the head, it foretells success in war.

Among the Southern Angamis the second day is called krienyi. On this day pots, which were used for Sekrenyi cooking, are cleaned after sunset and kept away for the next year.

DAY THREE

On the third day of the festival, young boys and girls go to the jungle to collect wild vegetables. They also collect stems of the tirhu-the plant, the pith of which is used for making beads.

Chuti-tho It pertains to making beads of bamboo and tirhu-the plant. These beads are used for decoration of the youth houses or kikremia.

The southern Angamis call it nuosotho. On this day a chicken is killed in the name of the child by its mother, an extension of the birth ritual.

DAY FOUR

Lhie The next day is the day for festivity (lhie literally means ‘festive’). The youth sing folksongs as well as a special song known as sokre-sene, which is sung only during Sekrenyi (as told and observed in Kidima, a southern Angami village).

In Kohima village the youth celebrate thekra-chi, i.e., they sing and dance the whole night. In case of a death in the village before the festival date has been announced, the festivities are cut down a little and there is less singing. It is also the last day of kide in the southern areas hence it is also called kide yongu, after which no more rice-beer is poured into the plaintain cups.

On the fourth or the fifth day of the festival, the traditional dress is worn by the villagers and a grand procession is taken out. The head of the Kruna nanyu ('followers of traditional religion'; kruna = ancestor; nanyu = religion) gives a call to the villagers from the main thehuba. The members of respective khels begin the procession and meet at the main thehuba, from where a combined procession is taken out. In some villages young women do not take part in the procession while in others they do. After singing and dancing, rice-beer is drunk communally.

On every evening of the festival, bonfires are lit either outside the house of a clan elder or inside the kikramia. Around this young men and women sit and sing folksongs. The first day rituals are carried out only by the followers of traditional religion but the later festivities may be joined in by the Christians as well. For the songs and the dances, traditional dress is worn by the youth and procession is taken out in the village. The different khels join in at the main thehuba (meeting place) and go around in circles singing sokre-sene. The processions are led by the priest or the eldest man in the village. In between the dancing, war cries are given out and some enthusiastic folks may perform a little war dance with spears and guns in the centre of the circle. A number of gun shots mark the celebrations on this day.

On the first two days of Sekrenyi, songs are sung almost from morning till late in the evening. As said earlier, these songs (sokre-sene) are taboo after the first two days. No work is done in the fields during the first eleven days of the festival. At least work on the first four days is a complete taboo, even the Christians do not go to their fields (as observed in Kidima). The eleventh day is mekra, i.e., a community taboo on cutting of meat and going to the fields.

The Sekrenyi ritual is geared towards cleansing of both physical and metaphysical aspects of the body. The cleansing and purifying principles of water and fire combine in this ritual which has for its object the prevention of illness during the coming year. Performed communally, it aims not only at bodily health but also aims to ensure healthy functioning of the society. As stated earlier, the rituals are carried out only by men who in the traditional Angami system performed the roles of warriors and hunters. The rituals performed have parallels with the rituals that are performed after head-taking and after a lasting illness. The body of the performer is washed and presumably any ill-luck clinging to it is washed away.

It is worth noting that the fire made at the time of Sekrenyi is used for rekindling the family hearth. Thus a clean fire, produced after keeping chaste for duration of the ritual and after cleansing oneself at the village spring, which was kept clean by not allowing the women to pollute it, is used for rekindling the hearth. This hearth fire is meant to last for another year. Thus we see that Sekrenyi also marks the beginning of a new year.

Thus the Angamis assign positive qualities to water and both positive and negative qualities to fire. Water is perceived as having cleansing properties. So in case of prolonged illnesses a special water hole is dug and this water, supposedly clean from all kinds of pollutants is thought to remove the illness-causing agent. A similar idea seems to surround the act of men washing themselves at the village spring during Sekrenyi and after the taking of head. Whether such rituals are performed by the women is not known. Fire, on the other hand, though not capable of cleansing is regarded as an agent of good and bad fortunes. Thus we see that at the time of building a new house fire is brought from the house of a socially recognized person. That is, a person whom good fortune has favoured. Conversely, the same fire which was brought from such a source is relit at the beginning of each year. The fact that extinguishing the hearth of somebody’s house is considered a serious offence also confirms the idea that with the extinguishing of fire the good fortune brought by it also dies.

Notes

1. Angamis have a complex system of water distribution. Water from springs is tapped through water channels to irrigate the rice fields.

2. It was narrated to me by three Khonoma villagers, two of them had taken part in the celebrations when they were very young and had not converted of Christianity. The sequences listed below are by no means complete. I was told that it is rather difficult to recall the names of all the rituals that take place unless the details and meanings are asked when the festival is in progress.

References

Durkheim, E. and Mauss, 1963. Primitive Classification. (trans. R. Needham), London, Free Press.

Edsman, C.M., 1987. ‘Fire’, The Encyclopaedia of Religion, vol. 5, ed. by M. Eliade. pp. 340-46. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company.

Hutton, J.H., 1969. The Angami Nagas, Bombay, Oxford University Press. (first published in 1921 by Macmillan & Co. London).

Rudhardt, J., 1987. ‘Water’, The Encyclopaedia of Religion, vol. 15, ed. by M. Eliade, pp. 350-61. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company.

 

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