Nagas are some of the various vibrant communities of Northeast India, particularly the states that border Myanmar.
In the last article on the series “The Fascinating History of Hindu Nagas”, we looked into the Nocte tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. This is a continuation of the series, with the focus now shifted to the Zeliangrong community of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
Recently, Pou Ramkuiwangbe Jeme Newme, head of the Zeliangrong Heraka Association received the prestigious Padma Shri award for his incomparable contribution in continuing the legacy of Rani Gaidinliu. This article will be exploring the community’s deep historical links with the greater Hindu society.
“Zeliangrong” is a term used to refer to a collection of three tribes that overlap Assam’s Cachar region, Manipur’s Tamenglong district and the Peren district of Nagaland. The term is not the name of a single tribe but an acronym for three communities, namely Zeme, Liangmai and Rongmei (the first two being called Kacha Nagas as a whole by some).
The etymological roots of the tribes correlate to their geographical and cultural connections — Zeme (who call themselves Nzieme) derives from the word ‘Zwimina’ meaning human being, Liangmai meaning ‘people of Liang’ (where Liang may be interpreted by some as “the grouped ones”) and the Rongmei (also called Kabuis by Meiteis) meaning “people of the South”.
It is interesting to note that the word “Meitei” also has a similar meaning, where Mei means a “human being”.
While the Zeme and Rongmei tribes can be found in Assam, Rongmei and Liangmai are present in Manipur and the Zeme and Liangmai in Nagaland (where they are collectively called Zeliang).
The Rongmei people are instantly recognisable because of their vibrant attire, such as the langmu feisoi worn by the women during the Gaan Ngai dance accompanied by a sash called the bunkam.
Dressed in a feingao (similar to inaphis worn by Meiteis) with a langhou feisoi (same as phanek worn by Meiteis), Rongmei women may get mistaken for being Meiteis by some passerby. Sometimes, Zeliangrong women also switch langdoi hu, their traditional headgear for the Meitei kanjenglei (which is symbolic of the divinity of Pakhangba/Vishnu)
When it comes to religion, the strong majority of these tribes follow Christianity today with a significant number among these still being polytheists (particularly in the Rongmeis).
The 1971 census of Assam recorded 69.23 per cent of the Assamese Nagas returning themselves as Hindus, showing strong identification with the valley Hindus. Manipuri Kabuis would however see the share of Christians among them rise from 35.54 per cent in 1961 to 62.58 per cent by 1971 before stabilising around 90 per cent.
At present, the non-Christian Zeliangrongs follow three faiths, namely the the Heraka, Poupei Chapriak (in Assam) and Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak (in Manipur), all venerating Tingkao Ragwang (Tingwang in short), the supreme deity of the Zeliangrong pantheon.
What is interesting to note is that while Heraka is henotheistic in nature akin to many Vaishnava sampradayas, the latter are polytheistic akin to any Smarta follower.
Prayer centres in the Zeliangrong faiths are called Kalum Kai (house of worship) while the temples are called Rakai (house of Gods). Followers of both religions consider Mount Koubru (called Ragwang Phaipa by the Zeliangrongs) in Kangpokpi district of Manipur to be sacred as they believe it to be the abode of Haiphou Tingkao Ragwang.
The hill’s divinity overlaps with that of the Meitei community showcasing the cultural connections between the Zeliangrong and Sanamahi-Hindu pantheon. Tingkao Ragwang is considered to be synonymous with Lainingthou Koubru (equated with Mahadeva) who is believed by the Zeliangrong to have married a Liangmai princess named Wimaranliu Abonmai (called Nungnangleima Saphabi by Meiteis).
Apart from this, the harvest festival of Gaan-Ngai falls on the 13th day of Wakching (around similar harvest festivals followed in Makar Sankranti).
One can find followers of these polytheistic faiths worshipping the other deities of the traditional Meitei and the larger Hindu pantheon as well from time to time.
Quite many Manipuri Rongmeis, particularly the ones that inhabit the Imphal valley keep a shrine for Laningthou Sanamahi (the lord of the households in the traditional Meitei pantheon) and take part in the Lai Haraoba festival offering dances to the heavenly divinities.
The arrival of Christian missionaries into the region brought about a radical shift among the Zeliangrongs leading to the rise of two prominent spiritual figures — Haiphou Jadonang Malangmei and Rani Gaidinliu Pamei (affectionately called Ranima) who fiercely resisted the attempts to convert the people of their tribe.
Haiphou Jadonang helped reform the traditional Zeliangrong pantheon along the lines of Vaishnava schools such as Eksarna Dharma by Srimanta Sankardeva and Gaudiya Vaishnavism by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. Possibly influenced by these schools, he equated the Zeliangrong deity Bisnu with that of the Vedic Vishnu, giving him a secondary status to Tingwang in the Heraka pantheon.
The temple of the deity (called Buanchaniu Rakai) in Bhuban Hills of Cachar district of Assam draws pilgrims from all across the region annually on Magh Purnima.
A temple for Mahadeva (also known as Bhubaneshwara), which has been speculated to have been built by the Tripuri, Koch or Dimasa kings, is present adjacent to the Naga Bisnu temple inaugurated in 1982. Instances of polytheistic Zeliangrongs worshipping Hindu deities such as Ganesha have also been noted.
Notable Rongmei historians such as the esteemed Prof Gangmumei Kamei, the impeccable Manipuri scholar and an ardent follower of the Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak faith, wrote on the overarching influences of Hindu philosophy that had begun permeating into the Zeliangrongs overtime.
Dr Samson Kamei (also known as Pouchalung Phaomei), Asst. Professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Sciences Institute, Prayagraj also noted down the influence of Meitei customs on his community such as the Rongmeis of the Imphal valley taking part in Hindu festivals such as Durga Puja, Kang (Rath Yatra) as well as offering oblations at the Shree Shree Govindajee temple in Imphal. He also mentioned how Shiva was very popular among the Zeliangrong tribes, likely on account of the deity being syncretised with Tingkao Ragwang/Lainingthou Koubru (Kamei).
Ragongning Gangmei, the president of the Ruangmei Literature Society compiled his thoughts regarding the level of assimilation Rongmeis have towards the Meitei society.
He mentioned that the Rongmeis living in the Imphal valley also keep a secondary Meitei name for themselves, such as Kamkhuguang becoming Tomba in Meiteilon, Lanchunglu to Inaakkhunbi, Kamchungpou to Yaima and so on. He also revealed that names of many Zeliangrong dominated places in the hills carry Meitei names as legacy of the rule of the Meitei kings over the area — Kambiron (Puiluanh), Nungba (Luangba), Khongjaron (Chiuluanh) and Noney (Luangmai) being some notable examples (Gangmei, R.).
This gradual assimilation of the Zeliangrongs into the Meitei society was halted by the aggressive expansion of Christian missionaries which resulted in the influence of Hinduism and Sanamahism declining among these communities (Kamei).
One can take the noteworthy example of Shri Abungdam Kabui, the Manipuri playwright who learnt the devotional Khubak Eshei, the Vaishnava folk music of Meiteis and played the role of the hero Khamba in the epic tale of Khamba and Thoibi in 1959 (Rana).
The cross cultural exchange between Zeliangrongs and Hindus has not been restricted to Manipur alone. In Assam, elements of Hinduism have perforated into the Zeliangrong culture and vice versa.
Some Hindus that live in the vicinity of the tribes are now known to regard Ranima as an incarnation of Devi Durga. Likewise, it is not that uncommon to discover Hindu deities such as Durga and Kali in the households of the followers.
Some married women of the community have also begun taking to applying the sindoor (vermillion), considered a marker of marital life for most Hindu women. Another argument for acculturation of Hindu elements into the Zeliangrong society may be the adoption of Hinduised surnames among some members of the community (Delhi Press Magazines).
Zeliangrong Nagas have come under extreme pressure by external elements that repeatedly attempt to coerce them to give up their traditional faith.
The brutal assassination of Babul Rongmei, the chairman of the Barak Valley Hill tribal Development Council in Silchar, Assam in 2011 rocked the followers of the Zeliangrong community (KanglaOnline). It was later discovered that his murder had been pre-mediated by the NSCN because of his attempts to promote the indigenous faiths among his people (Infimate).
It becomes all the more important that such vulnerable groups are protected from cultural genocide from vested forces. They may be less in number today but they continue to preserve the unbroken lineage of traditions that were set by their ancestors long ago.
Their struggle to preserve their faith against elements that want to relegate them to mere pages of history is much like the continuous resistance of any other Hindu in the face of centuries long cultural aggression.
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