Achungmei tells us about the biggest annual festival of the Zeliangrong community in Manipur.
“When we were young” Achungmei says, “we could not wait for this festival to come around every year. It happens when the moon is full so everyday we would look up to see what the moon looked liked. Sometimes it was cloudy so we asked our elders and they would tell us how many days were left. We would count down the days.”
Although time has passed and Achungmei now participates in the festival as an adult, the feelings of excitement, community and festivity remain the same. Chakaan Gaan-Ngai is primarily an event that celebrates the end of the harvest, but encompasses other elements such as commemorating departed souls and praying for prosperity in the coming year. It is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike.
On the first day of the festival, the community gathers and lights a fire using a traditional system called ‘magangmai’, where bamboo and wood is burnt in a particular way. On the second day, a pig is sacrificed and the spleen is taken out and observed by the elders. If the spleen is in good condition, it is believed that the coming year will be good. If it isn’t, the tribe sacrifices another pig at the end of the festival, and prays for forgiveness and assistance with the troubles ahead.
The pigs that are sacrificed also form the main part of the daily feasts. A special kind of local wine called ‘jangao’ is prepared in addition to the regular rice beer. During Chakaan Gaan-Ngai is the only time all members of the community, old and young, are allowed to partake in drinking these beverages.
“My favourite part is midnight, when all my friends come together to sing and dance. It’s a physical union but also a symbolic one,” says Achungmei. “Things are slowly changing…nowadays the youth don’t sing and dance exactly the way they are supposed to. And they sleep in the same dormitories instead of separately, like we use when we were children. But the atmosphere is the same.”