Customs and Beliefs of Angami Nagas: In Conversation with Methaheto Chase

Customs and Beliefs of Angami Nagas: In Conversation with Methaheto Chase

in Interview
Published on: 22 October 2018

Menka Singh

Menka Singh has been working as an Assistant Professor in History at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi since 2012. She is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of History, University of Delhi. Her doctoral dissertation is titled, “The Memory and Legacy of Colonialism in the Naga Hills, c. 1832-1947”. Her M.Phil dissertation was titled, “State, Family, and Orphans of Partition, c. 1940-1980”. She was enrolled at Hindu College and Lady Shri Ram College for her Masters and Bachelors in History respectively. She has been part of workshops, conferences and seminars on both Partition Studies and Northeast Studies. She has presented papers titled, “The Youngest Citizens’ Speak” at the University of Nottingham, “Midnight’s Orphans” at Hansraj College, “Midnight’s Orphans – A Cinematic Representation” at Kirorimal College, “Being a Muhajir” at Germanic and Romance Studies, “Midnight’s Orphans – Recovering the Marginal in the Partition of the Indian Subcontinent” at ARSD College, “Spirit Interaction, Propitiation, and Fraternization” at University of Tezpur, and “Centering the Subaltern – Theatre and Poetics of Bhikhari Thakur” at IIAS, Shimla. She has published five papers and has a keen interest in partition narratives, folklore studies, child rights, jurisprudence, cultural studies, Gandhian ideology, gender studies, and the methodologies of history writing.

Methaheto Chase recounts the indigenous customs and beliefs of Angami Nagas.

Methaheto Chase converted to Christianity in 1978. Here he recounts the practices and customs of his native religion before his conversion. 


Summarised translation:


As far as I know, my great grandparents had been practising ritual worship before Christianity came to the Nagas. Even after that, my father and I have continued the same. We call it nanu. I am one of the late converts in my khel (sub-division of the village). I have been practising these rituals. I was baptized in Christianity in 1978. I have been doing this nanu according to my knowledge. The high priest would come and do these rituals at my place.  


There are differences between big and small rituals. Some rituals are like cutting ourselves. To ask for a younger brother or sister, a ritual is performed. This ritual is called gidha. We take a rooster and cut its throat and smear its blood on ourselves. The high priest would take the rooster with us accompanying him beyond the village gates and perform some rituals. This ritual is to bring unity between the human world and that of the spirit so that no ill befalls on the family. 


Dirhoucha, which means speaking ill of someone, is not good. Even speaking well of someone too much is not good for a family. There is a ritual to avoid bad things happening to a family. A rooster or a village pig is killed. The meat is shared with the spirits and the rest, consumed. These are some of these rituals that we have been doing. Just like these, we have other rituals as well. 


There used to be a feast of merit for the community. To hold this feast a ritual has to be performed in the memory of someone dear to you like your parents, grandparents, etc. The stone monoliths are erected in some rituals for a single person, while in other rituals, there are multiple stones erected in rows in memory of grandfather, father, wife, and children. The erection of these stones symbolizes prosperity. In the feast the entire village participates and cattle is killed to feed them. The feast is held indoors. It doesn’t mean that the host family is very rich; it is not about showing off your riches. But the actual meaning of doing a ritual like this is to ask for blessings for our descendants to grow in prosperity and well-being. The erection of stones is done in the parents’ name but the ritual is to ask for a better progeny. That is how it was said. 


Just like that in our village even in the paddy fields, by the roads or on the dry shift cultivation areas, you will find many stones erected. After doing this ritual, the person can build a morung (boys’ dormitory for communal living) or a pond in his name. This can be done only after completing the entire feast of merit. Even if you are capable of making a morung, a pond, or a circular sitting place, you cannot do that without completing the feast of merit. 


Just as I said before, there are six to seven different festivals. One is Ngonyi, the festival of hunting. It is a very strict festival where you cannot walk but can go hunting, taking the blessings of the high priest who declares that you will hunt the best or the healthiest animals and bring them for feasting. If we kill a wild animal and bring it on that day, we are not allowed to sell it. The intestinal part is cooked and all the near and dear ones are fed. This festival being a part of our culture is very renowned. 


Just like that, indigenous sports like Naga wrestling, and tsieva also play a very important part. In tsieva a piece of bamboo wood is placed behind a log of wood (and needs to be targeted). Playing these sports they compete with each other. The competition is between individuals, or clans or khels and if they excel they compete with other villages as well. 


Even during those head hunting days, it was like a competition for the warriors. To be a headhunter, we needed to sanctify and cleanse ourselves and complete all the rituals. Supposedly, if the head hunter did not cleanse himself properly, or went on a day when the cattle was birthing, or there was a birth in the family, or after talking to an impotent person, then he would not excel. It would be a bad omen for him as a warrior. So, to avoid all this, they geared up at night when everyone was fast asleep. They crossed the village gates and went for head hunting or animal hunting. 


If we were to think now of the youth, who are of marriageable age, I would like to tell you a story in that regard. Below Dovipie Inn, crossing the village gate, there lies a stone where we can know our dreams after touching it. When you hear this story, I don’t know whether you will believe it or not, but our ancestors certainly believed it. So early in the morning or while going up and down to the paddy fields, if we hit the stone with some grass and then go home to sleep, whichever girl appears in our dream, it a signal that we are meant to marry her. This is what we have been told and passed on. It is said that we dream of our lover.


Just like that, there lies a stone nearby the paddy field with footprints of different animals and birds. Many people come to see that particular stone. I don’t know whether it still lies there or has been destroyed. Another stone lies in the river Dzudza, it is called Mithume-u or the tongue of mithun, as it resembles a mithun’s tongue. Nearby is another stone called Kesiazuze or the dead man’s bed because it looks like a bed with a pillow. Just crossing that there is a big stone called Ketsiekemo. They say that one night the stone just slid down to the paddy fields, hence the name. There is another stone called Terhuo tsiese. One night the spirits pulled down the stone with a piece of thatch, and the next morning people found it erected. That night the people had heard a lot of war cries but were too scared to come out of their homes. The next morning they found the stone with a single thatch tied on it. So till now the stone is named as the spirit-implanted-stone and the area nearby is known by that name.


Sokeimela—this stone, we don’t get it here and there but under the bridge on Dzudza. Another lies near the well. It has a very different look. Even though moss grows on top of it, it is not cleaned, but is left that way. It is because our parents told us not to go and touch that stone, as it is a good stone. If you touch the stone, it starts to rain. The stone changes the weather also. That is why it is called Sokeimela and children are not allowed to go near it or touch it. Only on some particular festivals, the elders go and do the necessary cleaning of the stone. 


There is another stone on the cliff that looks like a human’s face and is called Tsiekhieutsie. People from other parts of India call it Shiva’s head. But in our terminology we know it as Tsiekhieutsie. The hunters going for a hunt take a look at the face of the stone, and if it is smiling, they say the wild animals and birds cannot be found as Tsiekhieu, the forest goddess or the owner of the beasts protects them. If the hunters find the stone face gloomy then the animals are easily available for the hunt. It means that the animals have run astray, away from the protection of Tsiekhieu. So, the tales have been passed on to us. 


Just like I earlier said about different festivals like Nyonyi, Thekranyi is also a festival. The community come together and feast on that day, where the youth wear their best attire. Competitions are organized for the best dressed both individually and khel-wise. If there is no hurdle, like the death of a near and dear one, then the festival is celebrated. All the different age-groups come together. They dress in their best attire and choose the best vocalists from among themselves. They then move towards catsukie (an area) to Hiekha Khwehu (name of person who organized a feast of merit successfully and then constructed a circular sitting area). They compete in folk songs and traditional dresses. If a man has more traditional elements of attire on his body, it would mean he is more popular among girls. (The man can only wear attire gifted to him by the girl who admires him. So more clothes would mean many women admirers). The same applies for the girls as well.


Thekrani is also like a festival of competition. After the festival is completed, it starts raining as the festival is celebrated asking the spirits for rain. Some people ask if Khwunomia has tied a thread on the back or not. This is a big thread, which is to be tied as a bell on the waist. The person who has tied the thread would sing a folksong and the festival would commence. The festival also symbolizes the start of paddy cultivation. From then on cultivation starts as it begins to rain. People have different kinds of fields; some are dry while some are watery. Water reaches the wet paddy fields through culverts, which are owned by the paddy field owners. But the dry paddy fields cannot be watered until the festival is celebrated. That is how there are different forms of water distribution. 


Another popular festival Sekranyi is known as the festival of purification. This is also one of the biggest festivals of the Angami Nagas and every village has the same procedure of celebrating this festival. The festival is celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Every village has a different timing for this festival. Nowadays, since there is very less practice of ritual worshipping, so the entire Angami Naga community fix a single date, twenty-fifth February every year, to celebrate this festival.


If you really stick to conventions in ritual worshipping, then every male member of the family has to kill a chicken after doing rituals. They pull out the intestines from the bottom and see whether is torn or not, and they also observe the side over which, the leg of the dead chicken is crossed over. If the ritual is done properly, they will have a prosperous life that year. They kill the chicken by twisting its neck and say, ‘Tsiethie rie phi theki tsolie nyie-u nyie-u’. (I would leave this year and reach next year. That is the evils would be warded off for another year). If the chicken has a torn intestine, then the person performing the ritual would face bankruptcy or poverty or hardships in that year. If the intestine is thick and intact, he would get a good harvest and prosper. These are some of the signs. We celebrate Sekrenyi in a big way by also keeping a share for the spirits. 


Terhunyi is another festival where we collect all our harvest and thank the spirits for the bountiful harvest that we got due to their blessings. It is also a festival of thanksgiving. 


Theyu khutie chu is another festival of girls. On this day the younger girls go fishing and bring back what they got. The ones who are not cooking lie on the bed with the blanket covering them. They will be fed inside the blanket. If a girl gets married to someone, she is taken as another person as her surname also would go change to that of her husband’s. We don’t give dowry for a girl getting married; whatever the husband owns like house, field, cattle, etc. is her property too. In our tradition, the eldest in the family would get the best field of his father. If there are three or four boys in the family, the middle order would share the jhum cultivated areas and share the paddy fields. The youngest would inherit the residence of his father. Nowadays, if the family is rich, the father gives equal share to all the male members in the family. This was not practised during our ancestral days. 

Translation credit from Angami: Neizo