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Proposal in January but can’t marry in July — the rituals of Zeliang tribe in Nagaland

Zeliang people have specific rituals for birth, marriage & death. For instance, anyone visiting the groom's house must enter with their right foot first at the threshold.

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The birth of a child is followed by the naming ceremony which takes place five days after the birth. On the naming day, the parents offer thanks to the god of fertility with a ritual called Nlau involving the sacrifice of a fowl. Blessings are pronounced upon the child to grow up healthy and obedient. Many other blessings are pronounced upon the child. After the woman has given birth, she is not allowed to lie on the bed; a bed is made for her on the floor with dry matting and bed cloths. She sleeps there with her baby until the Nlau ritual is performed for the child.

The mother is fed with chicken a number of times. Her diet also includes a broth with ginger and broken rice, and another broth of red sorrel and rice which is good for the health of the child and mother.

The meat of the sacrificed animal is to be eaten only by the mother. The christening of the child is a ceremony only for the family; the newborn may be named by its mother, father, aunt, uncle or those who are skilled at giving good names and these may include well-wishers outside the family circle. A child may be given two or three names but not less than two. The name it is frequently called becomes its name for life.

While choosing names, people avoid the names of those who died unnatural deaths. Some children are given the names of their grandfathers to keep their names alive in people’s memories.

If the baby dies before the christening, it is buried inside the house without any ceremony. But if it dies after the christening, it is given a proper burial, which includes the slaughter of either a pig or chickens. This is called pega rupi, funeral meat.

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Marriage is contracted between a boy and a girl beginning with a proposal made to the girl’s family by the boy’s relatives.

Different villages have different marriage rituals. It is taboo to marry in July and August; in fact, it is taboo even to discuss marriage in these months. This period is called kesiamia hereingkie.

In the season when the rain recedes and fruits ripen, matrons are sent to look for young women with good qualities, women who are hard-working, well mannered and have a good knowledge of their cultural practices. The period of observation of young women is in the months of October–November. In the same period, matrons go and meet individual families and ask for their daughter’s hand in marriage. Prior to that they would meet and talk with the girls, and if a girl finds the offer agreeable, she would tell the older women to ask her parents. Proposals are made in January. The month of February is the month of the biggest festival of the tribe, Hega. It is the festival of sanctification held at the beginning of the year. Hega is celebrated for five days.

The particular time frame when betrothals are made is called pebampok: after the betrothal, the girl invites the boy and gives him food for five days during Hega, for which the boy’s family gives `2 to the girl’s family (this is a practice unique to Peren). On the first day of the festival, when they are slaughtering cattle, the girl takes a body-cloth, a neck-cloth called pelengi and a loincloth along with some chutney and a horn of brew to the rehangki, which is the morung, and gives it to her intended.The young man shares this feast with his friends.

On the day of the marriage, the girl wears all her ornaments but, on her body-cloth, nzana, she does not wear any ornamentation as she is going to become a matron. All her brothers will give her chickens, and if they get game, they will give her the foreleg, and she will carry these to her husband’s house.

As she is leaving, they prepare a new basket for her, a covered gourd without any blemish and a small gourd. The father of the bride lifts the basket onto his daughter’s back and puts it back on the ground.Then the mother carries the basket, and the bride follows her mother to her husband’s house. Before they leave on the bridal procession, they will have cooked the fowl used for fortune telling, and two children carry that along with cooked rice.The two children chosen for this task come from families in which both parents are alive; orphans never perform this task. The carriers of food proceed first, after that all the bride’s peers from her dormitory follow carrying gifts in baskets. Each person takes care not to violate the taboo on stumbling. The elders send them off saying: ‘Walk carefully.’

At the threshold of the bridegroom’s house they all enter with the right foot first.The groom’s family will have prepared wood for the bride’s peers, and all the boys and girls take back firewood with them. This includes girls from all age groups. All marriages of the season take place on the same day, like a mass wedding. If the groom has not paid the bride price, the bride will not be taken to him that day.The grooms do not have to do anything more as they have already paid the bride price and they will simply wait for the bride. The groom who has given a good price will be brought good food. He will have paid his bride’s price to her brothers.

The meat brought from the bride to the groom is distributed by the groom’s family. There is not much eating of rice but a great deal of drinking of brew.

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There are different rituals that are applied to different circumstances of death in the community. If a woman and her infant die during delivery, they are buried inside the house and the house is abandoned.The Mzieme call this kind of death mpitsai.  The dead woman is buried in a grave dug by her husband beside her bed. Mourning is taboo for this kind of death. If she is unmarried, only the man who impregnated her is to be at her bedside, and he is to bury her and abandon the house after that.

At death, adults are bathed, clothed in their best and buried. A man is buried with a spear and a dao. Women are buried with a dao, a basket, an axe and carefully wrapped seed grains. A spade is buried with them. All those who meet with apotia deaths are buried beyond the village gate. A genna day is observed after every apotia death, so that it will not recur.

There is a ritual of remembrance called Rükakto. The members of the bereaved family do not cut their hair or groom themselves for an entire year. They also refrain from singing songs. In a final ceremony of remembrance, they kill a pig, cook it and eat it in remembrance of the dead. On the last day of the one year following their family member’s death, the relatives finally cut their hair and groom themselves, and after that they can participate in communal events.

This excerpt from Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland by Easterine Kire has been published with permission from Aleph Book Company.

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