By C.R.Stonor. 1950
It has become customary to label the Assam-Burma border as a “well-documented region” : among the several tribes concerning whose ethnography virtually nothing has been recorded are the Sangtam Nagas who comprise a small, but well-defined tribal unit in the eastern area of the Naga Hills. The tribe is composed of two geographical separated sections, both of which have as an integral part of their social system the remarkable institution of the Feast of Merit, already described for other Naga tribes in the series of monographs on the hills peoples of Assam. During a visit to the northern section of the tribe in December 1947 I had the good fortune to witness the performance of the culminating feast of the series, and was able to obtain information on the main features of the remainder. The account which follows is fragmentary, and much, particularly in respect of the ritual, remains to be investigated.
The rules of performance.
Performance of the feasts of merit is regulated among the Sangtams by two general rules:
- The traditional sequence must be followed.
- A feast may not be given in any one year before the crops are gathered.
Otherwise a man is free to carry out any of the series whenever he is sufficiently affluent to do so.
The series of feasts.
Essentials: The first of the series is Yungti. The essentials of the feast are (1) the killing of four pigs, (2) the supply of beer to his guests by the feaster.
Ritual: At this, and at all subsequent feasts the giver is helped by two ritual friends known as shyangrr myangrr. They need not belong to his clan or village, and are in the nature of ” bond friends “. They receive a liberal share of the sacrificial meat, and each has a reciprocal obligation to choose the feaster as one of his shyangrr myangrr at the next sacrifice he performs. The feast lasts one day and the pigs are killed in front of the feaster’s house by an old man of the clan, who dispatches them with a spear. A sacred fire is lit at the spot, from embers of a special fire previously kindled inside the feaster’s house for brewing beer. Further details of this are given below. No dance is held.
A striking feature of this feast is that beer is provided primarily for phratries other than those of the giver. Thus in the village of Phirre-Ahirr, where there are two phratries, the component clans invite one another as under:
Mongsarr….Are invited by….Reti-Tongrr
The feaster’s own clan are also invited, but only secondarily, and it is definitely a primary duty to invite the other phratry.
The skulls of the pigs killed are put up at once inside the feaster’s house.
- a) The feast entitles to a handsome cloth, patterned alternately with broad red and blue-black stripes, each dark stripe narrowly centred with blue. There is a broad patch of small rectangles of red wool across the centre: these are symbols of the ferment used for making beer.
- b) In some villages at least a rounded porch may be built on at the back of the living house and the field house.
The Yungti feast is repeated at a convenient interval, usually of a year or two.
Essentials : The animals sacrificed at this feast are:
One mithan – If possible bulls
One pig – If possible a boar.
The beer at the feast is provided by both the giver and closely related members of his clan.
Ritual: The ritual is identical with that described below for the second Anitz and the Tchar Tsu festivals, except that the mithan and the bull are simply killed in front of two forked posts, and are not previously dragged round the village (vide infra). Members of the givers own phratries may be asked as well.
Privileges : The giver of Anitz is entitled a) to wear a cloth of which the ground colour is black, with several narrow stripes, and embroidered in red with symbolic representations of mithan horns.
- b) To put bamboo splinters along the top of his roof, placed close together, and criss-cross. They may also be put on the field-house, granary, and graves of near relatives (Plate IV, Fig.2
- c) Rough wooden models of wagtails (Metacilla sp.) may be put on the roof. The explanation of this is that the bobbings and pirouettings of wagtails are reminiscent of the movements of a dancer.
- d) Two feathers of the Great Indian Hornbill (Dichoceros bicornis) may be worn in the ceremonial head-dress of the feaster.
- e) The wife may wear a fringe to her body cloth.
- f) She may wear a skirt elaborately striped with red and blue, and with a narrow white central strip.
- g) Necklaces of cornelian beads, large white discs of conch shell, and crystal ear-rings may be worn by the women of the feaster’s household, and by his female descendants in perpetuity.
- h) In some villages a hanging fringe of thatch grass ( such as all Chang Nagas use ) may be put on the projecting roof of the house. In others, a projecting porch-roof is put on over the door ( Plate IV, Fig. 2
The Anitz is repeated in identical manner, except that a second mithan is substituted for the bull, the sacrificial animals thus being two mithan and one pig. As before, the relatives help with supply of beer. No additional privileges seem to result except that a third hornbill feather may be worn.
This feast is very frequently combined with the next, doubtless for economy in mithan, as only two are killed when a combined feast is held.
Essentials: a) Two mithan are sacrificed.
- b) Beer is provided for fellow-clansmen, and it is incumbent on the giver to produce it from his own resources.
Ritual: The ritual for the Tchar Tsu is the same as that for Anitz with the important exceptions that the mithan are dragged round before killing and that when the feast is given by itself no dance is held (vide infra).
Privileges: The feast qualifies for the Tsungkotepsu cloth of the neighbouring Ao tribe. This cloth, described by J. P. Mills (footnote: J. P. Mills, The Ao Nagas (1926), p. 37. ), is red and black with a central white band painted in black with figures of animals and other symbols. They are bought by the Sangtams from the Ao villages of Longsa and Ungma, two days journey away. I have no information of other privileges.
III. Details of the ritual.
The date for a feast is fixed at the convenience of the giver, and may be any time between the gathering of the harvest, and the next sowing season. In practice they are always held between December and March.
The following account is for the combined Anitz and Tchar Tsu feasts, when the most elaborate ceremonial is performed.
Six days before the sacrifice, the fire in the giver’s house is allowed to die out and the hearth is cleaned. One of the two village priests, known as peypurr, who seem to correspond very closely to the puthi of the Lhota Nagas (footnote: J. P. Mills, The Lhota Nagas (1922), p. 121.), is called in: he fetches a little earth from outside on the blade of his dao. This he spreads sybolically on the site of the hearth. A new fire is lit on the site of the hearth by one of the two ritual friends of the feaster or shyangrr myangrr, who uses a fire-thong for the purpose.
The next six days are devoted to the preparation, by ritual pounding, of jobs tears and rice by the women of the household, and the brewing of beer. All grain used for beer must be cooked over the new fire, which must on no account be allowed to go out.
News is spread abroad that the feast is about to take place: the relatives and friends from other villages are invited; and the fellow-clansmen look over their ceremonial dress, if need be sending out to neighbouring villages to borrow any articles they may be short of.
Two great forked posts, ten or twelve feet high, are cut from the jungle, and are brought in by fellow-clansmen (Plate II, Fig.1): They are put up in the nearest open space to the feaster’s house, and alongside others still standing from previous feasts.
The two mithan are caught and tethered.
Ropes of creeper are tied to the horns of the mithan, and they are pulled round the feaster’s khel or section of the village by men of his phratry in festive dress, with chants appropriate for the occasion. During their progress it is most unlucky for the beasts to stop, and an old man is delegated to chide them on with a long bamboo wand. The khel circumscribed, the forked posts are reached; here the mithan are shackled and thrown, with the head against the foot of the post. A small cut is made in the skin over the head against the foot of the post. A small cut is made in the skin over the heart by and old man of the clan, who uses a spear. Then another clansman pushes in a sharpened wooden stake which he twists about in the animals vitals until it is dead. While it is being killed it is struck symbolically with the bamboo rod just referred to. As the beast twists and rolls in its death agony, water is poured on the tongue and muzzle. As soon as it is dead, the head is cut off and is tied high up on the forked post (Plate II, Fig. 1). When the head is being tied on a small spray of cane leaves (Calamus sp.) is affixed to the bottom of the fork, and beer is poured over them. The meat then is then divided up:
- a) The meat of the head to the two ritual friends or shyangrr myangrr. This is not cut off for another two days.
- b) The hind-legs to the two shyangrr myangrr.
- c) The fore-legs to the younger sister.
- d) The neck to the elder brother.
- e) The rump and tail to the father-in-law.
- f) The stomach, skin,and organs of the belly to the father.
- g) One side to the near relatives of the mother.
- h) The other side and the remaining “lights” to the dancers, including the feaster himself.
In the event of a would-be recipient being dead ( or non-existent) the share goes to the nearest equivalent relation.
If the relative in question is living in another village the meat is sent, and there is no obligation to attend the feast. An hour or so after sun-down a short dance takes place. I did not see this in Phirre Ahirr, but it was reproduced for me in the neighbouring village of Chimongrr. A party of men and youths in ceremonial dress assemble at the feaster’s house armed with spears and daos: they form up in file, with the front rows three or four abreast and made up of the most senior men present. They dance through the khel with slow and measured hopping steps, chanting slowly, and with spears pointed downwards
I reached the place of sacrifice a few minutes after sun-rise. A fire had been built to the side of the posts, and had just been kindled. I was told that it was lit by one of the peypurr (priests) with embers from the new fire in the feaster’s house, and that the kindling had to take place precisely as the first rays of the sun appeared over the horizon, I commented on the fact that the two mithan heads were fastened so as to face due east, and was told by the senior peypurr that custom ordains that the forked posts must be so orientated that the heads catch the first rays of the risen sun. The spear and the two stakes with which the mithan has been killed, and also the two ceremonial wands were fastened to the posts (Plate II, Fig.1). A small tubular basket (Plate II, Fig. 1) was hanging on one post, and I was informed that it contained small pieces of meat as an offering to the sun and the moon. Several large gourds of beer stood at the bottom of the posts. Hard-by the new posts was another pair ( Plate II, Fig. 1): these had been put up the previous year by the feaster’s uncle. The combined feast was being given by a young man, aged about thirty, named Chanthong Pi. He gave his first Anitz three seasons ago.
I asked to see the two shyangrr myangrr (ritual helpers): one was pointed out, while the other, who lived a day’s journey away in the village of Chimongrr, had not arrived in time for the feast. He came next day to collect his share of the meat. Two women were still at work pounding grain; the pounder placed outside the house for this part of the ritual (Plate I, Fig.2
When a small quorum was ready, the two peypurr took each a small leaf-cup of plantain leaf filled with beer, and a small leaf of rice, which they sprinkled on the ground with a muttered invocation. This was to initiate the dancing, and almost at once ten or twelve men joined hands, and forming a half-circle started to dance round the sacrificial posts. Their numbers increased rapidly, and there were soon thirty or so men circling round. In contrast to the dance of the previous evening, only the leader carried a dao, and the rest had no weapons with them. The dancers were arranged in order of seniority, older men who had performed all the feasts and taken heads leading. The circle was not complete, and the “tail” was made up of a number of small boys from eight to fifteen years of age, who were pulled in at random. This is a regular custom, and is said to be for initiation into  the ritual, as a kind of dancing-class
Occasionally the head of the semi-circle wound outwards, and the dancers looped round, to end up dancing with their backs to the sacrifice (Plate IV, Fig. 1). Once two dancers stood out and were handed spears. The chain of dancers disappeared chanting down the village street, and the pair set at each other in a “cockfight” in front of the post. This was a particularly effective touch as the chanting line wound away out of sight and hearing, and the hum of their singing returned back once more. When the dancing was well under way the scene was an unforgettable one, with the ring of richly clad, chanting, dancing figures gyrating round the two great heads bound high above them.
The feast was not an occasion for universal celebration: people from the other two khels of the village hardly seemed to know it was in progress, and even the feaster’s clansmen did not all attend, and a proportion were going about their every-day tasks. Nor was the feaster a particularly prominent figure : he took his proper place by seniority in the line of dancers. There was apparently no obligation for anyone concerned with him to take an active part, and his father-in-law was standing by in his ordinary clothes as a spectator.
The dancers dropped out now and again for a rest, according as they felt inclined : not so the small boys, who were literally danced off their short legs ; and every laggard was good humouredly gingered on by the old man, with the butt end of his spear.
After two hours or so the two senior performers dropped out, and taking each a leaf cup of beer and a little rice, sprinkled it on the ground with an invocation; and looking towards the sun as they did so (Plate III, Fig.1
Dancing then started up again, perhaps a little less organised than before; and from new on short lengths of bamboo containing an uncut node were thrown on the fire at intervals, where they exploded with a loud report. I asked the meaning of this, and was told that it was to wake up any sluggards among the dancers, who, replete with food and beer, might be dozing off. During this phase of the dance, a side of mithan was carried past and was cut up outside the feaster’s house for distribution to the performers. Soon after this I had to leave. The dancing was to continue all day, with intervals for food and rest, until dusk.
I was told that a cock would be sacrificed precisely at sun-down, and set up. It must if possible be white in colour, and to use a black bird is strictly forbidden.
The festival is in effect over. The two mithan heads are taken down, the meat cut off and given to the shyangrr myangrr, and the heads are put up on the front wall of the feaster’s house. Before they are taken down, beer is dashed over them with appropriate invocation. During this day the fire is kept up : it is allowed to die out by the morning of the next day.
The feaster and his two shyangrr-myangrr must remain chaste for a period of thirty days.
To gain a reasonably full understanding and knowledge of the Sangtam Feasts of Merit would require a period of prolonged residence and a good acquaintance with the language. Since neither of these conditions are likely to be fulfilled either by myself or by other investigators it seems justifiable to attempt a short analysis of the more prominent features of the ritual.
In the first place, as we have seen, there are elaborate rules for the supply and provision of beer, which in the first feasts is given to outside clans, and in the higher series entirely to the feasters own kindred, while it is provided sometimes by the feaster and sometimes by his kindred. This is indicative of the complex economics underlying the supply of liquor, which are apparently just as real and defined, if not so obvious, as in the case of the meat.
 The ritual has many features of great interest. The method of killing the sacrificial animals is the same as among the Sema Nagas ( J. H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The Sema Nagas (1921), p. 229.] ), and similar to that employed by the Lhota and Rengma Nagas ( J. P. Mills [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The Lhota Nagas (1922); The Rengma Nagas (1937). ]. As Hutton has suggested, the use of the wand to give a symbolic blow is very probably a relic of the days when the beasts were clubbed to death – a custom which prevailed among the neighbouring. Ao Nagas until very recent times ( J. P. Mills [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The Ao Nagas (1926). ] ). Similarly the use of a wooden stake to dispatch the mithan can be ascribed either to a tabu on the use of iron or to ritual need to use the original weapon. The use of a metal spear to make the first cut is of course a practical device for penetrating the tough hide. It is, I think, not impossible that these rituals go back further still and symbolise the times when there no tame mithan, and wild animals were trapped and killed with primitive weapons. In support of this we may cite the Lakher tribe among whom sacrificial mithan are first shot in ritual fashion with a bow and arrow ( N. E. Parry [ footnote: N. E. Parry, The Lakhers (1932), p. 374. ] ).
The dragging of the mithan round the feasters khel at the Tchar Tsu feast is exactly paralleled by the western branch of the Rengma Nagas ( J. P. Mills [ footnote: J. P. Mills, The Rengma Nagas (1937), p. 186. ] ) and is an interesting link between these two tribes who are completely cut off from each other by several ranges of hills, and for very many generations have had no contact, direct or indirect. So far as is known the practice is confined to these two Naga tribes and it is, superficially at least, suggestive of a scape-goat ceremony.
The use of forked posts for erecting the mithan heads is of some interest, and is employed also among the adjacent Chang Nagas, where I have seen the site of a very recent feast of merit, in the course of which mithan heads had been tied to two very small a insignificant forked posts. Among all other Naga tribes (Lhotas, Semas, Rengmas, and Aos) and among all other Naga tribes (Lhotas, Semas, Rengmas, and Aos) and among the Lushai – Chin – Kuki group who erect forked posts, they are entirely commemorative and serve no actual function. One is led to wonder if there may not be some direct link between the heads and the posts as a convenient means of erecting them, rather than purely as fertility emblems ( J. H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The meaning and method of erection of Monoliths by the Naga Tribes, J. R. A. I. Vol LII (1922). ] ). The subject is beyond my present scope but it is hoped to enlarge on it in a future paper.
10] It will be noted in the account of the ritual that unlike the Ao Nagas and some other tribes, the Sangtam women play no part in the dances or the sacrificial ritual. There is a very attractive dance performed by Sangtam women, but it is never done at feasts of merit. It would however be a serious error to assume that the women play no real part in the performance of the ritual. We are bound to regard the pounding of the grain, the brewing of the beer, the cooking of the food, all women’s tasks, as an integral part of the ritual, which may be said to commence as soon as the new fire is lit six days before the mithan are killed. It is thus of interest to note how the festival is sharply divided into (1) the preparation and dispensing of beer and food by women, and (2) the ceremonies connected with the sacrificial animals, everything to do with which is purely the work of the men. We may logically assume this to be ultimately derived from an earlier epoch when cultivation and all pertaining to it was the work of the women, while provision of meat rested with the men: a state of affairs still existent among some branches of the Konyak Nagas and the Dafla Tribe. The share of the women in the ritual of the feasts of merit is as definite as that of the men: it is not however so evident to the casual observer.
The two essentials of the feasts are thus (1) provision of meat, (2) provision of beer. Both food and drink are clearly of a sacramental nature. This has been pointed out by Stevenson [ footnote: H. N. C. Stevenson, The Economics of the Central Chin Tribes (1943). ] in respect of the Chins, but has been incompletely emphasised by writers on the Naga tribes. Thus, in the case of the beer, it is brewed over a special fire, during a specified period, and from grain pounded in ritual manner. The offering of beer before certain phases of the ceremony, the definite rules as to its provision and distribution, the heating of a small quantity over the sacred fire during dancing, and its consumption by senior representatives of the gathering, are all indications of its religious significance. The last instance is particularly interesting since the beer is already prepared and ready for consumption when it is heated over the fire. The symbolic portrayal of the ferment used in brewing on the cloth connected with the Yungti feast is a further proof of its nature.
The significance of the beer is of course well understood by the Nagas themselves, and is one of the excuses for the total banning of alcohol to converts of the American Baptist Mission. This was brought home to the writer in a striking manner some months ago, when a Naga head-man, a professed Baptist, asked for a drink of rum. In an attempt at humour I told him I was shocked to be asked for alcohol by so devout a man, and was told that ” the Padre Sahibs have only forbidden us rice beer, we are not forbidden to drink spirits “.
The sacredness of the meat is implied in the elaborate rules for its division, and even more so by the very small share allotted to the giver of the feast, while all who participate get a share. Among most or all other Naga Tribes, it is strictly forbidden for the feaster to taste the meat from his own sacrifice. The consumption of even a small part of his own mithan  by the feaster at Phirre Ahirr caused much comment among Lhota Naga servants with me, who considered that such an act would be unheard of among their people.
The dancing divides sharply into two types, quite distinct from one another: the slow, measured progress of the torchlight dance on the evening of sacrifice, with the performers armed to teeth, and the more lively, rapid, circling dances done next day contrast completely. It is interesting to note that J. H. Hutton [ footnote: J. H. Hutton, The Sema Nagas (1921), p. 111.]) has recorded of the Sema Nagas that the dancing accompanying their feasts ” begins with a procession called aghoghe, in which the dancers advance across the open space by successive threes, carrying their spears… and hopping on each foot alternately “. He goes on to tell how this is immediately followed by circle dances, minus the weapons, and which exactly parallel those of the Northern Sangtams. It appears therefore that the entirely separate dances of the Sangtams are a continuous performance among the Semas. Hutton (loc. cit.) describes the Sema dances at a feast as an ” amusement “. I do not see how we can fail to regard them as an integral part of the ritual, although, on the day of the feast, they are certainly a very happy part of the ceremonies. The night dance, carried out after the men are returned home tired from a day’s work, without the fortifying influence of beer, and for a short time only, has little suggestion of recreation about it. On the face of it this dance might well be to drive away evil spirits, particularly since weapons are carried: this is no more than surmise, and when I asked about it my informants were non-committal.
A remarkable feature of the ritual is the very strong element of sun worship. The lighting of the new fire, however, for preparation of a feast is an invariable accompaniment of many types of ritual among the Naga tribes, and may well have no further significance than that the old fire has become defield by indiscriminate use. As I have outlined above: (1) the night dance is accompanied by flaring torches lit at the new fire, (2) a sacred fire is lit at the place of sacrifice, (3) it is lit precisely at sunrise, (4) the mithan heads must be so orientated as to catch the first rays of the risen sun, (5) a little meat is put aside specifically for the sun and the moon, (6) beer is heated symbolically over the sacred fire, (7) I was told that the invocations before dancing and before feasting are addressed to the sun and the moon [ footnote: The large brass discs worn on their lengtas by men of several tribes of this region appear also to be solar symbols: large discs of bamboo sheath put up at one festival by the Chang Nagas were described to me as representing both the sun and the brass discs.] , and in the latter case the two celebrants had every appearance of addressing the sun
Of the many privileges attending the performance of the various feasts, it is striking that several have a direct connection with the feast in question. Thus, the symbols for yeast on the cloth for the Yungti feast are commemorative of the provision of beer which seems to be more important than the pork provided. In the Anitz, as we have seen, the split bamboos on the house ridge, and the model wagtails are symbolic of the dancers, while the mithan horns on the associated cloth represent the mithan sacrificed. So also does the hanging fringe to the front eave of the house, which represents a mithan’s dewlap. This is however a simple adaptation of the ordinary house-style of the adjacent Chang Nagas.
Other privileges appear to be more than the normal attributes of a man who has distinguished himself by lavish expenditure in the interests of the community. Of this type are the right to wear Hornbill feathers (the sign of a rich man throughout the Naga Hills ), the clothes of both men and women, and the right of the feasters women-folk to wear ornaments. It is also clear that the minor privileges attendant on performance of feasts vary from village to village, as one would expect in a state of society where the village is the unit. Thus, in the Sangtam village of Changtorr the Yungti feast entitles to a porch at the back of the house, while in the village of Chimongrr, a very few miles distant, no back porch is built, but a large front porch is put up for performance of Anitz (Plate IV, Fig. 2
In the above account I have confined myself only to the details of observance and the accompanying ritual of the Sangtam Feasts of Merit. It is hoped to investigate the economic importance of the institution in a future paper.