The Tangkhuls have great respect for the dead, which ostensibly is attributed to the strong belief that there is life after death. For this, there used to be a special festival ‘Thisham’ celebrated for twelve days in the month of January. The festival was typically an occasion to bid goodbye to departed souls of the previous year. Thisham was celebrated in strict adherence to rituals practiced from time immemorial. Folk dance and folk songs performed during the festival are said to be unique. If there had been dead in a rich family in the previous year, the family usually acts as the chief host during the festival.
Each of the twelve days had different activities dedicated to the memory of the departed souls. The main activities of the twelve days were.
DAY I: The villagers gather pine torches for their respective clans and families. The collected pine torches are meant for taking to the spot where the souls of the departed are believed to come and light their torches in the evening during the festival. Some of the villagers also go out to collect bamboo bark to weave ropes for the dead. Firewood is also collected in bulk on the first day.
DAY II: Relatives of those who passed away the previous year gather together to weave ropes meant to tie the sacrificial animals to be slaughtered during the festival. Leaves for wrapping rice cake for the dead are also collected on the second day. Indigenous wine and beer are served in abundance to the workers.
DAY III: Animals selected for sacrifice are slaughtered ranging from biggest to the smallest. The list usually included buffalo, mithun, cow, pig, dog, cat, fowl, etc. The nature of killing the sacrificial animals as recalled by some aged people used to be slow and painful. Rice cake for the dead is baked and wine is also brewed on the third day. At the end of the day, limbs of the slaughtered animals are distributed to the chosen representatives of the dead persons. The leftovers are shared with relatives and friends. Families where dead had occurred the previous year used to choose a person each to be the representative of the dead person during the festival. The selection was based on some resemblance between the dead person and the one to be the representative. The resemblance could be facial, nature, character, etc. The representatives were called ‘Thila Kapho’.
DAY IV: People from neighboring villages chosen as representatives arrive to the village on the fourth day. Traders also turn up with the wares and goods they intend to sell or exchange during the festival.
DAY VI: Family members and relatives of individuals who have died invite the representatives to their homes and feed them as well as shower presents. This was considered as giving to the persons who have died.
DAY VII: If any of the representatives had not been invited home the previous day, they are invited and are being fed. When evening comes, family members of the dead person gather at an open space bringing with them plateful of cooked sticky rice. A whole piece either of the leg or rip of a pig is placed beside the wooden rice plate. The plate and meat of each family is then given away to the respective representatives hired by the family of the dead.
The representatives are then invited home for feasting. When the representatives are fed well and when darkness descends, people come out from their homes with lighted pine torches to parade the representatives to the village gate. On reaching the village gate, farewell words are exchanged. Words such as “It is time to part; we love you; do not come back; let this be the end for now; may you fare well, etc are told to the representatives. This is considered as saying to the dead. The lighted torches are then thrown away. The people then go home. If the representatives are from the same village, they had to go home via a path different from the others. However, if they are from neighboring villages, they either go back to their own village or camp for the night somewhere in the open field. They are forbidden to go back to the village.
When everyone is back home, pine torches were lit outside every house. This is to ensure that the souls of the living do not loiter away along with the dead. The head of the family takes a sifting basket and called out names of the living members in the family and beckon to come back home. Falling down or stumbling on this particular day was considered as a very bad omen. If anyone falls down, a fowl was taken to the exact spot where the person fell down. The fowl was sacrificed after making its wings flap as a sign of calling the soul of the person not to follow away with the dead.
Before retiring for the night, the villagers gather at their convenient places in the open to check whether the dead people had come and collected their torches. It is said that people could really see lines of lit torches moving away slowly. Every village used to have some spots in a high mountain where lit torches used to be seen. Shirui narao, Sihai Phangrei and a hillock in Longpi Kajui were the three places where Hunphun (Ukhrul) people used to watch the dead people moving away holding lit pine torches.
DAY VIII: People are not supposed to move out of the village on this day. This is because of the belief that the dead who have loitered away from the group could be lingering around. Since, whatever needed to be given away to the dead have been given away the previous day, it was believed that the dead could not come back to ask for more. The day is referred as kazei kuireo.
DAY IX: The day was called festival of the living. As everything has been given away meant for the dead, the day is dedicated to the living for merry making.
DAY X: The day was called ‘vaichum ngakhum.’ Vaichum is a basket where rice beer used to be stored in olden days. The word ‘ngakhum’ means the act of emptying. Thus, on this day the vaichum, rice beer pots, bamboo mugs used for sharing wine with the dead are thoroughly washed and made to dry in the sun.
DAY XI: This day used to be a special feasting day. Relatives and friends are invited home for sumptuous feasts.
DAY XII: The feasting continues for the second day. Those who have not been invited the previous day are invited home. This is the day people who have come from the neighbouring villages too return to their respective villages before the sun sets.
The festival was discontinued after the advent of Christianity in the Tangkhul Hills.