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Tangkhul Naga Burial Rituals

Tangkhul, a sub-tribe of Naga tribe inhabitants of Ukhrul District in Manipur, India and some in Somra tract of Myanmar had very distinct burial rituals before the advent of Christianity in the late 19th century. The pre-Christian era rituals reveal the tribe's reverence and respect for the dead.

Like many other tribal communities, Tangkhuls believed in the concept of life after dead. The abode of the dead "Kazeiram" was believed to be on the other side of the living world. Tangkhuls of yore believed that the gateway to the kingdom of dead was manned by Kokto for which reason a shawl and some other gifts were buried along with the dead as a gift for Kokto.

Tangkhuls bury their dead outside the house in family vaults which are dug out like slanting tunnels of about 12 feet deep and 3-4 feet wide. Some of these graves can be found in old settlements even today. The mouth of the vault was usually covered with a big stone. The vaults are used only if the last burial was more than a year. Vaults of relatives are used in case burial in the family vault is lesser than a year. The bones and remains of previous burial are collected, given a wash and wrapped in a piece of cloth and put back in the corner of the same grave.

On the day of burial, an animal befitting the social standing of the deceased is killed. A buffalo or a mithun is slaughtered for a rich man. A cow or a pig is killed for people who are not very rich. Part of the meat is cooked and the left over is distributed among the relative of the deceased and the priest. The cooked meat is consumed by the attendees of the burial after making due sacrifice to the Death deity.

The Burial

Before sunset the deceased is tied to a flat wooded plank and slide into the vault after all the burial rituals are completed. Various articles for the use and comfort of the deceased are placed in the grave for use in the other world.

Clothes, daos, spear, shield, drinking cup, tobacco and pipes, ornaments, coins and quantities of food and drinks are said to be placed in the grave. Extra drinks and food are also placed for Kokto the deity who manned the gate to Kazeiram. In some cases a dog is killed to give the deceased company through the long journey to Kazeiram.

The mouth of the grave thereafter is sealed with a big stone slab. In the late evening a pine torch is lit near the grave. This is the time when all the mourners leave the grave and the fire in the deceased house is put out and all the ashes cleared. A fresh fire is brought from the neighbors to make a new fire.

A pine torch is lit near the grave for three days. It was believed that the spirit returns after having an interview with Kokto one day after the burial. For this reason all the doors are left open until the sending off ceremony of the spirit, which was usually done after 10 – 12 days from the day of burial. Until the sending off ceremony, food and drink share of the deceased are placed twice a day on the seat used by the deceased when alive.

Sending off Ceremony of the Spirit

10 - 12 days after the burial, the nearest to the deceased had to find a person who has some resemblance with the deceased to be his/her representative in the ceremony. Animals are slaughtered and a feast is hosted for the whole village. In the evening, the representative is escorted to the village gate with all sorts of gifts and messages, which are to be passed on to those who have died recently. All the lighted pine torches are put out once the final words are said and gifts given away. To symbolize that the spirit is finally going away from the living world, the representative walks away from the crowd and returns to the village taking a different route.

The Tangkhuls believed that spirits live life similar to the one they enjoyed in this world. The rich are rich the poor are poor even in Kazeiram.

Note: This write up is based on whatever I can remember of elders talking about burial rituals of the Tangkhuls, which is now discarded and even forgotten after the advent of Christianity. Death in some way was a burden to the living considering the un-necessary feast and ceremonies, however, it also is a testimony of how much respect and reverence the Tangkhuls once had for the dead.

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