Langtuk Chomangkan: A Karbi ritualistic festival for the dead
Most festivals on earth are for the living. Across the Karbi community domain in Assam, they are also for the dead.
The Karbis believe in life after death, but there is no concept of heaven or hell. They believe the soul is eternal, and after the death of a person it goes to Chom Arong – land of dead ancestors – before reincarnating as a baby born to the family of the same clan of its previous birth.
The journey of the soul is the reason behind Chomangkan or Karhi, a ritualistic colourful festival in honour of the dead. It is essentially a ceremony organised by a particular family or person for their dead relatives. But the participation of the entire village and areas beyond make it a socio-cultural festival.
Eons ago, a man named Thireng Wangreng was said to have introduced the rituals associated with cremation. The only person who could travel between the land of the dead and the land of the living, he learnt from the dead ancestors that a soul finds no place in Chom Arong unless a body is properly cremated with the right rituals.
Thireng prescribed a blend of rituals and festival for Chomangkan to be born. It came to be of three types – Kanphlaphla, Langtuk and Harney – observed according to the financial capability of a person. Kanphlaphla is generally held in the compound of the person’s house itself while Langtuk and Harney Chomangkan are held in a nearby open space where a langtuk (deep pit) is dug. Blocks of stones are installed vertically beside this pit. The taller stone, called Long-eh, represents men and the smaller one, Longpak, represents women.
The Langtuk Chomangkan rituals are conducted by a group comprising the kheteri (priest), duhuidi (drummer), ove barim (person well versed in the rituals), ochepi (woman chosen to make offerings to the dead) and charhepi (woman dirge singer).
A unique Langtuk chomangkan was once held at Hongkram village that falls within the jurisdiction of the Karbi Richo (king) in west Karbi Anglong. It was organised at the house of Khonsing Teron for his ancestors including his deceased father Sarsing Teron, who was the Ronghan Habekong (regional chief) under the king. The arrangement – with special permission from the royalty that has a say in social and religious matters – had to be worthy of Sarsing’s status; it took months of preparation to run for four days.
The programmes of the first day, called Aser Kehum Arni, started with the retrieval of ashes of the dead from the tipit (cremation ground). Under the supervision of the khetiri, the charhepi sang her dirge to the beats of the duhuidi’s drum. Rhythmically with the drumbeat, the tipit was then dug up and cowries placed inside the pit. These cowries, symbolising the remains of the deceased, were soon picked up and received by the ochepi and bundled in a cloth.
The young men performed the Chong Chingnang dance with swords and shields. Swaying to the beats of the drum called chengpi, they escorted the ochepi – she carried the bundle of cowries, tied in a piba (traditional sling), on her back – to the Teron house where the cowries were inserted into small dolls made of straw. The charhepi sang out all the names of the deceased persons in the belief that it would put life into the dolls.
During Kanso Aningve, the first festival night, young men and women of the village (Ari asor) performed the Nimso Kerung dance honouring the dead. The charhepi sang a dirge for each of the dead persons she had named, giving them details of the path leading towards Chom Arong, the final destination of the souls.
People from villages far and near, along with the Habes or regional administrative heads, came to participate in the festival on the second day. They brought along the Jambili Athon, a beautiful decorated wooden structure that is the symbol of Karbi culture. In east Karbi Anglong each and every participating village can bring a Jambili Athon. But in west Karbi Anglong, each Jambili Athon represents a longri (specific area).
A terank (reception hall) and boha (camp) was constructed form each Longri Habe. The Ari asor welcomed the people from the camps to the house of the Chomangkan. With permission from the Habe, the people with their Jambili Athon went to the site of Langtuk chomangkan in a procession, dancing with swords and shield to the rhythmic beating of the drums and mori and pongsi (traditional buffalo horn trumpet and flute). It was called Langtuk Rong Ketong. When the procession reached the site, all Jambili Athons from the different Longris were installed in a row by the side of the pit. After that Long-eh was adorned with men’s cloths and Longpak with those of women’s. Offerings of food, wine, betel nuts, etc. were made in front of the Long-eh. A sacrificial goat, called Hongwat ahanwe kepamit, was also offered. At night, the youths performed Nimso Kerung dance again.
On the third day, the Jambili Athons were brought back to the house in a music-and-dance procession and installed in the courtyard. The young men performed the Chong Chingnang encircling the Jambili Athons. The main dance – Nimso Kerung – was performed that night called Kanpi Ajo.
The fourth and last day was called Arong Kethon. The young men performed the Banjar Kekan dance before the maternal uncle of the deceased sacrificed the last goat. After that, the members of the family took the dolls symbolising the deceased to the cremation ground, carrying them on their shoulders.
At the tipit, the dolls were placed on a funeral pyre and set ablaze. The young men and women dance encircling the tipit. They returned home after the fire died out signalling the end of the festival.
The observance of Chomangkan varies from region to region, but its essence remains the same.
( Mangalsingh Rongphar is a freelance writer and an Extension Officer in the Panchayat and Rural Development Department, Assam )