Sowing seeds the Naga way | Milaap

Sowing seeds the Naga way

The khol (cave) is the only home they’ve ever known. Outside the khol lies the unknown – beautiful and dangerous. One day they decide to step out. A few of them cross the threshold, but “vanish before seeing the world” – they are devoured by a tiger lurking outside. The tiger continues to haunt the others over time, and keeps them confined inside the khol.

Enter Thungpungpa – the legendary warrior. With the help of an ‘intelligent weaver-bird and an obedient hornbill’, he traps and kills the tiger, liberating his people. The Monsang finally “emerge from the cave” and settle outside.

This is the story of the origin of the Monsang tribe, lived and relived over the ages, through folklore and dance and songs. And it’s being narrated now in the Lui-Gnai-Ni, the seed-sowing festival which brings together 20 different Naga tribes of Manipur for a common celebration. In fact, many Naga tribes share a similar origin story of emerging from a khol after defeating a tiger.

The hills of Manipur are mostly inhabited by tribal Christians – there are 33 indigenous groups designated as scheduled tribes in the constitution of India while some others are not yet distinctly recognised. Many of these tribes fall under the broad classification of ‘Naga tribes’ and ‘Kuki tribes’. All tribes are unique – with diverse cultures, customs and traditions, languages, attires and ways of life. They also have their own separate festivals for various occasions (although the religion of Christianity and its festivals are common to most of them). Before the British arrived on the scene (and even after that for quite some time), inter-tribal wars were a constant feature of life here.

Sowing of seeds heralds the spring season, and almost all Naga tribes simultaneously celebrate seed-sowing around mid-February – invoking the Gods for showering their blessings on the sown seeds for a good harvest. It was to foster peace, harmony and common celebration among the 20 Naga tribes of Manipur that the Naga community started the collaborated festival of Lui-Ngai-Ni (literally ‘seed festival’) in 1987.

But behold! A band of men armed with spears are descending down onto a hamlet. Clad in black-and-red waist clothes, shin-wear, headgear adorned with white feathers and ash smeared across their chests, they march silently and reach the village entrance.

Murmurs of joy suddenly erupt across the village residents. The warriors have just returned after a battle with a rival tribe – and victory is written on their faces. The women begin to sing songs of praise:

“Your wavering headgears look like the blossoming wild cherries.                        
Your strides remind one of the majestic bird hornbill.”

All of them gather and begin their war dance. This is the Tangkhul tribe, and they certainly know how to celebrate after a battle. Black, orange, green, yellow and white grace the rich attire and beaded necklaces of women. They begin to move in concentric circles, humming and thumping. The jingle of their anklets adds to the cadence of their steps, fusing into a kind of martial rhythm. It’s broken now and then with howls and shrieks, giving it a natural psychedelic tinge. Colours, sounds and motion merge together to create a magical effect.

Besides the dancers, two warriors representing legendary heroes of the tribe duel with spears.
(In reality, it could get a bit bloodier than that. Headhunting was common among various tribes of the Northeast, and those emerging victorious would often sever and bring home the heads of their enemies as war trophies.)

The Tangkhul Naga tribespeople also perform a ritualistic dance for the dear departed. All through the day, a plethora of cultural events follows, including blowing of Lui-Gnai-Ni trumpet, the blessing of the seeds to be sown for the season, traditional fire-making, solo and group performances and cultural displays by various tribes.

Ino T Keishing (Eno is ‘Mister’) sings a moving song in his native tongue while playing a violin-like traditional instrument. Women from the Poumai tribe display a cloth spinning and weaving dance, imitating the various practices involved in converting fibre into fabric. Their soft and melodious singing, like a lullaby, sends me into a fairy dream-world of enchanted forests full of flying rabbits and emerald streams.

Performers from the Poumai Tribe

The bamboo pole-climbing competition is the highlight of the evening. A tall bamboo pole is oiled and smoothened, and 15 hardy contenders try their hand at it. All of them invariably slip down after climbing a few nodes, provoking much laughter. In the third attempt, however, the players are allowed to use some sand on their hands to roughen the poles and three of them manage to reach the top.

The venue is the Tahamzam ground at the Senapati district headquarters in northern Manipur, and post-sunset, people gather in even larger numbers. Families, the young and the old alike, arrive here to refresh themselves after a hard day’s work. It’s a changed setting now, with traditional attire displays interspersed with musical bands playing western classical and heavy rock – a find of fusion of cultures the Northeast, in general, is known for.

A band from the Lamkang tribe beautifully fuses the music of a Mithun horn, a gong and bamboo sticks with an electric guitar, accompanied by their native verses praising a village chief on his coronation ceremony. And then Illi Jenyma (Illi is ‘Miss’), a local singer, enthrals the crowds with her song ‘God on the Mountain’ while another singer Illi A Hirang showers her melodious voice more than once. The show goes on till well past midnight, in a town which usually shuts down by six in the evening.

Unlike the Meiteis of Imphal valley who have a written record of their history since at least 33 A.D., the various hill-tribes have always relied on oral tradition to pass on their histories, legends and stories. The same is true for this blog article, too. An ambience of emotions created by colours, sounds, dance, music and folklore cannot always be adequately reproduced by written language.


Manipur is a place where tragedy and beauty have long co-existed, jostling with each other. Its rolling hills, floating islands, colourful creatures and rich cultures are inextricably tied up with a long history of conflict, violence and bloodshed. Lui-Gnai-Ni as a festival is more of a collaboration to underscore peace and harmony. It brings together a diverse set of people, and the hosting Christian spiritual leaders ensure that the message of love and peace ring through the day.

A state minister also appeals to the people to preserve the environment of the land, giving the example of a nearby village where efforts by locals have ensured that a pristine stream can serve clean water to the town all through the year.  

Manipur is mostly a hilly state, although a majority of its population is concentrated in the large, oval-shaped Imphal valley in the centre of these hills. A series of parallel hill ranges running from north to south terminate in Imphal valley on its northern side. Senapati, the venue of the festival this time, is a picturesque town located between two such ranges as we move northwards from Imphal towards Nagaland.

From a hilltop vantage point near the town, I can see several parallel ranges of gently-sloping hills to the east, which seem to be flowing like ocean waves. These hills are an extension of the eastern end of the mighty Himalaya. The topography of the land is different from the steep and comparatively ragged high mountains of the North-West Himalaya I’m familiar with. The vegetation here is also much thicker and richer, and I can see several types of birds I've never seen before.

A sketch of the topography. These aren't waves, but hills.

The district is home to several tribes and peoples, including Mao, Maram, Poumai, Rongmei, Zeme and even Nepali who have been settled here as early as the nineteenth century. Due to the absence of a single native language, other languages such as Meiteilon (Manipuri), English and even Hindi are the lingua franca of the people here, a village elder tells me. Personally, I’m pleasantly surprised that most people are polyglots here and I can talk to them at length, unlike the Imphal valley where language is a quite a barrier for me due to my ignorance of the predominant Meiteilon (Manipuri).

On the hill range to the east of town, I find a lot of burnt patches in the forest indicating shifting cultivation, and a number of scattered settlements. Tribal villages are known for collective decision-making and being kind of mini-republics. An elder tells me that among Poumai villages, farmers are fined by the village authorities if they are found using inorganic fertilisers or manure. Paddy, maize, cabbage, potatoes, cauliflower, peas and several other cereals and vegetables are grown in the district.

On the western side, I find a very beautiful Naga village, named Taphou Pudunamai village, which is very clean and well-maintained. Various notice boards by the village authority indicate it’s a collective effort by the locals. The village was recognised as late as 1967 and the residents here have adopted step or terrace cultivation. The terraced fields located below the cluster of houses forming the village are a sight to behold. A flight of stone steps lead to a beautiful yellow building with a cross atop it, which is the village church.  It’s a tranquil place, surrounded by lush-green bamboo forests. But it’s well past noon, and I’ve got to catch the last bus of the day to the valley below.