How Manipur's Naga Tribes Sow Seeds Of A Good Harvest

WHAT DEFINES WEALTH, success and prosperity? As per old Naga beliefs, the answer was simple: The man who had a sufficient stock of grain to provide for his family for an entire year, and still have some left over for others in need, was considered rich in the truest sense of the term. With such a deeply ingrained philosophy, it is perhaps unsurprising that a festival that celebrates the sowing of seeds is among the most significant for the Naga people.

“Lui Ngai Ni” is a festival that brings all the Naga tribes of Manipur together, over February 14-15. It signals the start of the cycle of sowing seeds in the farms. Inherent in its name is the other purpose the festival serves: to unite the various Naga communities (there are around 16-18 Naga tribes in Manipur). “Lui”, for instance, derives from the Tangkhuls’ name for their sowing festival, ‘Luiraphanit’. (In the Tangkhul language, ‘Luira’ means ‘field’ and ‘to till’, while ‘Phanit’ simply means ‘festival’.) The “Ngai” comes from the Rongmei’s tongue (and means festival) while “Ni” is the Mao word that also connotes “seed sowing festival”. As seen from the amalgamation of words contained within its name, Lui Ngai Ni was meant to be a common ground for all the Naga tribes — each of whom have their own ways of celebrating the advent of spring and the start of the planting cycle. The festival isn’t merely an opportunity to the various tribes to mingle, it is also a way of preserving and reviving their cultures — since the better part of the Naga people’s history is oral, and therefore undocumented.

During the Lui Ngai Ni celebrations, every tribe puts together a performance of indigenous songs, dances and games/sports. Farming-themed elements are seen in many of these performances. For instance, some tribes have dances that include hoes as props. Another tribe’s choreography may include representations of the act of ploughing or working the fields with one’s cattle. Through this celebration, the deep veneration for the process of growing food is difficult to miss.

Apart from the cultural performances, tribes also engage in an exchange of seeds, bringing indigenous varieties to share with those settled in other regions. There is also a blessing ceremony for the seeds, in order to ensure that there is an abundant harvest once they are planted in the fields. A sacred fire is lit, the Lui Ngai Ni trumpet is blown, and vigorous drumbeats provide the rhythm for the celebrations. Zam (fermented rice beer) and the stronger drink leiyu both flow freely, accompanying pork and other meaty delicacies, as the celebrations gather steam.