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A tribe of festive stories

  • Themes of Christianity find expression in the textiles, craft, feasts and folklore of tribal communities
  • The examples include traditional mekhelas worn by women from Nagaland’s Chakhesang tribe to the Santhal Creation myth inspired by the story of Genesis

Different styles of traditional ‘mekhelas’
Different styles of traditional ‘mekhelas’ (Photo courtesy: Chizami Weaves)

An interesting confluence of folk and tribal styles with themes of Christianity can be seen across the country—be it in textiles, art and craft, or feasts and folklore.

Christmas is a time when these influences become even more prominent, especially in attire. Atshole Thopi of Chizami Weaves, a Nagaland-based collective of women weavers that is part of the women’s rights organization North East Network, shares images of young girls dressed in stylish mekhelas, or wrap-around skirts, on their way to church. These have been paired with traditional stoles.

“We don’t wear ornaments during Christmas, or Erune, as it is called in the local language. But we accessorize extensively for traditional dances and special local festivals that fall between 20 December and 3 January," says Thopi, who is from the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland’s Phek district.

The ornaments are a fine example of her tribe’s craftsmanship—whether it’s the tekhu, exquisitely crafted from shells, the manati, dangling earrings with two strands, or traditional armbands such as the thubuli, eprifu and ezhuthu.

Over time, each tribe around the country, be it the Chakhesang, Mizo, Santhals or Ho—who were wooed into Christianity by the missionaries early 19th century onwards—has not just developed its own Christmas style but has also created its own version of the feast, based on budgets, access to the market and seasonal ingredients. These could be simple-hearted meals devised by the community to ensure that no one goes without a hot meal on Christmas, or hearty, lavish spreads.

Typical of the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland; and (right) smoked pork.
Typical of the Chakhesang tribe of Nagaland; and (right) smoked pork. (Photo courtesy: North east network)

As food writer and author Hoihnu Hauzel writes in her book The Essential North-East Cookbook, Mizo families usually hold the ruautheh, a community feast. “(In this) men do the real cooking, while the women sit back or help in carrying water or cutting vegetables. Either pork or beef is prepared in a huge pot. For a community meal, banana leaves or well-crafted wooden plates large enough to serve five to ten people are used. The rice is served around the edges and the main dish is placed in the centre," she writes.

In Manipur, Hauzel says, there was a time when the Paite tribals would not allow any visitor to leave the house without sipping rice beer. “Now tea has replaced beer. The advent of Christianity has also influenced eating habits. In a dramatic departure from the ancient practice of steaming tanghous (cakes made with powdered sticky rice), today, baking cakes is very popular among the Tangkhul Nagas of Manipur," she states.

The festive season also brings to the fore some interesting performance art forms, which offer a unique retelling of ancient myths and legends. One of these is the zagor art form, originally practised by the Gavda tribe in Goa. The most famous of these is the Siolim Zagor, held even now on the first Monday after Christmas—it brings together both the Hindu and Christian communities.

“Zagor comes from the word jagar… which is, in turn, derived from Sanskrit and refers to a vigil of wakefulness or night-long performance. The name highlights the purpose of the participants to stay awake for a full night in order to honour and worship a particular local pantheon of ancestors, gods, saints and spirits," writes Andre Rafael Fernandes, associate professor, department of English, Goa University, in his book When the Curtains Rise...Understanding Goa’s Vibrant Konkani Theater. The chapter has been excerpted and published by open online resource Sahapedia.

Zagors have traditionally been performed at the time of village feasts and church festivals, with the audience munching on sannas and sitting around a fire. “Though zagors were also performed in Salcete, they were more popular in the Christian villages of Siolim, Calangute and Candolim in the Bardez subdistrict. They consist of a series of appearances of stereotyped characters from village life as well as characters from the world of fantasy," states Fernandes.

Christmas is also a good time to revisit how Christianity has influenced local folklore. In a 1949 book, Tribal Heritage: A Study Of Santhals, scholar and missionary W.J. Culshaw talks about a “new myth, as it may be called", which has come about through a new ordering of religious activities and social obligations. “The stories of Genesis are grafted on to conceptions that are already held…. In preaching, the Santal constantly refers to Adam and Eve as Pilcu Haram and Pilcu Budhi; Maran Buru, on the other hand, is equated with Satan…. He led the first human pair into sin…he caused their ancestors to wander through the forest…," he writes.

Another scholarly piece, by Delhi-based professor Ivy Imogene Hansdak, who has written on tribal folklore, also talks about the story of Pilcu Haram and Pilcu Budhi. In an article for volume VIII of Lokaratna, a referenced e-journal of the Folklore Foundation, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, she writes about how the couple bore 14 children. There is also a reference to their migration to a land known as Khoj Kaman. “This version (documented by Rev. Arthur Campbell and published as Santal Traditions in the Indian Evangelical Review, 1892) is then compared with the Biblical creation narrative," she writes.

According to Asoka Kumar Sen, a scholar who has published several research papers on the tribal history of Jharkhand , with a special focus on the Ho tribe, some Christian tenets started seeping into folklore and iconography with the consolidation of British rule in India, most likely in the middle of the 19th century. “Oral traditions of folklore were a great way of recording history for tribes. Around this time, parallel influences of Hinduism and Brahmanical culture were also taking root. So, you will find the Creation myth reinvented with the entry of Christian and Hindu ideas," he says.

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