Understanding the Gangtes – A Condensed Socio-Political Abstract of the Gangtes
By H. Lienzamang Gangte
Indexed at serial number six of the Schedule Tribes list by the Government of India in 1956, the Gangtes are a colourful tribe who, like the rest of their brethren in the CHIKIM grouping, traced their origin to the proverbial Khul or Cave. Washed up and over by myriads of interpretations and takes, the genesis of this dynamic tribe is almost like a well-kept secret bedimmed by theories of grandeur or otherwise. As is wont to any tribal history wanting in documentation, the Gangtes have their chronicle etched in folklores and traditional oral transmissions and legends. Nevertheless this is not to obliterate the fact that they are an indigenous tribe with independent culture and tradition.
Salient features of the Gangte Socio-Political bases that support the superstructure called Gangte society can briefly be enumerated as follows.
I. The Village:
The village, as an institution, occupies primacy on par with other forms of institutions among the Gangtes. According to Rev. G.S. Gangte in his book Gangte Chronicle, the village constitute the bedrock of social, economic and administrative complex of the Gangtes. Owing to their nomadic tendency, the Gangtes are rarely famed for establishing a flourishing village. In effect, the location of their jhum sites solely determines the situation of their settlements. It is pertinent to note here that like the rest of the tribes, the Gangtes built their villages on hill-tops in consideration of defence against wild animals and enemies which as per history were not wanting. J. Ginjathang (History of the Zomi Family, 1973) asserted that the tribes of CHIKIM, of which Gangte is a unit, after migrating from Tibet to Central China, hid in caves for fear of enemies. Thus, the inference, the Tribes originated from Khul or Cave.
Khawmuol is the prelude to any Gangte village, a gateway that leads to the village. Khawmuol is a special zone that one passes through just before entering any village proper. No doubt it occupies a pivot niche in the village affairs. The villagers erect a wooden post at Khawmuol upon which they hang the heads of enemies taken after tribal wars. Dignitaries from outside or other tribes are welcome and received here. Moreover, important dos like magical incantations to cast off wild spirit are presided at the Khawmuol.
The primitive Gangtes maintained utmost sacredness with a cumbersome meticulousness in choosing location for assembling new houses. They, as a matter of tradition, effectuate a ritual which includes erecting three stone pillars, about knee high each, and facing each other in a triangular orientation. Then, an egg would be snapped in two halves and placed on top of a fire lit between the pillars. If the froth falls towards the to-be owner of the house, the site is deemed fit and auspicious. Otherwise, they search and test a new location for setting up a shelter.
When built a typical Gangte house is mostly erected out of wood, hay and bamboo. The front wall usually doubles up as the mantelpiece where owners display heads of animals hunted.
For the Gangtes, chieftainship occupies the highest court of administration and arbitration. Chieftainship, an ascribed position, exacts unquestioning obedience and undying loyalty from the subjects. Dr. T.S.Gangte, in his magnum opus The Kukis of Manipur, elaborated the power of the chief. Dr Gangte wrote that disobedience of the Chief merits expulsion from the village, and neither could outsiders immigrate without his assent. The power of the Chief is nigh absolute in the sense that even in the distribution of and access to wealth of the land, nothing goes but the Chief’s will. The Chief is not only the ruler over his villagers; he is also their protector in times of adversity like famines and tribal wars. If a villager migrate without proper consent of the chief, his property and belonging are detained by the Chief.
The Gangte Chief is entitled to certain tributes from his subjects viz, Changseu, Salieng and Khuotha.
Changseu: This is a tribute paid to the chief out of reverence and loyalty. Practised till now, Changseu is a form of tribal taxation system, customarily paid in paddy produce. It varies from two, three or five tins of rice grain. The Chief can exempt certain class of villagers who are needy and poor from paying Changseu. This exempted lot are anticipated to offer either chicken or tribal brew to the Chief on the day of Changseu collection. Another set of exempted class is constituted by the members of the village council. Changseu is annually collected on a particular date, post-harvest; and the Chief is obliged to treat his subjects to a sumptuous buffet or binge session.
Salieng: Literally reworded, Salieng means the shoulder blade of animals. This is gifted to the Chief by anyone who caught wild animals in gratitude to his permission to hunt within his Chiefdom. It is also obligatory and villagers who play truancy are punish, punishment entails slaying of a mithun or paying forty rupees to invite the Chief’s exoneration.
Khuotha: It refers to the collective labour force of all household in the village that a chief can call for if the need arise. Even the villagers are entitled to invite Khuotha but they must provide lunch for the village labour corps on the day of social work. Further, the Chief can make a trade for Khuotha in lieu of Changseu but is not obliged to furnish meal on the day he asks for the labour force.
V. Siehmang Upa:
Siehmang Upa are selected members of the village council who aids the Chief in the Administration of the village. Elite capacities, Siehmang Upa are men of impeccable integrity and excellence in all walks of life. They are exempted from all kinds of tributes and taxes. The number of Siehmang Upa is relative of the size of the village. The combo of the Chief and Siehmang Upa constitute the village court wherein disagreeing parties sort out their differences or grievances. Anyone resolving to litigate against fellow-villager in the village court must pay the customary fee of a pot of country liquor. If any of the party is found guilty, then the same is compel by ethics to slay, as a penalty, either a mithun or a swine and cough up a swelling pot of tribal brew. The village court also employs the service of the Tangsam or town-crier, which invariably is a hereditary status.
Otherwise known as the village/town-crier, the tangsam is the official spokesmen of the village. Dr. T.S. Gangte elucidated that the Tangsam has a prestigious role and the range of his chores is expansive. He is conferred with the duty to inform all the Siehmang Upa when and where the village council is to meet, and also to apprise the villagers of the outcome of the council’s deliberations. For all his contributions, the villagers repay him with a tin of paddy each annually. It is hard to limit or detail the exact status and role of the Tangsam as he, literally, is the errand boy of the village who delivers as demanded.
A conspicuous facet of the primitive Gangte polity is the role played by the village priest, who is also the doctor of the village. Natively known as Thiempu, his status and role is a standout for the fact that there are certain areas of jurisdiction where his decision is the law. Given a situation, priesthood is the only office that can challenge and curb the tyranny of the Chief. However, for all its might and main, priesthood is considered hereditary, certain factors engendering its ascribed-ness. The nuances of healing and enigma of medicine are well-kept secrets, finely hidden from the knowledge of the public. The passage of tricks of the trade is only between the priest and his sons or grandsons. Moreover, one has to spend considerable amount to learn the secrets of healing and this discourage most of the villagers. Rev. Gangte has suggested that under some situations, the priest is considered as the head of the village. His role is more pronounced than that of the chief vis-a-vis festivity and religion.
As the keeper of the health of the masses, the sickly are referred to the priest who is expected to identify the cause of the illness. The spirit of the age has it that all ailments are the handiwork of evil-spirit, and the priest is expected to cast it out. Patients are treated by the priest with indigenous herbs and magical invocations. So long as the incantation or spell is not revoke from the patients, they are not allowed to socialise with the rest of the society. The priest does not charge any consultation fee from the villagers. But the villagers pay for his service by doling out a tribute in the form of paddy or other items. The priest also conducts divine sessions with the spirit and prays for productivity of the land. Hunters returning from a successful safari are welcome by the priest at the Khawmuol with drums and chants for which the priest is entitled with a bulk of the meat of the hunted.
One captivating aspect of priesthood concerns the priest unquestionable power to restrict entry to the village. The priest, when circumstances demanded- that often are tribal wars and plague, would hang a branch of tree (Theubawk) at the Khawmuol to signal that sojourners and strangers are not permitted to enter the village. This ban applies even to the next of kin of the priest if they reside in another village. Anyone who trespass this ban is liable to harshest penalty.
Thiksek is the blacksmith of the village. In fact, every village has its blacksmith who take care of knives, spades, saws and other instruments implemented for daily work in the fields. Even warfare contraptions like swords, sabres, guns, arrows and gun-powder are the produce of the blacksmith. As such no village can afford to persist without a blacksmith. In appreciation of his deeds, the villagers return the favour in the form of a tin of paddy per household annually. Should any villager be successful in their hunts, they are bonded by custom to gift a chunk of the catch to the blacksmith as Thiksek-sa.
Chroniclers like John Shakepeare were the first to highlight the existence of slavery in the CHIKIM society. In his work The Lushai Kuki Clans (1912), he put forth a detailed view on tribal slavery. On the whole, slavery among the tribals vastly differs from that of the West or New World. Tribal slavery is not under duress, it’s almost voluntary. Close observation gives the impression that in most cases, slavery seemed the only option for survival. Among the Gangtes three variants of slavery were practiced:
Inpi Suok: This refers to the first type of slaves under the chief who is the only one accredited to own slaves. Inpi Suok are mostly orphans, the incapacitated who cannot look after themselves and the poor in abject misery. The Inpi Suok are conventionally treated as members of the Chief’s family but they must work and toil harder than genuine members. The chief, being their guardian, is fully responsible for the welfare and security of the Inpi Suok.
Chemsan Suok: Rough translation would be ‘slaves due to stained sword’. Chemsan Suok, the second kind of slaves in the Chief’s house, is murderers, accidental or premeditated, and criminals who commit grave lapses that merit revenge as per the contemporary psyche. For such offenders, slavery is the salvation. Once they give in to the chief, they are saved and it is against the law to harm them. Harming them would tantamount to making a mockery of the Chief’s chair and the penalty would also be grave. Chemsan Suok also includes insolvents who cannot repay their debts. Chemsan Souk differs from Inpi Suok. The former do not share habitat with the chief, they are slaves by agreement with the condition that the chief is entitled to the dowry of any Chemsan Suok’s daughter.
L.B. Thanga (the Mizos, 1979) says that till 1928, Chemsan Suok can buy freedom by compensating the Chief, his master, with a mithun or forty rupees in cash.
Tuklut Suok: Tuklut Suok are slaves as a consequence of village wars and they usually belong to the losing side in the battle. For safety, the losing party give themselves to the victorious one and hence, the label Tuklut, meaning ‘give in’. Tuklut Suok can build shelter in the victorious village as and when they can handover a healthy mithun to the Chief and if the Tuklut Suok are of small family, even a mithun can buy their freedom.