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Funeral Rites Of The Kabuis

The Kabui, one of the indigenous tribes of Manipur is also known by the name of the Rongmei. In terms of race and language, the Kabui fall under the Tibeto-Burman family of the Mongolian race. The population of this tribe is found mainly in the Tamenglong District of Manipur. As a tribal population they are quite sizable; according to 2001 Census Report of India, their population in Manipur returned as 82,555 including 41,519 males and 41,042 females3. This people are found scattered also in the neighboring districts of Tamenglong District, namely Churachandpur, Senapati, Imphal West, Imphal East, Thoubal and Bishnupur; outside the state of Manipur they are found settling in Nagaland in its Paren sub-division, Dimapur and Kohima, and in Assam in its Haflong sub-division of Cachar District and Hailakandi District. The present article is an attempt to highlight the funeral rites of the Kabuis of North East India.


In many religions, death is the last crisis in the life cycle of an individual. Theimei is a Kabui word which means death. Death signifies the total cessation of life process that eventually happens in all living beings. The usual theory of the process of death is the separation of the soul from the body. However, the soul may move out from the body before death as in dream. Illness is held to be such a moving out from the body. The only distinction between such a separation and that of death is that the later is final. The moment when the final separation is accomplished, the liberated soul takes flight. Among the Kabuis, death of a man is believed to be the departure of soul called Buh permanently from the body for his journey to the land of the dead locally called Taroilam. Thus, they look upon death not as dissolution of our being, but simply as a change of way of life. Sherlock says, ‘We call it death to leave this world, but were we once out of it and instated into the happiness of the next, we should think it were dying indeed to come back to it again’.

Regarding the origin of death, the legend of the Kabui speaks, ‘there was once a time when men did not die, for there was a wonderful tree whose bark would cure all ills, would even bring the dead back to life. One day the children brought the bark from the wrapping in which it was kept inside, and put it in the sun while they played. The sun stole it, knowing full well its wondrous power. Their faithful dog rushed after the thief and ate him up. But so powerful was the medicine of the bark that the sun recovered even after this rough treatment. Since then men have died because they no longer know the tree of life’. Thus, the Kabuis explain regarding the origin of death of man.

Man is the only creature known to bury his dead. It was not originally motivated by hygienic considerations but by ideas entertained by primitive people concerning human nature and destiny. This conclusion is clearly evident from the fact that the disposal of the dead from the earliest times was of a ritual kind. The ritual burial which have been practiced in most part of the world from the very down of human culture is mainly because of refusal on the part of man to accept death as the definitive end of human life. The Paleolithic peoples such as the Neanderthals and later groups used to bury their dead along with food, weapons and other equipment. This implies that there was a belief that the dead still required such things in the grave. The practice can be traced back to possibly as early as 50,000BCE. Funeral ritual makes to supply the earliest evidence of religion in human history.

The disposal of dead is always associated with elaborate performance of ritual in all human societies. The Kabuis also have their own way of disposal of the dead. There are three main functions which involve in burial and mourning custom. First the physical body of a dead person must be disposed of; secondly, it is believed that the soul of the dead person must be aided to make its passage from the land of the living to its final resting place, and lastly, the cluster of social relationships between the deceased and the living, which have been disrupted by the death, must be repatterned. The basic function of mortuary preparation is to free the living from the defilement of death and to ensure a safe and successful passage into the hereafter. Indeed, the proper performance of funerary rites is needed to enable the dead to depart to the place and condition to which they properly belong. Failure to expedite their departure can have dangerous consequences.

The mode of disposal of the dead most generally used throughout the world has been burial in the ground. The practice of burial started in the Paleolithic era (Old Stone Age), was as far as is known, by inhumation. The Kabuis also bury their dead in the grave to enable the dead to return to the womb of the Mother Earth; it is in the belief that primordial man was formed out of earth. Each family or each lineage has its own burial place inside the village. Generally, death takes place inside the house.

Death due to illness of old age is measured as natural death. The rites and ceremonies which involve the disposal of the corpse is elaborate one. The moment of death is regarded as occasion of the gravest crisis in many religions. The relatives take so much care about the sick person. When the condition of the person is serious and approaches to die, all the close relatives of the lineage are gathered around the person for bidding farewell. The relatives who assemble there will offer prayer for the man in terms like: ‘˜May the Tingkao Ragwang takes him at His heavenly abode’. At the same moment, it is a compulsory duty on the part of the relatives to try their best to give comfort the dying person to let his soul leaves the body peacefully. This is called Teimumloumei. Thus, the person passes away. When death takes place, they announce the fact by loud cries. Like other Naga tribes, the Kabuis also remove a sick man out of bed, and makes to lay him on the mate. And he is allowed to die on the mate; it is supposed to avoid the death pollution upon the bed. Similarly, direct contact between the corpse and the earth is prevented to keep away from pollution.

Albert Smith writes, ‘Tears are the safety-valves of the heart when too much pressure is laid on it’. The women are the principal mourners, and they continue to sob and shriek and mourn until they are forced to cease from absolute exhaustion. During funeral ceremony, women and children lament and the father stands apart, a picture of silent grief. William J. Goode says, the solidarity of the family is temporarily broken by the removal of an integral part, and the collective mourning and ritual serve to realign the unity in an emotionally satisfactory and socially approved manner.

As soon as the soul leaves the body, the person is declared death, then, a ritual called Kahoroumei is performed by an elder of Pei (village council) who presents there. The elder who acts as priest very close to the head of the deceased will pronounce Ho-Ou-We Kumeipu or Kumeilure Rampingreo Kumeipu Aai Naiye which means ‘˜you go without fear I am here’. The words Ho-Ou-We signifies towards the Supreme God, Tingkao Ragwang that this man is no more and the word Ho symbolizes chanting the name of the Tingkao Ragwang. This is followed by another ritual called Gu Kashet Keimei meaning ginger offering. In this ritual, an elder of Pei who officiates as priest with a piece of ginger and a plantain cup of water will pour into the fireplace for the departed soul. The objective of this ritual is believed to show to the deceased the right way to go (on his way to Taroilam) as pure as clear water as well as, as cool as water.

Among the Kabuis, when a man dies the dead is not interred only by the relatives of the deceased. All the villagers take part in the funeral ceremony. Under this obligation, a formal announcement is made by an elder of Pei to make it known to all the villagers. This is called Kailong Kaomei. As soon as the news reaches one’s ear everyone stops their works as a mark of condolence. Moreover, it is a taboo locally called Nuhmei because dead is unclean and it may also pollute the whole village until the purification rite is accomplished. The villagers will bring gifts such as wine, rice, money to the bereaved family as a sign of sympathy.

Then, the dead is cleansed with a haircut by using the Khoi, a kind of tree. This is called Duiloumei. In olden days, the bark of this tree was used in washing or bathing. It is believed that if the dead is washed with Khoi, it is clean and pure. Bathing the body is a universal symbol of inner purification. Another idea of cleansing the dead is to avoid the defilement of death. If the deceased is a male, washing and dressing is carried out by male members and in case of female; it is done by the female members. After bath, the dead is adorned with new cloth and placed on his bed called Kalangdai by pronouncing: ‘˜Ho-ou-we.’ The whole body is covered with a traditional cloth like, Masinphei or Mareipan or Pheingao or Leirumphei. Now, the dead is ready for a journey to the land of the dead, to which he belongs. It is believed that if the dead comes with a bath, he is well-received in another world.

Taroimei means the dead man in local dialect. For the Taroimei, fly called Shim is supposed to be his Kashu Kari (evil spirits or enemy). In this belief, the relatives of the deceased will swing over the body with the leaves of Parin cheng, a kind of tree to drive off the flies33. It is said that the evil spirits dislike and scare the Parin cheng. This is locally known as Shimhamei.

Like a living being, the dead man also feels thirsty. In this faith, they prepare special food available in the family such as of a fowl or a duck or even an egg etc. for the dead. For offering food, a small pit is dug near the bed of the deceased. An elder of Pei who officiates as priest will pour a little food such as rice, curry, wine and water etc. into the pit pronouncing: ‘˜You go without thirsty’. The offering of food will continue with an interval till the dead body is placed into the coffin. The members of the dormitory in which the deceased belongs will offer wine for the dead. This is locally known as Joukarumei. Arnold Van Gennep opines, drinking with the dead is an act of incorporation with him.

When an individual dies at night, the youths of the village will come at the residence of the deceased and stay the whole night. The custom of wake is arisen from the belief that the spirit of the dead person hovers about the corpse between death and burial. If anyone in the house sleeps, he is liable to encounter the soul in dreams, and to sicken in consequence. So, the watchers ask riddles and play games to keep wake. This custom is known as Miklakmei.

It is a custom of the Kabuis to convey news of the dead to all the relatives and friends living at other villages whom it may concern to come and attend the funeral ceremony. It is done by sending youths of the village. The messengers are suggested to come back as soon as possible before sunset. There is a belief that if the funeral ceremony is completed before they come back home, the spirit of the deceased may give trouble to them on their way of returning.

In Kabui society, when a man dies, it is a custom to offer Takan (an animal or a bird) for the deceased. A small portion of all parts of the victim is removed and cooked by the members of Pei and it will be included in making the food stuff packets for the dead. If a dog is killed, it is believed that the dog will protect him from evil spirits and will take the message ahead to the land of the dead and his relatives of his coming. Evans-Pritchard writes, ‘His soul will go along with the soul of the sacrifice animal’. If the deceased is a married woman, it is a custom to offer an animal or a bird as Theigui for the dead woman by her parents. It is done in the belief that the woman to be born again in her father’s lineage even if she passes away through her husband’s lineage. This custom is locally known as Theigui Loumei. The cooked curry of Theigui will offer for the dead by pouring it into the pit. The maternal uncle of the woman also will offer a fowl as a part of Theigui otherwise it is believed that the woman will go to the land of the dead by biting her finger with cheerless.

Tangku meaning coffin is a closed receptacle for a corpse. Its purpose is to protect the body from external influences and add dignity to the corpse. Although, in the past some have believed that it may confine the spirit of the deceased. Possibly its original intention was to protect the living from visits of the dead. Another idea of wanting a coffin is deemed desirable to protect the body from earth and this done by means of the nich or recess at the bottom of the grave shaft. In the beginning, man started to use bark, skins and mats to wrap the dead body prior to burial. In course of time coffin made of wood was employed. Wood is the usual material for a coffin. The use of coffin began in the early 3rd millennium BCE in Sumer Egypt. In the morning of the day of funeral, the villagers will collect required wood from the forest for making the coffin. This is called Tangku doumei.

Kaiphum Phumei means to locate and decide the location of the burial place. The place or location of the burial is often consulted the dying man’s own wishes. The digging of grave is begun by a male relative of the deceased with a Laogai (hoe) after offering wine. This is known as Kaiphun phumei. The offering of wine is for the mother earth.

The grave is believed to be the residence of the departed; and efforts are made to render it as comfortable as circumstances permit. Tarou Chaomei means grave digging; it is done by the youths of the village. Care is taken in digging the grave that in which direction the head of the deceased will place. Usually, it is determined on the western direction because east indicates with life and west with dead. If another grave is found while digging, a coin is dropped as a price of the grave. This is known as Taroumantimei, which means paying the price of the grave. And if the grave belongs to the same lineage of the deceased, it is not paid. While digging, if it falls down, an elder will offer wine in the grave saying: ‘˜Nangkaiphun Chaolang Laina Nangkai Hanjaidat tho Natou Nanata Renamai Tilouleo’.

After digging the grave (trench), a niche is made at the bottom of the grave to insert the coffin. This is known as Tangkubam Langmei. A male member of the deceased’s family will begin to dig the niche after offering wine. The recess is made in the logic that when a baby is born, he comes out from his mother with its head forward and when he dies due to old age, he is supposed to return with its feet forward inside the mother earth. The niche symbolizes the mother of human being.

The size of the grave varies according to the physical condition of the dead person. Normally, it is dug in right angle to the depth of about four or five feet and at the bottom a niche is excavated to insert the coffin. R. Brown writes that the grave of Kabuis is thus prepared: ‘a trench is first made, and at right angles to this the ground is excavated and a recess made, into which the coffin is inserted, the earth being afterwards filled in’. It is believed that grave is the home of the dead. So every effort is made to comfort the departed soul. When the digging of the niche is completed, a small line is drawn by an elder with its finger just near the niche. This is locally known as Kanungduipang Hekmei.

Kanungdui is a mythical river which symbolizes a boundary between life and death. They put a coin in the mouth of the dead in the belief that the soul has to travel across the Kanung River by paying the same to the ferry.

Then, a fire of thatch is contacted the grave as purification called Maihammei. Another idea of contacting fire is probably to give warm, light and comfort the soul on its way to the other world. It may also mean to drive away evil forces. According to Dictionary of Anthropology, ‘The fire at or enroute to the funeral are probably to warm and light the spirit, as well as to put off the ghost’.

The dead is adorned with best traditional dress and costume. It is believed that in the land of dead, everything is opposite so in dressing also they make it opposite of the living being does. There is a custom that when a man dies they create a mark on some part of the body with soot. After some years, a child is born in the family with a similar mark; it is believed that the dead man has been reborn again. A coin is also put in the mouth of the dead which is intended to pay to the ferry for crossing the Kanungdui. After the dressing is over, the family will offer wine to the participants. This is called Ponshujoujangmei meaning drinking holy wine.

This is followed by a ritual called Theipahdapmei which means killing a fowl for the deceased. In this ritual, an elder of Pei who acts as priest kills a fowl in front of the bed of the deceased striking it once on the ground by pronouncing: Kumeile Hei Nangtheiphathidi meaning this (name of the deceased to be cited here) is your food. The victim is roasted and cut into small pieces. Then, it is cooked by the old women of kengjapui and rice is also cooked by them for the dead.

The Kabuis believe that the dead has to make a journey to the other world, to which they actually belong. So, the living descendents prepare food stuff packets to eat and drink on different places through which he will pass his travel to the land of the dead. The curry of Theipha, taken with rice is cloaked with seven plantain leaves and thus prepares the seven packets of food. It is performed by an elder of Pei. This seven food stuff packets are locally known as Thei Napdom.

The same elder puts all the seven packets in a basket called Kka in the following orders by saying the name of the deceased.

(1)This first packet is for eating at the Narangbang which means beyond the village gate. After saying this, the same packet will be put in the Kka. The similar performance is done with the rest of the six food stuff packets.

(2) This second packet is for eating at the Bamdondai, meaning the big resting place.

(3) The third is for eating near the Kanung River.

(4) The fourth one is for giving to them who receive you at Taroilam.

(5)The fifth is for giving to your parents and grandparents (those elders who died ahead of the person).

(6) The sixth one is for feeding the dog of the Taroilam.

(7)The seventh is for giving to the khanana, the evil spirits of the Taroilam. This ritual is locally known as Thei Napdom Nimmei.

During mourning, the Kabuis sing traditional songs such as Magenluh, Lamlonlu etc. for the departed soul. It is believed that funeral songs help the deceased to enter the land of the dead with his head held high64. When the necessary preparation has been completed, the coffin is brought in and a little thatching grass burns inside it to drive off the evil forces65. Pon (salt) is also spread inside the coffin. They carefully wrap the dead body with a cloth which is supposed to contain the soul66 and then put the same inside with a pillow of unginned cloth under its head67. The coffin is closed with a wooden plate and nailed it. Tanthing (three sticks) are put under the coffin and tied by the Phounamloi (bamboo pieces).

Tying the coffin is prompted by fear of the dead.68 It also implies that the dead may be malevolent and has power to harm the living because the dead can come forth from the grave not merely as spirits, but in the bodily form69. The coffin is covered with a traditional cloth like Pheingao or Mareipan as a precaution to protect from evil spirits. After this ritual, they lift up the coffin on their shoulders by pronouncing: ‘˜Ho-ou-we’ and start to go with its feet forward. The practice of carrying out the dead with its forward is to prevent from seeing the way back70. Just before crossing the main entrance they turn around the coffin thrice in anti clock wise and move towards the grave. At the very moment, an elder with a dao performs a ritual called Rah Hamei at the entrance. The main idea of this ritual is to drive off the evil forces71. The custom of turning around the coffin is to deceive the deceased not to come back again and make trouble the family.

Basically, the funeral consists of conveying the deceased from his home to the place of burial. This act of transportation has generally been made into a procession of mourners who lament the deceased and it has often afforded an opportunity of advertising his wealth, status or achievements.

When the coffin is arrived at the grave, the same process of turning around the coffin is performed. Finally, the coffin is inserted in the niche. This is called Theilimei. Just before it, Phounamloi, the bamboo pieces which binds the coffin is removed. Now, the Phounamloi comes to be recognized as Pushi. A man with the Pushi hits once in the grave by pronouncing: ‘˜Kumeipu/kumeilu nangkaimeinum nangthei Jon-gangmei Naiyethai Mei Pushirui kathamna kathao Gang-o-de’ meaning if any one of your relative follows you turn him back by hitting with this Pushi. Then, it is placed near the coffin.

‘His survivors are careful to equip him with all the necessary material objects such as clothing food, arms and tools as well as those of a magico- religious nature- amulets, passwords signs etc. which will assure him of a safe journey or crossing and a favorable reception as they would a living traveler’. The Kabuis bury the dead along with articles like Napdom Khatni Taktu (Food stuff packets), Khengmu Deimu ( rice-beer), Shaobon (one set of pointed thorny for the purpose of defending from the attack of enemies or evil spirits), Bui (a spear for throwing to the enemies or evil spirits), Bang (a dao for chopping the evil spirits or enemies), Buirong (a walking stick), Laogai (a small spade for cultivation), Tambem, Tangnuk, Tangnam (Weaving equipments for female) for his or her use on the way and to the land of the dead. Among the Nagas, the dead body is buried and the spear and dao are always buried with him. R. Brown says, ‘The corpse is buried on the day of death in a coffin, in which, under the body, are placed a hoe, spear, cooking pots and cloths for his use in the other world.’

Then, a male member of the family erects a bamboo stick about 3ft long close to the niche. This is called Loukham Teng Khunmei meaning the last thing for the dead. Another idea is a pillar which divides between life and death. It is performed by saying: ‘˜Ho-ou-we Tameipule Lampingleo Ai naiye’ meaning you go without fear.

Finally, the grave diggers fill up the grave with earth. With the burial of the dead body; the man is incorporated to the land of the dead as a new member because the underworld is supposed to be the land of the dead. Carl Clemen has rightly stated that ‘the earth is the soul of life, but it is also the realm of dead’. The grave diggers with their spades on their shoulders go around the grave thrice in clockwise and also repeat the same anti clockwise. This custom is known as Tarou lam Lamei which means dancing of grave dance. Then, they will break the gourd which is placed on the grave. A fish bone made of bamboo pieces is also placed on the grave which indicates a division between life and dead81. On the fifth day accounting from the day of death, the fish bone will be removed from the grave. Grave dance signifies to the dead man that he is no more. The deceased is thus comfortably provided for and admonished by word and deed to go into the other world, and in any case not to meddle with living, the mourners return from the grave.

Funerary rites do not usually bring to an end with the disposal of the corpse by burial. Post funerary ceremonies and customs generally have two not necessarily mutually exclusive motives to purify the mourners and to mourn the dead. When the funeral is ended, all who have taken part in it must commonly be purified. Purification means the ritual which is used to protect against unclean, sinful and undesirable situations. The purification of the mourners is the other post funerary action. ‘A corpse straddles the boundary between this world and the next and as with most such luminal objects it is regarded as simultaneously powerful and polluting’. All the participants in the funeral are therefore in need of cleansing before they can return normal life.

Consequently, the Kabuis perform various forms of purification, chiefly; washing or sprinkling of water, Gahroumei (to rub a slice of the mixture of turmeric, leaves of kaa plant, Ngeinem, a kind of thatch grass and water at the jaw) and Thanjoujangmei (drinking of holy wine). ‘The ancient Greeks put all the door of the death chamber a vessel full of pure water obtained from another house, so that all who came out might purify themselves’. Finally, fire is contacted by all the participants in the funeral to drive off the Evil spirits that comes along or follows and only after this ritual; they are permitted to enter their respectively houses. Frank Byron Jevons states, ‘They pass through or over a fire is to make communion with the fire-God because it has the purificatory power’.

In spite of the elaborate precautions to prevent the dead man from returning, he is often thought to be present in the dwelling after the actual disposal of the corpse. Accordingly, measures are taken by them to purify the place and remove the tabu. This may be accomplished by driving away the ghost. In this connection, the two elders of Pei who officiate as priests will perform the Kaiphekmei meaning cleansing the house with Ten Maimit, a kind of grass.

A feast is usually a part of the funeral rites. Among the Kabuis, the funeral banquet is held in presence of the corpse before burial. This meal is the sacrificial food called Takan Jan which was offered for the deceased. The purpose of funeral feast is to bring all the survivors together, and sometimes with deceased in the same way a chain which has been broken by the removal of one of its links must be rejoined. It is a rite of incorporation. Funeral feast may be interpreted as in honor of the dead. It may also be a fare well banquet’“ a send off one who is unwilling to go at the termination of which the deceased is formally but firmly shown the door’. R.Brown states that ‘On the death of a Kowpoi Naga a feast is given by his surviving relations to the friends of the family and others should the parties be well off’. The funeral rites themselves are also held to place the obligation on a dead man to give the survivors the benefit of his supernatural power.

When a man dies with debt and at the same time he has no one in the village to repay the debt; in that case, the dead is buried with formal ceremonies and every requirements in the funeral will be brought out by the villagers. To make him free and free from debt both in the living world and to the land of the dead, a ritual locally known kakhukdoudanmei is accomplished. An elder of Pei who acts as priest divides his khuk into two halves and places on the grave. This act signifies to God and mankind that this man has nothing and free from debt in the living world as well as in the Taroilam.

On the fifth day counting from the day of death, Tarou kashemmei is accomplished. Tarou kashemmei means to repair the grave for beautification. All the relative and friends of the deceased take part and a stone flat is also erected over the grave. The erecting of stone is in honor of the death.100 Offerings like rice, curry, wine; fruits etc are placed on the grave for the departed soul.

In Kabui society, the period mourning of a death is observed for one year until the celebration of Gaangai festival. The mourning of the dead is observed especially by near relatives in the form of abstention from amusement. The meaning of such action seems evident: ‘grief felt for the loss of a dear relative or friend naturally express itself in forms of self denial. But the purpose may sometimes have been those who still enjoyed life in this world’. In view of Arnold van Gennep, ‘mourning seems to be as an aggregate of taboos and negative practices marking society of those placed in a sacred impure state’. It is believed that during mourning, the living mourners and the deceased constitute a group, situated between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Gaan- Ngai is the biggest post harvest festival of Kabui people which holds in the month of December or January every year. In this festival, farewell is given for all those who died in the previous year. Emile Durkheim says, ‘When an individual dies, his soul quits the body in which it dwelt, and after the mourning is accomplished, it goes to the land of the souls’. On the first day of Gaan-Ngai, a fare well feast is given for the deceased in which all the relatives and friends of the dead take part. They believe that the spirit of the dead leaves the burial place after the festival. These rites lift the prohibitions of mourning and make reintegration into the life of society.

The death of a person decreases the strength in a group or community consisting of limited number individuals is an event of mean importance. The nearest relatives are severely disturbed and the whole community is mutilated. The whole event breaks the normal course of life and shaken the moral foundations of the society. Death is, therefore much worse than the removal of a member. It threatens the very cohesion and solidarity of the group upon which the organization of the society, its tradition and the whole culture depends. Herman Hooker says, ‘Death is as the foreshadowing of life. We die that we may die no more’.

*The article was written by Budha Kamei

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