Cheiraoba: The great ritual festival of Meiteis


Dr Budha Kamei
Manipur, once an Asiatic country is located at the extreme eastern corner of India. With an area of 22, 327 sq. km, today of Manipur is bounded in the north by Nagaland, in the east and south by Myanmar (Burma), in the south-west by Mizoram and in the west by Assam. In the past, Kabaw valley was also a part of Manipur. A very charming hilly state, which had once separated Assam and Myanmar before the creation of present Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram out of Assam. Manipur had enjoyed the fortune and glory in the past and experienced sorrow and vicissitudes of her long history. It had been witnessed the transformation from a primitive tribal state to an independent kingdom and later on from native state of British India to a state of the Indian union. The Meiteis in the valley and the Naga and Kuki tribes at the surrounding hills occupy the state. The present article attempts to delve into the Cheiraoba festival and its significance.

Cheiraoba, the great ritual festival of Meiteis is observed on the first day of Manipur lunar month Shajibu, which falls in March/April every year. It is the announcement of the beginning of a new year. To Saroj Nalini Parrat, the name Cheiraoba means to announce by means of a stick (1980:46). Her view is perhaps based on the way of making a public announcement. According to R K Jhalajit Singh, “Before 1485, the Manipuris had the practice of the king’s servants making a public announcement at the end of every year had just ended. The announcement was made in this way: A few servants of the king held Khok (a species of bamboo, tall but slender) sticks kept unhewn at the top, to which little belts were fastened, went about the highways, lanes and bye lanes and announced by shouting that the year had just ended. This practice gave the name Cheiraoba to the festival held at the end of the year”(1965:79). The word Cheiraoba is the combination of two words- Chei and Raoba; here, Chei means the year (Chahi), not the stick. Therefore, Cheiraoba means the announcement of New Year; (Chei means stick and Raoba, shouting). The ceremony of Cheiraoba is carried out at the state level on one hand and by individuals in their capacity.
This practice did arise from the need of following a uniform calendar throughout the area of the Ningthouja kings. The Cheiraoba festival was first introduced by Pakhangba in the first century AD (Kanglei Shanglen Puba Puya, MS). In early times, the announcement was made by the respective heads of the four Panas of Khurai, Wangkhei, Khwai and Yaiskul. In this festival, the Pana heads were dressed in their respective costumes. In the Meitei tradition, a day was counted one Shing, a stick. Thirty sticks did represent a month and twelve months made one Chei, larger form of stick. Thus, a year was counted by using the symbols of Chei, stick. However, during the reign of king Kyamba (1455-1508), the four Pana heads were replaced by one man, who came to be recognized as Cheithaba. According to Cheitharol Kumbaba, in 1484 AD, Cheithaba started with Hiyangloi Namoi Chaoba (1989:9). This name Cheithaba was also used in the preparation of individual horoscope of the Meiteis.
The Cheithaba should be a Meitei; he was selected after a comparison of his individual horoscope with that of the king and his basic function was to avert disaster or harm from falling upon the king and his country. In short, he is the Usin. But, he again handed over the misfortune to a cock by performing the rite of Usin (N. Birachandra, The installation ceremony was held in presence of the king on the last day of Lamda since the time of Kyamba. The outgoing Cheithaba usually sat by the right of the king and the incoming Cheithaba on his left. Then, the outgoing Cheithaba did address to the king: “Oh, Lainingthou! Let the country be more prosperous than the last year in the production of rice, fish, salt and other food stuffs and let it be richer in everything”(Shajibu Cheiraoba 1980:7). After that, the two Cheithabas changed their seats. The incoming Cheithaba knelt before the king with folded hands and spoke: “Oh, Lainingthou! From today, for the coming year, I bear all the sins, shame and misfortunes…………. on my head” (Jitendra 1988:146). After the completion of the ceremony, the Cheithaba was awarded a Pari of revenue free land and was also exempted from Lallup Kaba. Then, the outgoing and incoming Cheithabas did embrace each other and bow before the king.
On the eve of the Cheiraoba festival, Shing Shatpa ceremony took place at the Heibok Hill grove, Imphal west and the priest (Maiba) performed the Thouniba, appeasement to the Lai (deity). It is believed that the first Thangja, Saturday of the month Lamda all the Lais gathered at Heibok Hill after the nightfall and counted out persons who were going to die in the coming year. The gathering of the Lai is also known as Lai Khundil Lallup Yakaba. The priest performed Thouniba and begged from the Lais (for those who supposed to die) by offering some food stuffs and a number of sticks. The sticks (about a palm length) represented those persons whose lives were to be retrieved. After the completion of the appeasement rites, the sticks were removed and given to those persons (whose life had been reprieved) in the morning of the festival.(Parrat 1980:50) It is believed that if a man takes bath in the early morning with the water fetched from different places like Khakhong, Laikhong, Malangthong, Takna Kha, Langkol and Punshi Khong, he enjoys a blissful life in the coming year.
House and its garden are kept clean and beautified; old utensils of the household are also well washed for the New Year festival. These are done one day ahead/in the morning of Cheiraoba. On the day of Cheiraoba, the priest (Maiba) performs the Usin divination with Ngamu before Lainingthou Sanamahi on behalf of the individual persons of the family to avoid misfortune; and the said fish is set free in the pond. He observes the movement of the Ngamu to decide the fortune; if it does remain silent while offering and swim straight in the water, it is a good sign for the person. Special worship of the household deity Lainingthou Sanamahi and Leimaren Shidabi with offerings of seasonal fruits, flowers and vegetables is performed in every house for wellbeing and prosperity in the coming year. However, the worship of Sanamahi will not be performed if the family is polluted by birth or death. The offerings thus made are cooked and a small portion of the same cooked food is first laid at the gate on a plaintain leaf. Offering is also made at the Phunga Lairu, hearth of the family. They worship deities like Lainingthou Nongshaba and Ibudou Pakhangba. In the morning of Cheiraoba, the elderly women of the village perform Saroi Khangba, propitiation of Saroi-Ngaroi at a junction of three/four roads. The household rites performed at Cheiraoba festival are “both protective and positive; they not only ensure that the domestic deities are propitious, but also guard the household against evil influences from without”(Parrat 1980:50-51).

Kongba Leithong Phatpa (digging the hole at Kongba) and Shajibu Leikhun Phunba (closing up the hole in Shajibu) are important rituals of Cheiraoba. This ceremony of prognostication takes place on the 7 days after Cheiraoba at a place between the Iril River and village of Kongba, east of Imphal (Shanglen Puba Puya, MS). The priest of the palace performs ceremonies to propitiate the Lais of two clans, namely Angom Pokpa and Ningthem Pokpa. Offerings consist of gold, silver and raw Shareng fish. The divination is taken in the form of digging up of earth at a selected place and examining it for signs.

The contents of the earth are wrapped in a cloth and carried by the priest around his neck to the shrine of the Yumjao Lai in the palace. After five days, the signs are read and predictions concerning the king and affairs of state for the coming year are made. The hole is filled again with the same earth; this ceremony is locally known as Shajibu Leikhun Phunba, closing of the hole (Shajibu Cheiraoba 1981:4; Parrat 1980:50-51). Cheiraoba festival does conclude with a family feast. It is also followed by climbing of hills for healthy, wealthy and long life.

Source: The Sangai Express


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