Monday, June 14, 2021

A SLICE OF HISTORY: Cultural and Religious Aspects of Rani Gaidinliu

Som Kamei

Rani Gaidinliu, as we all know, was a legendary freedom fighter of whom India is really proud of. An Indian historian writes, “Any nation or country would be proud to have such a gifted woman who sacrificed everything for her people and for the cause she believed was good and true. She became a living legend in her own lifetime”. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee describes Haipao Jadonang as a martyr and Rani Gaidinliu as a freedom fighter of India.
In this article, I would like to highlight the cultural and religious aspects of Rani Gaindinliu’s contributions to Zeliangrong indigenous religion. Hence, I am going to go into a little background of Gaindinliu as a young girl born on January 26, 1915 in the Rongmei village of Nungkao in Tamenglong district of Manipur. Her father’s name was Lothanang and her mother’s name was Karotlienliu. She belonged to the influential Pamei clan of the village. Her father was not the chief of the village but young Gaidinliu was the pampered child of the clan. Gaidinliu showed her extra-ordinary quality and talent right from a young age. She grew up as a little mystic. She was always independent, determined and courageous in whatever she did. Needless to say, she was a born leader.
According to her supporters, her life took a new turn when she met a kindly deity who looks exactly like her in the forest near her village. Later on, she learnt that the goddess was the daughter of God Bisnu of the Zeliangrong pantheon of God and Goddess. They established a lifelong friendship. Her parents thought that their daughter would have been a shaman priestess. Later on, the Political Agent of Manipur, GC Higgins describes her as a ‘Maibi’: a medicine woman. But she came to know of Jadonang through her dreams and she went to Kambiron to meet her future master. Since 1926-27 the relation between the Master and Disciple developed between Jadonang and Gaidinliu. Jadonang recognised the god-given talent of the young girl who also volunteered to join his movement. Ultimately, she became the most trusted Lieutenant of Jadonang.
Gaidinliu, upon her return from Kambiron, performed the house ceremonial of ‘Taraang Kai’ at the village of Nungkao. She also devoted a home of worship where common people might worship Tingkao Ragwang or Tingwang. Gaidinliu participated in the acts of reformation of the age-old Zeliangrong religion, abolition of taboos and gennas, organisation of religious congregation, performance of dances and singing songs of hymns as carried out by her master, Haipao Jadonang. A new cultural and religious awakening was started amongst the Zeliangrong.
Young Gaidinliu was opposed to the oppressive rule of the British, particularly the forced labour of the poor villagers. She came into contact with large number of people through her association with Haipao Jadonang mostly in the religious reform movement. During the last joint pilgrimage to the holy cave at Bhuban hills of Lord Bisnu, young Gaidinliu came to know of the future of her struggle as was revealed to Haipao Jadonang and Gaidinliu. During this time, she also learnt about the impending death of Jadonang. When Jadonang was arrested by the Assam Police at Lakhipur, she escaped into the forest. She was accompanied by 40 youths including girls. She went into hiding awaiting the outcome of the trial of Jadonang. She knew that Jadonang was innocent and he was framed on a concocted charge by the British.
However, after the unfortunate execution of Jadonang on August 29, 1931, Gaidinliu took up the cudgel to organise the people. A historian writes, “The real revolt occurred after the martyrdom of Jadonang. Gaidinliu, the charismatic, spiritual and political successor of Jadonang, took over as the leader of the rebellion. The revolt was a violent protest against the British imperialism and a logical consequence of the ideology and strategy of Jadonang which would have taken shape but for the unfortunate British clamp-down on the protagonists of the Naga Raj. The arrest, trial and execution of Jadonang stunned her followers with fear and anxiety. His own villagers even disowned him. Jadonang’s role was a preparatory phase and real action came during the phase of Gaidinliu, a brilliant and determined disciple. Success or failure did not deter her. Fight she must, she was determined to put her master’s ideology into practice.”
The movement of Rani Gaidinliu was intertwined with socio-religious and political objectives. Socially and culturally, her movement aimed at the integration of 3 Naga kindred tribes (Zemei, Lingmai and Rongmei), commonly known as Zeliangrong. She wanted to preserve the traditional/indigenous Naga culture. Hence, she was opposed to any alien religion. With this objective in mind, she established the Heraka religion.
Heraka is a religious reform movement devised from the ancestral practice known as Paupaise (Zeme) or Pupouchapriak (Rongmei). It has been known by various names such as Gaidinliu movement, Periese (old practice), Kelumse (Prayer practice) and Ranise (meaning in praise of the queen (referring to Gaidinliu as people’s queen) and finally to Heraka in 1974.
What is the meaning of Heraka? According to NC Zeliang, the past president of Zeliangrong Heraka Association, “Heraka literally means ‘PURE’ in Zemei”. The Heraka religion, according to him, is a pure and reformed religion of the Zeliangrong people comprising of three (3) kindred tribes – the Zemei, Liangmei and Rongmei (1998). What NC Zeliang refers to is attributed to the Heraka’s adoption of one God, Tingwang, and the subsequent ban on animal sacrifices. Thus, the purity is the metaphor for no blood sacrifices and the adoption of a single God who is omnipresent, omniscient and creator of the universe.
The Rani Gaidinliu movement appealed to the people by combining emotional appeal with the devising of practical reform they had to focus on Zeliangrong religious practices and economic problems. Thus the reform focussed on rituals connected with the agricultural cycle, comprising of a series of animal sacrifices, ‘non-working days (NREI) or “Neimei”. The old practices involved many sacrifices to be made to appeal the various deities and ensure a good crop. Another old practice was the “Feast of Merit” for social status which became a huge burden on the villagers. Rituals of NREI or Neimei led to restriction on the movement of people outside the demarcated geographical area which may be a family home, village zone or entire village. Such restrictions limited the mobility of the villagers.
The Gaidinliu movement responded to this problem by eliminating the tradition of animal sacrifices and with it the restriction on people’s mobility. This was one of the reasons that people adopted “HERAKA”.
Now in Heraka, people could venture out of the village, get educated and find jobs. There were also economic benefits of banning animal sacrifices which were attractive to the people. Substituting or altering the sacrificial practices like adopting sacrifice of chicken and smaller birds made it more practical.
Old traditional social ranks, which were mostly connected with displaying material wealth through animal sacrifices and ‘feast of merit’ on a massive scale led to huge drain in the economy. After the abolition of the old social order, a new non-heredity practice called “Peipou/Peipue” or ‘village elders’ based on seniority and wealth of the individual replacing the old land owners (Kadepeu) and the priest (Tingkopeu) came into existence.
The new Heraka religion made the cosmology a simpler one and give primacy to one universal God who inherited all the attributes of the other lesser gods. This led to the marginalisation of the traditional priest in favour of the Paipeu, the village elder leading to both social and economic change. It moved towards a more monotheistic way of perceiving the Almighty through “Tingwang or Tingkao Ragwang”.
Heraka, as a reforming religious movement and to some extent Christianity, proved more suited to deal with the change the outside world was bringing. Hence it also became a competing change-agent giving rise to hostilities and propagandas against each other in the Zeliangrong countryside which can still be felt in the State of Nagaland and other places.
‘Heraka Hingde’ is a systemisation of the religious belief and practices and becoming a modern way of acting. To understand the philosophy of the Heraka religion, it is necessary to examine the Hingde book. The Hingde book of the Heraka speaks of 8 (eight) steps to lead a pure life:
1. Tingwang created the earth and will destroy again but believe in him saying his praise and pray to him;
2. Respect your parents and elders and preserve the Zeliangrong culture;
3. Have a disciplined mind and clear body and emphasize on Heleuraube (Selflessness);
4. In all your speech and work, your mind must be truthful. Search for knowledge and light but breed not jealousy and enmity;
5. Love all Tingwang’s sons and daughters and search the way for happiness and peace;
6. Observe Jalua (Full moon day) well;
7. Set up Kelumki (Prayer house) and pray with an empty hands (Stop animal sacrifice);
8. Have faith in re-birth.
The above reform movement of Heraka led by Rani Gaidinliu were more appealing form of religion to deal with the modernisation process. However, many obstacles were faced by the movement. As mentioned earlier, it was actively competing for the same space with Christian missionaries, which led to many misunderstandings and it continues to bicker even to these days.
In this scenario, helping hands from other social and religious organisation from other parts of mainland India such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Kalyan Ashrams led to strengthening of the movement and at the same time, retaining its own identity. It is to be mentioned here that Heraka does not form a part of the Hindu cosmology, but its support by various Hindu organisations has led to this understanding which the protagonists neither denies nor accept openly.
The immediate impact and areas of influence of the reform movement was felt amongst the Zemis of north Cachar hills (Haflong) in Assam and Peren district of Nagaland. However, the cascading affect was felt in Manipur also and inspired the reform movement such as Tinkao Ragwang Chapriak (TRC) movement in Manipur which has the same cosmology in adopting Tingkao Ragwang as the omnipresent and omniscient God and with the same set of philosophy as practiced by the Heraka.
Another important impact was the growth of the already rich cultural heritage of the Zeliangrong people through the encouragement given to traditional songs, hymns in praise of Tingwang, dances performed in honour of the Gods and traditional dresses which were worn during various religious and cultural festivities. These helped in the preservation and continued propagation and growth of the rich Zeliangrong traditional cultural practices.
Today we can proudly say that Zeliangrong tribe is one of the richest in terms of advancement in cultural heritages amongst the tribes of India. Folks songs composed by Jadonang and Rani Gaidinliu continue to be sung and new compositions continue to be adopted, hence making it a living culture and not a museum piece as is the case with other tribes.
Hence, the reform movement such as the Heraka and TRC can be seen as an expression in respond to the changing world amidst the cacophony of the dominant religious groups like Christianity and other religious groups.
Maintaining a balance between the influences of various religious traditions like Christianity and Hinduism and while drawing attention to their own traditions, make the Heraka a marginal yet significant religious movement of India.
In conclusion, we can say that Rani Gaidinliu movement was a socio-religious movement intertwined with political objectives. Its impact continues to be felt across the Zeliangrong region in Assam, Manipur and Nagaland.
1. “Rani Gaidinliu(1915-1993)-Freedom fighter, social and religious Reformer”- by Prof. Gangmumei Kamei (2015)
2. “The poetry of Resistance – The Heraka movement of North-East India” by Arkotong Longkumer, NESRC (2016)
3. “A brief note on Rani Gaidinliu (1915-1972)” by Prof. Gangmumei Kamei from the Dictionary of National Biography, Indian Institute of Historical Studies, Kolkatta. Editor: Dr. SP Sen
(Som Kamei (IPS) is presently the Postmaster General (Assam Circle) of India Posts, Government of India. The view of the writer expressed in this article is his personal viewpoint and does not represent the view of the organization he represents.)