Does death bring in only bereavement? Unlike most of us, there are some cultures across the world which ‘celebrate’ death. This essay looks at the Mising community in Assam and their ritual called Dodgang. This ritual is the final rite of passage for a person of the Mising community and is conducted by the family members of the deceased. The writers argue that in Dodgang there is a celebratory aspect to death and they look at how the community transitions from the stage of mourning to that of celebration.
Daisy Barman and Dipika Pegu
Death is disruption. It is powerful, inevitable and universal and yet we are scared of death. The impact of death in each community varies differently. We say this because, although there are various means to reduce risks of death in the modern times in the form of better medical facilities, social security, safety measures etc., many smaller societies, however, have less means to reduce the rates of death in their communities due to mainly economic reasons. In quite a few of such societies where the means to reduce death rates are absent, rituals and belief systems hold great importance. People tend to take recourse to culture and religion to fight against the uncontrollable power of death in order to ensure continuity of life and its meaningfulness for the living. Rituals help channelise the emotions of the grieving and help subvert the status quo, so that balance and harmony can be reestablished. Pchum Ben is a fifteen day long Cambodian religious festival to pay respect to the deceased family members of up to seven generations. The Japanese have Bon Odori a folk dance performance to welcome spirits of the dead. The Yulan or Ghost Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in East Asian countries during which spirits of dead ancestors are believed to come out from the underworld. In Assam, the Karbi community has Chomangkan, a ritualistic colourful festival accompanied by music and dance, celebrated in honour of the dead.
This essay offers a glimpse into the reception of death by the Mising community in Singimari village in Assam. Dodgang is one of the most important rituals of the Mising community. It is big in magnitude and almost similar to the preparation of a marriage ceremony. Dodgang is essentially considered as a feast in honour of the deceased, it is the final farewell which involves feasting and celebrations. The Mising believe that dodgang is the last meal shared together with the deceased. This belief is signified by the practice of offering a portion of the meal during the ritual to the grave of the departed in whose memory the dodgang is being performed. As with any feast, this too involves songs and dances to commemorate the occasion. Sometimes, families deliberately wait for over a year or maybe even more before performing a dodgang, as the memories of the deceased is still fresh in their minds and they are unwilling to let go of them as memories offer a connection between the dead and them. Dodgang is a cheerful farewell to the dead for them to move on to the next phase, which is, to the land of death and finally, to reincarnation.
THE MISING COMMUNITY: A PROFILE
The Misings are an indigenous community inhabiting parts of the Indian states of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Ethnically, they belong to the Tibeto-Burmese group of the Mongoloid stock. The Constitution of India refers to them as Miris. In the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam, Misings are the second largest Scheduled Tribe (Plains) after the Bodos. According to the 2011 Census, the total population of the Mising community is about seven lakhs or seven hundred thousand. In Assam, they live in the riverine districts of Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur and Sonitpur. The chang okum or houses built on bamboo poles, is a unique feature of the Mising community. These chang okum help the community adjust to the unpredictable riverine environment.
The Mising community believes in a number of benevolent and malevolent spirits and they offer various propitiation and observe different rituals in times of crisis as well as, when suffering from any disease or ailment. Farming, fishing and poultry are the main economic activities of the Misings apart from petty trade and daily wage earning. Traditionally, they are animistic believers of Donyi-Polo, the indigenous belief system of the Sun and Moon gods. Currently, a large number of Misings are followers of Hinduism as well as Christianity.
This essay focuses on a village called Singimari, in North Lakhimpur district of Assam and on the ritualistic practices of the village folk. This village comprises of around two hundred households having a population of about one thousand. Majority of the villagers identify themselves as Hindus with traces of their animistic beliefs. They blended their ancestral animistic belief system with the newly adopted Hindu beliefs. This is reflected in their rituals and day to day activities. Traditionally, Hindus cremate the dead body, however, the Misings bury their dead. Consumption of pork and apong (rice beer) in rituals is another legacy of their traditional beliefs which they have incorporated into their Hindu religious practices. An important point to note here, is that the Mising villages in the Assam plains have been highly influenced by the Neo-Vaishnavite movement of Srimanta Sankardeva (also known as Ekasarana Naamdharma) and thus, their rituals often reflect this influence.
THE WORLD OF THE DEAD
Unlike modern attitudes which consider Nature to be domesticated by technology, hence, death is a shameful and sorrowful event (Kaarina Koski, 2019), death is a welcome aspect and is not feared especially at a certain age in the Mising community. Deaths which are considered as ‘natural’ by the community are aspired for and people look forward to them. The Misings believe in the concept of life after death and re-incarnation, which is reflected in the performance of the dodgang. When a person dies, she or he can be reborn as any living being. But that can only happen when the spirit of the dead is able to journey to the ‘land of death’. The death rituals help in the smooth transition of this journey. There is great difference in the impact of death upon the community depending on the nature of death. They differentiate between a ‘natural’ death and an ‘unnatural’ death. When people die during their middle or old age, it is considered as a natural death. In the community people often get married by their twenties. Teen marriage by eloping is also common. So by the time they reach their forties and fifties, their children are either of marriageable age or married with kids. Now that they have the next generation to carry forward the community, people feel secure in fulfilling their responsibilities to the community and life. The next course of path is death, a natural phenomenon that will occur to them sooner or later.
When it comes to fearing death it is only related to what they consider as ‘unnatural’ death. The term for ‘unnatural’ death is le:sikan which means ‘raw, unripe or immature’ death. The death of babies, children and death by suicide, murder or accident are considered as ‘unnatural’. By describing these types of deaths as ‘raw or unripe’, it shows that these people have not lived up to their full potential. The Misings believe that the journey of the soul after death will be difficult as God might not accept them. Such deaths are feared as their spirits may turn malevolent. The dodgang of these kind of deaths are considered inauspicious and performed within a few days or months and in a quiet manner without an extensive list of guests. The death rites of suicide and murder victims are not conducted inside the house. It is believed that such deaths attract evil spirits, so performing the ritual inside would invite unwanted and evil spirits into the house.
DODGANG – THE RITUAL
The Mising community believes in ancestral guidance. Invoking of ancestral blessings is a part of every Mising prayer and ritual. Due to such beliefs, we can say that the dodgang of old people are more elaborate in nature. The dead of the Misings have a special agency ̶ ̶ the living enable their ancestral agency to rule their lives with guidance and blessings. According to the Gompir Kumsung or the Mising Dictionary, dodgang is defined as the final death rite of the Mising which is performed at a convenient time (within a year or a couple of years) after the death of an individual. The word dodgang is closely linked to the word Mising word “do-” which means ‘to eat’. Thus, we can interpret dodgang to mean “come eat”, inviting people to feast together with deceased for a last meal. It is also commonly believed that the term may be related to the Assamese word doha which is a similar death ritual performed by the Assamese Hindu community on the tenth day after the death . Until a dodgang is performed, the transition of the soul to the next life is not possible, as a lingering attachment or connection to the mortal world is still believed to exist.
This is an elaborate death ritual and is prepared by constructing a temporary pandal or marquee. A day before the dodgang, the women of the family of the deceased, collect vegetables from in and around the village for the occasion along with their relatives and other women in the community. Whereas, the men in the household buy meat of pigs and fowls and fish. Relatives from other parts of the state travel to participate in this ritual. The bhakats or priests are informed a week or two before the day of the ritual.
Modern day technology has changed the way these rituals are conducted. Playing of music through loudspeakers has become a common feature of the dodgang. Mising folk songs as well as popular songs in Assamese, Hindi and English are played. Music is played continuously from the previous evening through the night, to get people into the mood for the dodgang. There is wide consumption of alcohol, especially apong. For the main ritual, a cone shaped structure called tasuk, made from bamboo is used to filter the apong, the traditional rice beer of the Mising community. While preparing and filtering the apong, the Misings invoke their ancestors while playfully chanting which can be translated as – the apong should be so sweet and intoxicating that people should find it difficult to walk and perhaps falter in their steps. Once the date of the dodgang is fixed, apong is the first thing that is prepared. In most villages, people collect the necessary raw ingredients and start preparing the beer at least a month ahead of the ritual since it requires a specific period for fermentation. Apong is an integral part of Mising culture and occupies an important role in the Mising rituals and beliefs. The best quality apong is offered in prayer. On the day of the ritual, early in the morning, the family members of the deceased light incense sticks and offer betel nuts near the tasuk for the filtering process of the apong to be successful and then start the process.
As the priests and priestesses start arriving, a family member of the house, usually a woman, wash their feet. The women of the household and those who have come to help the family with work, take blessings from the priests so that they are able to conduct the proceedings of the ritual smoothly. The formal performance of the dodgang then begins with the family members announcing the purpose of the day to the priests. A small portion of all the food in raw form that is going to be consumed, is placed in front of the priest and a burning lamp. The priests then bless these food so that these items may be prepared and be consumed. After the food is prepared and blessed by the priests, a portion of this consecrated food and a portion of the best quality apong is offered to the grave of the departed family member. This act is symbolic of the belief that the soul of the deceased may come in an animate form and consume the meal leaving them satisfied and free from their previous life. It is only after this gesture that the food is distributed among the priests and guests.
In a separate part of the house, the pigs and poultry are slaughtered. For the feast, a huge quantity of meat, especially pork, is prepared. Since Mising villages do not have professional butchers, it is the responsibility of the bereaved family to slaughter the animals. Traditionally, the Misings categorise their food into three main items – kor (starter), apin (cooked rice), and oing (gravy based item to be eaten with rice). Kor (a starter), which can be either vegetarian or non-vegetarian, is served first with apong. As the guests start arriving, after they pay their due respect in front of the priests, they are served food and apong. As part of the ritual, the family members offer some money (the amount depends on the family) to the priests and to all the people who have come to help the family. People who have come to pay their homage to the deceased, place money in front of the priest as a form of offering to the dead. Money that is offered is collected and distributed among the older generation, especially to those who have come with great effort and from far. Sometimes the family offers new clothes to the priests and the elderly guests. After the performance of the religious rituals, the priests leave the house and the family members bow in front of them for the last time.
Throughout the day, the guests are constantly offered apong. Guests who wish to can pack some of the apong and food to take back home. As the day comes to a gradual end, there is a celebratory mood among the guests. Relatives tease each other and people consume even more alcohol. As the day comes towards an end, people start dancing and merrymaking. It should be noted that at the point of time when people start dancing, the bereavement ends. Dodgang marks a distinct end to the period of mourning. It symbolises the continuity of life and that living family members should continue with their normal lives. Dancing and singing help them break away from the loss and mourning.
FOLK BELIEFS AND KINSHIP IN DODGANG
Dodgang may be considered as an event of feasting and celebration from a wider perspective. It is celebratory in the sense that the departed soul will finally be free from the living and the living will be free from the dead. When a dodgang is due, family members are bound to the dead and other events in the family such as weddings cannot be organised, for instance.
The ritualistic practices of dodgang vary from village to village across the Mising community. Even within the village, it may vary depending on their genealogies. Some of the known genealogies are gambura pegu, kutum, dola doley, and kumbang. Although all dodgang are of similar significance, yet, they are not celebrated in the same manner. Depending on the nature of the death and the age, the magnitude of the dodgang varies. Dodgang of unnatural deaths (le: sikan) are performed with minimal resources and in a subdued manner. The age of the deceased sometimes is directly proportionate to the scale of the dodgang.
Dodgang of unnatural deaths like suicide or murder are performed outside the house and they do not have the same celebratory aspect. These types of dodgang do not involve many guests and are often performed by the immediate family. The reason why dodgang of the elderly who leave behind more than one generation are celebrated is because they are believed to have lived a full life, completing their duties in this world. Therefore, the death of such people call for an occasion of celebration.
One of the beliefs in the Mising community is that when someone dies, they can take a living soul if they happen to have a close bonding. For instance, in one household, a grandchild died within a week of the dodgang of his grandfather. Since the death of the grandchild was sudden and due to an unknown cause, the family believed that the grandfather must have taken him to the land of dead, as the child was his favourite grandchild.
Earlier, the celebrations were slightly different. Instead of music consoles, people banged on their utensils to make music. The singing and dancing took place inside the chang okum where the guests tapped their feet on the bamboo floor. With the development of modern technology and with better economic conditions, these celebrations have become extravagant.
French anthropologist Arnold Van Gennep observed in his important book ‘Rites of Passage’ (1909) that death rites are a form of social regeneration. The practices of these rites are aspects of a living culture. Thus, dodgang is a social ritual, and is not just about an individual or restricted to the relevant family. Among the many important roles rituals play in religious beliefs, one of the most crucial is that it helps people heal. Death is a natural way of destruction but it is also a transition. The celebration of people after bereavement symbolises that despite death, life continues. People bid farewell to the dead and then resume their everyday lives.
- All Hindu castes perform a doha where the male relatives of the deceased often shave their heads. However, the ways to perform doha are widely diverse. The believers of Ekasarana Dharma perform doha by doing naam prasanga – the congregational singing and prayers offered to Vishnu. But, since they reject Brahminical ritualism, they do not shave their heads. The Rabha, Boro, and Sarania communities observe a similar ritual as the faith of these communities have blended with vedic Hindu faith. The most common element of performing a doha among the various communities is the feast for friends and relatives in honour of the departed.
- Hertz, Robert. Death & the Right Hand.Translated by Rodney and Claudia Needham. Glencoe, Illinoi: The University Press Aberdeen, 1960.
- Kaarina Koski, “Death and death rituals” (class lecture), Cultures of Death HVKU.04.019, University of Tartu, 1 April, 2019.
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- Zaman, Arifur.“Mortuary Rite Among the Mising Tribe in a Rural Context of Assam”. Cultural and Religious studies, 3, no.4 (2015): 177-184.
- Zaman, Rukshana.”Chomangkan:Death Ritual of the Karbi”. Indian Anthropologist, 33, no. 1 (2003):41-53.
Title: “Dodgang-The Final Mortuary ritual of Misings ” Dir. Nilakshi Bura Gohain, YouTube, URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=m4WeRmC2-pI&ab_channel=SagarMultimedia, last accessed: 17 January, 2021.
Daisy Barman is currently a PhD. scholar at Gauhati University, Assam, where she is working on literary folkloristics in Indian English fiction. Apart from being a published translator, she has been a recipient of Erasmus and Dora Plus Doctoral Fellowship to study at the University of Tartu, Estonia.
Dipika Pegu is an independent research scholar. She has completed her Masters in Cultural Studies from Tezpur University, Assam. Previously, she worked on a UNICEF project on social messaging through folklore in Assam.