Birth, marriage and death are three key events in a person’s life which all religions and cultures observe. Every tribe in Nagaland is unique and wonderful with their own ways of celebrating these key events. Of these three key events, marriage is probably the only one where the participants take an active part in organizing and planning the ceremony. When we look at some of the practices like dowry and sati which used to take place in society, they seem out of place with these modern times. We take a look at a Naga marriage custom and its brush with modernity in our pluralistic society.
The Price of a Naga Bride
When father married mother, he paid a dowry of 10,000 rupees in cash to my maternal grandfather. Grandfather, in turn gave ornaments, and all necessary household items to my mother as gifts when they married .That was way back in 1978.
Back then, our Sumi Nagas had a marriage custom where grooms paid bride- prices (in cash or kind). The price of a girl depended on her family lineage, her accomplishments, her education, her intellect, her appearance. In short, the finer the girl, the higher the prices. Mother, being a chief’s daughter, working as a primary teacher and having her snapshot, in which she is in traditional attire, adorn the wall of a particular photo studio in Mokokchung, her high bride price was considered well justified. The customary bride price was practiced, it was believed, to ensure young women did not become involved in any sort of scandal. If she did, the bride-price was substantially reduced (Joshi). During my higher secondary days, an Ao friend once asked me “I heard Sumis sell girls; is that true?” I did try my best to explain the value of our bride-price to her, though at the end I could feel she still found it ridiculous. Anyway, that was in 2001. By that time, majority of our tribe had outgrown practicing the custom of bride–price. People realized daughters could be relied on by parents even after marriage and hence, the old claim of losing their daughter no longer validated the demand for bride-price. Many began to feel that asking dowry strained a groom’s economy, which could make the couple suffer after marriage. At the same time, girls no longer wanted to be considered sold off, especially in the modern world of equality and liberty, thus, ended the saga of our bride-price.
A proper Sumi marriage begins with a proposal which is brought on, through the prospective groom’s family or even a close friend, directly to the girl’s parents or indirectly through the girl’s aunt, after which, if accepted, engagement follows and a date is set for the wedding. The span of days from the proposal- to the days of engagement- to the actual marriage day may differ according to the convenience, but the general pattern was maintained by all in the olden days and is followed with equal reverence till today.
Towards the approach of the marriage, pigs are killed and heads and legs distributed to the worthy (closest and elderly, selected) kin of the bride. It is considered an insult to give the wrong piece of meat; also we believe returning the meat is a bad omen. The meat giving seems to be undergoing some kind of crisis lately, with some people discouraging it, and some organizations banning it too. It is understandable why it’s not supported much these days – apart from the heavy expenses borne to buy the pigs, there have been instances when people had resorted to giving meat to influential people who are not customarily obliged to receive the meat. Besides thatthere have been many complaints of the pressure and expectation of the kin (who were given meat) who felt compelled to give more in the reception, especially when these days, weddings seem to be increasing every month .Despite its fault, meat-giving has not been able to be pushed aside completely because there has been no other better practice that could take its place to function as an expression of honor.
Some of our marriage customs have discontinued over the years, some continue,while others have been newly incorporated. In our Sumi marriages, these customs function as our guide; they help us focus on things to be done and how to do it in a systematic and organized manner. They teach us values which strengthen our family bonds, re-connect us to our roots and remind us of what’s important in our life. Those of us who have attended a Sumi wedding in recent times should not be left in error to feel that the new definition of our marriages are white weddings, with the perfect theme, billowing wedding gowns ,a cute ring boy, bridesmaids, flower girls, international cuisine, exchange of rings and not forgetting the dummy cake or the favors we get. Behind the glamorous Hollywood set up, the real value of a Sumi marriage is still influenced to a certain extent by the fulfillment of customs of the past.
With globalization, our community has undergone many changes in many areas of life. Our marriage system too could not retain its purest form because, as we say in Sumi “Ado aghuloki no saghi vecheni ke” (Time brings it on) and with time we have learnt to give up certain things even as we started incorporating some new ones. But in fact, it’s not just our Sumi marriage custom but every aspect of our Naga culture, institutions or customs that cannot be said to exist still in its purest form today. Maybe, retaining its purity is not what matters most, but it can be holding on to things which can help us unite stronger; help us grow and hope for better things in life without having to give up or deny who we really are. On the other hand, maybe we should be letting go of things which unnecessarily put stress or demean any other person irrationally , one which is a stumbling block towards prosperity of the greatest, one which divides, one which makes us gain at the expense of other’s pain.
Our Naga society faces a great threat of losing our native culture today in the face of modernity. Our traditions and our customs could still be relevant even in future or become obsolete. Whatever the case may be, I believe that if we do have to give up any of our tradition or old way of life, and if we find that it no longer stands the test of time, it should only be given up for a greater value, for the greater good, and nothing less beyond that.
*The Sumi practices mentioned above may vary slightly from region to
region and have been sourced from oral testimonies and case studies.
Ref. Nagaland Past and Present: H. Joshi(2001)
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