India’s North East comprises of ethnic and regional characters owing to its distinct location, diversified geographical framework and multicolored tribes. The region with the advent of spring of every year booms with festivity celebrating Mother Nature’s gift of abundant resources, hard work of their forefathers and the fertility of the lands. With not an exception, Arunachal Pradesh the land of diverse culture where people of numerous faiths, customs, traditions, rituals and myths co-exist with lots of divergence in their beliefs and this belief among many tribes from time to time notably the Singphos have given rise to the celebration of festivals like the magnificent Shapawng Yawng Manau Poi also known as the Singpho ethnocultural festival.
Commencing every year on the month of February, Shapawng Yawng Manau Poi is designed to club the small but colorful community of the Singpho people scattered in India’s Arunachal Pradesh and Assam and across the world in parts of Myanmar and China. The festival that gained momentum ever since its first celebration in 1985 at Miao in Changlang district of Arunachal was an idea culled to provide a platform for the Singphos who were disintegrated and had blended with the cultures and traditions of other tribes and communities thus fading their own ethnicity that got lost with the time cycle of assimilation. Shapawng Yawng provides the community to reconnect with their roots and commemorate their forefather/progenitor and get together in a particular place every year and infuse in the feeling of togetherness. This year, Shapawng Yawng was celebrated with pomp and gaiety at Bordumsa of Arunachal Pradesh bordering Assam. The festival saw the advent of numerous tribes of Arunachal, representation from Assam and the Kachin from neighboring Myanmar. Incidentally the Singphos are known as Kachins/Jinghpaw in Myanmar and Jingpo in China.
The festival formally starts after unfolding of the festival flag. The flag emblem with two cross swords (N’thu) encircled by Dungwi and Dungla that shows the Singphos to be war like people and the Dau symbolizes as their laboring tools. The ground being home to the permanent set of ceremonial pillars called Shadung around which the people perform Manau Poi. The dance steps of the Manau are led by two leaders. They are decorated with masked caps having the head of the Hornbill and wear long robes on which the pictures of dragons are embodied. Each hold a long sword and all who follow the leaders hold handkerchiefs and take the steps of the traditional procedures. They encircle the Manau Shadung dancing in groups with the music. The steps are according to the spiral lines and designs written in the Manau pillars. After completion of tracing the design some would branch out and separate themselves from the leaders group by group and continue to perform the other Manau dances. . Next is the Shadung Gidhing Gumdin Manau which showcases the dance of unity and is performed to proclaim praise, prosperity and unity. Than the Padeng Manau dance which is a depiction of victory in war followed by Shut Manau, the celebration dance and finally the Kumran Manau, the farewell dance.
Very interestingly the two pillars of the Shadung in the middle of the set represents the idea of feminine gender called Dungwi and other pillars besides each of the feminine pillars represent male pillars called Dungla. The rest of the shorter pillars that stand around in the male and female pillars are called Dung Noi (Hanging Pillar). At the foundation of these Manau pillars there is a long plank fixed across the pillars from side to side called Dung Bye or Dung Tawn. One end of this plank is curved into the shape of the head of the Hornbill and the other end being the tail. The pillars of the Shadung are aptly designed with colorful paint and patterns. The designs with straight lines stand for Ninggawn Chyanun/Mathum Matha (creator of the universe) and the curved lines depict the creator’s finger print. Singpho culture believes that the sun and the moon were created by the same almighty and hence are given equal importance as found in the other imprinted symbols and figures. Besides prints of the animal and the water kingdom are also seen in the paints of the Shadungs and it stresses their relationship with nature.
Noted writer Rajib Ninkhee, a Singpho resident of Ketatong village in Margherita talking to Times of Assam said, “The same festival is also celebrated in the state of Kachin in Burma and every year locals and foreigners across the borders whether here or there and in thousands attend the festival and become one irrespective of their ethnicity, dress, culture, tradition and language. This festival plays an important role in bridging our community especially in the wake of the Singpho people falling prey to drug use and abuse. Counseling in between by the festival by our elders and showing ways of economic prosperity and reviving our history and work culture (Tea growing/agriculture) has tremendously helped youngsters stand on their feet free from any kind of social hindrances and disparity. Moreover the huge turnout of the indigenous populace including foreigners itself bears testimony to its growing popularity as an ethnic festival and we are working hard to take it to renewed heights wherein more and more cultural exchange would open doors for economic exchanges as well”.
Binaya Singpho, a prominent lady of Jagun recounts her frequenting visit to the festival ever since she realized Manau Poi’s importance. Narrating her experience, Binaya said, “I am just thrilled by the exciting colors of our tribe and the dancing pattern that goes on for the entire day without a break and interaction with so many varied people who turn up to be one amongst us. Primarily a Singpho festival, Shapawng Manau also attracts other tribes and Singphos as far as from China. Truly a remarkable class of festivity, Shapawng teaches every man and woman the value of oneness and the benefits of being knitted under one umbrella, one society. And I am today proud to be an Assamese Singpho”.
Just when in the present scenario of bloodbath that has gripped North Eastern India and the craze for identity is taking its toll on the people as seen in the recent Karbi-Rengma ethnic conflict and other instances of fighting for every inch of land whereas people who claim ethnicity and diversified background especially in Assam has already lost track of the original Mongoloid roots and are now engaged in fratricidal killings which is nothing but like killing one’s own brothers and sisters , the Shapawng Yawng festival stands apart in unifying the people irrespective of geographical boundaries and borders.
Aamir Hazarika served as Staff Reporter in Times of Assam. Hazarika is an investigative Journalist for more than a decade.