The Zeliangrong People are one of the major indigenous mongoloid communities living in the tri-junction of Assam, Manipur and Nagaland numbering around 4.5 lakhs according to 2011 census. They have been occupying the present land since time immemorial in a compact and contiguous geographical setting of approximately 12,000 sq. km. With the arrival of the local neighbouring rulers and the British, the Zeliangrong country had been arbitrarily trifurcated into the present States of Assam, Manipur and later Nagaland.
The Zeliangrong people are the descendants of the same ancestor who founded the great Makuilongdi village, the ‘cradle of Zeliangrong culture’. The Zeliangrong people have a long history and have inherited a rich cultural heritage. They have a great love and strong attachment to their ancestral homeland and traversed a long period of history from their ancient days at Makhel and Makuilongdi to the present times. They faced aggression from powerful neighbours, yet they had always defended and protected their territory, their way of life, their religion and culture.
The story of the origin of the Zeliangrong Nagas is based on two main premises. One is essentially mythological and it describes the supernatural origin of mankind. The other aspect describes in details the actual movements of the Zeliangrong people to their present habitat through the ages. Before proceeding further it is important to note that every indigenous community is a repository of a distinctive body of knowledge which has evolved over a long period of time. Knowledge accumulated through generations and stored in myths, legends, tales, proverbs, songs, beliefs, rituals, ceremonies, art and craft and handed down from generation to generation have determined and enriched the course of lives of these peoples. It is in this context that the history and origin of the Zeliangrong people must be understood and discussed.
Origin and Migration:
Myths, legends and traditions narrate the origin and migration of the Zeliangrong people. However, the actual original homeland and the migration routes of the Naga tribes including the Zeliangrongs into the present habitat have not been fully studied. Folklore, mythology and ethnology have been examined to arrive at a tentative conclusion, but an in-depth archeological study has not been applied to this problem. It is commonly believed that the South Western region of ancient China including Yunan was inhabited by the non-Han Chinese ethnic groups. On the basis of traditions and linguistic history, South-west China has been identified as the original homeland of the speakers of the Sino-Tibetan language, the land between the upper reaches of Yang Sikiang and Hwang Ho rivers. The Tibeto-Burman and the Siamese-Chinese belong to this linguistic family.
The Meiteis, the Nagas, the Kuki-Chin must have lived in this region of China around 2000 BC and later on migrated to North-East India via Myanmar and South East Asia. Their migration must have taken many centuries. So the ancestors of the Nagas including the Zeliangrongs must have taken many centuries in moving down from the mountains of South-west China to the equally rugged Myanmar through its river valleys to the vast islands of South-East Asia. Then they moved into the present habitat through different routes of migration. We agree with the conclusion of philologist, Sir G.A.Grierson that the Zeliangrong people (Kacha and Kabui) speak a language related to the Bodo of Assam and that has been grouped under a sub-family of the Naga-Bodo within the Tibeto-Burman. Another Indian philologist, Dr. S.K.Chatterjee has concurred with this grouping of the Zeliangrong language under the Indo-Mongoloid, a term coined by him to mean the Tibeto-Burman group of races.
The Zeliangrong people believe that their present habitat is their homeland since antiquity and they are the indigenous people of the land. But their origin is shrouded in myths and legends. Many Naga traditions point to Makhel in north Manipur as their original homeland. Perhaps it was a point of settlement after a long period of migration from South-west China to Myanmar and to South-East Asia and then to North-East India. It was also a point of dispersal of several Naga tribes including the Zeliangrongs to various habitats. According to a myth chanted in various ritual hymns, the ancestors of the Zeliangrong people came out of cave called, Taobhei in Ramting Kabin. Another popular tradition locates the Taobhei at Makhel from where their ancestors came out to the world of living.
Makhel is believed by several Naga tribes like Zeliangrong, Angami, Chakhesang, Rengma, Mao, Poumai, Maram, Thangal Tangkhul etc. to be a village of their origin and a point of dispersal in their migration to their respective habitats. The history of Makhel as an ancient village of migration has been collaborated by the stone Megalith of dispersal, Tamraratu in the present Mao village of Makhel. T.C. Hodson wrote in 1911, "At Makhel is to be seen a stone now erect which marks the place from which the common ancestor (of the Nagas) emerged from the earth. Makhel is regarded as the center from where the migrations took place". The first man at Makhel had three sons Alpha, Tutuwa and Khepio. The brothers for unknown reasons decided to depart from Magkhel and constructed a Megalith as the place of their dispersal. Legends tell that the ancestors of the Zeliangrong people are descendants of the inhabitants of Makhel. They also left the place in course of time.
From Makhel the ancestor of the Zeliangrong people went westward and took a temporary shelter at Ramting Kabin. Ramting Kabin means "Old squeezed land" (Ram means land or village, ting means Old and Kabin means squeezed). The ancestors of the Zeliangrong people moved across the densely forested western spur of Mt. Essau. According to a Zeme legend they left Makhel and settled at Nrimrengdi, then to Ramting Kabin. Ramting Kabin is near Chawang Phungning.
From Ramting Kabin they went to Chawang Phungning which is also called Gwang Phungning. The concept of Chawang or Gwang meaning king or chief was developed at Chawang Phungning. There are many references to the prosperity of Chawang Phungning in many ritual hymns. From this place some of the migrants took towards the North-East and arrived at Makuilongdi. Chawang Phungning is identified with the present village of Oklong in north Manipur.
Makuilongdi: A Cradle of Zeliangrong Culture.
The Zeliangrong ancestors ultimately came to occupy Makuilongdi or Nkuilongdi meaning " big round mountain". Nothing is known about Makuilongdi before the Zeliangrong migration. Many Zeliangrong lineages traced their origin from Chawang Phungning which was the main village of a cluster of villages which came to be known as Makuilongdi. Since the migrating people came in groups, they must have established separate settlements. Chawang Phungning was a main settlement and the settlers from this village build up Makuilongdi. These were perhaps a cluster of villages or settlements under the jurisdiction of Makuilongdi that was adjacent to Chawang Phungning. The land, forest and water available at the new sites in the rounded great mountains provided enough sustenance to the people. The ancestors of Zeliangrong lived at Makuilongdi for many generations. The village became prosperous with enough land for shifting cultivation, which produced surplus food grains. From a small village it had became a cluster of small hamlets and settlements, which were established for organizing shifting cultivation, as they were quite distant from the original village. The territorial extension of Makuilongdi was far and wide. At Makuilongdi a polity was developed under a chief. Religious beliefs and social customs developed and flourished. Clans and lineages also grew up. Several migration teams were sent out to establish new villages in different directions.
Exodus from Makuilongdi
According to legends, the sudden en masse exodus from Makuilongdi occurred after a divine warning for violating the law of nature and regular social life of the village. They devoted to the performance of thirty Tarang ki/kai ceremonial house rituals and celebrations in a single year without any break forgetting their lunar calendar of the agricultural cycle and indulging in enjoyment and merry making. Suddenly cicada insects flew in to the village and in their shrill voice announced to the people that the lunar year had come to an end. The people were shocked and horrified and made quick exodus out of Makuilongdi towards different directions.
Makuilongdi was the cradle of Zeliangrong culture. There was a well knit society based on shifting agriculture and with a well-organized polity. They spoke a language akin to the present Liangmai dialect. At Makuilongdi two major clans, Pamei and Newmei emerged as indicated by the two stone megaliths namely Pamei Stone and Newmei Stone. However, there are references to several lineages or families that traced direct descendants from Makuilongdi. They are the sub-lineages of both Pamei and Newmei clans.
Some scholars opined that the exodus from Makuilongdi could be due to the great pressure on agricultural lands as a result of the increasing population. Differences also cropped up over the succession to the office of the chief. Other reasons, besides the causes mentioned above could have also prompted the exodus from Makuilongdi.
Identity is the self-perceived feeling of oneness or sameness of an individual or group or groups. The Zeliangrong identity is the feeling of oneness or belongingness perceived and accepted by the Zeliangrong people themselves. Over and above these the Zeliangrong people are bound by blood, culture, traditions and common history.
The ethnonym, ‘Zeliangrong’ was coined in a historic conference of the Zeme, Liangmai, Rongmei and Puimei of Manipur and the Naga Hills of Assam, held on 15, February, 1947 at Imphal. The Conference founded the common organization of the tribe, the Zeliangrong Council on the basis of their ethnic and cultural affinity. In the course of time the term, Zeliangrong invariably came to be identified as a common name of the people. The term, ‘Zeliangrong’ was an acronym of the prefixes of the three words, ‘Ze’ from Zeme, ‘Liang’ from the Liangmai and ‘Rong’ from the Rongmei (ZE + LIANG + RONG = ZELIANGRONG). Here, the term, Zeme or Nzengme means western-plain dwellers while some argue that the term Zeme originated from the word Nzeina or people of Nzei village. Liangmai means northern people while Rongmei means southerners. The term Npui is said to have been originated after the village name, Kabui/Kapui Khullen i.e. Kabui, Kapui, Puimei or Npuimei.
This historic decision of forming the Zeliangrong Council was the culmination of the solidarity movement generated by the "Naga Raj" movement against the British colonial rule under the leadership of Haipou Jadonang (1905-1931) and the legendary freedom fighter, Rani Gaidinliu (1915-1993). The activities of social organizations like the Agangmei (1925), Kabui Chingsang (1927), Kabui Samiti (1934), Kabui Naga Association (1946) and the impact of the aspirations of the Nagas to keep their identity and protect their interest, at the impending departure of the British from India also contributed towards the formation of the Council.
The rationale for the formation of the common name, Zeliangrong, for the kindred groups is based on their common ethnic, linguistic, social and cultural affinity. The community had declared the solidarity and brotherhood of the Zeme, Liangmai, Rongmei, Puimei and even the Marams on 1st April, 1934, by the performance of the ritual oath taking ceremony known as Chukthoibe/Chukthoibou/Chuksumei at Tamenglong. This ceremony enjoined the people to forgive and forget the past ill feelings, due to headhunting and to stop further inter-clan, inter-village and intra-tribal feuds. Chukthoibe/Chukthoibou/Chuksumei of 1934 was the solemn declaration of the indestructible bond of blood relationship of the Zeliangrong people with religious, social and political affirmation.
The Zeliangrong Language:
The Zeliangrong people speak a language having a common root based on the mother or core language being mostly spoken now by the Liangmais who stayed back in and around the Makuilongdi village. The four dialects spoken by the Zeliangrong people at present are the offshoots of the original composite language. In this regard competent philologists and linguists after a careful examination of the Zeliangrong dialects have arrived at a definite conclusion of the close affinity of the Zeliangrong dialects. Linguistic experts from the Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL), Mysore also studied the grammar and phonology of the three dialects and endorsed the findings of Dr. G.A Grierson and Dr. S.K. Chatterjee regarding the Zeliangrong linguistic affinity. They identified 29 phonemes in the Zeliangrong language, common to all the three dialects. Further, the recent findings of Elungkiebe Zeliang also confirmed the common root and affinity of the Zeliangrong dialects. Such independent linguistic studies also confirmed the common ethnic and linguistic identity of the Zeliangrong people. It is imperative to mention here that after their exodus from Makuilongdi the Zeliangrong people were having lesser interaction among them because of inaccessible terrain and more so because of Sangnari or inter-village wars during the headhunting period and thus some variation developed here and there even though the root words remain intact throughout until this day. It is believed that this little deviation here and there being noticed will soon be overcome in the fast changing world with more interaction, communication and technology. With some efforts, the variations or synonyms in vogue in the Zeliangrong dialects can well be harnessed to the overall growth of the Zeliangrong literature.