Naga tradition and culture: Understanding the Feast of Merit

Ketholeno Neihu

Feast of Merit formed a central feature of the traditional Naga practice which conferred social status to a person. The Feast of Merit is/was a step by step process or series of feasting which took years or almost a lifetime to complete the series; each one more priced than the preceding one.  

Although the series of the feasting differed from community to community, most of the Naga tribes endeared the Feast of Merit. The significance of the Feast of Merit is that it brings the donor honour during his lifetime and after his death.  

“The philosophy behind the performance of Feast of Merit is that the performer is honoured when he is alive and remembered after death. The deeper philosophy involved is, however, the sense of generosity and the warm heartedness towards the poor people who are fed on the occasion,” writes Late Shimray, a Naga scholar in the research thesis titled “Origin and culture of Nagas.”  

In each ceremony, rice, rice-beer, cattle, pigs and bulls were slaughtered to feed the community. Irrespective of any person’s social status among the community/ the villagers, the Feast of Merit was an invitation to all. The splendor, colour and extravagance of a Naga life is concentrated, it was only after performing the Feast of Merit that a person was entitled to decorate his or her attire with certain motifs and embroideries, adorn his house with decoration (motifs) and earn a title of status in the village. The performer was entitled to adorn his house with ‘Kika’ (Tenyidie) or ‘House-horns’, erect monolith in their names and wear extraordinary ceremonial dresses.  

A Feast of Merit supposedly, therefore, could only be given in an account where a couple fills their granary with huge stock of rice or when a couple is able to thrive in their economic undertaking. Any married couple can perform the Feast of Merit to attain social status as Verrier Elwin says, “For his wife must take a conspicuous and honoured place in the proceedings.”  

Although it is not obligatory for any married couple to celebrate the Feast of Merit, any married couple can do so. Towards such increment in the series, the feast also becomes costlier. The last cycle of feast is not attained by many but this also ends with celebration with the neighboring village.  

A hallmark of the Feast of Merit clearly meant that a family gathers prestige through merit of sweat and labour and a signifier of good harvest. It also marks and indicates the celebration of wealth and good returns shared with the community – an act to not only acknowledge the respect to his affinity but also an act of generosity that has run in our blood. And a giver of such feasts earned the goodwill of his villagers, at the same time uplifting his social status.  

Such feast though remarkable in the past has lost its significance and practice with the advent of modernization and westernization. The essence of ‘sharing’ as a prime component of the Feast of Merit in today’s context would appear murky especially in the minds of the younger generations.  

This glorious past practices in its admonition has become a thing of the past. While tremendous transformation in the Naga society now seems to be plagued by corruption, political anomalies and the existential easy money making.