Imphal: For generations, Manipur has been celebrating a unique festival called Ningol Chakkouba every November when married sisters and daughters are invited to their parental house for a sumptuous lunch to renew and strengthen family bonds. Over the years, it had threatened to deteriorate into a show of oustentatiousness but now, thankfully, has returned to its roots as a means of inclusiveness.
A welcome move is that NGOs have started inviting women of other communities in general and tribals in particular to well-organised mass lunches.
Besides, some churches and tribal groups have started hosting lunches for the women of all communities. Some communities elsewhere in the country have also emulated the Manipuris in this social practice.
History says that this social practice was introduced in the 4th century in the ancient land of Kangleipak, now renamed Manipur. In the beginning, married sisters used to invite their brothers to lunch on this auspicious day.
History records that Queen Laishna used to invite her brother Poireiton to lunches. In those days it was known as Piba (meaning son) chakkouba.
Later married sisters and daughters were treated to lunches. Being Vaishnava Hindus, the feasting revolves around fish and its various preparations.
After the lunch, the sisters and daughters are given gifts in the forms of handloom clothes and the women bless their brothers to be more prosperous and successful in life.
However, about five decades ago a metamorphosis happened in Manipuri society, when easy money was made available and those with millions of rupees to burn started doling out expensive gifts, including costly gadgets and sleek cars. The divide between the haves and have-nots caused embarrassment to the parents and brothers of slender means since they could not compete with the affluent families.
For over 30 years there has been a relentless campaign to desist from the shameless show of ill-gotten money on the occasion of Ningol Chakkouba. Many sections are happy that it has started having the desired impact. More and more educated women are refusing expensive gifts. They do not grumble if handloom clothes are given to them on this occasion.
Another headache is the tendency to squander money among most of women while buying fruits and sweets to take to the homes of their brothers and parents. Manipur does not produce sweets, fruits and other items in plenty and this explains why there has not been much response to the campaign to buy local produce by the women on this day.
For decades, unscrupulous traders have been doing multi-billion rupees worth of business during this festival. Since local products are not enough, truckloads of iced fish are imported from Hyderabad, Kolkata and Guwahati. Some local fish farmers have been rearing delicious indigenous fish. But as these are sold at Rs 1,000 or more a kilo, only those with undisclosed incomes can afford to buy them.
As the Vaishnava grip is loosening, almost all families also have chicken and other meat items in the feasts. Besides, Manipuri handloom clothes are replicated elsewhere and brought for sale on huge profit.
Staggering quantities of apples, oranges and other costly fruits, tinned sweets, bananas from neighbouring states, coconuts from Assam and many other packed eatable items are brought for brisk sale. In the absence of local substitutes the women have to depend on these items brought from other states.
Though this has become a multi-billion festival, many sections are happy that now it has become a social thread to string together all communities in Manipur and the Manipuri-inhabited areas in the northeast, Bangladesh and Myanmar.