Naka Theng : the short and long of it

S Balakrishnan *

Yaoshang Sen Khaiba
Yaoshang Sen Khaiba: Girls taking donation at Naoremthong for Yaoshang Festival on March 21 2016 :: Pix - Shankar Khangembam

Screech! Our car came to a slow halt. We were proceeding straight from Imphal airport to Loktak, when our car came to a sudden screeching halt. I could see ahead a few girls blocking the road. As Manipur was known for Ima (women) power and also road blockades for one reason or other, good or bad, I was scared. Were they agitating in favour of Inner Line Permit (ILP)? "No ILP, No Rest", warned a graffiti on a tin sheet shed. Can this be classified as a writing on the 'wall'? Of course, this was much later, at the fag end of our trip, on our way to Andro. Or was it Kakching?

As our vehicle was stuck, we watched some argument going on with passengers of another vehicle a little ahead. In the mle, my mind started whirling wildly; notorious for wild and negative imaginations, I wondered whether we would be allowed even to set foot on Manipur soil, my dream destination during Yaoshang (Holi) festivities. Would they pack us off by the return flight itself to Guwahati, probably by the same plane that we just landed from? Under such a circumstance, it would be better if they packed us off to Kolkata; or, still better, straight to Chennai itself.

But then how could I claim my LTC bill to Moreh, was my next concern. Will the Pay & Accounts Office people, who are destined to find fault and reject claims, accept my claim only up to Imphal? Will they demand a certificate from some authority that I was not able to proceed to Moreh? In that case, which would be the authoritative authority authorised to issue an authentic certificate the girls blocking the road or the Ministry for Blockades, if one such existed?

Such confusing and bewildering thoughts flashed in my mind within a "nanosecond (ns)". Please, permit me to show off my knowledge by using the word 'ns'. To add spice to my scary thoughts, Mr Krishna Kanta, our guide, warned us to raise the glass windows of the car.

But there was no need for such horrifying thoughts at all. Our guide, Mr Krishna, flashed a crisp ten rupee note and the blockade was lifted in a jiffy. The girls blocking the road smiled and let us slip through; of course, after collecting the rupee note. Was it a sort of extortion by extremist elements? We looked puzzled at Krishna.

"No, no, it is Naka Theng", he coolly said. 'Naga , what? Oh My God! You mean extortion by Nagas!' we looked further bewildered. Krishna then explained that it was pure fun; a tradition during Yaoshang (Holi) in Manipur when girls, and sometimes boys too, collected money thus to make merry. We understood why he wanted us to raise the window glasses; it was only to prevent us being smeared with colour powder or sprayed with colour water!

We were greatly relieved at this and joined in the fun, as one group after another of 'pretty' girls blocked our progress to Loktak. We did not mind the 'blockade' or the 'extortion' or the delay, despite being hungry. While boarding our flight at Guwahati, we dreamt of enjoying a sumptuous lunch onboard Air India, supposedly our first onboard lunch. But we were let down; instead, what we got was just a saggy cheese sandwich with untoasted bread and a small packet of juice. They can't be blamed either; it was just a 50 minute flight. We consoled ourselves with the thought of enjoying a sumptuous Manipuri cuisine.

Our daughter, who was sitting in the front seat of the car, joined in the fun by emptying my purse. She robbed her dad to pay her new-found pals! Adding salt to the injury of my purse, she was also joyfully wishing them 'Happy Holi'.

Used to this tradition, Krishna was wise and had come prepared with lots of new ten rupee notes and a box full of 5, 2 and 1 rupee coins. I understand selling coins on commission basis is a good business during Yaoshang. Later, during the course of our visit when we fell short of coins, we thought of getting it from the girls themselves.

One such girl proved smarter than my city-bred daughter. When my daughter sought change for twenty rupees, the girl handed back only 15 rupees, taking her Naka Theng share of 5 rupees! We got wiser, and the next time we insisted on first getting the change and then handing over the rupee note.

On seeing the girls, Krishna's heart melted like butter and he lavishly handed over ten rupee notes along with a bewitching smile. It was not his fault that he was named Krishna. So it was natural that he was attracted towards gopikas. Remember, it was also Holi time, Krishna's favourite festival. Ten rupee notes for groups of big girls, 5 rupee coin for small girls, and it was just 2 or 1 rupee coins for kids. He had already dispersed Rs 300 since that morning, he declared joyously.

But his joyous mood did not last long. Later, however, he lost interest in the game as numerous blockades appeared and our progress was drastically reduced. This was particularly very high in Kakching; almost each and every household was holding the vehicles to ransom. What was initially fun and enjoyable had turned into an irritating menace. In some cases, I could not help thinking if elders were using Naka Theng as a ploy to collect money through their tiny tots.

I could see a religious tradition slowly turning into a money making tradition, sort of 'extortion', however little the 'ransom' was, be it even just one rupee. In a few instances, it was just one kid holding the rope at one end with the other end tied to a tree or post. It was no more a social activity, not a group activity, not a fun activity, but one with hidden agenda, it appeared to me.

When there are numerous blockades, there are also chances for some minor accidents, like the rope getting tangled in the vehicle and, therefore, the kids being injured; especially when the drivers get annoyed and start driving ahead without paying the contribution. To our amusement, we saw children buying and licking ice cream sticks, using the collected money then and there. Upset with not being paid, I saw a cute little girl raise her fist as if to hit Krishna. From the expression of some girls and continued argument, I could guess their dissatisfaction.

As we literally escaped out of Kakching, Krishna was left with a sore throat and an empty coin container. He was repeatedly shouting 'thathav' ('lower' the rope) and appealing that we had already paid on our onward journey to Kakching garden. [I insisted it was 'kathav', but my daughter persisted with 'thathav'.] There were mild arguments too; I never saw Krishna so angry, poor guy! As outsiders, we could not argue with the girls in support of Krishna, not that we knew the local language. We had to just sit and watch the goings on, silently.

In fact, Krishna said the accent varied from region to region and he himself found it a bit difficult to follow. We could be mistaken as poking our nose in local affairs. So I warned my daughter not to throw the coins as Krishna did, but hand it over to the kids. As tourists, we ought to be very careful with local feelings, sentiments and sensitivities, I told her. I am sure Krishna must have sworn never to visit Kakching during Yaoshang.

On the other hand, while going to Moreh we noticed the incidence of Naka Theng tapering off slowly as we passed through Muslim populated areas first and then the Naga populated hills. Should I add that we heaved a big sigh of relief? Hence our plan to reach Moreh and return to Imphal went off as scheduled.

It would be better if the society itself regulated Naka Theng; else, at one point, the government might be forced to intervene in the religious tradition. Each street should have only one Naka Theng collection point. The money collected thus should be shared among all the kids living in that street, maybe according to their age.

At this juncture, I am reminded of the editorial in The Sangai Express which I first read in Manipur. It explained why the daily newspapers had declared a five day holiday during Yaoshang and were not bringing out the issues at a stretch for such a long period, never heard of anywhere in the print media world. It was just for the fear of Naka Theng. The distributors had to shell out a hell lot of money for Naka Theng, hence not willing to collect and distribute the papers, the editorial put forth.

There is a slightly similar tradition among the Hindu Nepalese of Sikkim. During Dussera (they call it Dasaian, the ten-day festival), on the 3rd night, unmarried girls go around on a house to house collection drive singing the Bhailo or Bhaili Ram songs. On the fourth night, it is the turn of bachelors; they go around singing Deosi/Devashri Ram geeth to collect cash & kind. The 'kind' could include liquor bottles also. Unless the expected contribution is paid, they would go on a singing & dancing Satyagraha.

As soon as holika dahan begins, girls would rush out to start their house to house hunt for collection, jokingly remarked Krishna, which fun we missed observing as we were busy winding off from one such venue.

In another editorial the daily has also lamented over the slow death of the "practice of young boys going around for collection of rice and whatever vegetables that may be offered, to round off the Yaoshang festival with a feast among friends or for the chakchanaba at the end of Yaoshang festival". It seems there was also another unique aspect to Yaoshang, that of kids going around for Naka Theng and blessing the elders. It would be a sight to behold innocent kids blessing the elders!

Even as a onetime tourist to Manipur, I felt it was high time a self regulation was brought in to systemize Naka Theng; because, as they say, even nectar turns into poison beyond a certain limit. Let not the fun be ruined and a bad name done to a hoary tradition. Long Live Naka Theng in all its traditional finery!

* S Balakrishnan wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer can be reached at krishnanbala2004(AT)yahoo(DOT)co(DOT)in
This article was posted on May 08, 2016.

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