Khuado Festival: The Zomi New Year ~ Dr. James Dongno
Khuado is the most popular occasion on the Zomi (the so called Chin) calendar. It is the biggest festival of the year celebrated by the Zomi. It takes place at the time when the weather is superb, with the downpour of monsoon rain already gone entering into early autumn before the arrival of the bitterly cold winter. It falls during the Zo-months of Phal kha and Kau kha, i.e. September and October.
What makes Khuado most significant is the fact that the year-long toil in the fields, lo, is over, being rewarded by good harvest which has been gathered and the granary is full. It is a time perfectly right for the hard working Zomi to spend heaps of time complacently except for gleaning the fields later which can be dilly-dallied without haste.
Origin of Khuado : Some claim that Khuado would have been celebrated as early in Ciimnuai era as the time of headman, Innpipa, Pu Tuah Ciang, around 1400 AD. In that case Khuado must have been celebrated 600 years by now. I can’t agree with them more.
I would even go further to assume that it could have been originated during The Zo petty kingdom in central Burma (Myanmar), another 600 years prior to Ciimnuai era, way back around 800AD or even earlier. Though already lost in the mists of time the origin of Khuado is echoed in history.
It is interesting to note that the Buddhists celebrate their age-old Thadinyut festival, the Burmese New Year, with lights at the same time of year as Khuado festival. The Hindus, too, celebrate Diwali puja with lights at the same time and similarly the Chinese do as well, the Mid-Autumn festival marking the end of rice harvest at the very same time of year.
Khuado, actually the Zomi New Year, also marks harvest time and the cleansing of the house and the whole village in a ritual of exorcism of evil spirits, by lighting pine torches symbolising the evil spirits are driven away and they do not re-enter the village. The similarity of these festivals observed by Hindus, Burmese, Chinese and Zomi, all being characterised by spectacular displays of lights and taking place at the same time of year after the harvests, is extraordinary and remarkable that there sure is more to it than meets the eye.
It could be during the Zo kingdom in central Burma for hundreds of years from around 800AD when the Zo people were in close contact with the Burmese, Indians and Chinese having social intercourse through trades, culture and civilisation that the practice of celebrating the light festivals was adopted under their own different names.
This assumption may be best explained by looking at a few aspects of the Zomi lifestyle similarly swiped away by outside influences into new transformation. I personally saw how readily receptive Zomi were to certain alien influences which they wholly adsorbed making them their own. These may shed some lights on the possibility of when and how Khuado was originated.
How Zomi embrace outside influence : The womenfolk in Tedim town traditionally wore their hair in three plaits, two on either side and one at the back and donned the wrap-around mini-skirts up until 1945. The few pioneers who daringly adopted the ankle-length Burmese longyi were bitterly excoriated even to the point of condemnation by the society. Dramatically however, many lapped it up that within just 15 years it became their own, completely abandoning the miniskirts as moribund and unsuitable as a decent attire. So was with the hairdos. When the first Prime Minister of independent Burma,(Myanmar) U Nu visited Tedim in 1960 it was certainly no pushover to coax school girls to dress up in traditional mini-skirts with their hair coiffured in three plaits for a cultural show in honour of the Prime Minister.
This clearly demonstrates how readily receptive Zomi are to new fashions and how forgetful they are of their own culture leaving no traces behind. The same is true with how they , originally pagan worshipers, embraced Christian faith introduced in 1910 AD so well that they become a Christian nation before the end of the century. There may be more.
Now, imagine Zomi living in concord with neighbouring Buddhists, Hindusts and Chinese in central Burma for over 800 years. It is, therefore, more than possible that the light festivals were originally a shared culture; copied to be exact. The similarity between these four festivals, Tadinkyut, Dipawali, Mid Autumn festival and Khuado seems too great to be coincidental given they are celebrated at the same time of year after harvest time, and all characterised by display of lights as essential features of the festivals . Most importantly, they had lived together for hundreds of years in central Burma (Myanmar) during which time Zo people were in contact with the Burmese culture and civilisation and serving in Bayinnaung’s military ( VKH) which was no indication whatsoever that they were insular in their attitude but rather showed their extrovert nature. It is, therefore, strongly suggestive that Khuado would have been originated at least 600 years before Ciimnuai era, dating its origin back over 1,200 years ago today. So what a deep-rooted and an authentic traditional festival being well- preserved for so long Khuado is!
The Word, ‘Khuado’ : Khuado is a double-worded term; each word, Khua and do (pronounced ‘dou’), has two antonyms representing dualism of good and evil. ‘Khua’, a noun, represents either ‘a good being’ as Khua-vak/ Khua-siam (light, blessing giver) that offers good health, wealth, success and a life of bliss or Khua-sia/ Khua-mui (evil/darkness) that brings misfortune, disease and even death, is ‘an evil being’. So is ‘do’ a verb, in its good sense, is to entertain guests or visitors, as, ‘ lengla do’ and to warmly receive strangers to stay in the house, as, ‘zin do’, while in the bad sense, ‘do’ is to fight, kill and maim enemies, as ‘gal do’. Therefore the dichotomy between good and evil of each of the two-syllable term having four opposite meanings is being encapsulated in the term – ‘Khuado’.
Anoter dualism Khuado features: Festival, in the strict sense of the word is essentially a time of merry making and a joyous celebration. Not quite with Khuado festival of ‘olden days’. Rarely did you see people heart-broken and in deep sorrows in reminiscence of their loss during festivals but that was just what happened during ‘traditional’ Khuado back in those days, as we will see below. This, however, is neither in practice nor even remembered quite as much any longer.
Also the dualism between good and evil by exorcising the evil spirits and receiving sanctity, someone in doom and gloom remembering one’s loss while others are in euphoric atmosphere and the old year parting from the new explains what Khuado is all about.
So, what is Khuado really after all? To call Khuado a harvest festival is a put down. In fact, there is more to Khuado than just that. We learn from the many Khuado songs of old, the only mouthpiece of the past in the absence of written records, that nothing else is more popularly composed about than is Khuado a Zomi New Year.
“Kum kikhen e, solkha dang ee,….” “ The years are parting, the moon turns different…..”,
“Tukawl tawi kum khua i khen a…” ” We are parting with the year of toil …..”,
“kumkhen lenkhuang ging na za naam aw…” “Do you hear the drum of the parting years ?….”,
“Kumkhen lenkhuang na zaak aaleh, ngaihno kei tong suah na za naam….,” If you heard the drum of the parting years, heard yee, darling, my voice?.
“Kum khen niing ee seino gual aw….,” “Let’s part with the (old) year, dear buddies”
“Kumkhen tawh senleh khawm tani e…,” “Let’s be rejuvenated anew, with the years parting”
“Kumkhen ningzu lunlai ah ee,” “ While zu of the parting years yet abounds………………..,”
“Lenlai sinthu kumkhen lenkhuang khang zam luangin kei hong phawng lai ee …” “ the flowing sounds of the gong and the drum of the parting years of our youth conjure up sweet memories of our heyday in me “, etc. But remarkably few songs, if at all, are known to be composed about harvest in relation to Khuado.
An indomitable spirit of Khuado has been ingrained in Zomi that there is an insuperable urge that they celebrate it wherever they are, home or away. That proves true today as Zomi, in different parts of the world, no matter how far away from their native home across the seas, gather together and celebrate Khuado.
Khuado, a feast that essentially comes after gathering harvest, is celebrated at different times in different villages due to that harvest time differs from place to place. But each village celebrates Khuado at the most appropriate time as chosen by the village priest, headman and elders considering fine weather, full moon and the time everyone is in the village. From three days prior to the appointed time the village herald announces the days for Khuado that officially lasts for five days.
Day One : ‘Kigin ni‘ is the day of preparation . All around the houses, the streets and the source of the village water supply are tidied up. Young people collect meilah, which is that part of a pine tree heavily impregnated with resin and readily inflammable, is gashed out in chunks with axe, then split up into easily manoeuvrable sizes with a knife. They were used as torches in olden days. Meilah is an essential item needed in large quantity as Khuado is a festival of lights as we will see below. The men make flutes from reeds and rehearse the flute dance. The headman, the priest and elders work on the program for the rituals that are to take place during Khuado. The women go to the fields and invite the spirits of the dead saying “Come home, let’s enjoy cloying foods and zu”. Zu is a kind of sweet wine prepared from fermented cereals and commonly used as a daily drink by Zomi (Chin). After the invitation, they leave the fireplace of the bothy disrupted to ensure they do not use it but they do come to feast Khuado with them.
Exorcism of evil: Originally animists, Zomi believed that evil spirits lurked in shadowy nooks among the baskets of grains in the dark and gloomy house. They believe evil spirits only cause calamity, disease and death. Now that there will be big feast from next day, they want to get rid of evil spirits from the house and off the village once and for all.
An able-bodied man in every household, gearing up to execute the exorcism, holding the handle of hoe, that of an axe or a club in one hand and a bundle of pine torch in the other hand is followed by a man with a drum and another man carrying a gun. They first take position at the back inside the house. When the priest fires a gun the exorcist holding the club shouts at the top of his voice saying, “ Out! Out! You evil spirit. Your urine and excrement stink, Your day has come. Go back to the bosom of your wife, and to your family. Go back where you belong to” as the man with the club violently beats the posts, the floor, the walls, the large granary baskets – every nook and cranny. So doing, they move toward the front door. When he comes to the main door he throws away the club, shouting ,”Oh! I hit his hip, his knee and his shin !, there, he is running away”. Then he halves the bundle of the torch he holds in the one hand putting each half on either side of the door. Pine torches are lighted all around the front deck to ensure the evil spirits do not re-enter the house – a symbol of cleansing the house of evil spirits. Then the gun is fired again. The village is awash with torch light.
Then the young men holding bamboo poles with pine torches tied to the ends, come converging to the headman’s house where they circle the front yard three times reciting the words of the exorcism. Then after a gun fire, they move on to the village worship alter, tual. The same thing is repeated by circling tual with the ‘recitation’ three times again and after the final gun fire, the evil spirits are driven out of the village with everybody shouting in jubilation. Now, the ‘meilah sumh’, the remnants of the pine torches cannot be taken back into the village and a bonfire is made outside the village. This is to consummate that the evil spirits have all gone out of the village never to come back.
Then in order to predict if the future is promising with good harvest and fortune by observing which way the smoke goes, the bonfire is covered with green leaves to produce more smoke. A hole is made at the centre of the top to let out the smoke. The priest chants out “ If you bless the year for tropical region, sway toward ‘sim lam’, warmer region. If you bless the cold region, then sway toward ‘zolam’, colder region. For warmer region I implore you for your mercy, for cold region I implore you for mercy. I implore your mercy for baskets of corn and baskets of millet. I beg you for good health, happiness and long life. I beg you for great grand children, I ask for ornamental beads around the neck, I ask for valuable bracelets on the wrist, I ask for heads of enemy bosses and those of great beasts”. If the smoke goes toward the village it is interpreted as an indication of good luck.
Day Two : Pansiik ni, the main celebration day of Khuado. The women get up at the crack of dawn and take a pot of zu with water added to the brim and finish it with a straw and put it by the front entrance gate of the house. Then they put a partially burnt chilly and a piece of charcoal near the pot. This is to prevent evil spirits from entering the premises and potentially spoiling the foods during the feast.
Though cows, mithuns, gayals, or buffaloes may be other options, pig is most commonly used at Khuado festival. Small pieces of the cooked offal, the liver, kidney, heart and lung are donated to families who have lost their loved ones during the past year. The women of these families go to visit the grave. In olden days the dead were not buried but laid on open bamboo platforms in little huts at the graveyard. On this day, the women go to the graveyard with the pork offal. They apply oil to the skulls and cry and cry. This is called ‘dai-hawh’ ‘graveside visit’. They offer the offal and zu, called ‘si ansiah’ ‘food saved for the dead’ to the deceased. Then they return home in rekindled sorrows and tears.
No sooner have the women arrived than the oldest man sucks a mouthful of zu from a pot and blows upward in the air and chanted an incantation. Then lunch was pronounced followed by a sumptuous meal, … zu flows. People are singing and dancing to the musical mix of drum, gong, mithun horn and cymbals. Songs, music and laughter fill the atmosphere in jubilation with whoop and holler as everyone is soaking up the jovial atmosphere to the utmost full. The boisterous party goes all day long. After all the bliss and the sun sinking in the west, comes the time for a ceremony, ‘taking the beehive’. A long proceeding task, the beehive taking is an epic, one of the main highlights of Khuado featuring divination.
Beehive, ‘The Crystal Ball’ : “ Ka lo nawl aa khuai aw ee, nangin kumkhua na thei aa kong dong ee” “Oh bee, outside my field, know yee the future so ask I you” By observing the behaviour of the bee larvae and pupae the priest can predict what the future holds for them in the year ahead, whether it is a good and prosperous one.
The bee nest has already been located and the men go to take it by abseiling down the rocky cliff and dangling in front of the beehive when darkness falls. Different from what they normally do when taking bee hives, no fire nor smoke is used in order to not inflict injuries on the larvae and pupae. The bees are mechanically killed by tweezers made of bamboo. It is a dangerous and painstaking task as there are thousands of bees and multiple stings could be fatal.
The comb having the best pupae cells is selected and taken carefully in a straw hat. The wax cap sealing the cells are removed by the man officially designated by the priest. The beehive is now taken to the village. A long line of vine is marked regularly at every four/five-foot intervals where each of the men holds by one hand and a pine torch in the other hand. In the dark night it offers a spectacularly dotted lights sinuously snaking slowly down the hillside path toward the village. They stop at the village viewpoint, ‘ khua-mual’, a levelled ground where monumental stones are erected usually at the top of the village. Villagers young and old meet them there with food and zu and they eat, drink, dance and sing all night long. As legend has it, Thang Ho composed a song about the beautiful lights of this and those on day one, thus, “Gual i lenna taang nasiilsial ee” meaning, “ Flashes of lights glittering in our village “. This is another spectacular feature of Khuado that characterises with lights.
Day Three : Kheekleh ni. Observation of the bee pupae is conducted. The beehive is taken down to the village worship-alter place, tual, where the priest and elders wait at the gate. When the beehive bearer comes forward the priest asks him” If you are sanpi – sanno, go back. If you are mimbeem and sawm-taang, welcome !”. Sanno is minor ailments Sanpi means severe diseases like plague and mimbeem, sawm-taang means bountiful harvest. The beehive bearer answers “Neither am I sanpi nor sanno, I am mimbeem-sawmtaang” After repeating this three times he is allowed in and the beehive is carefully displayed on a banyan tree for all to see except women, especially pregnant ones and children who are strictly forbidden access to it. Sometime later the beehive is inspected by the priest and elders. If the opened wax caps of the cells are resealed, it indicates a healthy and prosperous new year, but if the pupae are dead, it is an indication of calamities and deaths in the village in the new year. However, by tradition, the priest announces a good year ahead regardless of what the beehive indicates.
Day Four : Khuai saktan ni. This is the day bee is celebrated, another day of killing pig or goat or chicken. Again pig is the most popular choice. But it is believed that if one celebrates bee with a goat it warrants that the bees take care of his body when he dies by driving away flies. Celebrating beehive with goat therefore offers one a degree of status in the society. People stay home to enjoy and spend time the last day together with family till evening. Young people meet again in the evening drinking, dancing and singing all night.
Those who gather a harvest of twenty and more baskets of millet which is considered the most valuable crop, maybe because millet yields the finest zu, are made to offer a big pot of zu. Later those who have ten basket of millet or corn or even anyone who wishes to have a bumper harvest next year can offer zu and there is plenty to drink. This is called ‘geel zu’
Day Five : A-sian ni, is the final day of Khuado. The closing day does not feature any functional ritual in particular but people get together at the tual where they dance, sing and enjoy geel zu.
At the disappointment of all, you like it or not, after all the excitement and bubble of bliss the whole village was in, the lonesome, quiet end is slowly drawing close. The blow hit the young people hardest. Overwhelmed by youthful feeling of romance and loneliness, they are left ruminating on their romantic experience during the past exciting days. The lingering of resounding drum, horn and gong in the ear whispering the sweet memories of the joyous festive mood only makes memories of Khuado harder to fade away. “Sweet Khuado, bye for now”. Dr James S Z Dong