Standing apart from its neighbours at Swan Street, in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, is a popular restaurant that curiously sports ethnic mural painting on its facade. The name at first glance suggests a restaurant that serves good food, but the writing on the wall, literally, associates the eatery to a tradition practised by tribes located in the North East of India.
The restaurant, Feast of Merit, in Melbourne, has been inspired by a Naga tradition dating back to pre-Christian culture of the Naga people. Originally founded by an Australia-based charitable group for poverty alleviation, YGAP, the profits of the restaurant went into supporting local entrepreneurs – the basic tenet being the Naga tradition of sharing of wealth. “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 warmheartedness towards the poor people who are fed on the occasion,” writes Naga scholar Late Shimray, in ‘Origin and Culture of Nagas.’
Feast of Merit
The grand Feast of Merit was a significant cultural feature of pre-Christian Naga practices which conferred social status to a person. The practice, which took years or almost a lifetime to complete, was a series of feasts, each one more lavish and socially important. The last feast in the cycle of Feasts of Merit, which only a few persons reach, is said to assure honour for the promoter in this lifetime and in the afterworld. The feasts culminate in the sacrifice of a Mithun (Bos frontalis).
Although the series of the feasting and norms associated with the occasion differed from tribe to tribe, most of the Naga tribes attached great importance to the Feast of Merit. An expensive affair, it was a social reciprocal system manifesting generosity, compassion and concern for the community, and sustenance of communitarian feeling.
Organising the Feast of Merit also implied that a family had gathered prestige through the merit of sweat and labour, a signifier of a good harvest.
Rice, rice-beer, cattle, pigs and mithuns were slaughtered to feed the community as part of the feasts. Irrespective of any person’s social status among the community, the Feast of Merit was an invitation to all.
Each feast in the series of feasts gave the host different privileges – from wearing distinctive motifs on traditional weaves, to embellishing the house with carvings, the privilege to wear feathers of the Hornbill bird, etc.
The ‘house of merit’, which can still be seen in most Naga villages, were constructed distinct from other houses with special symbols designated to the man who sacrificed his wealth for organising feasts. The house can be identified by beautiful carvings on the frontal facade. A grand horn-like projection of the house marked the special status of the person and his family in the society. According to the Naga tradition, a normal house or a family cannot embellish their house with such kind of decorations. Most significantly, the skull of Mithun was used as an important motif that denoted the number of sacrifices made to perform rituals and ceremonies during the construction of the house.
The house was occupied by a number of big household items like pounding table, log drum, wooden cot and containers for storing rice beer. Moreover, each feast entitled the host family to decorate its traditional attires with certain motifs and embroideries.
Recalling past glory
“The feasts were a significant aspect of Naga culture, and though the practice has become a thing of the past, the families of those who had completed the series of feasts in any Naga village still command respect,” informed Talinokcha, joint director of North East Zonal Cultural Centre, while speaking to indianexpress.com. He confirmed that Feasts of Merit is no more practised in Nagaland.
As Christianity swept over the Naga homeland, it came into conflict with indigenous religion and its many rituals, values and lifestyle. The old way of life of pre-Christian Nagas underwent immense change guided by values of the new religion. Yet, even as Nagas got detached from the old religion, certain customs and beliefs found sustenance in rural village life. Or in the case of V Phesao, a Chakhesang Naga artist, the “glorious” past was too ingrained in him to abandon, even though he had embraced Christianity in 1967.
Originally hailing from Chozuba village of Phek district, Phesao now lives in Naga United Village in Dimapur district.
One of the best Naga artists according to his peers, Phesao’s art and sculpture is deeply entrenched in lores of pre-Christian era.
Values of Christianity prohibited Phesao to perform the Feast of Merit – he vividly recalls the feast organised by his father – and so on December 25, 1998, he organised a Christmas feast for his adopted community at Naga United Village.
“Our forefathers performed rituals, and strictly observed gennas (social norms/taboos) while hosting the feast, but as I am a Christian, I didn’t conduct the rituals that are associated with the event,” Phesao informed in a tête-à-tête with indianexpress.com. The idea behind the Christmas feast though, as Phesao acknowledged, was similar to the Feast of Merit. “It was my way of evoking the old way of life as followed by my father and those before him who held such customs very sacred.”
Following the feast, he conducted the stone pulling ceremony and erected the stone in his traditional house which was embellished with distinctive carvings and motifs characteristic of the ‘house of merit.’
“The whole affair was more symbolic for me as I did not adhere to the original customs and perform the necessary rituals or observe gennas (social norms/taboos). I wanted to give back to my community, but the feast thrown by me was in no way equivalent to what my forefathers hosted,” the artist asserted. Hence, Phesao feels, that he is not fit to live in the house of merit constructed by him.
Now in his late fifties, Phesao vividly remembers his father hosting the Feast of Merit in 1964. “In 1964 around 60 per cent populace of our village (Chozuba) was still non-Christian. My family had not converted to Christianity then,” he recalled.
Recounting how ideals of the new religion came into conflict with the values held dear by those practising the indigenous religion, Phesao said, “Around sixty per cent of our villagers had not converted to Christianity the year my father hosted the two-week long feast.” But harmony was maintained as the sense of community prevailed.
Recalling the feast organised by his father, the artist narrated an anecdote: “Our village pastor offered Christmas feast on December 25 1963 and my father organised the traditional Feast of Merit in January 1964. My father and the village pastor were friends, and they had gone together to another village to purchase Mithuns.”
Phesao also confirmed that the feast of merit is more practised in his village as people have converted to Christianity. He added though, “There are some families in other villages who follow the indigenous religion, but the numbers are too less for hosting such grand feasts.”
Commenting on the paradigm shift from traditional way of life with the onset of modernisation, and the disappearing traditions of Naga people, NEZCC joint director Talinokcha categorically said, “While there is nothing wrong in forging ahead with changing times, there is also the ardent need to sustain our original tradition and culture as otherwise we shall suffer from identity crisis.”