Manipur is a place of abundant natural beauty and a colourful society of multiple ethnic communities living together since time immemorial with their variety of cultures. Numerous social festivals and ceremonies have been witnessed by the Manipuri peoples throughout their history keeping them united with a bond of love and responsibility. Ningol Chakouba is one of the popularly celebrated festivals in the state which falls on the second lunar day of the Manipuri calendar’s Hiyangei month. Ningol means ‘married woman’ and Chakouba means ‘invitation for feast’; so the festival is the one where the married women are invited to their parents’ home for a feast. The invitation comes from the son(s) of the parental family of the ningols, generally a week in advance; it strengthens the bond of affections among the brothers and sisters, daughters and parents of a family.
The history of Ningol Chakouba dates back to the time when King Nongda Lairen Pakhangba ruled in Manipur. The Queen Laisana used to invite her brother Poireiton to the King’s palace for a feast once in a year. So, it was known as Piba (brother/son) Chakouba rather than Ningol Chakouba. But the tradition changed during the time of King Chadrakirti Singh (1831-1886) in the 19th century. He invited his sisters for the feast as it was difficult for him to visit their places in one day. Thus, the tradition changed to Ningol Chakouba since then and continued to become an integral part of Manipur’s rich culture and heritage. On this joyous day of Ningol Chakouba, along with the kids the married daughters of every family come to their parental home with a festive mood and much emotion to be reunited with other members of the family. Every woman wears the finest of traditional and ethnic clothes, brings fruits and sweets to be shared with the family and cherish the beautiful moments of the childhood that she once lived with her brothers, sisters and parents.
The preparation of Ningol Chakouba begins days ahead; the members of every family wait the whole year eagerly for this day to meet and greet their daughters and sisters with joy and excitement. They go to the market to buy necessary things, especially food products for the preparation of the feast and clothes to be presented to their beloved sisters and daughters. They prepare a lot of tasty and healthy cuisines with much care and effort for the grand feast. The menu serves variety of dishes like Nga-Thongba (Fish Curry) made from Sareng (an expensive fish), Rohu, etc., Nga-Agouba (a mixed fried item of potatoes and fish pieces), Eromba (Manipuri Chutney) are a must. Other food items include Laphu Eromba (a banana stem preparation), Chamfut (boiled vegetables), Soibam Thongba (a fermented bamboo shoot curry), Uti (classic Manipuri vegetarian dish) etc. Everyone is happy at such a family reunion, especially the kids of the ningols as they get to wear new clothes and meet their grandparents and receive gifts from them. After the feast is over, brothers and parents of the family present gifts to their sisters and daughters and wish for a happy and prosperous life. In return, ningols show respect and usher blessings on them and pray for their happiness and longevity. The day ends on a happy note that signifies and strengthens the bond of love among the family members.
The festival is mainly celebrated by the Meiteis but nowadays many other communities also have started to celebrate it as it emphasises the importance of happiness and reunion of a family in bringing peace and harmony in a society. The State government has declared Ningol Chakouba as a State holiday as the spirit of the festival encourages unity and prosperity in the society and lives of Manipuri people.
However this year, Standing in solidarity with the victims of the ethnic conflict in Manipur, women from the Meitei community on Wednesday the 15th November2023 did not celebrate Ningol Chakouba, the biggest festival of the community. Ningol Chakouba, which the Meitei community celebrates after Diwali, is similar to Bhai Dooj except that in Manipur it is the brothers who welcome their sisters from their matrimonial homes for a grand feast. Several groups of women sat on hunger strike in the valley areas in solidarity with the victims of the ethnic violence that began on May 3, following a protest by the hill-majority Kuki tribes against the valley-majority Meiteis' demand for inclusion under the Scheduled Tribes (ST) category. Wednesday’s hunger strike came days after people in the valley districts switched off lights for 10 minutes on Diwali night.
On Ningol Chakouba, all Meitei women and especially those who are married wear their best traditional clothes, visit their natal homes and enjoy an array of delectable dishes with their siblings and parents. But this year's Ningol Chakouba wore a gloomy look with businesses in Imphal, the commercial hub of the state, coming to a grinding halt. Few people were seen on the streets. Owing to the current crisis which has remained unresolved for the last six months, with more than 50,000 people displaced from their homes, and many getting killed, how can we celebrate Ningol Chakouba this year?" women activists said.
Women took to the streets on Wednesday morning to express solidarity by not celebrating the festival. Women activists said this year's Ningol Chakouba will go down in the history of Manipur as "one of the darkest days", as the age-old tradition has been sidelined in order to show solidarity with the victims of the ethnic violence. Women victims of violence from the border trading town of Moreh, who have taken shelter at the Government Dance College in Imphal, also joined in the show of solidarity. Hundreds of displaced women in black outfits, with placards in their hands, gathered on the roadside as a mark of sit-in solidarity at the Palace Compound area in Imphal.
"Meitei women keep counting the days for a day like Ningol Chakouba. We join our parents and siblings in the best of our attire for a family reunion over a multi-cuisine lunch on this day. But today, we have decided to wear black clothes as a mark of respect to our brothers and sisters who have laid down their lives to protect the territorial integrity of Manipur," said, a displaced woman from Moreh. Diwali and Ningol Chakkouba is the time of the year when there is an increase in commercial activities.
But due to the ongoing conflict, this year saw a sharp decline in sales margin. People, who run a departmental store in the heart of Imphal, said that during these festivals a day's sales margin reached up to ₹ 3 lakh. "But today, the sales margin hardly reaches ₹ 10,000. It's hard times for business," they said. Echoing the same sentiment, people who have been selling fruit for more than a decade at the Ima Keitel (Mother's Market) in Imphal said sales margin reached up to ₹ 1 lakh every year during Diwali and Chakouba festivals, adding this time they had to content herself with just ₹ 20,000 in sales.
The 15th November’s show of solidarity was also marked by floral tributes to those who died in the violence. A large number of women came to the western gate of the Kangla Fort, the site of the ancient capital of Manipur, and lit candles and offered flowers to the portraits of those who were killed in the conflict.
(The views expressed are personal)