Majority of the diverse tribes and communities in Manipur have long abandoned their indigenous religions and converted to Christianity, Hindu or other religions on their own will or through other influences. In the process, over the years, some of the rich cultural heritage and the traditional knowledge system unique to a particular community or region is slowly losing trace as many of the communities have given up age-old ancestral traditions and cultural practices of great significance to the people of long ago. The changing lifestyle brought on by the modern influence, cultural integration and new adaptations among the new generations also has been gradually edging out the old beliefs and systems.
However, a section of the Zeliangrong (acronym of Zeme, Liangmei and Rongmei tribe) community in the state has been preserving their indigenous religion called Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak (TRC), which literal translation is religion of the heavenly god. Apart from Manipur, the followers of the Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak are also settled in the states of Assam and Nagaland. The total population of the TRC followers in the three states is estimated to be just around 30,000. It is believed that there are about 20 TRC religious houses known as Kalum Kai (Place of worship) in the three states. Every full moon day and Sunday, the followers of TRC have a religious congregation at a Kalum Kai.
As bound by the belief system of this unique religion, TRC followers have been preserving the indigenous traditions and culture of the Zeliangrong people through the celebration of its old cultural festivals such as the post harvest festival in winter months called Gaan Ngai among the Rongmei tribe or Hega Ngi as it iis called by the Zeme tribe and Chaga Ngi or Chaga Gadi by the Liangmei tribe.
The Manipur cabinet on December 16, 1997 declared Gaan Ngai festival as a state general holiday. The Assam government declared it as a restricted holiday in the district of Cachar. In Nagaland, it is observed as a holiday in October. The festival marks the end of the year and the community people take the occasion to praise God for giving a good harvest. Various religious ceremonies and cultural activities performed during the festival keep the traditions of the people alive. As the religion was under threat of extinction, TRC followers from Assam, Manipur and Nagaland formed a common religious authority called Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak Phom in 1994. The festival was celebrated in a grand manner for the first time on January 10 at Imphal.
Speaking to the Imphal Free Press, a research scholar and follower of TRC, Golmei Lanchamei Monika from Manipur said that majority in her community have been converted to Christianity. “However, keeping one’s foundation and roots strong is the responsibility of every person as it is where the cultural identity lies. Indigenous religion is one that preserves cultural identity,” she said, adding that people are shocked when they learn that she is not a Christian but a follower of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak.
General secretary of Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak Phom, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland, Chaoba Kamson alleged that in the early 1990s, the Zeliangrong indegenous religion was under threat by some valley based extremists. Seeing the situation, late professor Gangumei Kamei suggested some Zeliangrong leaders convene a public meeting immediately to protect the Zeliangrong religion. Accordingly, a public meeting was organised with the support of the public on April 4, 1991 at Majorkhul Imphal, said Chaoba. The public meeting formed an organisation under the name Zeliangrong Custom and Religion Protection Committee, Manipur to protect the Zeliangrong customs. Thereafter, several meetings were held in different parts of Manipur and Assam in the bid to preserve and propagate the philosophy of the religion.
In 1994, a conference of the Zeliangrong people was held at Imphal after which the name of the common religious authority of the Zeliangrong people known as Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak Phom was formed. In 2001, the executive committee of the TRCP, Assam, Manipur and Nagaland decided that every Sunday and every full moon day would be the prayer day of TRC believers.
In 2004, a memorandum was submitted to the President of India, Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and the chairman of National Human Rights Commission, New Delhi urging them for the protection of the tribal religion from the onslaught of Christianity. A meeting of the leaders on April 15, 2013 reached a consensus wherein the names of days, months and names of seasons was also coined based on the traditional knowledge system, Chaoba said.