An extraordinary way of celebrating Namsoong
Namsoong is the Lepcha festival which marks the beginning of a new year. The origin of this celebration has its own unique story in Lepcha mythology. Namsoong celebration symbolizes the killing of the demon king, Laso Mung Puno. The Lepchas, under the leadership of Zor Bongthing fought for twelve years before gaining victory over the demon king who also happened to be a shape shifter. Every year the demon king would transform into different animal forms and bring great torment to the Lepchas. Eventually, the demon king’s reign came to an end liberating the people from the long suffering. The concept of the festival is about bidding farewell to the past year and welcoming the New Year. The literal meaning of Namsoong is “Nam” means “year” and Soong” means “to celebrate”. Among the Lepchas the concept of “Nam” or year is based on the twelve different animal forms of the demon king and the years are named after the animals accordingly. So, it is a cycle of twelve different “Nams” or years and each “Nam” completes a cycle in every twelve years. Apparently, among the Lepchas the age of a person is calculated based on the “Nam” or year he/she has been born in. If a person is born in the year of pig, his/her “Nam” or year of birth would be “pig” and the age is calculated accordingly. I was born in a Lepcha family and grew up celebrating the festival with great zeal. Right from preparing different food items especially khabjay (handmade flour cookies, which seems to be a borrowed cultural trend and has now become a part of Lepcha culture), to participating in the Laso group which is basically a dancing and singing group who go door to door from the second day of the new year for merriment and in return the host offers them snacks and some cash as blessings (the offering of cash is again a recent trend). On the eve of the Nam aal /new year, in every individual household, the bongthing or the head of the family (male) performs the ritual called Pik-Sut, which is offering of prayers to the guardian deities to banish bad omen and for a fruitful healthy year ahead. The prayers are also offered to the guardian deities as gratitude for all the good things of the past year. So, basically the festival is about people having get-togethers inviting one another for meals, preparation of delicious food and merriment. In villages traditional foods are also prepared. However, a family will avoid celebrations if there has been a death in the family. In such case, some do not celebrate Namsoong for a year and some for at least three years. Why I emphasizing on these things is only because my idea of celebrating Namsoong was limited to what I been exposed to since I was a child until I witnessed something extraordinary in my field area which was in a village named Chawang or Sowang, in North Sikkim. This is the same village of which I have talked about in my previous article. So, after spending almost a week in the field area, the day of celebrating Namsoong arrived. Like every other Lepcha village, in this village too there is a trend of celebrating Namsoong but the trend seems to have started only in the year 1990, when the first Namsoong committee of the village was formed. The initiative was taken by Mr. Lochyo Lepcha, Mr. Ongdi lepcha, Mrs. Chung Lhamu Lepcha, Mrs. Sarkit Lepcha and Mrs. Khimo Lepcha who were the first core members of the Namsoong committee. The committee is formed every year before the Namsoong and they are responsible for organizing the Namsoong celebration event in the village. The first committee’s members started the Namsoong celebration by organizing Namsoong picnic and gradually it became a huge celebration which is organized every year during Namsoong. The football tournament is the main attraction of this celebration where teams from different places participate. For a week the villages turn into a social hub of the area during the football tournament. Now, talking about the extraordinary thing which I witnessed was the burning of the effigy of Laso Mung Puno. I had never witnessed one because as per my understanding the trend of burning the effigy is not followed in all villages I have been to, I never heard of such a ritual being followed. Talking with one former Namsoong committee member of the village, it was known that earlier the entire village used to gather around at a chosen venue in the village premises and burn the effigy but with the change of committee members there had been some inconsistency in the trend but of course it had not vanished. Now, the burning of effigy is upto an individual household. While he was explaining that, my mind was busy trying to relate that with the burning of the Ravana’s effigy during Dussehra. Although, the stories are different, people are different and places are different yet the trend and symbolic meaning seems to be so similar. In fact, we can always find some similarities in the cultural trends which tend to give rise to lots of questions and possibilities in our minds. The burning of effigy symbolizes the killing of Laso Mung Pano which also marks the beginning of new era or New Year.
The morning of the Namsoong eve was a usual one and the preparation started only in the second half of the day. The house where we were staying did burn the effigy. Some of the close relatives of the family came and helped with setting up of the effigy which was made out of bamboo and straw. Later in the evening, a bongthing was invited to perform the ritual. For this ritual as well the required items were just chi, butter, flowers and incense. The bongthing was all dressed up in traditional Lepcha attire making him look professional which he was indeed. After, a very long ritual of offering prayers, the effigy was finally burnt. The effigy was huge and I am sure the flames were visible from the opposite hills. While the effigy was set on fire, people gathered and received blessings from the bongthing. After the ritual was over, everyone sat around the fire and enjoyed hot cup of tea. It took hours for the effigy to turn into ashes as it was stacked with dried logs as well. Sitting around the burning effigy I was wondering about the similarities and dissimilarities of cultural trend of the same community; how a culture is prone to transformation, being influenced or at times fading away. Although, the burning of effigy is practiced in other villages as well, yet in all those years I had never witnessed one and I am sure many others from the same community may not have till now. I do not know whether the trend is a recent influence or transformation on something old to something new, yet the symbolic meaning behind the burning effigy is valid enough which depicts the end of something bad and beginning of something new with a hope and faith that the new beginning will be better than yesterday. And the warmth that the burning effigy gave on that cold winter day somehow made me think that the end of something bad surely is comforting at least till the ashes turn cold. [The writer is Research Scholar, Department of Anthropology, Sikkim University]