Manipur's Ningol Chaakouba festival is a homecoming for married women of the Meitei community

Ningol Chaakouba, celebrated in the month of November every year, is probably the biggest festival of the Meitei community in Manipur. 'Ningol' means daughter/girl, and 'Chaakouba' means an invitation for a meal.

Traditionally, the pibas (sons) go to the houses of their married sisters to invite them for Chaakouba. If no inauspicious events have occurred, such as death of a family member or a relative, the Chaakouba is sure to be celebrated.

Preparations begin many days in advance, on both sides of the family. On the day of the festival, the ningols wear their best traditional attire: phige phanek (a sarong) and rani phi (a shawl) which are trendy, popular and often expensive, as well as the latest designer jewellery. They take baskets filled with coconut, cooking oil, delicious-looking apples, oranges, rasgullas and other food items for their brothers, fathers, mothers and grandparents. Their children, dressed in new clothes, often accompany them. An elaborate feast followed by the male members giving gifts to the girls define the essence of the festival; it is a day for the pibas to show their love and affection for the ningols.

Image courtesy of e-pao.net

Ningol Chaakouba is a day for the pibas to show their love and affection for the ningols. Image courtesy of e-pao.net

It is seen as a time when people should look beyond family conflicts, sibling rivalries, and the difficulties that emerge from one's circumstances. Journalist Chitra Ahanthem believes that Ningol Chaakouba is "probably the Meitei equivalent of Diwali, when new clothes are bought and gifts and sweets are exchanged. For Meiteis, chaak chaanaba or having a meal together has, for long, been the most interactive social activity. In this festival, a family meal which involves the married daughters is considered very special. In return for their gifts, the brothers, father and other older male family members get blessings from the ningol.”

The markets in Meitei-dominant regions in the state are the most crowded at this time of the year, and roads are often blocked by traffic jams. For entrepreneurs, this is also a time to make profits. Well-known jewellery chains, emporiums, automobile dealers, and electronic shops set up attractive sales. Community clubs and associations organise bumper lotteries, musical concerts, thabal chongba (dance events), among other events.

However, behind the more glamourous, celebratory aspects of this festival lies the grim reality of many families. Chitra says, "Over the years, this simple-yet-meaningful tradition has taken on a new-age makeover. There are huge expectations when it comes to the kind of gifts that one will receive from the family, and also with regards to the sweets or gifts the ningols will take to their homes. There are families which borrow money just so that they are able to buy presents that are considered acceptable and worthy by society’s standards.”

Image courtesy of e-pao.net

The markets in Meitei-dominant regions in Manipur are the most crowded during Ningol Chakkouba. Image courtesy of e-pao.net

A culture of consumption has emerged over the years, but the festival still remains special for many ningols. Linthoi Chanu, a poet and PhD scholar at the Delhi University, says, “Even though I am unmarried, I feel so attached to the festival. After my marriage, I will have to leave my father's house to go live with my husband, whether I like it or not. And for me, Ningol Chaakouba will be the most awaited festival every year. It is the one day when I will be able to come back to my home and relive my life with my blood relatives. However idealistic it sounds, this festival will continue to epitomise family love and joy.”

Though the festival centres on the bond between ningols and pibas, it does not change the fact that gender inequality continues to persist in Meitei society. As is the case in other patriarchal societies, family property and lineage is transferred from father to son. Ningols are less favoured as opposed to pibas when it comes to the division of property. With less or no property in their names and lesser education opportunities, most women find it difficult to achieve financial security and self-sufficiency. The head of the house inevitably is the man — traditionally and commonly.

Loya Leima Oinam, an assistant professor, believes that, “The respect and attention given to married women by their brothers and fathers on Ningol Chaakouba may at times be limited to a single day, in keeping with the tradition of bestowing care and blessings on one's daughters and sisters. During the rest of the year, the same women are treated with little or less regard. The Meitei society in Manipur is usually considered to be less patriarchal than many others in India, but the ground reality proves otherwise. Perhaps that is why this particular day holds even more significance for some women who have internalised the idea that women have lesser claims than men. This view, however, should not negate the fact that there is a genuine atmosphere of festivity, sharing and general merriment among family members and relatives who meet once a year over food and exchange of gifts. And the Meiteis love and bond over food!”


Updated Date: Nov 11, 2018 09:53 AM

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