The Nagas are one of the indigenous communities of Northeast India who have had an interesting history that is sadly untold to the greater world.
A misconception exists among many who perceive them as a monolithic identity imagined as westernised Christians who are culturally distinct from other Indians.
This article is the third addition in the series “The Fascinating History of Hindu Nagas”, with the previous two having focused on Noctes and Zeliangrongs. This piece will shift the limelight to the sunlit state of Arunachal Pradesh where the reserved Tangsa tribe largely reside.
The Tangsa are an indigenous community that largely live in the district of Changlang, one of the Easternmost districts of the nation alongside other communities such as Noctes and later migrants such as Chakmas, Hajongs, Gorkhas, Tobetans and Yobins.
While a good majority of the Tangsas have converted to Christianity, considerable numbers of their compatriots continue to hold onto the tradition of their ancestors.
One tribe in particular, named the Tikhak, continue to be Theravada Buddhists like the Tai, Jingpo and Chakma people in the district. Earlier, another smaller tribe called the Yongkuk also returned themselves as mostly Buddhists.
Likewise, Tangsa tribes such as the Havi, Jugli, Mossang and Morang returned themselves as majority Hindus until the last few years (Hattaway).
The traditional faith of the Tangsa has been termed as Rangfrahism after the central deity of Rangfrah. The deity did not traditionally have a physical form, but has lately started being worshipped as a Shaivite deity of sorts by his followers.
Apart from him, deities such as Matai, the god of households, and Lumrong, the protector from calamities, are also worshipped with fervour. The priests of the Tangas called tumsas are responsible for overseeing the Rangnuwk hum (prayer houses) in addition to making incantations for the well being of the people.
Influence of Hinduism has been pervasive in the culture of Tangsas, as a result of centuries of Indian influence even prior to their migration from Myanmar into India.
Khokhum Longphi, the eminent Tangsa historian argues that the origin of Mossangs and related Tangsa tribes, comes from Lakshmana, the younger brother of Lord Rama (Rao).
Longchang Tangsas are another interesting subgroup among the Tangsas who have had cultural exchange with Hindus.
There is a localised form of the tale of Krishna and Rukimini’s love story, akin to the one among the Idu Mishmis of Dibang Valley.
They are also known to have indigenised forms of Hindu deities such as Thungja Chamja (Devi Lakshmi), Langtoiram (Deva Indra), Kakhusome (Kshetrapala) and Hum Matai (Ganesha).
Mossang Tangsas of Sasum have their own localised variants of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Tripathy and Nagaraju).
The influence of Indian philosophies has made it possible that the concepts of karmic actions are deeply embedded into the Tangsa society.
Narendra Mahabhikku, a Buddhist monk is credited to have popularised the Indian faith among the Tikhaks sometime in the eighteenth century.
Other accounts put their adoption of Buddhism to Sri Tiringda Bhikhi who constructed a Buddhist temple in the Tikhak village of Kamba in the nineteenth century, resulting in the Tikhakhs coming under the veneer of the Sramana school of thought (Tripathy).
Hindu and Buddhist Tangsas celebrate the same festivals as those celebrated elsewhere in the subcontinent, be it Holi, Diwali or Makar Sankranti.
In addition to this, they also follow their traditional festivals with devotion such as Waman Mol (also called Rangju Mol), the celebratory festival when crops are ripening; Samphang Mol, the sowing festival to ensure a good yield and Chamsai, the harvest festival.
Much of their festivals coincide with those of other festivals celebrated by Hindus across India such as Bihu, Pongal, Vishu and so on.
With the rapid growth of Christianity, polytheist Tangas have been at a receding ground seeing their numbers deplete over the last few decades.
Polytheist Nagas (be it Hindus, Heraka, Tingkao Ragwang Chapriak, Rangfarah or other faiths) have been facing a century long brunt of aggression by vested interests such as the notorious National Socialist Council for Nagaland, which seeks to create an independent Christian theocracy from Indian and Burmese territories.
Similarly, Buddhist Tikhak Tangsas of the region have stated they were being coerced to convert to Christianity for several years (Kashyap).
The state government has lately been taking steps to stem the loss and possibly even reverse them.
The increase in the number of temples for Rangfrah have brought hope among the followers that they may be able to regain their lost numbers over time (Arunachal Observer).
Chief Minister Pema Khandu paid his respect to the late Dr Latsam Khimum who passed away earlier this year in February. The state head acknowledged his immense contributions in helping formalise the Rangfrahism faith (Arunachal Observer).
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