Like Sajibu Cheiraoba, Yaosang, Thabal Chongba, Lai Haraoba, Kang and Heikru Hidongba, Ningol Cahkouba is an important socio-cultural festival of the Manipuris. However, unlike other cultural or religious carnivals which are generally celebrated outdoors along with local communities, this festival is an in-house celebration, though the participation of neighbours is optional depending on the invitation by the host.
Ningol Chakouba is a festival to mark the ‘invitation of daughters to lunch or dinner in parents’ house’. ‘Ningol’ means daughter and ‘Chakouba’ means an invitation to lunch or dinner. The festival is meant for married daughters who are invited by their brothers or the parents in the absence of brothers.
It is a one-day annual festival observed two days after Kali Puja when the new Moon gets two days old. The day also sees several other celebrations by the people from different parts of India and Nepal, namely, Bhai Phonta by the Bengali, Bhai Dhooj by the North Indian, and Bhau Beej by the West Indian, and Bhai Tika by the Nepali. The commonality in all these celebrations is that they are observed to strengthen the bond between the sisters and their brothers (who represent their maternal line).
The main attraction of Ningol Chakouba is the feast which consists of an amazing variety of traditional Manipuri cuisines. Aside from the common Indian dishes, the menu includes Manipuri conventional dishes like Nga thongba (classic fish curry), Chamthong (a healthy vegetable stew), Iromba (a delightful combination of boiled vegetables and fermented/ roasted fish), Chakempomba (a curry of brewers rice and leafy vegetables), and Sinju (Manipuri salad bursting with vegetables) etc.
On this day, all the members of the house and the guests sit together to enjoy the lunch or dinner meant for the daughter who is paying her annual ceremonial visit to her parents’ house with her husband and siblings.
At the end of the day, gifts are given to her. The loveliest part of this gift offering session is that the parents offer them as blessings and the daughter receives them as the most inestimable things.
The neighbours also come with gifts for her, as for the Indian villages one’s daughter is everyone’s daughter. So they feel as excited as they do on seeing their daughters. The gifts they generally bring for her are their home products like khudei (assimilates Assamese gamoocha), phanek (Manipuri Mekhela) and Inaphee (Manipuri Chadar). Even the poorest neighbours also come with a basket of vegetables and rice grown in their fields for the lady to take home.
The ceremony secures the bond between the wedded women and their maternal family, a perennial connection which no power can detach. That a caring space is always open for a daughter in her parental home is reasserted by this observance.
Again, it is a pampering time for the woman. Away from the stressful life at hubby’s place where she has to play multiple roles of a wife, daughter-in-law, and a mother, she can just spend the day or days putting off her power suit and indulging her inner child. With her brothers and sisters, it is a dear reunion time when they all fondly remember their unguarded childhood days of togetherness.
For the parents, long for Ningol Chakouba is like the Hindu’s year-long eagerly waiting for the Goddess Durga’s homecoming. The devotee’s impatient waiting for the Goddess, the merriment during puja, and the heavy feeling on the Dashami morning are analogous to the parents’ feeling before, during, and after Ningol Cakouba. Indeed, the excitement in looking forward to the daughter’s visit, the feeling of joy and satisfaction during her stay, and the emptiness that her parting leaves can only be felt intensely by the parents.
Though a married woman does not require any reason to visit her parents’ house, with her various preoccupations at her in-laws’ place, Ningol Chakouba comes to her as a good excuse for sparing some time for her maternal connect. For those who stay abroad, particularly, it is a nice opportunity to meet parents and coddle their tongues with the long-lost yet close-to-heart taste of traditional dishes.
Again, this fiesta of inviting daughter to the maternal house is significant in the sense that it is a matter of ‘shame for the wedded women to pay frequent visits to their parents’ place in Manipuri tradition.
They always restrict their visit to once or twice a year. Thus in such a tradition, the festival seems imperative and meaningful. In Manipur, the day is marked as a state holiday and is celebrated with great enthusiasm.
When a girl is often stereotypically labeled as a ‘paraya dhan’ (meaning her real place belongs with her in-laws and she is just a guest at her parents’ home), the festival of Ningol Chakouba and the like explores the other side of a girl’s story.
That is, a girl no matter how far she sails through her nuptial tie and no matter how many different identities she acquires through her in-laws and her extensions, her maternal root is the ground-rock that supports her in whatever she becomes. Thus her maternal connection should be honoured and nourished so she can live a meaningful life.