Jingpo - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The essence of the Jingpo religion is belief in the dual nature of man and living things—the natural and spiritual aspects—and the belief that the supernatural beings or spirits ( nat ) are superior to man. The Jingpo also believe that all the spirits were once nothing but mortals passing out from the present world; however, this passage invested them with supernatural powers and thus transformed them into objects of fear, reverence, and worship. The spirits are innumerable and occupy every imaginable place. Each village, lineage, and clan also has its particular divinities. Capable of good deeds as well as evil, the nat dominate or interfere with the affairs of the present world, bring people illness or health, bestow bad fortune or good fortune, and determine the destiny of people. The nat are disagreeable in character and always ready to take revenge—that is, to "bite" people who trespass against them, knowingly or unknowingly—so they must be avoided, feared as well as worshiped, and consulted all the time. Some aspects of Dai Buddhism and Han Chinese Confucianism appear in Jingpo myths and rituals. In recent years, quite a number of the Jingpo converted to Christianity, but the mass of the people still hold their ancestral faith and sacrifice to their numerous spirits.

Religious Practitioners. The Jingpo have part-time religious specialists, the dumsa, who can relieve people of illness and suffering by identifying the offended spirits and supplicating, placating, and making offerings to them. In order to identify the troublesome spirits and ascertain their will and wishes, a dumsa should also be a diviner. Public recognition is the main basis of the dumsa's qualification. Dumsas' popularity, influence, and income depend on their personal abilities and charisma. Certain grades are commonly recognized among these specialists. The first is the jaiwa, or grand dumsa, the highest religious authority and the only priest who can officiate on special occasions such as manao (the greatest festival dedicated to the madai nat, the highest of all ancestor spirits). The second is the dumsa, among whom several grades exist: ga dumsa , who can minister to the earth and sky spirit; tru dumsa, who can authorize the sacrifice to the ancestral spirits; and the normal dumsa. Among this group there is also shichao, a dumsa specializing in releasing and sending the souls of the dead to the spirit world. The third is the hkinjawng, a subordinate and assistant to the dumsa when putting up the altar and cutting up the sacrifice. The fourth is the myhtoi, the medium or nat prophet, who is the oracle of the spirit world, able to get in touch with nat and know their will when in a trance. The fifth is the ningwaw t, the diviner. (Some diviners are also dumsa, but usually capable ningwawt are not.) All of these specialists traditionally receive payment from their clients for their service. With few exceptions, these specialists are male, aged, and capable, with glib tongues, familiar with the religious language chanted at the sacrifice as well as everything about the history, tradition, and legends of their lineages and clans. The dumsa once were leading figures in the society. During the Cultural Revolution and other political campaigns, the dumsa had a difficult time, but now they are practicing again and make a fair income from their services.

Ceremonies. To propitiate the nat by offering them animal sacrifices is the object of Jingpo rituals. Each village is a self-authorized unit of communal ritual, and the village heads (formerly the chiefs) and the dumsa jointly take care of the rituals. Each family also takes full responsibility for its own rituals and is free to invite any dumsa to preside. Two communal rituals, the numshang offerings, are performed each year, one in April and the other in October. Connected with sowing and harvest, the two offerings especially reflect the care taken to secure the goodwill of the guardians of homes and villages. There was another communal ritual, manao, the biggest ritual-festival dedicated to the madai nat. However, the Jingpo commonly did not observe it, partly because it required seven to nine buffalo or cattle, tens of pigs, and hundreds of fowl as sacrifices, but also because only the madai-keeper families (i.e., those from the main chief lineages) were entitled to hold it, and only the jaiwa were entitled to conduct it. The government authorities banned this grand ritual in the Cultural Revolution. Now the government has officially declared the manao a Jingpo national holiday and fixed it on the Chinese New Year; its celebration is officially organized with no nat-offering activities. Individual households hold other rituals on a fixed timetable connected with subsistence farming: the ancestral nat offering in February for the whole family's good fortune in the coming year and in April to guarantee growth of the rice seedlings; the stream nat offering in May to prevent the people being "bitten" by the spirit; the new-rice tasting ritual in October to thank the sky and ancestral nat; the rice-soul-calling-back ritual in November to ensure continued consumption of the rice. Families also perform some situational and problem-resolving rituals. Situational rituals include those for marriages, funerals, new-house building, the regular visiting of the mayu family by the dama, and "face washing" occasioned by adultery or other sexual scandals. People hold problem-resolving rituals to dispel illness and misfortune, to call back a wife who has run away, to find lost things, and so on.

Arts. Jingpo literature includes legends, ballads, and folktales, which are mainly about the genesis and genealogy of the chief clans and are handed down orally by the dumsa. Love songs are very popular among the youth, and the religious group dance of manao is a vivid presentation of Jingpo character. Weaving and embroidery of wool skirts are well developed, whereas painting and wood carving are simple and mainly associated with nat worship.

Medicine. The Jingpo traditionally attributed illness to a bite from a nat, or soul loss. Traditional folk medicine was limited to some medicinal plants and herbs, mainly for injuries or wounds. Modern medicine has been introduced in the Jingpo area since 1949, but the dumsa rituals remain the first resort in any illness. The Jingpo believe that if a person dies outside the village, his or her spirit will become a "wild nat," which can never return to the old homeland but instead wanders around trying to "bite" the living. Because of this belief, many sick villagers are reluctant to go to the hospital.

Death and Afterlife. The Jingpo believe that human beings are multisouled: a man has six souls and a woman seven. Of the souls three are "near" or "real," while the rest are "far" or "false." If the "real" souls are all absent from the body—because a nat has "bitten" the person or for another reason—the person will die; if one or two are away, the person will be ill. A human being will join the nat world after dying. The best death is a natural death (a death at 50 years of age or older) at home; the worst death is to die by accident outside the home, an occurrence that the Jingpo believe to be caused by evil spirits. The funeral rituals are for normal deaths only and consist of the burial, which disposes of the corpse, and the spirit sending, which sends the spirit away to the world of nat spirits. The two parts are usually held at the same time but may be held separately within a month or even a year, if the family cannot afford the whole ritual at once. The spirit sending is more important because the spirit separated from the corpse remains at home, in the spirit room, and can always cause trouble. The Jingpo believe that at least one buffalo should be killed and its skull should be laid in front of the person's grave to please the deceased's spirit and exhort it to leave.

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