Chin - Religion and Expressive Culture



Religious Beliefs. The Chin-Lushai traditional pantheon is complicated. There is generally a somewhat remote creator god, sometimes with a female counterpart. Some say his realm is coextensive with the Land of the Dead. He is revered as a remote father figure, but his power consists only of a vague ability to protect one against ultimate adversity. It is in the light of these characteristics that the traditional high god served as a sort of model to which the Christian God of the missionaries was rather readily assimilated. The Chin believe the universe to be populated as well by all sorts of spirits; some of them being great and deitylike; some of them residing in other "worlds," such as the afterworld; some of them having dominion over domains large or small, locally or elsewhere; and some of them appearing as wandering ghosts, demons, and less personifiable beings. Some of the most fearsome of the last group are the ghosts of those who die by accident or violence, for they are angry and vengeful (e.g., the ghosts of women who have died in childbirth and cannot be made to leave for the Land of the Dead). The cosmos is basically divided into two parts, the sky world (including the Land of the Dead) and the earth, but since the relations Between the two are an asymmetrical dependency, there are two routes between them: one upward and one through the "underworld"—the latter ambivalently associated with death and also with prosperity, owing to the fact that crops grow out of the ground. Because of this ambiguity, Chin origin tales often say that the first people came at one and the same time out of some hole or cave and from the sky world.


Religious Practitioners. Mediums, generally women, who go into trances and find out which spirits are demanding what from whom, and for what offense, and who may also find out where the soul of an ill or deranged person has wandered, have been mentioned earlier. The village priests and reciters who serve at private feasts and communal sacrifices have also been mentioned. They tend to be chiefly appointees, though one kind has to be from a commoner lineage.


Ceremonies. Feasts and celebrations occur irregularly, whenever someone finds it possible or necessary to give one: for instance, when one has killed a major game animal or when one wishes to make a more elaborate house. Some Village rites take place once in every year or once every few years, depending upon the arrangement with the spirit in question. Other such rites are held when some plague or calamity seems to demand it and a medium or a diviner has identified what is to be done. There are all manner of private curing rituals, and these are held by whomever knows how, not by professionals; they tend to involve sacrifices to intruding spirits, soul recalling, and the leaving of miniature images of wealth outside the village for the spirits. There are few definite seasonal calendrical ceremonies, but village rites must be held before clearing, planting, and harvesting. All sorts of means (such as observing cracks in heated eggshells, the bile ducts in pig livers, or how a dying fowl crosses its legs) are used for divining the source of troubles and the auspiciousness of plans.

Arts. With minor exceptions, all Chin art is nonrepresentative, and many Chin used to find it hard even to recognize a drawn or painted human figure, though photographs were clear enough to them. Floral-geometric decoration is found in the weaving and in the memorial posts mentioned earlier. Some of the design figures conventionally stand for things—for example, for various kinds of possessions belonging to a person being commemorated—but none is iconic.

Disease and Curing. The first recourse in the treatment of diseases and even of wounds is the use of mediums who arrange for the placation of the spirits responsible, who might otherwise prevent recovery. Alongside this there is a wide variety of quite idiosyncratic treatment, chiefly of an herbal nature, which is mainly passed on from mothers to daughters and daughters-in-law.

Death and Afterlife. The dead are buried, and in the Southern Chin hills there is secondary reburial of the bones in a small jar. In general the blanket-wrapped corpse is interred in a stone-lined chamber in one side of a vertical pit. Those who have died a violent death and who therefore are likely to have become dangerous ghosts are buried in a separate gravesite, remote from the village and surrounding trails. The range of memorial constructions is considerable, but among them should be mentioned—in addition to the commemorative posts—the stone platforms in and around the village, on which people can rest and on which, some say, the spirit of the deceased may sometimes come and rest; and the clusters of miniature houses on tall stilts, in which periodic offerings of food and miniature furnishings are placed for the spirit of the deceased. An interesting feature of the stone platforms (in the case of deceased males), behind which the memorial posts are raised, is the line of small stones that may also be present, each representing either a human victim of the deceased or, equivalently, another man's wife seduced by the deceased. Modern memorial stones have written on them lists of the deceased's possessions in life, often in astonishing detail, down to the odd enameled tin cup or pair of woolen socks.

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