by Asem Chanu Manimala*
‘Since time immemorial people have been residing in Loktak[i]’, said one of the fisherman, whose phum (the floating hut) was burnt down, among many others by Loktak Development Authority (LDA) in 2011. Paat (lake) people, as the fishing community is known in Manipur, build their huts on top of a floating grass known as Phumdi, which is comprised of a heterogeneous mass of vegetation and organic matter floating in the lake. Like any other littoral community, the fishing community of the Paat have their own set of belief system. There is a bond between the Paat and the people.
Barbara Watson Andaya has highlighted how local belief tied with water has recognition of supernatural forces, which are distributed in various parts of a water body. Similarly, in Loktak Paat, the community believe in the presence of Loktak Lairembee (The Goddess of Loktak). She is the only goddess who will be whispered every day, believed to be the protector of the Paat and the Paat people.
Paat people annually celebrate Loktak-Lairembee-Lai-Haraoba, an annual festival where they express their gratitude and offering to Loktak Lairembee for taking care of them, like a mother. For which, she is also known as Ima Lairembee (Mother Goddess). Often due to life giving nature of the water, most water bodies are seen as a female, calm and forgiving in nature. Water is also used as an idiom and motif to depict purity, fertility and procreation, among others. There appears to be a certain semblance to such a belief in Loktak.
The other most important belief of the Paat people is the incarnation of Ibudhou Pakhangba(the Supreme Snake God) as the wooden boat(locally known as hee), which they use everyday for fishing and daily commute. Paat people do not want Ibudhou Pakhangba to express anger on them, as he is believed to be a mighty and an angry God. Everyday, before setting out into the lake from their Phum, they would sprinkle water on themselves from the lake (as a belief of cleansing), and touch their forehead thrice with their hand. Only after performing these rituals, they board the hee. A sense of fear and gratitude marks their relationship with the hee.
Water spirits can be both hostile and benevolent. Paat people believe that Helloi is a mischievous female spirit. They are supposed to be beautiful female figure spirits, who are mostly attracted to men, and often give them illness and misfortune, even take one’s life. Paat people recount many encounters where people have fallen ill and even lost their lives, which are believed to be deeds of Helloi. When someone encounters Helloi, and falls ill, the affected are generally taken to Maiba(traditional healer) for their treatment. But sometimes, the effect can be severe where the victim cannot be saved or brought back to one’s group, to their social and cosmic order.
In order to avoid such misfortunes Paat people try to negotiate with the spirits through offering. Even among many fishing communities of Assam, they offer chillies and garlic to avoid spirits. In Assam, one shares a popular tale about a ghost known as baak, who loves fishes. It is widely believed that if baak comes to know about your fishing routine, he will disguise as a friend, and accompany the person. Later, he will steal the fish, and bury the fisherman upside down in the mud. In order to avoid any encounter with baak, fisherman carries a torn fishing net, as the baak is believed to be horrified by the image of torn net.
In Loktak Paat, people recount certain places where the presence of spirits have been felt or encountered. Marking of spirits in water is also an integral part of the littoral world and it gives us a sense of place-making. These specific areas are often avoided during fishing. In order to avoid misfortunes, they offer delicacies prepared and performed by Maiba who also preside over related rituals. Such gifting was also common among seafarers of South East Asia in the expectations of protection, guidance and safe passage. Such offering of a variety—foods, goods and money—also carried a sense of reciprocity as Marcel Mauss would argue. In such gifting, there is also a very close attention that is paid to taste of the goods offered, like sweet, bitter, and pungent, among others. At times, even mediums were used, making it a liminal conduct. In Loktak too it is not an aberration.
These days the paat people are in despair. They are not accustomed to a life in land. After their phums were burnt down, they had to sell their fishing equipment at a minimal price for survival, as fishing has been banned in the lake. They have tried to highlight how Nambol River which empties itself into the lake carries most of the debris. Those wastes have been destroying fauna and flora of the lake. Such developmental discourse remains largely ignored, a cost that the lake people are paying in the name of development and urbanization.
The question remains how will they assemble themselves as they remain distanced from the most important thing in their life—water.
[i]Loktak Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India, pulsating in nature, which swells up to 500 sq km during rainy season and stabilizes at 250 sq km during winter season (cf www.ramsar.org).
Manimala is with the Pangsau Collective.