Today is Cheiraoba, the start of another year in the Meitei calendar. It is a day ideally spent with one’s own family. In many homes, guests are not really welcomed with open arms on this day. The first half of the day is typically spent in and around the kitchen while the remaining half would be spent nowhere around it. In every home, the kitchen is the centre of activities. The members of the family gather together to help out in making lavish meals consisting of at least seven dishes (often more). The meals are not just meant for consumption by the household but shared as a goodwill to one’s neighbours , an act that is reciprocated from the receiving end as well. After consuming the heavy meal, people set out in the evening to scale the Cheirao Ching hillock. This is a small hillock with some shrines at its peak. However, the shrines do not seem as important as the outing itself for the majority of people flocking it.
As the Meitei month of lamta ends with the feeding of the wandering spirits, the new year begins on an optimistic note as a harbinger of a prosperous year ahead. According to Meitei beliefs, as the old year passes and the new one begins, the spirits (call it divinities, deities, gods: the Meitei term is lai) decide on the persons who would die in the coming year. The dangerous sacred potent during lamta is lifted with the coming of Sajibu heralding hope. It is said that during monarchial times, the king used to perform elaborate rituals of absolution on this day. A person would be appointed as the chei-thaba for the year. The person in this position takes on what the king has ritually been absolved of. He is sworn to shoulder the responsibility of the king, his subjects and the land. The chei-thaba is thus connected through the absolution rituals to the king. Significantly, he (it never seems to have been a ‘she’) is the official chronicler who maintains record of important events in his tenure.
The first day of the new year starts early in the morning with a thorough spring cleaning. Offerings are made to the household deities. These offerings consists of seasonal vegetables, fruits and rice grains that are later cooked. The cooked food is then offered at the hearth (for the deity Phunga-lairu, guardian of the hearth) and outside the gates (for the lamlai deities residing outside the house). Of course, there are always youngsters who lay in wait for which home finishes first so that they can pounce on the meal laid outside. My grandfather would shoo them off, but the moment he turns his back, there would be someone either devouring or vandalizing the offered meal.
Inside the home, the meal starts with consuming something bitter. In our house, it was a combination of raw peruk (brahmi/Indian pennywort) and a piece of fresh turmeric. In a friend’s home, it is usually the tender leaves of the guava. The Meiteis do not observe a course-by-course meal system in their everyday meal, so one would do better to expect a whole spread instead. The Cheiraoba spread would invariably include – a boiled vegetable (sometimes sweetened), a dry stir fry, a seasonal mixed vegetable, a mashed vegetable with a hot chilly base, ooti (peas cooked with soda) and a papad/bora. For a people who cannot live without the quintessential ngari(fermented fish), this is one lavish meal that is vegetarian. Of course, there are homes where the offering of fish is a necessary part. Here, it is usually sareng (wallago attu) that is consumed.
‘Ani thokpa leibakni’ -‘ a land split into two’, is how some people had commented on different issues concerning the Meitei society where opinions or perspectives invariably differ with often no middle points in between. No wonder then, that the festival of Cheiraoba is also celebrated on two different days: on the first day of the month of Sajibu, known as Sajibu Nongma Panba Meitei Cheiraoba and the other on the day of Charak Puja following the Hindu calendar. Until two decades earlier, Sajibu Cheiraoba was a relatively quiet affair while it was the second Cheiraoba that was more popular. Today, the tide seems to have turned in favour of Sajibu Cheiraoba which has become more widespread.
The day of Cheiraoba may differ, the cuisine for the day may differ but the king and queen of flora for this special day remains the same: kusumlei amd kombirei. Kusumlei is the flower for this special occasion. It is a thistle-like yellow and orange coloured flower (in all probabilities it is safflower). The price for this bright flower shoots up during this time of the year while it remains inconsequential all through the remaining days of the year. While safflower is almost the unofficial essential item of floral tributes of Cheiraoba, kombirei (blue iris) is the celebrity flora. Eternalised and romanticised through its namesake, the heroine of a tragic love story, kombirei blooms during this time of the year in marshy parts of the valley area.