Before an attempt is made on the concept of Nyishi custom of worshipping nature through puja or festivals like Nyoyin-Nyokum; it is necessary to focus on the religious belief of the Nishing (Nyishi). The Nyishi, who dwell in nature, believe in numerous Uyus (deities). This belief centres on spirits or deities of nature. All the performances of customary rites of Nyishi more or less relate to natural objects in Siichii and Nyedo i.e. earth and sky. A particular puja or rite expresses solidarity with all other deities on earth seeking their consent and compromise. In this way, he invokes a particular god or goddess without interference of or provocation to other deities.
It is worth mentioning that the Nishing consider the revolution of earth with seasonal changes as the main factor that brings sorrows and suffering in the form of diseases, mental agony, and loss of physical strength to live. On the onset of monsoon, the earth is wet due to rain and all living things on earth, including plants, are inspired with life and look around in hunger like monsters. Similarly, evil spirits harm the souls of human beings and inflict upon them various diseases. This happens due to the cyclical change of atmosphere on earth affecting the sky.
In course of time, life becomes more miserable due to attack of evil spirits of nature because of displeasure and hunger. There is a Nyishi proverb that says Chichin-Soyin and Chimb-rah i.e. sorrows and sufferings of human beings begin as living things on earth expose their mouths for fulfilling their hunger. It means that weak souls of human beings become preys to the evil spirits that harm either human souls or, if appeased, will protect life and shower blessing or prosperity. Therefore, when an individual is nujed (neglected) by thrii uyu (god and goddess of home), then the soul of man is exposed to the outer world and is taken captive by gyeda uyu or is killed instantly. It is very difficult to appease the deities of nature because of the existence of innumerable spirits in nature. Gods and goddesses of forest are prone to cause harm to human beings, causing diseases, pains, accidents and are even physically captured by a particular deity called yapom who sometimes appear in human form.
There are three kinds of prominent spirits of nature called (1) Bur (2) Dogie and (3) Yapom, occupying different positions in nature. They are normally not visible by the naked eyes of a layman; but the priest can know these spirits while chanting mantras. These deities may be displeased when not appeased by offerings of animal sacrifices, or provoked unknowingly by man by means of felling trees, rolling down stones to valleys or rivers, or if fire is caused to jungle. This sort of disturbance or misbalance in nature is caused where the deities are believed to dwell. In such a situation, they may avenge human beings in various ways. In certain cases the three gods mentioned above join together and inflict sorrows and sufferings upon human beings which can only be offset through performance of omens on chicken liver or eggs.
These deities live in different worlds, as the belief goes, but on certain occasions they jointly roam about and punish wrong-doers. Bur is believed to be the spirit of the underground or places like lakes, swamps, ravines or underground hollows. This does not mean a physical Bur, for instance, a crocodile, cannot be found in rivers or lakes. However, it is also believed that spiritual Burs have their spirits in crocodiles and attack human beings and shallow them up. Dojie, the spirit of sky, dwells above the earthly atmosphere and creates thunderstorm, lightning rain etc. when angered by wrong deeds of man, and cause havoc. Yopom is the spirit of forests dwelling in thick forests and in the hollows of big trees. Besides the above, there are various other spirits of nature like Sii-moro Ath-sii, Yarei and Nyobi Yachum Yache (a female spirit). These spirits have certain species of forests prescribed to them by nature like pipal trees, canes, bananas, caves or stones, creepers and plants.
Indiscriminate despoliation of these objects of forest by man would cause him to face illness of corn or animals. It may also result in death by sudden illness or accident in the hands of wild animals or other unnatural deaths. A Nyishi, whenever he performs customary rites to appease the offended deities, never resorts to further such commission against the wishes of nature, and always bears in mind the penalty to be paid by him by means of sacrificial offerings. There are various methods of performing rituals for various deities, which cannot be described here at length. The killing of animals like tiger, elephants or felling of forbidden big trees are backed by a customary rite called Pikhee menam which cannot be performed by ordinary man. Only he who is well-to-do can perform. Therefore, ordinary man always tends to avoid committing such act.
However, in common puja rites, when the Yugie (altar) is prepared, a symbol of each deity is beautifully arranged and decorated. For example, for the earth god and sun god, Sii-Donyi image is erected, for Dojie and Yopom, Pamga with bracket symbols is erected. In favour of Nyobi Yachum Yache, a basket is prepared and hung along with the sub-altar of Gyeda Uyu. Sacrifice is also made to all the deities at their respective altars by killing a pig, a goat and /or fowls, with their blood stained on the images of the deities. In certain other cases, egg is kept at puppur prepared as offering to the spirits. Such spirits, when displaced, or when disturbance is caused to their dwelling, tend to harm the nature as well as human beings through various forms of effects. These effects may be either direct or indirect, resulting in the loss of certain things related to human beings, foodgrains and domestic animals. These sort of effects normally relate to a given situation and time-period.
Bur-dojie is a supernatural element, which applies simultaneously to earth and sky. Its action is noticeable when Dojie is displeased over happening on earth due to disastrous act done on earth (Siichii). Then the Nyedo (sky) gets disbalanced and the god of sky i.e. Dojie, out of anger causes thunder, storm, lightning and rain. This violent nature of change in the sky, with looming and thundering clouds, hampers the activities of man on earth. On the other hand, such changes in weather condition affect human activities pertaining to socio-cultural and agricultural life. Sometimes, lightning kills man and animals and even burns human dwellings.
Simultaneously, Bur, the god of the underground, causes havoc on earth by causing landslides, erosions and floods in the gorges and river valleys. These affect domestic animals. The swallowing up of animals does not mean the physical act of Bur but its indirect effect. In olden days such happenings were very frequent, as people were more superstitious and had serious beliefs. These acts of deities towards nature and propitiating such gods and goddesses were also equally the order of the day. Natural calamities were taken very seriously and the wrong deeds were rectified through conciliatory offerings of animal sacrifices.
The third kind of forest god (deities) is Yapom, also called Appa moro, who is considered to be the owner of certain kind of forest products and their components. When the dwelling areas of Yapom is indiscriminately affected by human acts, Yapom may get annoyed and cause harm to human beings, even to the extent of kidnapping by appearing in human form. The kidnapped man is confined high up in a tree or in inaccessible caves. It is not necessary that Yapom always appears in human form, but he can also lead the captive person through his spirit. Sometimes, it is believed that the god of sky, Dojie, changes to Yapom on earth and takes the part of Yapom and does the job on earth as situation demands.
There are various gods and demigods relating to forest, rivers, earth etc. in addition to the above gods and goddesses. It is an established fact that the Nyishi are not supposed to destabilise those deities to avoid offending and getting hurt. The god of nature is nothing but the guard and witness of nature and it is believed that each item of forests has an eye to see whether the act of man on nature is reasonable or not. On the reasonable acts of man, there is always leniency from nature-deities. All these deities are given a generic name, such as, Uyus by Nyishi folk. These Uyus are again categorised with several branches and sub-branches which are not necessary to describe here separately. Attempt has been made here only to visualize man’s inclination towards nature worship and their concern about traditional customs and rites while worshipping nature and its owners called Nyok Ath and Esey Ayee, ie owners of land and water.
It is a customary belief that one should have restraint in his act towards nature to avoid harms from Nyok Uyus. So the Nyishi are not supposed to fell big trees and destabilise big stones or damage the caves where wild animals shelter. Wild animals are believed to be domesticated by gods of nature or forest, and are guarded by them. Further, it is believed that a particular god called Yod, having the spirit of vibrant nature, offers wild animals to humans on hunting, and such animals are killed by man as gifts from that particular god. However, in the present context such belief is not encourageable, considering the fact that diminishing of forests is also attributing to diminishing of wild life.
The life of a man becomes miserable if Chutum-Bote and Pirate-Riinte Uyu, both domestic gods, neglect a person or society. In such a situation the deities of nature may cause more harm to individual or individuals living in a village, in the form of sufferings, accidental death, prey to wild animals, drowning in rivers, falling from rocky hills or trees etc. This cause of suffering is considered as gyeda-nuj, i.e., displeasure of nature-god and non-production by homely god, as mentioned above.
There are various ways to worship nature to please its various deities by offering blood through sacrifice of animals like fowls, pigs, goats, mithuns etc. These sacrifices are mostly performed to propitiate nature deities who cause man to suffer from various illnesses. In such cases, an individual appeases the god after the omen is read in chicken liver. But in case of general natural calamities, people initiate a rite, called Nyoyin-Nyokum, through a particular family of a clan. This has a wider sense of worshipping nature god through offering him animal sacrifices for his appeasement and for blessing from him to man for wellbeing, peace and good health. The Nyokum of the Nyishi is a wider version of the original Nyoyin which are apparently synonymous with one another.
Nyoyin is performed by offering of fowl hung on a decorated long bamboo stick called khyomic, with bamboo fibres beautifully designed and kept at a particular place where the priest chants mantras calling on all the natural deities, and asks them that he who has been offended by wrong deeds against the nature should make his appearance. In course of negotiations between priest and such god, the offended deity personally introduces himself, and if appeased, accepts the offering. In case of acceptance, while naming the particular deity, the foul will start crackling and fly up and down. Other priests and witnesses now will take off the fowl and kill it, offering its bloods on a decorated bamboo stick (Khymie), and take out the liver to forecast whether the god has blessed the community in the village or any danger is indicated. After performing this sacrifice, some sort of taboo is imposed collectively on the people of that community for a specific period, such as felling of trees, cutting canes and banana trees, throwing of stone and hunting. If any individual or group violates this prohibition, the god may again be provoked and further sufferings may be visited.
In a similar way, large collective community worship is performed, known as Nyokum Yullo, if performance of Nyoyin does not yield any good result. The manner and system of performing Nyokum has a little bit of difference in approach from that of Nyoyin. In Nyokum, the household gods are invoked or appeased first of all, and are made a party. Thereafter, they call on other gods and goddesses of nature like earth, sky, forests and underground, and a huge collective community worship with offerings of food and animals is performed, accompanied by dances, Buya songs etc, in addition to chanting of mantras by priests and their assistants. Here also the same kind of forecast is made from the livers of chicken; and pigs are sacrificed at the Yugie (altar). Similar kind of prohibition is also imposed within the jurisdiction of the community participating at the Nyokum rites; but the period of prohibition is longer than that of the Nyoyin, and the time is specified.
The Nyishi undergo a comprehensive ritual performance after killing a tiger or an elephant, or felling serihen (pipal tree). A pipal tree is felled in avenging, when a beloved kin dies due to attack of Uyus. It is believed that this particular tree hosts evil spirits (deities) who are fond of human blood. However, such an act is very rare, since it may lead to serious consequences from nature-god; and as such they often refrain from such violent and vengeful acts. The Nyishi never intends to kill a tiger or elephant or a Bos-frontalis (wild Thalin), as killing of such animals is equal to killing a man. They believe that by killing such animals, the hand of the killer becomes stained and his soul is also believed to go through the door of Kyeddor (negative side of human life). The killer of such animals has to undergo a serious kind of taboo in the society in regard to performances of rituals. This prohibition is equivalent to taboo against a murderer. Moreover, killing of such animals involves extreme and expensive rituals which an ordinary person can ill-afford to perform. But in present day, due to changes in the life-style and blessed by modern development, such fear has gone out of the minds of the people, and they are therefore least concerned about such customary practices. Most people are fond of economic gain, and they have totally neglected the good old system and are least hesitant to damage the flora and fauna of the traditional eco-system.
In conclusion, the emphasis should be laid on retaining and maintaining the old custom through a comprehensive formula of teaching the values of nature with a view to balancing the degraded environment. The need of the hour is to reserve the diminishing natural resources and save them for the coming generation and for resources as well.