Food Offerings to Ancestors

Food Offerings to Ancestors

India and China are next-door neighbors; naturally, they influenced each other’s culture. One such influence is in honoring ancestors. In both the cultures ancestors are remembered, honored and fed. On specified periods each year priests or the poor are feasted on favorite foods of the ancestors.

Also in both cultures the line of descent is traced all the way to the great flood when almost everyone was drowned. There are legends of such a flood called pralaya in the Indian tradition. The Chinese too have a beautiful story of the flood that we shall hear presently.

This folk tale is popular among the Jiro people of China and it goes as follows. Long ago, water began to flow alarmingly, inundating villages and killing people, plants and animals. One family that had a son named Manu and twin daughters Mani and Mang did some quick thinking. They packed a hollowed log with food and told the children to climb in. The opening at the top was covered with cowhide and sealed with bee’s wax. Bells were attached to the boat so that they would ring when the boat hit dry land. The raging flood drowned the parents and set the log afloat.

After many days on the water the children were curious to see what was happening. The boy slit the cowhide with his knife. There was high water and dead bodies floating everywhere. The boy quickly closed the opening and sealed it with wax.

After several weeks of floating the log landed on a hilltop. The bells rang; the children came out and began to scout for a suitable place to build a house. They put up a shelter the best way they knew how and found enough edible berries and leaves despite the destruction cause by the flood.

Many years passed. One day, Manu, now a man, noticed grey hair on his sisters’ heads. It dawned on him that they were the only three people alive and all were getting old. The boy proposed to his sisters the idea of marriage and procreation. They were horrified at first but on further reflection grasped the importance of their brother’s suggestion. The sisters decided to agree but said they must first get the permission of grandfather Banyan tree.

As they went to the tree, Manu quietly ran by the short cut and hid behind it. The sisters bowed down before the Banyan and said, “We know it is not right to marry our brother, but under the circumstances we are confused. Please guide us,” Manu answered in an old man’s deep voice, “Children, if you don’t marry your brother the human race will end. Incest is permitted in this case.” After saying this Manu raced home and was there before the sisters returned.

So the twin sisters married their brother, but for long years none of them conceived. Manu feared they might already be too old. But something strange was happening.

One of the pumpkin seeds their parents had packed in the boat grew and flourished unusually well. Its creeper crept over valleys and mountains and spread like no other plant had ever done before. Thousands of pumpkins ripened every year. One branch of the creeper climbed over the twins’ house and produced a lot of fruit.

One day Mani heard strange voices in the back of the house. The sounds were not loud, but it seemed that a lot of little people were clamoring. Who could they be? She called Manu and both of them looked everywhere. Finally, they were convinced that the sounds were coming from a large pumpkin. Not knowing what to do, they didn’t do anything.

After much hushed waiting Manu decided to release the people inside the pumpkin. With a big knife he tried to cut a hole. A piteous cry came from inside, ‘please have pity, do not cut us.’ Manu stopped. Twice again he tried to cut the gourd to release the people, but had to stop because of appeals from inside.

Then another more commanding voice spoke from inside, “Son, I am Apierer. These are my children. The time has come for them to come out and spread over the earth. Please open the path on my navel.”

Manu did what he was told. As soon as the way opened, Apo came out. Because he rubbed against Apierer’s black navel his skin became dark and to this day the Apo people of China are dark.

Next came out the Han to spread with his descendents over a lot of land. Third came Dai and last came Jiro. Ji in Chinese means ‘squeeze’ and no ‘last’. So the Jiro were the last to squeeze out.

By the time Jiro came out, all the land was already occupied. So the Jiro settled on the remaining least desirable hilly area where they still live. But they are full of gratitude to Grandmother Apierer for her sacrifice. They always offer food to her and give thanks whenever they have good fortune.

January 01, 2005