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PNG Engan Male Purification Ritual Process and Ceremony

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Enga's Sangai a foregone culture...Papua New Guinea Engan Male Ritual Ceremony Process, an article by Tony Sulupin

Sangai or initiation ceremony for young men is synonymous to skin cutting ritual for Sepik Culture or Hiri Moale Festival for Motu Koitabuan people. However, Sangai differs in number of aspects. This descriptive piece takes you through to those distinctive features and how the most important culture was forgotten in Engan cultural context.

Sangai was practised to signify the passage of rite in growth and development of men to culminate adulthood. All young men at the age of adolescence were subject to purification process against any suspected blemishes stemming from maternal contamination at birth etc as they prepared to be man of their own. This could be the prime idea encoded in this cultural practice in male population.

Ritual Purification in Enga
PNG Enga Male Purification Ritual Process


To start the ritual process, young men at the vicinity of adults were initiated in the bushes away from home. The first week of preparation was done with gathering of food ration, constructing secret house, channelling water and so forth. Then led by their secret keeper or depository whom they called him their leader or educator. It usually took them about 10 days to initiate before showcasing for public to judge, comment and or predict each man's future livelihoods.


On the first day out there, the leader took them to the tour of entire set up which also include special terms used to denote common names such as; food, water, sit, stand, go etc. The conduct of each man would come under the scrutiny of their leader who after the induction was very tough and harsh on every single mistake. The duties performed were under the watchful eyes of their leader and ensured to perform every bit of task skillfully and adhered to all stringent rules. 


The eye washing was a complicated and painful test. Every man was made to stand before their leader who commanded each to pass this hurdle. There was a narrow water siphoning via pipe from a remarkable height.  Each man was obligated to expose  eyeball so that the force of water must hit hard on the cornea. The commander prepared to hit anyone failing or expressing any sign of incompetency or unwillingness etc with a huge stick. The underlying meaning of this ritual is to cleanse from any blemishes and stains sustained during birth and period a woman may in her menstruation.


Final day was rehearsal conducted by the boss to fine- tune and windup in readiness for major exhibition on the next day. He taught them some informative songs and also the layout of display in which boys would follow suit in the main arena. Lastly, in the night, huge fire was made in the middle, then boys were arranged in two parallel lines facing each other and sang and danced in coherent with the leader.


Back in the village, preliminary show was held to lure and gather people from far and wide. It was usually a crazy night. The girlfriends of every initiating boys came along with their mobs and rampaged every homes and villages. They could even go extreme of burning houses, destroying food gardens, chasing away men from the host village but it was all part of the occasion and not a crime. In the early morning an appointed man for each initiating boys brought extra attires to decorate them. If any girlfriend wanted to offer some costumes especially necklaces and armlets, they could do so via each helper.


After fully dressed, the men were led down by yet another group compromised mainly of those who went to decorate and others partially decorated joined in. The boys were arrayed according to seemingly age group or alternatively height (short to tall). The boss was seen with string bag carrying presumably  magical stuff as he put lid on the long procession. They proceeded to the stage before spreading out and sang to the tune of their leader. Some songs were touching hence stirred emotions of their girlfriends who snatched a special leaf installed on the armpit. This leaf was unique by its crystal clear and white surface that can still be found rarely today.  The women usually came in small singing group and seized every decorated man according to prearrangement  before ending the show in style and fever.


After the boys were initiated, they were regarded as capable of starting a new chapter in life little away from parental bond. A man was culturally accepted so could marry at this stage. He was also allowed to participate in any meeting, public speech etc. Today, this important culture is wholly coming to an extinct due to globalization.  Tribal fighting in indigenous communities of Enga have sabotaged most of the traditional costumes so its very hard to replace them. This is one reason why Sangai is hardly resuscitated. Also population increased has triggered  destruction of forest reserved as monument site for secret keeping. People who keep secrets are very rare this day or either failed to inherit or defiled by western influences. Nevertheless, if Enga Tourism branch seriously considers reviving this important cultural element by way of funding allocation to replicate skills in costumes making and collection of specimens, definitely this will be one of the potential tourists attracting components of the Enga's diverse cultural heritage...... 

Picture 1-Initiated men showing off  white surface  leaves installed in the armpit intended for girlfriends to grab as a sign of affirming romantic relationship..

Picture 2-Initiated men processed into the main arena  for final exhibition.

By Tony Sulupin (Feature Writer)

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