How oral folk tales tell the origin stories of the arrival of northeast tribes in India

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Legend has it that an ancient wild pear tree still stands somewhere in the Makhel village of Manipur, where centuries ago a united Naga clan met for the last time to decide its future.

According to the Poumai Nagas, an important Naga tribe, Pou, a sage, had led the Nagas from the Irrawaddy River valley in Myanmar to Makhel. After the meeting, Pou stuck his cane in the ground. The stick grew and became a wild pear tree. Before the Nagas dispersed on different paths to evolve into 16 different tribes, they took an oath that they would one day unite.

The legend of Pou and the wild pear tree is just one of thousands of endangered folk tales that are rooted in the ancient history of the Northeast, including Nagaland, but which continue to be relevant today. today despite cartographic changes in the region.

There is the fable of a greedy dog ​​which, according to a legend of the Ao Naga tribe, a Naga subgroup, changed the very nature of their storytelling. The Aos claim that they once had a script, which was inscribed on a skin and hung on the wall for all to see and learn. But a hungry dog ​​shot him down and ate him.

Left without writing, the Aos then plunged wholeheartedly into an oral tradition to recount the social, political, historical and religious aspects of their lives.

In India, as in the United States, certain books are banned in certain states. Ramayana: A True Reading by Periyar EV Ramasamy is banned in Uttar Pradesh because his analysis “could hurt religious feelings”.

Legends and popular beliefs like the one involving the wise old Pou and the greedy dog ​​and many others have been passed down through every generation, until the arrival of British settlers and Christianity in the 19th century. Animist beliefs in Naga society and its 16 tribes dried up with the advent of missionaries, whose conversion campaigns led more than 90% of the population to adopt the Baptist faith. Christianity’s dominant monotheistic doctrine could be seen as a stumbling block in the oral transmission of inherently animistic beliefs through stories, songs, myths, jokes, spirits, enchanted forests, forbidden waters, angels and demons, curses and omens, so far.

Contemporary writers and poets from Nagaland and other parts of the North East have now taken it upon themselves to keep these legends alive through their writing, using their art to tell the stories of their ancestors and building bridges between wisdom ancient and contemporary life, society and politics. . Temsula Ao’s poem (excerpts below) for example is a critique of what has been lost due to the region’s interlude with Christianity and other socio-political factors.

Warriors and were-tigers
Came to life through the tales
Like different animals

Who were once our brothers
Until we invented the language
And started calling them savages.

Grandfather constantly warned
This oblivion of stories
would be catastrophic
We could lose our history
Territory and certainly
Our intrinsic identity.

…My own grandsons are dismissing
Our stories as gibberish
From the dark ages, old fashioned
In present times and ask
Who needs rambling stories
When will the books do the trick?

So when memories fail and words waver
I’m overwhelmed by a bestial envy
To tear the guts out of thieves
Out of the original dog
And record my stories
To the script in its old entrails.

Preeti Gill, independent literary agent, describes this trend as the rejuvenation of a new literary current, where artists look to their history to reclaim and affirm their identity. “People whose history and civilization had been pushed to the margins set out to recreate their past and reinvent traditions, as part of a nationalist program of identity affirmation,” she says.

Temsula Ao (left); and Avinuo Kire

Another fiction writer, Avinuo Kire’s account of Kohima The last light of the glory daysabout the creation of an independent Naga nation and identity, also draws on the society’s rich oral histories and motifs such as demons, secret potions and spirits.

“I grew up listening to these stories and actively sought to learn them as an adult, a big reason being that these oral histories are tied to identity,” she says. Outlook.

The memories that AO draws on are a window into history where mythical motifs and legends serve as ethereal markers of the region’s past.

The entrenchment of native tribal beliefs in Naga identity was evident in 1929, when, in their memorandum with the Simon Commission, the Nagas used native beliefs as a diacritical marker, differentiating them from Hindus or Muslims.

Spiritual Nights by Easterine Kire (63), which was released earlier this year, is full of old-world naga charm, spiritual beliefs, taboos, as well as hunting and farming practices. It is also inspired by ancient oral histories of the Chang Naga tribes. Kire’s historical fiction, bitter wormwood positions an herb known by a similar name as an antidote to violence and strife, which has plagued Naga society in recent times.

Bilingual Manipur-born poet Robin S. Ngangom says it is natural for artists in northeast India to tap into the folk traditions he grew up with. “It was Shillong who brought me to this kind of poetry with its gentle hills, the Khasis with their rich oral literature,” says Ngangom, whose poetry is steeped in the myths, legends, traditions and culture of the region.

Mamang Dai, a poet and novelist from the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), also recounts the traditions of the past with a contemporary twist. His 2006 book Pensam Legends is a collection of short stories that liberally uses the myths and beliefs of the Adi community, which is spread across the Siang Valley and PA Tibet. They depict tribal PA societies rooted in animism and forest ecology in the context of the arrival of colonialism. In Adi language, Thought looks like in-between.

“It’s a small world where anything can happen and anything can be experienced; where the narrow boat that we call life navigates as best it can in calm or stormy weather; where a man’s life can be measured in the length of a song,” according to Dai.

Temsula Ao’s works also juxtapose the violence and politics of Nagaland with oral narratives. his poem, Lungterok Stone People, documents legends of the Ao Naga tribe who believe that their ancestors emerged from the earth at a place called Lungterok and possessed wisdom and survival skills embedded in the natural and supernatural worlds. His collection of short stories These Hills Called Home – Stories from a War Zone longs for the lost era of peace in the Naga past, which gave way to tumult during and after the colonial era. Another collection of short stories, The Tombstone in My Garden: Stories from Nagaland tells references to mythical plants that are projected as sentient beings capable of love, anger and hate. The memories Ao dives into are a window into history where mythical motifs and legends serve as ethereal markers of the region’s past. Just like the mystical reference to the “tree of departure” in the legend of Poumai Naga.

“There are tangible historical facts such as stone monoliths and sacred trees planted in Makhel at the time of their scattering in different directions. Along with the legends of Makhel and other common folklore, myths and tales play an important role in forming the consciousness of ‘we’ among the Nagas and laying the decisive foundations of Naga identity,” says Tuisem Ngakang. , who teaches history at the Hindu College of Delhi.

So perhaps the mythical ancient wild pear tree still stands, its foliage awaiting the arrival of the weary descendants of the 16 Naga clans who have split a little too far for a little too long.

(This appeared in the print edition as “When Legends Come Alive”)


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