Legend has it that an ancient wild pear tree still stands somewhere in Manipur’s Makhel village, where centuries ago, a united Naga clan converged together for the last time to decide their future course.
According to the Poumai Nagas, a major Naga tribe, Pou, a wise man, had led the Nagas from the Irrawaddy river valley in Myanmar to Makhel. After the meeting, Pou planted his walking stick in the ground. The stick sprouted and grew into a wild pear tree. Before the Nagas dispersed on to different paths to evolve as 16 different tribes, they took an oath that they would unite someday.
The legend of Pou and the wild pear tree is just one of thousands of endangered folk tales that are rooted in ancient Northeastern history, including Nagaland, but continue to be relevant today despite cartographic changes in the region.
There is the fable of a greedy dog, who according to a legend of the Ao Naga tribe, a Naga sub-group, changed the very nature of their storytelling. The Aos claim they once had a script, which was inscribed on a hide and hung on a wall for all to see and learn. But a hungry dog pulled it down and devoured it.
Left with no script, the Aos then wholeheartedly plunged into an oral tradition to recount social, political, historical and religious aspects of their life.
Legends and folk beliefs like the one involving the wise-old Pou and the greedy dog and many, many more were passed on to every generation, until the arrival of British colonists and Christianity in the 19th century. Animist beliefs in Naga society and its 16 tribes dried up with the advent of the missionaries, whose conversion drives have led to over 90 per cent of the population adopting the Baptist faith. Christianity’s dominant monotheist doctrine could be seen as a stumbling block in the oral handing down of inherently animist beliefs through stories, songs, myths, jokes, spirits, enchanted forests, forbidden waters, angels and demons, curses and omens, until now.
Contemporary writers and poets from Nagaland and other regions in the Northeast have now taken it upon themselves to keep these legends alive through their writing, using their craft to narrate the tales of their ancestors and building bridges between ancient wisdom 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 alive through the tales
As did the various animals
Who were once our brothers
Until we invented language
And began calling them, savage.
Grandfather constantly warned
That forgetting the stories
Would be catastrophic
We could lose our history
Territory and certainly
Our intrinsic identity.
…My own grandsons dismiss
Our stories as gibberish
From the dark ages, outmoded
In the present times and ask
Who needs rambling stories
When books will do just fine?
So when memories fail and words falter
I am overwhelmed by a bestial craving
To wrench the thieving guts
Out of the Original Dog
And consign my stories
To the script in his ancient entrails.
Preeti Gill, an independent literary agent, describes this trend as a rejuvenation of a new literary trend, where artistes look back to their history to reclaim and assert their identity. “People whose history and civilisation had been pushed to the margins, took up the task of recreating their past and reinventing traditions, as part of a nationalist agenda of identity assertion,” she says.
Another fiction writer, Kohima’s Avinuo Kire’s account The Last Light of Glory Days, about the creation of an independent Naga nation and identity, also banks on the society’s rich oral narratives and motifs like demons, secret potions and spirits.
“I have grown up listening to these stories and actively sought to learn them as an adult, one significant reason being that these oral stories are tied to identity,” she tells Outlook.
The rooting of indigenous tribal beliefs in Naga identity was evident in 1929, when, in their memorandum with the Simon Commission, the Nagas used indigenous beliefs as a diacritical marker, differentiating them from Hindus or Muslims.
Spirit Nights by Easterine Kire (63), which was released earlier this year, is replete with Naga old-world charm, spiritual beliefs, taboos, as well as hunting and agriculture practices. It also draws from ancient oral narratives of the Chang Naga tribes. Kire’s historical fiction, Bitter Wormwood positions a herb known by a similar name as an antidote to violence and conflict, which has ravaged Naga society in recent times.
Manipur-born bilingual poet Robin S. Ngangom claims it is natural for artists from the Northeast of India to exploit folk traditions, he grew up with. “It is Shillong that has moved me into this kind of poetry with its gentle hills, the Khasis with their rich oral literature,” says Ngangom, whose poetry gorges on the region’s myths, legends, traditions and culture.
Mamang Dai, poet and novelist from the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), also retells past traditions with a contemporary touch. Her 2006 book Legends of Pensam is a collection of short stories that liberally uses myths and beliefs of the Adi community, which is spread across AP’s Siang Valley and Tibet. They depict AP’s tribal societies rooted in animism and forest ecology against the context of the arrival of colonialism. In the Adi language, Pensam resembles the in-between.
“It is a small world where anything can happen and everything can be lived; where the narrow boat that we call life sails along somehow in calm or stormy weather; where the life of a man can be measured in the span of a song,” according to Dai.
Temsula Ao’s works also juxtapose Nagaland’s violence and politics with oral narratives. Her poem, The Stone-people from Lungterok, documents legends of the Ao Naga tribe who believe their ancestors emerged from earth at a place called Lungterok and possessed wisdom and survival skills embedded in both the natural and supernatural worlds. Her collection of short stories These Hills Called Home - Stories from a War Zone pines for the lost era of peace in the Naga past, which gave way to the tumult in and after the colonial era. Another short story collection, The Tombstone in my Garden: Stories from Nagaland recounts references to mythical plants which are projected as sentient beings which are capable of love, anger and hate. The memories Ao dips into are a window to 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 Poumai Naga legend.
“There are some tangible historical facts such as stone monoliths and sacred trees planted at Makhel at the time of their dispersion to different directions. Along with the legends of Makhel and other common folklores, myths and tales play a significant role in shaping the ‘we’ consciousness among Nagas and laying the decisive foundation of the Naga identity,” says Tuisem Ngakang, who teaches history at Delhi’s Hindu College.
So maybe the mythical, ancient wild pear tree still stands, its foliage awaiting the arrival of the weary descendants of the 16 Naga clans who have drifted apart a bit too far for a bit too long.
(This appeared in the print edition as "When Legends Come Alive")