Oral Narratives and Myth

On the eve of the new millennium, newspapers carried reports of a small and breathtakingly beautiful valley hidden in the hills. The reports said that the valley of Dong,in Lohit district of Arunachal Pradesh, and not Katchal of And aman and Nicobar Islands, was the place that would receive the first rays of the millennium sun in mainland India. This fact, further confirmed by scientists and the Survey of India, promoted a rush of visitors to the remote spot in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh which was dubbed the sunrise village. Part of the Eastern Himalayan range, Arunachal Pradesh is the largest state of India’s North-East Region (NER), the broad term given to the group of 7 states, dubbed as the seven sisters. The state was earlier known as NEFA – the North East Frontier Agency until 1972, when it became a union territory with the brand new name of Arunachal Pradesh, Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains. Arunachal Pradesh became a full fledged state in 1987. It is 83,743 sq km. in area stretching eastwards from Bhutan in the west to the Patkoi Hills that forms India’s boundary with Myanmar. To the north and north-east, the state marks the last frontier of the country with a 1,080 km long international boundary with China along the crest of the eastern Himalaya. It is an area of great scenic beauty with snow peaks falling gradually southwards into pristine forests and valleys crisscrossed by turbulent rivers and streams. These water routes feed the mighty Brahmaputra River in the plains of Assam, providing a unique environmental world which gives the state the honour of being one of the greenest parts of the country. The Himalayan region captures some of the world’s heaviest rainfall and the result is an expanse of lush tropical forest where life breeds in myriad forms. It is estimated that Arunachal Pradesh harbours a minimum of 5,500 flowering species. Arunachal Pradesh is also known for naturally occurring orchids with over 525 species. An orchid centre set up in Tipi in West Kameng district is the largest orchidarium in Asia. The state is also one of the few places in the world that can boast the four big felines – the tiger, leopard, clouded leopard and snow leopard within one area in the Namdapha biosphere reserve of Changlang district.

This, in summary, is a brief introduction to Arunachal Pradesh. A closer examination will reveal that the area offers a complex cultural mosaic characterised by unique features that the state, due to geographical and historical reasons, has succeeded in keeping as one of the last bastions of the tribal world. The tribes of Arunachal Pradesh have always lived off the forest without any threat to the ecosystem. The tenets of traditional practice are deep rooted in environment ethics, supporting a close and harmonious relationship with nature. Arunachal tribes have a tremendous knowledge of the use of plants for native medicine and the instructions handed down from generation to generation are contained in stories and myths that is a unique feature of the different communities living here. The state is divided into 16 administrative districts and is home to 26 tribal groups, further sub-divided into clans and subgroups each with its distinctive traditions and customs. Apart from the Buddhist tribes of the northern boundaries, the tribes of what is termed the central belt of Arunachal Pradesh, viz: the Adi, Galo, Nyishi, Apa-Tani, Tagin and Mishmi comprise the Tani group of tribes that claim ancestry from a common legendary forefather called Abo Tani, the first man on earth. This in turn forms the tenets of indigenous faith called the way of Donyi-Polo, literally translated as Donyi-sun, Polo-moon, that recognises the sun and moon as the cosmic symbolic power through which the supreme spiritual being, the world-spirit, is made manifest. According to this belief, in the beginning there was only Keyum or nothingness. There was neither darkness nor light, nor was there any colour or movement. Keyum is the remote past beyond the reach of our senses. It is the place of ancient things from where no answer is received. Out of this great stillness, the first flicker of thought began to shine like a light in the soul of man. This shimmering trail took shape and expanded to what is known as the pathway. Out of this nebulous area, a spark was born that was the light of imagination. It grew into a shining stream that was the consciousness of man, and from this stage all the stories of the world, its creation, and all its creatures came into being. The myth as primitive history expressed in poetic form is notable among the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. This is an entirely non-script collection, sung or chanted as narrative ballads and epics about the origin of the world, the sky, the heavenly bodies and the mother earth, are recounted by professional rhapsodists on a variety of occasions, especially during the time of the great festivals. Almost all of tribal
belief is tied up with agricultural practice, but though the festivals are agricultural rites marking the passage of the seasons, the religious aspect is always present along with the recollection of a serene and happy co-existence with the natural world that helped man to survive in a harsh environment all these years with very little contact with the outside world. An example of this is revealed in one of the first stories that I heard as a child about a far away land of fish and stars (EngoTakar) and the lost civilization of the Kojum Koja. It is said that at the dawn of human existence, there sprang up on the surface of the earth an ancient human society known as Kojum Koja. Kojum Koja established villages and were a self sufficient, contented and happy people. The Kojum Koja civilization was destroyed by a devastating flood let loose by the ruler of the waters, Biri Bote, whose son was accidently trapped and killed by the people of Kojum Koja during a festival. At this time, a guest appeared amongst the society of Kojum Koja. It was the bat, Koru Ponsung Babu. The guest inquired about the meat and the people of Kojum Koja replied that a fish had been caught in their traps and that they had killed it for the festival. After hearing this, the bat left for the domain of water (Silli Sidong). Arriving in the deepest depths, the bat noticed the wife of the ruler of the watery regime weeping in great sorrow. The queen was asking who had kidnapped her beloved son, Biri Angur Potung. The bat broke the news to her that her son had been killed and consumed in a festival by the Kojum Koja. The news of the killing of Biri Angur sparked off a great war. Message of the tragedy reached every nook and corner of the watery regime and its ruler commanded his war generals to launch a destructive and terrifying attack on the people of Kojum Koja.

myth

With sharp dazzling blades and rattling swords, the combined armies unleashed their fury wave after wave on the land of Kojum Koja. The Kojum Koja defended themselves valiantly but the armies of the great king besieged them from all sides. In the form of rain, storm, flood and erosion, the armies of the waters destroyed the land of the Kojum Koja and buried their civilisation. After this great battle, the world was dark and silent. Everything was covered in water and it seemed all life had ended, until, out of this wreckage a lady emerged like a lonely reed rising taller and steadier inch by inch, like a ray of hope. This was the popular beauty known as Nyangi Myete, celestial bride of the Kojum family who drifted down to humanity to tell the tale of destruction, and to generate new hope for another civilization on earth. Dressing herself in the fashion of a glamorous bride wearing a white silken skirt with a green border, and possessing all the qualities of civilised life, the celestial beauty floated down to bring grace and warmth to the society of humans. Indeed, her arrival generated a new current of life and enthusiasm among the people she visited. Tradition presents her as the most charming and beauteous bride of the Kojum Koja. She is the centre of attraction and the warmth of the society revolves around her. It is Nyangi Myete who pleases guests and friends by pouring out cups of rice wine while her charismatic and entertaining manner maintains the honour and humour of the society. It is her generosity that makes people dance and sing and enjoy life. The land and people of Kojum Koja may be buried in the deluge but because of this celestial lady the memory of that civilised society remains immortal. From the obscure world of myth, this celestial lady came down to live on this earth. Her beauty is present in the form of natural things. The green vegetation on the surface of the earth is the green-bordered skirt that she wears. Her silken white robe is transformed into clouds. The changes of the seasons are her appearance at different social occasions. The water and rain are her sweat and tears. Her melodious songs and music are transformed into the sweet voice sof birds and humming insects. The ever changing and beautiful natural world represents the charming beauty of the Kojum Koja. Thus, mythological belief is projected into present reality through natural surroundings and the interpretation of human imagination. The Land of Fish and Stars (engo takar) is akin to the Dreamtime that is so crucial in Australian aboriginal literature. All the things that we perceive-the sun, moon, hills and rivers were all born out of that mythical place that exists as the dreamtime, the place of ancient things from which the stories of the world, the stories of gods and goddesses and the birth of man and life on earth unfolded since thought and speech began. There are similarities across the world in the first stories of wandering tribes and vanished empires. The ancient Mayan and Aztec civilisations worshipped the sky god and sacrificed to the mighty sun, and stretching from China throughout the Far East and across to the frozen frontiers of Alaska and to the Americas, myths and legends are the basis of traditions and beliefs of communities across the world. So it is with the Homeric legends, the gods of Northern Europe, Hindu mythology, and myths of ancient Egypt and Rome. In the fast-paced global world of today, one may well ask what the worth of these old stories and legends is. The question of direction and destiny has become one of great complexity and soul searching. And the question is ‘Where do we begin? What is the most important thing to start with?’ Perhaps in this, myth and memory have their role too. How do we identify ourselves as members of a community belonging to a particular place, with a particular history? Some of the signs for this lie with our stories. We are here today as members of a community with a particular set of beliefs, by an act of faith, because we believed in the ‘word’ as composed in our myths and legends. It is here that we may find that peculiar, indefinable something by which we recognise each other, and make others see us as a group, a society, a people of a particular community. Today I might say that these stories of gods and demons have no basis in logic, but the storyteller will tell me that they were born out of reason, out of the minds of men. The stories did not come out of nowhere like a bolt of lightning. Life generated it in us, and the significance of songs and stories is that they demonstrate the complex nature of human faith founded on memory and the magic of words in the oral tradition. With time, the collection of myths developed into parables and a code of conduct that became the basis for daily customary practice as observed by the tribes. Everyone knows the stories, in one form or another, and it is this knowledge that links the individual to a group, a certain region and community, but most often the stories are inseparable from the routine of daily life that they are not even perceived as stories anymore. This is why if I asked someone to tell me a story they would say there was nothing to tell. There are no reference books, few recorded volumes in print, and to find out anything you need patience and persistence. For instance, if I approach someone, pointed out as a great story teller, he will inevitably shrug and say, ‘What! What kind of story? How can anyone pull a story out of air, eh?’ And if I turn to the young girls weaving cloth and asked them who taught us to weave, I know they will burst into laughter and say, ‘Who knows about these things. It was here before we were born!’ But if I persist, asking what is this colour, what did we use before this, what is that implement called, I might unearth interesting information about the “cloth of butterflies”, how the wife of a god whispered the secret of weaving to a woman in a dream and how the first cotton plant grew out of the white feather of a kite. Who invented these stories? Who said this should be done? Who gave us these instructions and told men and women to erect a guardian gate at the entrance
to every village? Who told us that the leaves and branches of certain trees are auspicious? One gateway leads to another and a story begins to unfold a storehouse of meanings. Scholars tell us that in the history of literature, the verse form is older than prose. The early history of many countries proves this as recounted in epics, ballads and heroic poems. Our own traditional literature offers similar proof. People here still believe that different clans possess different roots that return to haunt every generation. These roots reveal themselves as the powers of healing, prediction, war and chase, or the root of words, meaning oratory. It is what holds our ceremonies, rites and rituals together. In this context, the role of memory becomes crucial and remembrance of the word became the art of the storyteller, the orator, the medicine man, the priest. This seems to tally with what I now read that: ‘we are the versicles or words or letters of a magic book, and that incessant book is the only thing in the world: more exactly, it is the world.’ (JL Borges) Arunachal Pradesh is a place full of stories. The stories explain observed behavior and natural phenomena and imbue them with sense and order. They also remind the community that it is important to keep our obligations, the reasons for which are contained in the stories. These obligations apply to every aspect of daily life from social behavior, ceremonies, worship and environment to the preparation of food with its associated taboos. In Arunachal mythology, rice is of divine origin. It is a gift of the gods that came to a race of sky dwellers in the land of fish and stars. The story goes that during a great hunt, the faithful dog of a legendary hunter lost his way and strayed into the kingdom of the great mother earth, the goddess of grain. The dog told her how he had lost his way. The goddess heard him out and gave him a few seeds of rice, which the faithful dog carried back to the land of the sky dwellers in the crease of his ear. This is one of the many stories of how grain came to man. The energy of the village is concentrated on the cultivation of rice and every fertile plot of land is given over to growing this crop. Based on the rich store of rice myths, its relevance is associated with all the important rites of life, birth and death, ranging from festivals and community feasts to marriages and ritual offerings. Special rice preparations are required for many occasions. Among the Khamptis and Singphos of Lohit district, a preparation of red rice wrapped in leaf packets is an essential item of offering in weddings. Rice is also the chief ingredient for the local rice beer that is believed to be a gift from the gods. Like any other good wine, making rice beer is an art. A house is lucky if its women make good rice beer for it is the precious ingredient of social life that frees the mind, loosens the tongue and makes people happy. Before rice beer was invented, life was very dull. Men sat about feeling bored; they had nothing to talk about; they did not hold councils or tell stories or laugh.” In parts of Dibang valley, a pale gold local wine is made by the Idu Mishmi from extract of honeycombs. The region is noted for its tradition of honey gathering. This event is associated with the performance of prescribed rituals after which men scale the craggy peaks and caves lined with enormous beehives using bamboo ladders, rope and twine. It is a dangerous feat and only the strong and fearless are chosen. The bees are smoked out with the burning of leaves and long bamboo poles are used to dislodge the hives. The honeycomb is boiled and yeast is added to make a potent brew that is called yu ambey. Sometimes, at the entry of a house a visitor might be surprised to see a dangling honeycomb that is referred to as the devils’s puzzle. An Idu home generally sports this item as a protection against evil spirits. When night falls and spirits are wandering the earth, the honeycomb acts as a spell that diverts their attention. The spirits begin to examine and count the cells of the empty comb. This exercise takes up all their time and soon their power is broken as the night passes and they flee back into their world, and no harm befalls the family. These days we talk about identity, culture, heritage, and what it means. There are many movements to forge regional identities. Everyday we are reminded to uphold our culture. It is a line inserted in every speech, as if culture is the magic word that will arouse attention and endear the speaker to his audience. What then, is myth, identity, meaning and culture? One bright sunny day, a host of school, children drew pictures, worked on paper masks and there, in the shade of the
normally empty and silent state museum, practiced a war dance loud with laughter, battle cries and ferocious footwork. Part of the Tribal Transitions Project,4 the Museum Max workshop was all set to reorient methods of teaching and linking with education. In the process, drawings blossomed on paper, flutes and trumpets were coloured orange and blue, pyramids of mountains rose towards a flock of birds circling a red sun, while a picture of the famous log drum of the Nocte and Wancho of Tirap district showed a smiling face and four legs. In fact, this was the first time I heard the log drum being freely sounded as a group of students tap-tapped on the burnished wood bringing to life the sounds of a bygone era. In the present time when the region is confronted with rapid changes, these ancient tales need not be perceived solely as something of the past, as ‘dead’ literature, that in the process of documentation all the old words are frozen in print and will have reached a dead end. With every new understanding a story will unfold endless doorways. As in the case of the activities at the museum it is apparent that tribal traditions need not be devoted to, or perceived solely as something of the ‘past,’ but instead be the catalysts for the creative instincts of a people that identify their culture. In this way this literature of oral narratives also gives us our sense of identity. In short, like the flute, the gong and the log drum, and the storyteller’s art, culture and identity will mean nothing unless it can be shared.

This article is taken from Glimpses from the North-East Written By Mamung Dai.

About the Author:

mamung dai

Mamang Dai is an acclaimed journalist, poet and author. Born in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh, she is the author of Arunachal Pradesh-The Hidden Land, Mountain Harvest (a book on the Food of Arunachal Pradesh) and The Legends of Pensam (Fiction-Penguin India 2006) She also has a Poetry collection: River Poems (2004). Her work, The Sky Queen and Once upon a Moontime (KATHA) are among the first illustrated publications of the oral literature of the state for young readers. Currently the General Secretary, Arunachal Pradesh Literary Society, Itanagar, and member- North East Writers’ Forum, (NEWF), she is also a Member ofCouncil of the Sahitya Akademi.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: