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Indigenous Cultures of the North Eastern Region of India: Revival and Preservation

By Esther Syiem

Even now, the singing voice of Pi Hmuaki, the first known female composer who was said to have been buried alive – “for fear she would finish composing all the songs and leave nothing for posterity. Her singing accompanied by her gong was heard for seven days before it finally stilled” (Zama in Misra 207, 208) – is clearly audible above the din of contemporary, everyday life in Mizoram. In Nagaland the six stones of Lungterok stand for the Ao-Naga community’s ahistoric origins as it establishes kinship with a sentient universe. The Ao myth records “the six stones” of which, “three were males . . . and the other three [were] females” and of which, the “different clans among the Aos trace their respective origins to one of these stones” (Ao 1). Amongst the Garos the vast expanse of the Balpakram range is their Mount Olympus; the heaven to be yearned for in their passing on – much like U Lum Ïawpaw for the War group amongst the Khasis, to grow yam in the afterlife. And the Khasis continue to look upon themselves as the descendants of U Hynñiew Trep U Hynñiew Skum, the seven families descended from heaven through Lum Sohpet Bneng, Heaven’s Navel – sourced several times over in literature, as also in areas such as politics and cultural history.

Memory in North East India was not only a tool for archiving and preservation; but more than ever, of re-drawing paradigmatic notions of human experience so as to hold fast to the knowledge systems of their own communities, to prevent them from slipping away from human consciousness. A well-known example may be seen in the Khasi custom of renewing boundary posts with neighbours, by pouring libations of rice-beer on the boundary stones on the appointed day, thus cementing bonds for another year; all this, using the spoken word and sharing a friendly meal afterwards. So, although the stories of how we lost our written script vary from oral community to oral community, they track down a characterising trait pertaining to our oral identities, also reinforced by the migration stories that are found aplenty even in the smallest communities of North East India.

In effect, the mystiques of memory in its many dimensions fed the steady stream of material life in these communities to help them bridge the terrestrial and transcendental, the historic and the ahistoric, establishing connections with the spiritual universe embodied in the bush and jungle outside, and indicating boundaries: tangible ones and those intangible, that of the spirit world. Easterine Kire’s narrative When the River Sleeps (2015) is an exposé of the culture of a community surviving on the edge of the literate universe of the Indian nation that is still trying to understand the full import of this spoken word. That the speaking voice disseminated itself in unstructured ways in societies that were then pre-literate with no written script, remained uncontested until the intervention of the colonial rule that simultaneously scarred memory and reduced the growing body of indigenous knowledge into inflexible categories.

Thus, with the inevitability of civilizational changes and loss of habitat that accompanied the implementation of the Enlightenment ideal of progress, memory scarring has been the costly price that oral communities world-wide have had to pay. Of note is Ganesh Devy, acknowledged academician, critic, linguist, social activist, writer, philosopher grappling with this loss (one early example is After Amnesia 1993) and advocating a radical change in India’s critical traditions, overly dependent upon Western formulations, which has taken his struggle right down to the grass-root level to deal with language death. He founded the People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) in 2010, after several years of meticulous and painstaking planning and effort, to facilitate conservation of scheduled and unscheduled languages in all the states of the country. The PLSI volunteers have achieved phenomenal success in their undertaking. While most of the state volumes have been published, a compulsory injunction made to all state editors is that, volumes be kept open for further edits and additions. This is understandable in light of the fact that preservation and documentation can never be fully complete for oral informants are dependent on the vicissitudes of memory. The tear in the fabric of these oral nations has become larger by the day and writers and thinkers all over struggle to patch up the straining, many times, broken fibres.

In the North Eastern region of India writers like Mamang Dai, Temsula Ao, Chandrakanta Murasingh, Nini Lungalang, Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin Singh Ngangom among others display understandable concern over the loss of what has been termed, our intangible heritage. Their works reflect above everything else, upon a concerted attempt to salvage amidst this loss. Within the purview of this dark area of loss lie the oral narratives that have networked society and informed it. This oral discourse has, in its frazzled journey into the twenty first century, been forced to go underground as the “oral resistant” (Syiem 41), the significance of which, in the words of the poet Mamang Dai, “returns to us only when we are older. By then we understand the need to identify ourselves again as belonging to a particular place, or community; and some signs for this lie in our stories” (Dai in Sen 4).

Where then do we find our oral narratives if not where they have been relegated to – within the dark recesses of our ancestral memory, waiting to be brought back again, re-defined, re-made, re-drawn but never really able to attain their original defining position within the ideal paradigm of the oral world; around the kitchen hearth, stoking stories and philosophies, feeding the fires of thought and imagination in the lengthening nights? And I would say that it is at this crucial point that a fresh intervention must perforce take place, facilitating new life for them but within a changed and ever changing paradigm. Thus the spirit in which this revival will take place and which has already taken place lie, in the words of Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Robin S. Ngangom the editors of Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast (2003), in mastering “the art of witness” (ix), which in their view, places the onus on the poet. However, in the context of the present discussion, it places the onus on the conscious individual, who once again to refer to Mamang Dai’s postulation, intersects with this vast body of oral knowledge and finds it to be worthy of reflection.

Hence in the Khasi situation we have writers and performers like Radhon Sing Berry, Rabon Singh Kharsuka, Bevan L. Swer, R.S. Lyngdoh and, of late, Helen Giri, Sylbi Passah, Sweetymon Rynjah and Sumar Sing Sawian to name a few who may be understood to be harbingers of a new generation of Khasis attempting to re-trace epic journeys to an oral past. “Witnessing” that past has been a conscious effort resulting in the production of a creative output; the life-force of which may easily be traced back to the dark genius of that body of knowledge now hidden from the urban scape and inaccessible to the educated ignorant, because once again in the words of Mamang Dai, for such people, the “oral narrative is perceived [only] as a simple recounting of tales for young readers” (Dai in Sen 4).

It is at this point that I refer to Temsula Ao’s essay “Writing Orality” (p 106) in which she makes a strong case for the oral transiting into the written medium for the benefit of a posterity that will certainly never revert to the oral, reduced now to the scripting – only. So, at the risk of repeating myself, in a changed and ever changing paradigm then, oral narratives need a boost from these writers, thinkers, performers and artists in general who take upon themselves the task of contemporizing and re-interpreting them, also by choosing other mediums to express these narratives, if they are to remain active signifiers of cultural signs and symbols. However, the fact of the matter is that preservation of the oral cannot be proscribed or patented, for the “oral resistant” is an inner dynamic that, once roused, cannot be stilled. To illustrate, I quote the African American poet, Langston Hughes,

All the tom-toms of the jungle beat in my blood

And all the wild hot moons of the jungle shine in my soul.

I am afraid of this civilization –

So hard

      So strong,

           So cold. (The collected Poems p32)

This perfectly transcribes the inhabitant of the oral nation, whose inner being is always slanted towards the oral genius that conflicts with the “cold”, “hard civilization” that altogether resists the aura of orality. For the Khasi, as for all other speaking subjects of this oral nation, what beats inside must inevitably show itself up to the world.

This brings our discussion around to the phenomenon of these oral narratives spilling over with an inner energy that stirs up existential questions of life and reality. They provide the very foundation for the indigenous existence in North East India. In “The Old Story-Teller”, Temsula Ao’s persona proclaims:

                                      … I told stories

As though they ran in my blood

Because each telling revitalized

My life force

And each story reinforced

My racial reminiscence.  (Book of Songs 240)

This is to say that it is not so much we who must preserve these oral narratives but that we are being preserved by them, having been imprinted by them – and the ensuing connection will decide the terms of our engagement with them.

In the dedicatory note to her book The Legends of Pensam (2006), Mamang Dai explains the meaning of the word “pensam” which means “in-between” suggesting a middle or middle ground:

but it may also be interpreted as the hidden spaces of the heart where a secret garden grows. 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. (vii)

It is within this pensam that the oral thrives; and of which, throughout the length and breadth of our oral nations, the dedicated few must always keep alive. I have long laboured to find a term that circumscribes the liminal in-between spaces that I find common to the oral communities of North East India. In what is admittedly a belated discovery, I have found pensam to be an appropriate description for these inspired spaces that flourish within the uncircumscribed wisdom of the land. Unfortunately many of the educated ignorant do not recognise this pensam and have tried to segregate themselves with exclusive notions of inhabiting only a scrupulously civilized world.

Having said this I would like to explore the nature of this pensam space pitched as it is against the forces of “civilization”. It is the all important space that waits to be unlocked if an exchange with the past must happen. Whilst poets and artists are sensitive to the fact that the past cannot be reproduced verbatim, they understand, however, that the very breath of the oral maybe elicited. Khasis speak of the rngiew1 or life force of the jaitbynriew or community. This is, to use a more common term, the aura that gives life to a community and distinguishes it before the world. It is believed that the generation of a positive rngiew depends upon the inner health of a community which in turn is dependent upon that of the individual. That this space is never vacuous maybe proved by its generative abilities to facilitate the imagination, stir up memories and call up the past in order to open up new channels for discursive thought:

That aura, remaining wedged

in corners hidden

of the soul’s inscape,

shaping tongue-twisting lairs

and labyrinths of freedom

in spaces undeclared

that can’t be written off

can’t be written over

                                                                      (Many Sides of Many Stories p.32)

I would like to reiterate the fact that this is the space that de-emphasises “civilization”. It was from such qualitative space that jazz emerged during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance when a profusion of talent initiated a black creativity that highlighted its vernacular features; this happened in its oral forms, influencing American literature in no small way. It was from this that Wole Soyinka drew his creative energy to wrestle with his Nigerian past and talk about it through his creative work using the written medium.

As our oral narratives assume fresh dimensions, they re-visit us in forms other than that they were clothed in, in the oral past. The substantive fact about the oral is its malleability which allows for its adaptation into variant forms that address themselves as they always do, to other viable issues than those for which they were originally intended. The recent dramatisation of the legend of Ka Nohkalikai in Shillong, by Lapdiang Artimai Syiem, retells the story of the woman who has to contend with a jealous spouse. He is the second husband who cooks the step-daughter. Hungry upon arrival from a hard day’s work at the fields, she eats up the dish that is served up to her. The legend submits itself to a dramatic re-representation that cuts across present day issues of gender violence and discrimination.

Within the private and personal spaces of people and communities, other more recent affiliations jostle for room within them. This contestation of disparate loyalties within groups and individuals in North East India is best reflected by Easterine Kire’s answer in her interview with Kim Arora in the Times of India:

. . . We will always feel we’re Nagas. There’s a huge cultural difference. But we are able to embrace India, understand Indian culture…only if you’re a Naga, you will understand. You have a sense of belonging to a smaller degree to India. Your identity is always as a Naga…you can have a sense of belonging to India. But you know that because of the history and culture, you’ll never really be Indian. You’ll always be fully Naga in your mentality…we should actually build up on that – the levels of belonging, the levels of Indian-ness. (Zubaan, 2012)

This in a broad sense indicates that identity within the speaking communities of North East India is “schizophrenic”2 (Bhadra p 24), in which the primary/oral/indigenous self runs stubbornly parallel to all other contesting identities and realities. Be that as it may, this split is an indicator of ground realities within the oral nations that will continue to exist within the tough dynamic of what may now be perceived to be a liminal space – that provides its own intervention by thrusting spokes into the layers upon layers of the built up literate world. I return to an early statement that I made about the tale of the lost script and migration stories that essentialise the oral identity of some communities in North East India. The ethnography of these speaking-communities underlines the oral stratum without which they would be shadow-less and without a rngiew if oral narratives and orality as a way of life were taken away from them. One finds affiliation with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s depiction in his novel Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World (2003) of the shadow-less protagonist whose shadow having been snipped off suffers from a memory-breakdown and psychical shrinkage: “Something has summoned me here. Something intractable. And for this, I have forfeited my shadow and my memory” (109).

Khasi oral narratives cannot exist in isolation, because these communities though topographically isolated from each other in the past were liminally contiguous to one another, inadvertently influencing each other. History has proved that these oral communities have borrowed from each other’s store-houses, re-shaping contours and changing story lines; the list goes on, though retaining the inner character of their own communities; an example is the story of Tejimola3 whose story is told both by the Bhoi community in the northern part of Meghalaya adjoining Assam and on the other side of the fence, by some of the Assamese plains tribals.

Ultimately the discussion translates into re-invention. This requires transiting into the written, which has happened and the digital which is happening, but which can never replace the actual telling. It is important to remind reigning institutions of knowledge like universities, and institutions of power like government departments, that within the constrictions of these new media, caution must be exercised lest they become cold relics.

But residual memory will always try to reset the past. Community elders, though a disappearing species, still serve as living repositories. Old forms, old connections will inadvertently collide with the new; and urban caricatures will unfortunately be created. But the stories will be retold; must be retold; will live on in variant forms, must live on in variant forms and in the pensam spaces these will continue to challenge “civilization”.

Picture Credit : Aniqa Tansim Tabassum


  1. rngiew: The rngiew is a numinous extension of personality, a lighted area that encircles an individual and spells out personality in several complex layers. Nourished by an inherent genius which is also the racial intelligence, it is an unselfconscious recognition of one’s multiple strengths. This in itself produces positive waves that communicate themselves to others in multifarious and intangible ways. The rngiew speaks of an inner force that is difficult to conceal. In maturity it is almost tangible and is a natural protection against all negative influences. Even a child may possess a strong rngiew or be eh rngiew and, therefore, prove able to withstand the suppressive forces that may threaten him/her. Giving a child a name is the first step towards empowering its rngiew.
  1. Bhadra, R.K. & Mitra Bhadra ed. Ethnicity, Movement and Social Structure Contested Cultural Identity. New Delhi: Rawat Publications 2007. Ref also to Subir Bhaumik who, in the context of his research, refers to the region as being a “troubled periphery” (Troubled Periphery: Crisis of India’s North East 2015).
  2. The story of Tejimola is found in different versions in pockets of Assam and Meghalaya. It is a story about a girl who lost her mother and lives with father and brother. The father re-marries a woman who kills Tejimola, in due course of time. When her remains are disposed of nearby, they turn into a flower/berry that, when plucked, reveal itself as that of Tejimola. 


Ao, Temsula. The Ao-Naga Oral Tradition 2nd ed. Dimapur: Heritage Publishing House.2012.

____________ Book of Songs Collected Poems 1988-2007. Dimapur: Heritage Publishing House.2013.

Ao, Temsula. Writing Orality in Sen Soumen and D.L. Kharmawphlang ed., Orality and Beyond  A North-East Indian Perspective New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi 2007.

Bhaumik, Subir. Troubled Periphery Crisis of India’s North East. New Delhi: Sage Pubs. 2015

Dai, Mamang. The Legends of Pensam Penguin India 2006.

Devy, Ganesh. After Amnesia Tradition and Change in Indian Literary Criticism. Hyderabad: Orient BlackSwan 1993.

Dai, Mamang. “On Creation Myths and Oral Narratives” in Geeti Sen ed. Where the Sun Rises When Shadows Fall New Delhi: OUP 2006.

Iralu, Easterine. “Big Indian Publishing Houses Don’t Think the Northeast Will Sell”  Zubaan, 9 Jan.2012’t-think-the-northeast-will-sell-easterine-iralu-interviwed-by-kim-arora-times-of-india/. Accessed 10 July 2017.

Kynphan Sing Nongkynrih and Robin Singh Ngangom ed. Anthology of Contemporary Poetry from the Northeast Shillong: NEHU Publications. 2003.

Kire, Easterine When the River Sleeps. New Delhi: Zubaan Books 2015.

Murakami, Haruki. Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World trans. Alfred Birnbaum. London: Vintage Books. 2003.

Rampersad, Arnold and David Roessel ed. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Classics 1995.

R.K.&Mitra Bhadra ed. Ethnicity, Movement and Social Structure Contested Cultural Identity. New Delhi: Rawat Publications 2007.

Syiem, Esther. The Oral Discourse in Khasi Folk Narrative. Guwahati: EBH Publishers 2011.

__________ Many Sides of Many Stories. Kolkata: Writers Workshop. 2017.

Zama, Margaret.  “Mizo Literature: An Overview” in Misra, Tilottama ed. The Oxford Anthology of Writings from North-East India Poetry and Essays. New Delhi: OUP 2011.

Esther Syiem 
is Professor of English Literature at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. She has been involved in the study of Khasi folk literature for more than a decade and has written on Khasi folklore, myth, and history. A bilingual writer and established poet, some of her publications include two collections of poetry: Oral Scriptings and Of Wit and Wisdom of Follies and Frailties. Other works include The Languages of Meghalaya (with G. N. Devy), Race of the Rivers, Oral Discourse in Khasi Folk Narrative, and a play in Khasi, Ka Nam. She has published with Orient Blackswan, Tulika, Easternbook Publishers and Writer’s Workshop.

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