Historical Tales: Looking Beyond the Archives

It is the archive that defines the professional or personal life of a historian. As students, researchers, academics, we are taught to discern, rather devour, those dusty manuscripts and attempt to recreate a past, of which, we claim to be supreme masters. For those, new to the concept of the archive, it is, as explained in simple terms, a repository of documents shedding light on events related to a certain period of history. While archival documents may not be counted as the only sources of history, their role as a storehouse of historical data cannot be undermined. Being a historian and an avid researcher, my career in history, quite naturally began at the archives, in this case the National Archives of India, wherein I shifted from the diaries recording the daily life of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to carefully examining the political proceedings of Delhi in the early nineteenth century, in order to understand the period preceding the Revolt of 1857.

It was during my travels in the north eastern part of the country, that I came across a form of history, which while being undocumented, basis itself, in entirety, on a series of legends, myths and folktales. My travels spread over five years, across the states of Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur and Sikkim revealed a history, that has been woven over the years in the form of tales and narrated by village elders. A history, which in the mind of a historian, invokes a depth of imagination that looks beyond the confines of an archive.

With the history of the North East being at the core, the paper will examine the various avenues of historical evidences and research that can be explored by historians today, and those in the making. The paper will first give a glimpse of the histories of the North East, through its many tales and legends, it will then go on to discuss alternate methods of historical research, that can become a historian’s craft in probing the past. ‘Historical tales’ is simply an attempt to look and understand history, unconventionally.

 UNDERSTANDING HISTORIES OF THE NORTH EAST

 Myth and oral tradition play a significant role in reconstructing the histories of the North East. The tradition of preserving their oral history existed albeit without a precise timeline of events. Recorded history began to appear only in the 19th century when it became a part of the British Empire in India. With the British annexation of the North East, there began a comprehensive documentation of its peoples by the colonialists. As military administrators of the region, they attempted to understand the history, society and culture of the communities that inhabited the area of their jurisdiction. Anthropologists traveled to the region and analyzed the customs, language and the societal structure of the communities. The missionaries also left several accounts. For a very long time, these foreign accounts were the only written records available on history and cultural heritage.

During research travels through the hill villages of the North East, village elders or Gaon Buras, as they are locally referred to (esp. in the states of Manipur and Nagaland), are usually approached for gathering information, pertaining to history, social structures, cultural patterns of the tribe, the clan, and their village. As interactions with them progress, tales are woven and there begins to emerge a historical world replete with stories tracing origins of these communities, to caves, trees and varied forms of nature. In the villages of Mizoram, the origin of the Mizos, from the bowels of the earth or a stone cave known as the Chhinlung, is recounted as a popular legend.

Similarly, in the rugged Naga hills, rolling swiftly across the states of Nagaland and Manipur, lay the hamlet of Makhel, chronicling the origins of some of the Naga groups. As we stop to record their chronicles, the legend of Makhel resonates through their villages.Makhel is intrinsic to the origins of the Nagas. Village elders point to a hole in the village from where it believed people were seen crawling out.[vi] As people emerged from this hole, the population of the village increased thus leading to a gradual dispersal from Makhel.  Historical vignettes of the Manipuri valley, pre-dominated by the Meitei Hindus, point to an origin of their land in a bowl shaped lake surrounded by hills one finds the first traces of Manipur’s history.

WHAT ARE THE HISTORIAN’S CRAFT?

 In his work on Chin Identity, noted anthropologist, Lian Sakhong, mentions that in order to understand the history of the Chin people one follows both the historical and the anthropological approach.[xv] He further states that “while historians begin their historical reconstruction with the origins and immigration of the ancestors, anthropologists focus on the symbiotic, socio-cultural systems, civilizations and hill societies.”[xvi] With the history of the North East being replete with historical tales, it becomes imperative for scholars to corroborate these oral legends with anthropological and etymological sources. However, while delving into anthropological evidences and doggedly looking for the written word, do we sometimes over look the relevance of an oral legend? As historical researchers, quiet rightly taught the methods of research do we, in our bid to achieve conscientiousness, undermine the story narrated by an old gentleman, revered by his fellow villagers as a vanguard of knowledge? These oral legends, perhaps driven by an individuals personal thoughts and emotions, always carry with them the risk of incorporating misconstrued information. However, these historical tales, more often than not, direct us to unique cultures that have evolved differently, cultures that can’t be subject to a written word and have to be understood beyond the realms of historical evidences such as monuments, papers, books, articles, manuscripts etc.

In such a scenario, what is then the historian’s craft? How does on begin the daunting task of understanding a civilization never documented through a written word? A primary step in this direction would be to step out of the library or archive, albeit only briefly, and engulf oneself with the urge to travel. Travelling across such lands, in this case the North East, gives an insight that can never be found in any written pages of history. Travelling with a discerning eye, however, would provide the historian with a deeper understanding of the place and the people they are probing. Keen observations and self analyses, during these journeys, would often reveal to the researcher that they are in fact examining a culture that has not entirely left its past behind but continues to live through it even in present times, chiefly through the historical tales that resonate through their villages. Recording these chronicles then becomes the next tool. Informal interactions and conversations with the villagers, not only makes them comfortable in your presence, but also encourages them to share their vast body of knowledge with you. While recording these chronicles and tales, it is imperative to be a good and most importantly, a dispassionate listener. As your journey progresses, make these tales an essential travel partner, for they not only guide you through your fieldwork but also gives you varied perspectives of history and cultures. Supplementing this information with secondary sources, of course will give the research subject a wholesome form.

With inter and mutli disciplinary research gaining significance in recent times, it becomes essential for us historians to forge ahead of our conformed methods and explore varied avenues and methods of historical research. For it is only when we broaden our scope and objective, will the historian be able to create a craft that is not only known for its outer beauty but is based on an all encompassing approach and ideas.

NOTES:

[i]Lt. Colonel J. Shakespear, The Lushei Kuki Clans, Aizawl:TRI, ,2008,p.93

[ii] N.E. Parry,The Lakhers, Aizawl:TRI, Mizoram, 2008, p.4.

[iii] Song and translation from Dr. Sangkima, Mizos: Society and Social Change, Guwahati:Spectrum Publications, 1992, p.12.

[iv] Story cited in Lian H. Sakhong, In Search of Chin Identity: A Study in Religion, Politics, & Ethnic Identity in Burma Thailand:NIAS Press, 2003,pp. 6-7.

[v] N. Salew, A Brief History of Makhrai Rabu Hru, Makhai Rabu Village Council, 2014,p. 11.

[vi] William Neouni, Socio-Cultural History of the Shupfomei Naga Tribe: A Historical Study of Ememei,   p. 37.

[vii] T.C. Hodson, The Naga Tribes of Manipur, Delhi,: Low Price Publications 2013, p. 13.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Chand Anth Thangmi, The Thangal Naga Tribe of North East India, New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2012, pp. 57-63.

[x] N.G. Mataisang, ‘The Religious Life of the Naga Tribes of Manipur with special reference `to Tangkhuls’, PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, Manipur University, 2002, p. 10.

[xi] T.C. Hodson, op.cit, p. 16.

[xii] Shantibala Devi, ‘The Traditional Costume of the Zeliangrong Tribes’, PhD thesis submitted to the Department of History, Manipur University, 2002, pp. 13-14.

[xiii] Hawaibam Biren Singh, Social Geography of Manipur, New Delhi: Rajesh Publications 2010, p. 32.

[xiv] Gangmumei Kabui, History of Manipur: Pre Colonial Period, Vol. I, , New Delhi,: National Publishing House, 2011, p. 15.

[xv] Lian H. Sakhong, op.cit p. 35.

[xvi] Ibid.

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