Nagaland’s Lara Croft, reloaded


Ghothali

IN THE Nagaland of yore – and of lore – men did all the fighting. Ghothali was the exception.

Toby Gard, the English computer game character designer, probably never came across Ghothali when he created the Tomb Raider video game in 1995. If he had, Lara Croft could very well have been a Sema Naga woman instead of a British archaeologist.

Much like the digital Lara Croft, Ghothali of folklore outclasses the baddies from hostile villages in a head-hunting era gone by. And her enemies try everything – from sending a swarm of insects with poisoned stings to letting loose a group of gargantuan ghosts – to vanquish her for greater glory.

But why is Ghothali so different from the quintessential Naga woman? Because she is a sorceress who, hurt by her clansmen’s demand to conquer the Naga domain, turns into a flowering plant to shower petals of peace. This might appear to be a pithy flower power message in a land troubled by guns for decades.

But researchers with Nagaland’s Department of Art and Culture insist the conquests of Ghothali were retrieved from the remnants of folklore history. Just as Ironman of the Rengma tribe – infallible but without the metal armour like his comic book namesake – was in Fables from the Misty Mountains containing 70 tales.

The 200-page book was released at the Hornbill Festival last December.

“Nagaland’s folktales and folklore have been published earlier, but they were not qualitative works. This book is unique in the sense that our officers collated different versions – tribe to tribe and village to village – of the same stories, blended a few for a universal appeal and discovered some interesting characters. The stories were then retold in the fast-paced style that generation X is comfortable with,” said former Commissioner and Secretary (Tourism and Art and Culture) Khekiye K Sema.

The book is not only about super-humans. It is as much about spirits, love and hatred, wit and stupidity, living with nature, communal bonding, human failings and triumphs, and aberrations such as incest. Like the Phom Naga tale of Beou – no relation to the European Beowulf – who ends up seducing his sister Manlong after his bid to attract the girl of his choice with a magic potion goes horribly wrong.

Some tales relate to the origin of certain objects associated with the Naga way of life. Like the Yimchungrü tribe’s art of shawl-making that a fairy was forced to teach a young man who had disrobed her. And the Sema tribal dance a young man named Rotokhi learnt by watching the spirits through a bamboo sieve and memorizing the steps.

Then there are the folktale favourites – the wicked stepmother, wise owl, cunning fox and evil tiger, albeit with a Naga twist. There are also the morphs, like the girl who turns into a lizard and another who lays eggs after marrying a part-human, part-reptilian person. Women are also sculpted from pumpkins and beeswax, as in a Lotha tale, to help all-male villages ensure their progeny. And yes, like Aesop’s Fables, Panchatantra and Jataka Tales, most folktales from the misty mountains of Nagaland end with a moral.

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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