Karbis Of Assam

Ethnology on the Karbis also Known as Mikirs

Archive for November, 2007

The ‘Môsēra’ tradition and -the “Egg Origin” of the Karbis

Posted by Administrator on November 5, 2007

The ‘Môsēra’ tradition and
— the ‘Egg Origin’ of the Karbis
By: Dharamsing Teron

‘Môsēra’ is a lengthy folk narrative that describes the origin and migration ordeal of the Karbis. ‘Môsēra’, therefore, literally means ‘recalling the past’. The full version of the narrative is now rarely sung. The existing versions vary from region to region but they retain the same theme and the particular narrative style, which distinguishes the ‘Môsēra’ from a host of other Karbi folk ballads. The theme is almost uniform everywhere but however, the omission or inclusion of some particular term or terms at the whims of singer to singer may not be ruled out; and the terms thus omitted or included have posed the danger of altering the present understanding or interpretation of the narrative. The ‘Môsēra’ has a distinctive style of rendition. The exponents of ‘môsēra’ sing the lengthy narrative in a breathless fashion. In fact, an exponent takes pride in rendering the stanzas of the lengthy narrative in one breath. There are tongue twisters in the narrative, but old hands are capable of rendering them without gasping for breaths. The narrative is sung by head of village youths, the Klēngsārpó or his deputy, the Klēngdûn, during the special ritual of ‘Risó Chójûn’. The ritual is observed to mark the end of the compulsory tradition of ‘youth cooperative’ known as ‘Jir Kedàm’. Unmarried members of the primitive Karbi tradition of ‘Youth Dormitory’, known as ‘téràng’ , participate in the ‘Jir Kedàm’ for a three-year duration. The ‘jir Kedàm’ therefore serves the purpose of practical training to adulthood, a kind of ‘rite of passage’. The conclusion of the ‘Jir Kedàm’ is therefore observed with due ritualistic importance. ‘Risó Chójûn’ is the occasion when the unmarried youths of the ‘teràng’ formally part company from each other and begin a new life thereafter as adults, capable of taking on the complicacies and responsibilities of the society. Another important occasion when the ‘môsēra’ is sung is during the funerary rituals, called ‘thī-kārhi’. It is sung in a ‘question and answer’ fashion between the heads of village youths (teràng)— and this when they vie among each other in how much they can prolong the ‘breathlessness’. The klēngsārpó of the host village of ‘thī-kārhi’ apologises to the visiting klēngsārpós praying for their forgiveness for any lapses or irregularities, which might have been committed during the festivity.
According to the ‘Môsēra’ version, the Karbis originated from the eggs of a mythical bird— Vóplākpi. The narrative starts with the difficult circumstances under which the Karbis were born out of the eggs of the mythical bird, which is not identifiable with any surviving avian species. The subsequent passages of the lengthy narrative tell tales of the trials and tribulations of the tribe in its migration from ‘lông:lè achēté’, the ‘navel of the earth’. The following passage from the Chīnthông version (in western Karbi Anglong district) of Môsēra narrates only the Karbis’ birth from the mythical bird—

Teji lé akeng-ri lepu
A kind of tree too (by the) feet (of) so said
Temur lé akeng-ri lepu
(Botanical name of Teji-Temur=Garuga Pinata)
A kind of tree too (by the) feet (of) so said
Longchong lé akeng-ri lepu
Stone (erected) (by the) feet (of) so said
Long:é lé akeng-ri lepu
Karbi lé chetibin lepu
Karbi too sheltered so said
Karbak lé chetibin lepu
Nangphijiji nagphi haihé lepu
Born nearly born dared not so said
Nangplangjiji nangplang haihé lepu
Bāng asim tangté lepu
Other race then so said
Lā bang ahom tangté lepu
This other Ahom (race) then so said
La bang chomang tangté lepu
This other Khasi (race) then so said
La bang keche tangté lepu
This other (non-Karbi race) then so said
La bang nākā tangté lepu
This other Naga (race) then so said
La bang nara tangté lepu
Bang ké plakvut ati lepu
Others then (a kind of bird) egg so said
La bang plakvut-so ati lepu
This other (races) (a kind of bird)-small egg so said
Ati lé pum-suri lepu
Eggs also numbered-thousands so said
Ati lé pum-pharo lepu
Eggs also numbered-hundreds so said
Epum longchong pati lepu
One number (of egg) (on erect) stone egg (laid) so said
Epum long:é pati lepu
Epum thepāi pati lepu
One number (of egg) precipice egg (laid) so said
Epum thērèng pati lepu
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot chomang mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Khasi (race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot keché mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched (non-Karbi race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot ahom mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Ahom (race) became so said
Epum kong-longvoivoi phiphlot naka mandet nara mandet lepu
One number (of egg) rolling hatched Naga (race) became (doublet of Naga) became so said
La chinam lalé
This true thus
La pani ningké…
This day until

Going by the above passage, one can conjecture the situation when the Karbis were finally born out of the last of the eggs. The Ahoms, the Khasis and the Nagas were born of the hundreds of eggs laid by the mythical bird. Eggs were laid at the base of trees—of the Teji-Temur (Botanical name = Garuga Pinata) variety, then behind huge upright stones and in the cliffs.

Karbis (and the tribes mentioned in the Môsēra), are therefore, born of the eggs of a mythical bird— only mentioned as ‘Vóplākpi’. To an ordinary Karbi, who is not too bothered with either the ‘Môsēra’ or its philosophical contents, the ‘egg origin’ of the tribe has remained only in the periphery, never being discussed or given importance to. And less realized is the fact that, Karbis are not alone who are born of the eggs of a mythical bird. And also that, the Karbi ‘cosmogony’ has a deeper philosophy than we cared to think of. “The idea that the cosmos was born from several eggs laid by a bird is found in the oldest Balto-Finnic myths that have been preserved thanks to the conservative form of runo song. Different versions of the Balto-Finnic creation song were known among the Estonians, the Finns of Ingria, the Votes, and the Karelians. The Karelian songs were used by Elias Lönnrot in devising his redaction of the myth in the beginning of the epic Kalevala.” According to Ülo Valk’s paper, “Ex Ovo Omnia: Where Does the Balto-Finnic Cosmogony Originate? The Etiology of an Etiology”, the far away Estonians have centuries old tradition of the ‘egg cosmogony’ in their ‘creation song’. According to the song, ‘Swallow, the sun-bird, built a nest in the field, laid three eggs in it. One became dawn to the nether world, the second became sun to the upper world, the third became moon into the sky.’ Ülo Valk also gives the Western Estonian version of the ‘Creation Song’, popularly called the ‘runo’ song, where “the bird comes from the sea, flies to “our” paddock, and builds a nest in the bush or a tree. Sometimes the creation begins from an apple tree and an apple that has dropped into the waters. It is probable that the sea here designates the same primordial ocean as in Karelian songs, and we cannot exclude the possibility that the apple tree is a reflection of the cosmic world tree (which can be found in the imagery of some other Estonian mythical songs).” Different versions of the Balto-Finnic ‘creation song’ have been restored as a ‘common mythical story’ which describe that — “A heavenly bird (an eagle?) flies above the sea and looks for a place to build a nest. Having found it (a piece of sod?) the bird lays one or three eggs. The wind rolls them into the water and the sun, the moon and the stars (and heaven and earth?) are born of them” (Kuusi 1963:68). Also found in Karelian songs is a motif of the demiurge Väinämöinen uttering the words of creation that makes the earth and the sky from the shells of that egg.”

Valk further notes that — “The Balto-Finnic cosmogonic myth has many international parallels. They are so numerous that it may initially seem that myths about cosmic egg(s) belong to the common traditions of mankind. An egg is a symbol of latent life force, fertility, and resurrection in many cultures, and the word denoting an egg often has sexual connotations. *Muna (“egg”) already had the parallel meaning “testicle” in the Proto-Uralic language (Rédei 1986:285). The Vedic and Sanskrit word anda is also ambiguous, denoting egg, testicle, and sperm (Böhtlingk and Roth 1855:86). In the dream omens of Estonian folklore the egg is also connected with fertility: if a young wife dreams of finding a bird’s nest, it foretells pregnancy. However, belief in the cosmogonic function of an egg has not been found everywhere; there are, rather, four broad areas where myths about cosmic egg(s) belong to indigenous oral traditions: 1) the Balto-Finnic region; 2) the Eastern Mediterranean lands; 3) South Asia (China, Tibet, Indo-China, India); and 4) the Malay Archipelago, Oceania, and Australia……..In a Lappish creation story, a duck lays five eggs upon a blade of grass on the ocean; vegetation, fish, birds, a man, and a woman hatch out of these eggs (Ajkhenvald et al. 1989:157). In Zyrjan (Komi) mythology the two dualistic demiurges Jen and Omol are born of two eggs laid by a bird. They break the four additional eggs and thus create sun and moon together with good and evil spirits. In Mordvinian folklore three goddesses or mother-spirits are born of three eggs laid by a bird on the cosmic birch-tree (Napolskikh 1991:29). The Uralic origin of these myths is doubtful because parallels in the Ob-Ugrian and Samoyed mythology have not been found.” The ‘egg cosmogony’ is also found among the Egyptians as Valk describes in his paper —“Different versions of the myth of the world egg occur in the mythology of ancient Egypt. According to the priests of Hermopolis, Thoth, the god of wisdom and the moon-god, was the true demiurge who hatched the world-egg on the primordial ocean in the shape of the divine ibis-bird. The sun-god Ra was born of the primeval egg (Viaud 1989:27). A few traces of the myth of the cosmic egg can be found in the Phoenician traditions described by the Jewish philosopher Philo and some Greek authors (see Delaporte 1989:82). The oldest Greek cosmogony, Hesiod’s Theogony, does not mention the cosmic egg; it seems to be a rather specific trait of the Orphic tradition. The speculations of the Orphics about the origin of the world include the motif of the cosmic egg, expressing the notion of implicit totality.”

But Valk’s observation on the ‘egg cosmogony’ among the Indo-Europeans here is worthy of particular mention— “To emphasize the Indo-European origin of the myth, many authors have cited ancient Indian texts (Upanisads, Purānạs, Manu-Smriti, Mahābhārata). However, the oldest source, the Rig Veda Samhitā, does not prove that the myth about the cosmic egg was known among the Aryan tribes who invaded India………The idea of the golden embryo that conceals cosmic potency precedes the later notion of Brahmānda (“Brahma-egg”), meaning the implicit primeval existence of the world and the whole universe as totality. The demiurge Prajapati, who was later replaced by Brahma, was said to be born of this primordial egg. The fact that it is the abstract god Brahma who is connected with the cosmic egg gives evidence of new developments in mythology in the period of the decline of the Vedic gods and the ascent of the gods of Brahmanism and epic mythology.” Valk’s paper, which must have delved deep into the subject, has also commented this — “It is possible that the myth of the world egg, and other cosmogonic myths that are expounded in the Sanskrit sources, have been influenced by the indigenous oral traditions of India. During the period when the Aryan invaders settled in the basin of the Ganges river, they adopted several non-Aryan ideas and religious observances.”

While leaving further scholarship on the subject to experts, what is undeniable, quoting from Valk’s paper again, is the fact that, “there are also essentially different versions of the myth of the cosmic egg in Asia. In the folklore of some of the peoples, the number of primeval eggs is more than one (as in Balto-Finnic songs). In the epic songs of the Miaos who live in China, two gigantic birds are born of eggs and hatch out earth and sky (Jia Zhi 1987:374). Several egg cosmogonies are known among the tribal communities of Assam. According to a Bodo-Kachari myth, the Great Lord created two birds whose three eggs gave birth to spirits, trees, and procreators of mankind. In Karbi folklore the mythical bird ‘wo plakpi’ laid several eggs out of which were born the progenitors of different peoples and tribes of Assam. In Dimasa creation myth gods, spirits, and ghosts are born out of the seven primordial eggs (Datta et al. 1994:39).”

The ‘Môsēra’ narrative that is chanted only during the gradually disappearing ritualistic performances and the rich Karbi ‘cosmogony’ contained in it is therefore capable of being developed to serve the cause of Karbi oral history. Because, in the words of Prof. S H Hooke (1938) — “In particular, there are a certain number of semi-mythical, semi-historical, texts which raise the question of the relation between ritual situations as embodied in the myths, and the beginnings of history.”

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