Mythical Legends and Legendary Myths: A Case Study of Khonoma, Nagaland

in Overview
Published on: 24 May 2018

Menka Singh

Menka Singh has been working as Assistant Professor in History at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi, since 2012. She is currently pursuing her PhD from the Department of History, University of Delhi. Her doctoral dissertation is titled, 'The Memory and Legacy of Colonialism in the Naga Hills, c. 1832–1947'. Her M.Phil dissertation was titled, 'State, Family, and Orphans of Partition, c. 1940–1980'.

Myths and legends play an essential role in creating the history of a region. Unlike academic history, the indigenous notion of history resonates more with the idea of 'itihaas' (Thapar 2013), or that which has been. It is the belief in what happened and not the reality of the events that took place which becomes the basis for the creation of the past. Myths and legends are a part of this process of the generation of a collective past. They are ensconced within the intangible heritage of a region and impart character to a particular place. The role of myths and legends is not very different from that of religion. Perhaps the pivotal role of religion as well as myth lies in creating a certain social, moral and ethical value system for a particular social structure. 


This article seeks to understand the role of the myths and legends that still prevail in the social structure of Khonoma, the Angami Naga village in Nagaland, and how the inhabitants have kept them alive in their day-to-day living. Thus we will also enquire if there is any bigger agenda behind such a practice. That is to ask why these myths and legends have survived into modern society and how they are being utilized by the people. The article suggests that apart from the community’s attempt at commemoration and memorialization, myths and legends also represent a strong case of the resistance of lesser-known practices against the traditional practices, in this case, the indigenous culture versus the prevalent social practices that constitute the dominant culture of the community per se. The tribal people at the Angami Naga village of Khonoma in Nagaland managed to accommodate both sets of social practices (Redfield 1960) within their religious and cultural cosmology. 


The Oxford English dictionary defines a myth as a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. A legend is a traditional story sometimes popularly regarded as historical but not authenticated. It often revolves around an exemplary heroic figure. Myths and legends are a part of all societies across the world. What follows is an account of the myths and legends in the village of Khonoma and their associative value in culture.


One of the key themes explored in myths is the story of origin. The Angami Nagas trace their ancestry to the mythical ancestral figure, Koza. Various other Naga tribes also speak of Koza as the primeval man. This is perhaps because of the nature of their occupation which was mainly paddy cultivation based on the practice of shifting agriculture, which necessitated the movement of people across distances to ensure the well-being of all. Similarly, there are other mythical origin stories which give credence to the supernatural—in the form of trees, caves, stones, etc.—for the origin of a particular tribe. This is in stark contradistinction to official and mainstream historical documentation which focus on facial features and geographical connections to chart out lineages. 


The first mythic origin story is shared by Angamis with many other tribes, all tracing their origins to Makhel, a place in the state of Manipur. The Ememei or Mao folklore tells the story of the primeval mother, Dziilimosiiro/Dziilimosila (meaning crystal-clear water) and her three sons. The story describes how she was asleep under a banyan tree when the clouds enveloped her and impregnated her with three sons. The three children were, Tiger (Okhe, representative of the animal kingdom), God/Spirit (Orah, representative of the supernatural world) and Man (Omei, representative of mankind) in that order. When Dziilimosiiro became old, the sons took turns to look after her. Okhe tortured her, Orah was not a good caregiver but Omei treated her well. The earth was considered to be the ‘navel’ of the mother as it was the middle ground and the brothers got into a dispute over its inheritance. The mother organized a competition to decide on the inheritance. She made a podzii, a grass ball, and laid down that whosoever touched it first would inherit the middle ground or earth. Okhe tried to cheat with a false start and there was a rematch. The mother favoured Omei who had tended to her the best in her old age and advised him to use a bow and arrow to touch the podzii. He accordingly emerged the victor and claimed the earth. This origin story thus establishes a woman as the creator of the world. She created gods, humans, and animals. The creation myth then is a challenge to the Christian myth of the origin of humankind with its focus on Adam and Eve. 


The second myth of the origin of the Angamis traces it to the legendary stones of the village of Khezakenoma. The story once again focuses on a common ancestry for the twin villages of Chajouba and Khezakenoma in present-day Phek district of Nagaland. In recent years, the latter village is inhabited by the Chakhesang Nagas. At this village lies the stone Tso Tawo, a flat rock with fissures. It is believed that the Naga ancestor, Koza, used to dry paddy on this magical stone which had the power of doubling anything which was placed on it. Koza and his wife thus prospered because of the magic of this stone. They had three sons. One day the parents saw the three children fighting over the stone and so they decided to destroy the power of the stone to put an end to the rivalry between their sons. They performed a ritual of breaking an egg onto the stone and using thatch to set it on fire. The beneficent stone spirit was released by this act: the stone developed a crack and the spirit broke free from it. The three brothers were thus made to realize their greed and they repented of it. They made peace with each other and went in three different directions and emerged as the ancestors of the three tribes, of Angami, Sumi and Lotha respectively. The village of Khezakenoma thus came to be identified as the first Angami village by the Angamis at Khonoma as they trace their ancestry to this village. This village today initiates all festivities and rituals and the other villages arrange their celebration subsequently. This myth again establishes the attempt of a village community to retrace its origin and to place itself in association with other tribes.  


The third mythical legend is that of the old sacred wild pear tree at Chitebo/Cheti-Bu-Kaji outside upper Chajouba village. This story also revolves around migration and dispersal of the five Naga communities—Angami, Lotha, Rengma, Chakhesang and Sumi. It is also believed that Paichara, the godly women, ascended to heaven from under this tree. People believe that if a branch of Chitebo breaks, there would be mass deaths and if a new branch grows, it would symbolize increase in the population of the Nagas in the direction of the new branch. This tree symbolizes ancestral unity. 


Thus, all these mythical origin stories challenge the official and mainstream historical accounts of origin by developing an otherworldly explanation. The importance of these stories lies in establishing a common ancestor and some essential values through a narrative that leads up to the dispersal of various tribes from their point of origin. These mythical stories of origin are important for a peripatetic community, which was on the move because of the practice of shifting agriculture. The need to find an anchor for their origin is important for two reasons—to establish themselves in the hierarchy of other similar tribes, and for self-identity (Xaxa 2008). These myths of origin have been especially popular with people on the move, be it the Rajputs in North India or the Nagas in North East India. These people were integrated gradually into mainstream society as they used to occupy the peripheral zones. (Stein 1980) Their integration was essential, as they were perceived as a threat because of their status as powerful warriors on the periphery, who created an unsafe frontier. The core territories thus made attempts at assimilation through recognition of their martial valour. At the same time the communities, beyond the frontiers, also made attempts at legitimization not simply through the adoption of high culture practices but also by consciously generating differences with the elite culture through stories of their genesis.  


The village of Khonoma has various legends associated with its heroes and heroines and they serve as inspiration for the younger generation of Angamis. These legendary tales are narrated and re-narrated, often with 'didactions' and redactions as per the audience they are catering to. This is important because these are not merely fanciful stories but an educational medium to impart some cherished tenets to the community at large. Naga boys often cohabited in dormitories called morungs. The village elders tried to impart knowledge to these young boys by telling them stories from their folk culture while sitting around a fire. This method of teaching was both educative and entertaining. Therefore, a number of these stories employ hyperbole and exaggeration. Some of the legends of Khonoma village, with their associated materiality, are discussed in the following paragraphs. 



Miegweno tsie 

This stone is balanced precariously at the top of a steep cliff. It is believed that elves used to play on this stone in spring. Legend has it that there was a woman of extraordinary beauty and agility who could outdo men in physical feats and sports. She used to walk on this stone effortlessly and maintained perfect balance even while combing her hair while walking on this stone. This mythical heroine is a rare example of the overturning of gender norms. While the primary identity of this woman is that of a beautiful damsel, her extraordinary skills at sports and physical challenges, coupled with her agility in gliding onto the precarious rock, establishes her as a rare heroine. Physical prowess has conventionally been considered the domain of men but the example of this heroine helps to establish the fact that gender stereotypes can be challenged. Women can compete with men, and even outdo them. The memorialization of this mythic heroine shows that there is space for the commemoration, memorialization and appreciation of such a woman in Angami society. 



Danyu tsiese

The story of Danyu is that of a womanizer. He managed to get a special charm in the form of a pebble and used it to attract women. Women were charmed by looking at the pebble and would make love to Danyu. He thus managed to sleep with most women in the village and became the envy of most of the men. He maintained an account of the women he had managed to entice by making notches on the pebble that is now known as Danyu tsiese. This tale of lust, extra-marital love and sexual conquest is indicative of a society wherein sexual excesses were taking place. There can be a counter reading of this story. In traditional Angami society, while men and their sexual mores were tolerated and even envied, it was not the same for women. The usage of the pebble with the notch marks in this story is a covering up of the actions by many women to explore their sexuality by going against societal regulations. The legend of Danyu and his sexual prowess and the helpless women is actually also a tale of women’s sexual transgression under the veneer of magic, charm and enticement. Society could only make sense of sexual excesses on the part of women by legitimizing these by identifying these licentious women as women hypnotized by a magical stone. Thus, the sanctity of male-female relations could be maintained. 


Khriezoru biki

Khriezoru was a legendary sportsman in Khonoma village. He was caught in torrential rain on his way back from the paddy field. The deluge almost swept him away but he managed to save himself by gripping a huge stone. This stone thus had marks of his mighty grip and is a testimony to his heroism. The legend has inspired many youngsters to become physically fit. 




It is a stone cave meaning ‘Diho’s Bed’. Diho was an explorer and an expert hunter. He ventured out to explore caves and forests and had even made friends with the forest spirits. He had made a cave his home by adorning it with feathers and animal skin. However, as fate would have it, a poisonous snake bit him in his cave. Young boys and girls even today remember Diho and visit his cave as a mark of respect on special festivals. They dress in traditional attire and ululate to pay respect.


Hiekha tsie – Yalie tsie phou

The legend of Hiekha or Yalie is another story depicting the use of intelligence to come out of a difficult situation. It is believed that the villagers wanted to erect a huge stone but were repeatedly failing despite strenuous efforts. They believed that a cowherd from Kuthotsu had worked a charm on the stone and therefore it could be removed only with his consent. His consent was therefore sought, and then on the third day, a young warrior named Yalie clandestinely crawled under the stone and pretended that he was being crushed underneath. The whole village put in extra effort to save him and the stone was erected. Thus, it was the intelligence of Yalie that led to the erection of this huge stone. This story serves as an example to show that it is not always physical strength that matters. Sometimes great feats can be achieved simply by using our brains. 


Tsorie tsietse

Tsorie, a Khonoma hero, went to a neighbouring village and challenged the whole village to capture him. While he was being chased, he pretended to have been injured and pushed himself slowly up the hill towards Khonoma. However, on nearing the village, he easily leapt over a huge stone blocking the path. The enemy villagers were astonished to see a wounded man leap so high, and returned saying, It is not worth chasing such a man unless one has the ability to grasp the moon. Young boys often use this stone in competitions to show their physical strength and agility. 


The mythical legends and the legendary myths of Khonoma village help us discern the process of identity formation and the employment of tales for inspiration, moral grounding and appreciation of values. They have chalked out the ethos and culture of this society. They are both entertaining and educative and help contextualize the village and its inhabitants in their cultural-moral space. This intangible aspect of the cultural heritage of the Angami Nagas is thus thriving and living through efforts by the community to deploy them in creating a commonality of origin and values among the people at Khonoma. 




Redfield, Robert. 1960. The Little Community and Peasant Society and Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Stein, Burton. 1980. Peasant, State and Society in Medieval South India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Thapar, Romila. 2013. The Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Xaxa, Virginus. 2008. State, Society, and Tribes: Issues in Post-Colonial India. Delhi: Pearson Education India.




Further Reading

Burke, Peter. 1997. Varieties of Cultural History. New York: Cornell University Press. 


Heitzman, James. 1987. ‘State Formation in South India’, 850–1280'. Indian Economic Social History Review 24.35:35–65.


Joyner, Charles W. 1979. ‘Oral History as Communicative Event: A Folkloristic Perspective’. The Oral History Review 7:47–52.


Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1978. Myth and Meaning. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Mao, X.P. 2009. ‘The origin of Tiger, Spirit and Humankind: A Mao Naga Myth’. Indian Folklife 33.  


Online Resources