The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database

book - 'Naga Path', by Ursula Graham Bower, published John Murray 1950

caption: Chapter nineteen. Dogs, Snakes and Leopards
caption: myths concerning pythons
medium: books
keywords: Bangklawong
person: Zuingpeo/ of Impoi
person: Graham Bower/ Ursula
text: Once upon a time, in the very beginning, the great spirit Bangklawong - who was at that time king of all things on earth - had a sister. Miraculously conceiving, she went away to the source of the Barak River, and there in the dark jungle at the foot of a waterfall, she gave birth to seven eggs. One (140) by one, after she had left them, six spirits hatched out. Only the seventh egg remained; and when they had waited a long time and nothing had happened, they decided among themselves that it must be addled and pushed it down into the running water. Then they went away to find their mother.
text: When she saw them, and learned there was no seventh, she wept and wailed and tore her hair and lamented, crying : " Alas, alas ! Oh, for my youngest child ! He would have been the best, the greatest, the wisest of you all !"
text: But the seventh egg hatched out in the deep river, and out of it came the python.
text: The Zemi believed that the creature could draw men down by magic into the water and there drown them. Several deep pools on neighbouring rivers were supposed to be pythons' lairs; there was one where the gorge began below Laisong, and another, against which I was always warned, right down on the lower Jenam below Baladhan. There a grey rock overhung deep, golden-green water, and it would have been a perfect diving-pool. The Zemi wouldn't hear of it. If I even walked too close to the edge to look over, watching the fish down there in the lovely, lucent cool, anxious voices behind me would call me back.
text: The python's markings, too, were believed to have significance. One of the few men left who were skilled in their reading was Zuingpeo, Namkia's maternal uncle, a delightful old gentleman of Impoi. The only person who had recently divined from a free and living python, he had met one on the Impoi path some time in 1940. In accordance with the Zemi belief that the python understands human speech, he asked it to stop, which it did. He then examined its markings, judged therefrom the coming luck of the village, told the python to go, and went home himself. But the Zemi had an even odder ceremony than Zuingpeo's simple encounter. Young men used to bring in python alive.
text: Namkia, as a buck, had helped to carry one in. He had (140) taken the head, the post of honour, and so was able to give a complete account. When a python is found, all dogs must be taken away and weapons hidden. The sight of either infuriates the snake. The bucks then move in close to it, the leader telling it that they wish to take it up to the village for everyone to admire. When he has finished his speech, they step up alongside it, one to the head, one to the tail, and one in the middle. The leader drops a stick across the neck and holds it down tightly, while the other two seize the body and stretch it out. That done, they lift it up and over their shoulders, and off they go with it slung between them like a length of cable. The buck in the middle has the easiest time. The lad at the back has the tail twisting all round him, the boy in front has the head against his cheek - and the tongue, Namkia said, never stops flickering the whole time. To the clothes of all of them, and to their bodies, there clings a horrid and peculiar smell which they cannot wash away for days after.
text: Somewhere on the way up to the village they stop and make a patch of soft earth. They draw the snake across this and then go on. In the morning they all come down to look, and by the marks in the earth they know their fortunes - a girl's footprints, success in love; a tiger's pugs or a bear's prints, success in hunting.
text: On arrival in the village, the python is taken straight to the bucks' own morung. They have already announced what they carry by a special chant, and half the village will be there to see them come in. The python is released, and for half an hour or so allowed to slither at large about the hall and in among the spectators. During this lull, the old men - if there are any present who have the skill - look at the markings and foretell the future. Then a man chosen for the job comes up to the python slowly, a dao carefully concealed behind his back. At the last moment he whips this out and strikes off the snake's head at a blow. The tip of the tail is also cut off and put with the head on one of the morung benches; (142) the body remains on the floor, writhing slowly, the bloom dying on the gorgeous scales, for two hours or more. Its flesh is finally eaten by the old men, the only people to whom it is not taboo, and the skin is hung up in the morung porch as a trophy.