The author discusses the practice of smoking a dead body in the Ao Hills region of Nagaland, and its cultural and social significance. The author suggests that the act of empathy, love, and care might be universal and a reason for such traditions.
Grandfather, How do I care for the dead? Why should I care? I am not sleeping in my sleep I am dreaming with precision The screaming of the days sips into my dreaming and you are drifting through my thoughts. Yaridi you on the other side, do you have your sight on me as I ponder at your action beyond my time, Grandfather, why did you do it?
(It’s the spring of 2023) Recently I took a trip to the Ao Hills searching for answers to the old ways of death: a conversation about the phenomenon, the reaction, and conception of people in the days gone by. Each day after the day’s discussion left me ruminating on the so-called “savage” actions. It is in our human nature to fear and term savage of the operations of others which we do not comprehend. After all, why would you smoke yourself dead? Why go to such gruesome lengths?
You see when an Aoer is exhausted by life and passes on to the other realm, assuming death has come naturally and not by anything that may be considered as Menen (accursed), the corpse is placed in a bamboo mat, which is then smoked dried for several days depending on the gender, five for the female and six for male. The days allocated for gender relies on the belief that men have six souls and women have five and there is also the reason that the belly of the female corpse would burst open on the fifth day while the male on the sixth, releases the soul, so as they say. (A note: there is also a folktale regarding how the Aos came to observe such practice, but that’s another tale to tell another time). However, regarding the days of smoking the corpse, the ethnographer J.P. Mills suggests that the period of keeping the corpse was much longer in the past. The smoking of the corpse was done in the outer room of the house, a liminal space considered not fully in nor fully out. fig .1 Room A
Now picture this- a rotting corpse being smoked inside your house with all its infesting maggots and yes there is also the factor of the glorious smell of the decaying flesh. This, other than being a beautiful reminder or, “this is what being a mortal means”, a person with today’s sensibility wouldn’t be found within 10 miles radius of this scenario, other than some opportunist anthropologist or that one opportunist morbid friend (yours truly). It doesn’t take a mental gymnastics of reasoning to understand why people, unaware or different from this culture (and I might add the 21st-century Aoer themselves) would find this act abhorrent, and why not? After all, maggots blooming over your decaying grandma is not an “Awww grandma looks so peaceful” kind of scenario, it is more of a, “What in the name of Jeffrey Dahmer hell is this?” So why would they (Ao) do it? Didn’t they have a certain consciousness that this is somewhat perhaps a tiny-little bit disgusting? or In their “savage” mind it might not have occurred?
For most, it’s another level of hell Dante forgot to mention. The Aoer, as I am told by an elder, that even the Ao also did feel all the feelings of being disgusted. Writing on their counterpart, the Konyak naga, C.V. Hemengdorf recounts how children and some people would complain about the decaying smell and how it has worsened during the rainy season. The elders also did mention, when one would smell the decaying mortal coil or see the maggots chomping away Grandma, it was an indication that the dead are communicating. This was told so that the mourner would not get disgusted and that it was a way to communicate with the deceased loved ones. I was also told that the one in charge of stocking the fire for all the days was left to the older generation who has passed their so-called prime. These mostly older men were not just anyone from the village, but rather a close kin of the same clan (clans in Ao societies are never just for namesake, they are the group of people one can rely on and in times of dire situation they are the group that comes to aid). Why only the older men I queried. The reply was simply that the older generation has witnessed the life and that they are not easily disgusted. The oral accounts and to some extent the ethnography suggest that, yes! people in the past were not happy and delighted about the maggots and the smelly situation. But the question still lingers, “But why?”. If this was an academic writing I would have given some cultural reasoning but instead for a change, here I want to focus on something more human and universal, the act of empathy, love, and care.
Scholar I.Wati Imchen in his doctorial thesis (“Christian Missions and Social Change in Nagaland”, (Ph.D. Thesis), NEHU, Shillong, 2005), mentions that in 1897 after a prolonged discussion taken in a meeting at Molung village (Nagaland), it was decided that the dead shall be buried. This decision was backed by both the British government as well as the American Baptist missionaries. Death is a powerful phenomenon, it is the one thing that is universally true, throughout ages and time. Nothing and no one has ever escaped this aspect of life, however, the way we conceptualize it and formulate rituals around it varies according to culture and time. It must be noted that these conceptualizations and rituals have a powerful connection with the people and it is almost always the last thing to change. This couldn’t be truer in the case of the Aos. Though, by the late 19th century, the rule for burying the dead was already enforced, yet some refused to do away with the old custom.
Among them was a grandfather (paternal) of mine, who performed this rite for the very last time; if not in the whole of the Ao world but for sure in that village. Hailing from the Yoangyimsen village in Nagaland,
Yaridi was a young man living in a time when he witnessed old traditions slipping away when his dear old father passed away. Perhaps a man of strong resilience and stubbornness, Yaridi refused to bury his dear old father beneath the dirt. By 1904 or 1905, Christianity slowly started to spread in the village and people, both of the new faith and the old ways began to bury their dead (as mentioned above this was backed both by the government as well as the church). The exact year when this happened is sadly unknown, however, it would have been probably in the early 20th century (1905 or 06). I was told by an aunt (Chumongsangla Longkumer, age 84 ), when Yaridi’s dear old father Meyimayang Longkumer passed away, he refused to bury his father fearing and caring that the corpse would be uncomfortable beneath the earth. The story goes somewhat like this; the village council and the church both tried to persuade Yaridi to bury his father as it was the government’s law and it was the right thing to do and he might get into trouble if he deviates from the new laws, but alas! The man refused. At the same time, the members of Arju (The ‘Arju’ is the bachelor’s Learning Institute/dormitory, it was an integral part of the Ao society) also sided with Yaridi and refused to let the body be buried. The sentiment was along the line of, “We cannot let Obala (father) Mayang (he was a father figure to the Arju ) be buried uncomfortably beneath the earth and he should be given the proper rite as he deserved”. Thus ignoring all the persuasion to bury the dead, Yaridi with the aid of the Arju boys carried out the emotionally and physically demanding rite for the very last time.
Such determination to carry out emotionally and physically taxing tasks, with all the opposition doesn’t come easily and yes, there is also the element of the need and want, to follow tradition and not to part with the old ways. Often then, in our so-called academic scientific inquiry into such matters we forget the element of human emotions of love, grief, and the loss of human connection to the people that were once laughing and crying with us, but now lie rotting. In my opinion, without the concept of care and love such traditions would have never come to form. The elders in the course of my interview spoke about the elements of care, love, and grief that go into such a custom. The act of smoking the dead with all its gruesome glory was perhaps an ultimate act of love, not wanting to separate, and a way to process the grief of losing people they once held so dearly. The ways of humans across time and culture that formulated mourning rites and rituals speak volumes about human endeavor to care for and love their fellow beings.
The fieldwork came to an end and I am back to staring at my laptop screen thinking of ways to construct such an understanding of love and history with the academic tools taught to me at the university. The ghost of this project will haunt my nights and drag me through the day by my hair, but such history has to be told. How it is death that can reveal so much of life and its project. The fragility and the human-ness of it all, ever fleeting, always succumbing to the law of nature. As of now, for me, I study all of the ways that people undertake to take care of their dead and it leaves me pondering as to who would take care of me when the time is ripe for me. I am probably haunted and chased by these thoughts while I hide between bars, glasses, and smokes. Do you ever think about that? Who will take care of you when you can’t speak for yourself?
As always, wish you dear readers a good life and a good death.
Your morbid friend.
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Akumtong Longkumer is a research scholar at the department of History, NEHU. He has an eye for the morbid and tries to approach it with a sense humor. His writings has recently been published in Homegrow :Anthology Of New Writings From Nagaland. He advocates for 'death positivity' and believes that we as a culture should start the dialogue around death and dying.