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The Many ‘Tanüla’ of the Ao Nagas

The Many ‘Tanüla’ of the Ao Nagas

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Ao Naga Man

The Ao trace their origin to the myth of longterok (six stones) near Chungliyimti. The myth suggests that six ancestors emerged (poktet) from the earth, implying that the story of Ao’s existence is one of emergence rather than “creation.”

By Tiatemsu Longkumer

The origination of human beings occurred because the non-human persons (tsüngrem)configured a new assemblage of tanüla (categories of essences). Such “assemblage”brought about the origination or emergence of human beings, and the six stones signify such assemblage. Thus, such an origination process situates humans as a part and product anda “process” of reality.

Tanüla/tanela: Soul, Spirit, or Life?

  1. P Mills (1926) used the word “tanüla” to refer to the soul. Mills argued that humans have three souls (tanüla) and a tiya (For Mills, tiya was “fate”). He further argued that tiya has three souls (tanüla), whereby the souls of the human and tiya are“separate and not interchangeable” (p. 224).

The word tanüla is also used for other non-human beings like ‘Mojingtanüla,’ ‘Temenen tanüla,’ ‘Tsüngrem tanüla’ and so on. Interestingly the emphasis on the usage of tanüla for non-human beings is a later Christian intervention. For Christians, the distinction between a physical and non-physical aspect of a being was essential to emphasize the spiritual reality in contrast to the physical. Mrs. Clark (1893) translated the word tanüla/tanela as “spirit” (p. 163). At first, Mrs. Clark’s translation might seem broad and vague, but a close examination suggests a ‘strategic imputation’ of a new concept.

Strategic imputation in the sense that it creates a new way of understanding tanüla. The later Christian Bible translators further carried out this strategic project by reserving the use of tanülafor the non-physical entity of a human. For example, in Matthew 16:26, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?…” (New International Version, n.d.), the word for ‘soul’ in Ao is translated as “taküm”(Ao Naga C. L. Bible, 2004),which means ‘life/alive.’

In Matthew 22:37, “…Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” the word for ‘soul’ in Ao is translated as tanüla/tanela. Thus, the Christian translation of the word tanüla is well thought-out to distinguish the ‘materiality’ and ‘spirituality’ of a person and reality itself.

Going back to Mills, if ‘tiya’ is an immaterial aspect of human beings, “how can tiya have three immaterial tanüla (soul)?” Such a notion of the intangible aspect of human beings indicates that the Ao pre-Christian understanding of tanüla challenges the Euro-American notion of the soul as solely human beings’ immaterial aspect or essence (seen von Stuckard, 2022). Thus, tanüla can be understood as a different kind of “body” – a body that is not distinct from material reality.

One of Sungkotenem Park Pillar
One of Sungkotenem Park Pillar

Tanüla: Body Configured in an Essence

As discussed in the introduction, the origin of human beings is a process of tsüngrem configuring an assemblage of tanüla. Since the essence of tsüngrem is tanüla it implies that tsüngrem is a “porous being” permeated by its different ontological categories (Smith, 2009). The porosity of tsüngrem is what brings about the origination (poktet) of human beings.

This means that the tanüla, which constitutes human beings, is an intricate and integral part of tsüngrem. Consequently, tanüla is a body viewed from the perspective of tsüngrem with a distinct “capacity” (Vilaça, 2005; Pedersen & Willerslev, 2012; de Castro, 1998). This capacity of tanüla operates in different aspects of Ao everyday lived reality. Out of the three tanülaof human beings: one resides in the land where the house is located (kimong); another resides in animals; the third is the life-giving aspect which turns into a hawk after the person’s death.

Mills (1926) asserts that the tiya of a person resides in the sky, which is referred to as kotakr, meaning “sky-folk” (p. 224). This category of tanüla, which tiya possesses, seems to be different from the other three tanüla in the sense that the tanüla of tiya is linked to the celestial realm in which the tiya tsüngrem resides. Tiya (different from luck ‘yaren’) is an identity, trait, or quality that is bestowed bytiya(r) tsüngremto every individual (Miri & Karilemla 2015: 52,61-62). It is believed that someone’s tiya can be determined by a knowledgeable person who can predict their present characteristic and future fate. Consequently, it can be noted that the tanüla of tiya in human beings manifests itself by traversing certain ontological boundaries.

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It is uncertain as to what characteristics the three tanüla of tiya are attached to, but whenever tiya is talked about a person, it is either about wealth, power/essence (sentsü), or fate. Thus, it can be asserted that the three tanüla of tiya that humans have is different from the other tanüla as it emanates from the celestial tiyar tsüngrem and does not have a perspectival body.

Out of the six tanüla of human beings, the first three tanüla are perspectival bodies capable of operating in different aspects of Ao reality. The other three tanüla of tiya is different from the first three tanüla because it emanates from the celestial tiyar tsüngrem and does not seem to have a perspectival body. Even though it is unclear what the three tanüla of tiya refers to, it likely relates to wealth, power/essence (sentsü), or fate.

This short discussion on Ao Naga understanding of tanülais a continuation of the previous articles I’ve been writing on Ao animism or traditional/indigenous religion and Christianity. It is part of my Ph.D. thesis in which I’m exploring Ao animism and Christianity in-depth through my ethnographic journey.



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