Mao Naga

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Total population
Est. 81,000 [1] (1997)
Mao Naga [2] (Sino-Tibetan)
Christianity Animism
Related ethnic groups
Other Naga people, Angami and Chakhesang

The Mao are one of the major tribes constituting the Nagas, a group of tribes spread over the easternmost part of India and the western border region of Myanmar. The Maos inhabit the northern part of Manipur State of India, bounded by similar Naga tribes such as the Angami and Chakhesang tribes in the north, the Maram Naga and Zeme Naga tribes in the west and south, and the Tangkhul and Poumai tribes in the east. The Maos are also known as Memei or Ememei, in their own language. The term 'Mao' also refers to the area where most of the old and original villages are situated, as distinguished from the newer settlements in an expanded area of their habitation.

Origin and uses of the term[edit]


The people who are today known as the Maos (Mao, as the proper name of the tribe) do not refer to themselves in their language as such; rather they still call themselves "Memei" or "Ememei". Indeed, the term "Mao" is of outside origin and does not figure in their language. The term “Mao” became popular with the advent of the British in the 19th Century in the Naga areas. The term was used extensively to refer to a group of people inhabiting the hilly ranges immediately south of the border of the then Naga Hills district of Assam. It is probably a derivation from "Momei" or "Maomei", a combination of two words "Mao", the proper name and "mei" meaning people, by which their southerly neighbours, the Marams, called them. Since the Meiteis of the Manipur valley had interactions with the Maos through the Marams by way of trade relationships, the term of reference used by the Marams might have been shortened to "Mao" when the Meiteis began to use the name, dropping the suffix "mei".


The term "Mao" is used for the people who belong to the particular tribal group known by this name. Till the early part of the 21st century, the name was applied to a larger group of people including the Memei's, who are now called the Maos, and the Poumais, together constituting a more heterogenous amalgam of four major dialect groups, namely the Memei, Paomata, Lepaona and the Chiilevei sub-groups. In earlier times, they were collectively known as 'Shiipfomei' in the Memei dialect and 'Shepoumai' in the Poumai dialect. Later on, differences over the use of particular dialects for literary and other common uses as well as other extraneous factors led to their division into two groups, the Memeis retaining the name 'Mao' and the other three sub-groups forming the Poumai tribe.

Today, the name 'Mao' is also used to refer to the area where most of the old and original Memei villages are situated, as distinguished from the newer settlements in an expanded area of their habitation. While the larger area is called Mao, the small township that has developed along the National Highway 39 is referred to as 'Mao Gate', probably deriving its usage from the inter-State border post/gate between Nagaland and Manipur located at the town area.

In adjective usage, the word Mao is used as qualifying a name or an object, such as Mao people, Mao dialect, Mao vegetable, Mao land and so on.


George van Driem put the Mao language as one of the Angami-Pochuri languages, classified as an independent branch of the Tibeto-Burman languages.[3] Although classification differs in most other accounts, it is considered as one of the languages forming the Naga group within Kuki-Chin-Naga genus of the Tibeto-Burman subfamily of the Sino-Tibetan family.[4] It displays a lot of variations in tonality, spelling and pronunciation among the Mao villages, suggesting a lack of interaction in the past. Many of the physical and metaphysical objects are referred to by different names by different villages. The degree of variation gets considerably widened with the neighbouring dialect groups such as the Poumai and the Angami, although the Maos can inter-communicate fully with many of the villages in the Poumai group and to a certain extent in the Angami group.

In popular Mao folklore, there is a story transmitted through an old folksong which says that each of the three brothers descended from the first man was given a language and a script scrolled on three different materials by their father. The eldest son was given the script scrolled on a bark, the middle one on a bamboo culm sheath and the youngest on a hide. As the youngest of the brothers, the forefather of the Nagas did not understand the significance of having a script and casually tucked away the scroll at the side of his bed. Over time, the scroll was lost and the Nagas lost a major tool in the advancement of knowledge. Since the script was scrolled on a hide, it was thought that the scroll was nibbled away by mice. Later, suspicion arose that the two older brothers might have conspired to deprive their brother of the script as later interactions among the brothers showed the reluctance of the two older siblings to accept their youngest brother as an equal.

Similar stories are shared by many of the unrelated tribes such as the Khasis, Kukis and several Naga tribes. A very persuasive hypothesis is that "these stories represent a tribal memory of time when they were associated with a literate civilization, perhaps in Southeast Asia or China, before their migration to India. Being peripheral to that civilization, they were unable to preserve its literacy skills once their migrations began."[5]

Mao in Naga Tradition[edit]

The sacred Wild Pear Tree (Chiitebu Kajii), standing at Shajouba (Charangho) in the Mao area, believed to have been planted at the time of migration of the Nagas to different areas.

The Mao village of Makhel holds a central place in Naga tradition in connection with a belief that the Nagas at one point of time settled here and later dispersed to their present areas of habitation, but not before erecting monuments that would signify their communion and a pledge to reunite in the future. The village of Makhel and the surrounding areas have several historical as well as mythological monuments and relics that are of interest to ethnographers, historians and cultural anthropologists.

The significance of the beliefs and mythologies that are associated with it is that they help us to understand and to piece together their past which is otherwise shrouded in obscure and unrelated stories and legends. Many scholars and writers have tried to piece together the folklores of the Naga tribes to construct an intelligible map of migration to their present habitat. Most of these accounts differ in details, as also in their conclusions. However, the one thing that has gained wide acceptance and currency is the view that they came to their present habitat in waves of migration, of which two major waves are fairly detailed.

The more numerous group of these two waves of migration point to the Mao village of Makhel (Makhrai Rabu in Mao language), and also to Khezhakenoma, a Chakhesang village, 7-8 kilometres northward of Makhel. Included in this group are the Mao, Poumai, Maram, Thangal, Angami, Chakhesang, Rengma, Lotha, Sema and the Zeliangrong tribes. The belief of Makhel origin is also shared by some other groups in some accounts. While some of the tribes who are situated farther away from Makhel have fuzzy accounts of the particular place, the Maos, Poumais, Marams, Angamis, Chakhesangs and the Zeliangrongs, clearly indicate Makhel as their place of origin, which properly understood means that they once lived at the place and moved away from there to their present areas of habitation. The groups which claim the Makhel origin are collectively called the Tenyimias. However, some more tribes have come to share the legends of Makhel which did not figure originally in the Tenyimia group.

Although the ancestors of the tribes in this group had, at one point of time, come and lived at Makhel and the surrounding areas, population increase must have made them to push outwards to find new habitations. In popular folklore, before departing, they converged at the foot of a wild pear tree, which is believed to be the sacred pear tree standing at Shajouba, about a kilometer away from Makhel, and made a pact to come together one day.

The tribes that went northwards such as the Angamis, the Chakhesangs, the Rengmas, the Lothas and the Semas mention Khezhakenoma also as a place where they had once lived. The rest of the tribes such as the Maos, the Poumais, the Marams, the Thangals and the Zeliangrongs, who moved westward, eastward and southward, do not have knowledge or mention of the place in their folklore. It is quite probable that the northern tribes, when they dispersed from Makhel, took the Khezhakenoma route and lived there for a period of time.

The second major wave of migration can be adduced from the folklores narrated by the Aos, some of the Konyaks, and a section of the Chang tribe. The Aos in their folklore narrate how they emerged from stones called Lungterok (meaning six stones in Ao language) at Chongliyimti which is in the present Sangtam area. Collectively claimed as the Chongliyimti clan, they are widely spread in different areas in the northern side of the Naga country.

These waves of migration are believed to be the tail-end of a long migration of a much larger group which started from the confluence of Mongolia and China and spread out over south-east Asia, Tibet and the north-eastern part of South Asia in prehistoric times.[6]

Folklores and tradition[edit]

Three menhirs, commemorating the meeting of the three brothers – Okhe (meaning 'Tiger' representing all of the animal kingdom), Orah (meaning 'God' representing all of the supernatural world) and Omei (meaning 'mankind') who, in the Mao mythology, are said to have descended from a common mother. Two menhirs, representing Orah and Omei, stand upright on the eastern side with the third (representing Okhe) on the western side lies flat on the cairn, at Chazhilophi, south of Makhel or Makhrai Rabu,a Mao Naga village in Manipur state of India. Makhrai Rabu is also believed to be the ancestral village of the Nagas who first settled there after years of migration and before further migrating to their present areas of habitation.

The village of Makhel and the surrounding areas in the heart of the land of the Maos are an ethnographer's delight and an open invitation to archaeologists too because of the various artifacts present and the never ending stories and legends associated with them.

There is a legend in Mao folklore which tells of the first woman named Dziilimosiiro (Dziilimosiia to some others according to variation in the dialect) from whom the whole of mankind has descended. One day a column of clouds enveloped her while she was asleep under a banyan tree, and she conceived. She gave birth to 'Okhe' (Tiger), 'Orah' (God) and 'Omei' (Man), in that order with Okhe as the eldest and Omei the youngest. Life went on and many years passed. In her old age, the mother became weak and fell ill. Each of her sons took turns to stay at home and care for her while the other two went away for daily activities in the forests gathering food. The story goes that on the day Okhe stayed at home with the mother, he pestered her by pointing at all parts of her body saying it would eat such and such part after her death. On other days when Orah took his turn to nurse her, her illness grew worse.[7]

When it was Omei’s turn to care for her, the mother was happy because he took good care of her. The mother dreaded the day when Okhe and Orah would take their turn to nurse her. As her condition grew worse, Omei thought to himself that he should do something to let her die peacefully on a day when he was with her. So, he collected some chillies which grew in the wild and cooked it into a soup thinking that it would slowly kill her. On taking the soup, the mother got better and thereafter asked for more of it. Time passed, and fortunately the old mother died on a day when Omei was with her. Omei buried her under the family hearth as his mother instructed him to do before her death, and put the hearth stones back into place so as to make it look like nothing happened. He also dug at various places so that fresh earth could be seen everywhere. When Okhe came back home and noticed that the mother was not there, it enquired of Omei about her. Omei told him the truth about their mother’s death, but wouldn’t divulge where he buried her. Okhe pawed and dug at all places to find the mother’s body, but could not find it. He had missed the hearth place as it did not occur to him that she could be buried under the hearth. From thereon, the tradition that the family can bury their dead beneath their hearth originated, though the practice is not common.

Over time, conflict of interest arose among the three brothers. Okhe was always looking for an opportunity to harm his youngest brother with the intention of making him its meal. Omei, wary of his brother’s intentions, created a sleeping place high up on the roof beyond the reach of Okhe. One day, when Omei was asleep, Okhe came into the house and saw his brother’s reflection in the long tubular water drum below. Thinking this was the opportunity, it dived in only to find that it was full of water. The splash woke up Omei and thereafter he began to think of ways to get rid of his menacing brother. Seemingly, with all innocence, he asked Okhe what it feared the most. Okhe replied that nothing could frighten him except the sound of a booming thunder. After getting the cue, Omei took a gourd, hollowed it out and put some pebbles into the dried shell. He tied it to Okhe’s waist while it was asleep. He then took his bugle, made from the long stem of a tubular plant called 'makhi', and sounded it sharply into Okhe’s ears. On hearing the loud bugle, Okhe leaped to its feet and fled. As the pebbles made a sound in the gourd shell with its every leap, Okhe fled and fled until it was deep into the dark jungle in the western hills (Evele). In the meantime, Orah decided to go to the south (Kashiilei) where the sun was warm, in the lowland valley. Thus, the three brothers went their own ways.

In another version, it is said that the conflict over who would inherit the motherland (called the ‘navel’ of the earth, meaning the middle ground) was resolved through a contest—a race—on the instruction of the mother. For the purpose, she set up three stone monoliths as the target, one for each of them, and decided that the one who reached or touched it first would be the heir to the motherland. In the first contest, Okhe overtook the other two, and reached the target first. However, their mother objected to it and accused Okhe of making an earlier, and therefore false, start as she wanted her favourite and youngest son, Omei, to inherit the motherland. She then instructed Omei to create a bow and how he should reached the target with an arrow. In the contest, Omei, with the help of his bow, reached the target with an arrow and thus claimed his right as the heir to the motherland to which the mother agreed.

A variation of the second version says that the contest happened after the mother died. The target was a bunch of leaves rolled on a twig, called prodzii in Mao language. Orah, being a benign being, was more compassionate towards the youngest brother Omei who had to face bullying from Okhe, the ferocious brother, as he could not match the physical strength of the latter. So, unlike the version which has the mother instructing the youngest son to use an arrow, it was the second brother Orah who instructed his younger brother Omei to use an arrow to hit the target. Omei did as he was instructed and claimed his right to the heartland or motherland. The three menhirs at Chazhilophi (near Makhel village), representing Tiger, Spirit and Man were erected in commemoration of the three brothers who once lived together.[8]

Menhir at Makhel commemorating the parting of ways of the three brothers - Alapha, Tutowo and Khephiwo - believed to be the sons of the first Man in Mao legend.

Omei, occupying the ‘navel’ of the universe, had three sons: Alapha, the eldest son; Tutowo, the middle; and Khephio, the youngest son. Not much is said about the first two brothers as they are considered to be the ancestors of non-Naga People. According to the legend, the Nagas descended from Khephio, the youngest of the three brothers. As their descendants increased, they parted ways leaving Khephio and his descendants to occupy the motherland. In folklore, it is said that they erected a memorial (a monolith) to commemorate their parting of ways. Over time, the descendants of Khephio, i.e. the Nagas, also had to disperse and move to different directions.

At this stage, the legendary characters, landmarks and events which they are said to signify become more intelligible as a source of the history of the Nagas. Although necessarily conjectured from oral traditions, the attempt at understanding their history have to rely on folklores, sorting out the more and less reliable aspects of the information contained in them through mutually-reinforcing material evidences. (See above "Mao in Naga Tradition")

In the story of the mythical origin of mankind, there is no explanation as to how the first woman came into existence. On being queried about the same, village elders are hard put to find an answer. Normally her existence is taken for granted. According to Dr. Xavier P. Mao, “how the first human being, that is the woman, came into existence is not explained but her existence is taken for granted. This is because the earth is already there and the woman represents the reproductive power of nature. That first woman was called Dziiliimosiiro, which approximately means the 'purest water' or 'crystal clear water'". Moreover, the concept of 'Kashiilei' meaning the warm lowland valley or wasteland indicates that in their imagination, the Nagas did not consider it to be a suitable place for human habitation, perhaps due to the treacherous way of warfare among villages, and common sicknesses associated with warm climates.

If one were to go around the villages in the land of the Maos, one would find that the people have a fascinating culture of building monuments in the form of menhirs, monoliths, megaliths, flat platform built with boulders, etc. Each of these monuments are associated with an event, a ritual or feast. The parting of ways - among the three sons from the first mother, among the brothers from the first man Omei or among the Naga brothers - has also been marked with monuments. It may be thought to be peaceful and spontaneous, as legends tell of their assembling together where these monuments stand today and bidding farewell to each other. Moreover, in each of the stages of the legend regarding the origin of mankind, it was the youngest son who inherited the motherland as it had been decided by the first mother for her three sons. Ultimogeniture has thus been the practice, especially with regard to inheriting the parental home, among the Maos.

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ [1]. The data of the Census of India 2001 as well as 2011 exclude Mao-Maram, Paomata and Purul subdivisions of Senapati district of Manipur due to cancellation of census results for these areas. Currently, no official data are available.
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ van Driem, George (2001), Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region (Brill).
  4. ^ See; also
  5. ^ See Downs, Frederick S. (1983), Christianity in North East India: Historical Perspectives (New Delhi, ISPCK), Note 187.
  6. ^ For more detailed accounts, see Alemchiba, M. (1970), A Brief Historical Account of Nagaland (Kohima: Naga Institute of Culture); also Vashum, R. (2005), Nagas’ Right to Self-Determination (New Delhi: Mittal Publications)
  7. ^ Incidentally, the Mao term for fever is Orah maki meaning 'in the gripping teeth of God'.
  8. ^ Neli, Daili (2011), "Makhrai Hrii (Makhel Race)" in Celebration of 50 Years: Mao Nagas in Delhi (1961-2011) - A Commemorative Souvenir-cum-Report (New Delhi: Mao Welfare Association, Delhi)

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