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September 14, 2023

The seven states of India’s Northeast — Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, and Arunachal Pradesh — are a folklorist’s wonderland. The wild geography of riverine plains, hilly rainforests, and snowy mountains makes for startling diversity, both in the richness of biological species and in human culture and imagination.

The roughly 50 million people who live here speak over 200 different languages. The folklore of each community has a distinct character and a unique pantheon of spirits. But there are also certain commonalities I discovered while researching my book Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India. This is especially true amongst the tribes that speak Tibeto-Burman languages, and their tales surrounding the journeys of the souls of the dead.

The story is as follows.

After death, the soul must travel on a journey to the Village of the Dead, on a real path found within our world. For the Garo tribe, it leads to Balpakram, now a national park. For the Ao Nagas, it leads to a stream called Longri-tzü-lenden (the Place of Bitter Water), and onwards to the village of Longkhüm. For Mizos, the path goes through the lake Rih Dil and on to a hill called Hringlang Tlang, where the soul must drink from a spring to forget their past and pluck a forgetting-flower, which tucked behind the ears makes them lose all desire to return to their loved ones.

In each case, there is a malevolent figure that the soul meets along the way: a dangerous ogre who will catch and devour the soul if he can. In the Garo tradition, his name is Nawang, and he lives in a cave at the side of the path. He accosts the travelling soul and demands to know what they have accomplished in their life and what valuables they carry. If the last rites have been done properly, the soul should be carrying some brass rings or coins, and at this point, they should scatter them on the ground. Nawang, who is mad for shiny objects, immediately forgets about the soul, and runs about trying to collect the trinkets. Meanwhile, the soul can make their escape.

In Sümi Naga folklore, there is a similar ogre named Kolavo. Kolavo’s approach is different. He approaches the soul and says, “My hair is full of lice.” The soul is then expected to pick the insects out of Kolavo’s hair. In a traditional Sümi Naga funeral, women are buried along with a round, pink swordbean seed and a small, flat piece of bamboo to carry with them on their journey. When Kolavo presents his filthy head to her, the soul uses this bamboo to make tiny clicking sounds, pretending to kill the lice. She must then throw the swordbean seed, and as Kolavo runs to fetch it, make her escape. Men are similarly buried with spinning tops, which they use instead of the swordbean seeds to distract Kolavo.

In Mizo myth, the ogre is named Pu Pâwla. He is giant in stature, and has a more official role as the guardian of the gate of Zingvanzawl, through which all souls must pass to reach either Mitthi Khua (the Village of the Dead) or Pialral, a heroes’ heaven. Pâwla carries a huge pellet gun or slingshot, with clay pellets the size of hen’s eggs. He interrogates the deceased about their achievements in life. If he is unimpressed — for instance, if they were poor hunters with few kills to their name, or if they died as adult virgins — he shoots them with a pellet. Pâwla never misses. The wounds from his pellets swell up into large painful cysts which take three years to subside. Pu Pâwla is said to be very hairy, and like Kolavo, his matted fur is infested with lice, which are said to be so engorged that they reach the size of aubergines. Pu Pâwla forces the dead souls to pick and eat them.

There are endless riches of folklore in the cultures of the seven sister states of Northeast India. But I am especially fascinated by this fearsome character who lurks on the road to the afterlife, his many names, and the variations on the stories surrounding him. 

You can find out more about this ogre, and other folkloric traditions from across India, in my new book Ghosts, Monsters, and Demons of India.

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