Mundum is an oral tradition that has been passed down from one generation to the next in song, verse, fables and chants with its own creation myth, explaining the importance of human co-existence with nature and all living things. Mundum may have animistic, shamanistic and Shaivite influences, but it transcends religion.
Mundum culture still forms the substrate of society in eastern Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling and beyond wherever there are Kirat settlers. The rituals and recitals lay down the rules for everything from planting to harvest, community relations, birth, death, marriage, dealing with the cycle of seasons, appeasing malevolent spirits and appealing to benevolent ones.
When a pig or chicken raised in the farm needs to be eaten, a Fedangma priest recites the proper prayers before they can be killed. There are rituals when women become pregnant, prayers are offered to ancestors and patron deities every three years. The Fedangma’s recitations are from memory, and are passed down from the priest before, and I have marvelled at the knowledge, vocabulary, symbolism, and literary richness contained in them.
These recitations describe the creation of life, how humans came to be, their migrations, the rise and fall of civilisations, evolution and extinction, and our place in this ancient unwritten history of the world. There are different styles, metres, and tonal variations in communicating these messages through humour, drama, stories and poetry that make Mundum a well-developed form of literature.
Mundum also emphasises affinity for nature and the importance of its protection: why we need to strike a balance with the web of life. It contains a wealth of lessons from past human experience in ensuring its own survival.
The emergence of human beings is regarded as the pinnacle of evolution, but after being let down, the Creator was forced to become invisible. This left human beings helpless in their ignorance, and thus began their suffering. They were consumed by greed, envy, ambition, anger and cruelty.
However, Mundum offers a solution to this tragic outcome, and the riddle of existence. This is a human-made dilemma, and humans can find a way out of it. There is still hope if humanity can strive for freedom from the cycle of birth and death through good karma. Death can be defeated by decent living, and a realisation of man’s place amidst the completeness and beauty of creation.
It is not enough to believe in goodness, Mundum teaches us to be good in our actions towards other people and to nature as well. The Earth is not just for human beings, we have to share it with other living things. Their survival will determine our survival.
This collective wisdom of the ages is an important message to us today as we strive to save life the Planet from human short-sightedness and avarice.
Bairagi Kainla is the pen name of Til Bikram Nembang Limbu. He is an author and researcher, and served as Chancellor of the Nepal Academy. This piece is adapted from his acceptance speech at the 2019 Jagadamba Sri Award.