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Aiming to unlock the power of Gaidinliu

A collaborative project led by Dr Arkotong Longkumer could be the first step on the road to greater understanding of the ‘magical’ notebooks of teenage Indian activist and prophetess, Gaidinliu.

Head and shoulders photograph of Dr Arkotong Longkumer
Dr Arkotong Longkumer

Gaidinliu (1915-1993) was born into the Rongmei tribe in the Naga region of North East India. When she was around 13 years old, Gaidinliu joined a religious reform movement - now called Heraka - set up by her cousin, Jadonang.

In 1929 Gaidinliu and Jadonang led an uprising, aiming to drive the British out of the Naga areas. While her cousin was hanged for sedition, Gaidinliu was imprisoned and only released after Indian independence in 1947.

Her notebooks were confiscated by British administrators, along with body cloths, bracelets, amulets and ritual objects. The artefacts are currently housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

Magical script

Dr Longkumer says,

“The British thought the ‘meaningless scribbles’ in the notebooks were a kind of a ‘magical script’ that Gaidinliu used to inspire her supporters. Her followers also view her artefacts as embodied with magical powers, based on her close association with the python king, a mythical snake that resides in Zailad Lake, in Manipur.

“There are numerous stories that attest to the power of these scripts. Although no one can translate the notebooks, some claim that once the script is deciphered the millenarian kingdom will unfold and a new leader will come to reign.”

First steps towards a virtual exhibition

Dr Longkumer has secured a grant from the University of Edinburgh’s Challenge Investment Fund for a preliminary exploration of the Gaidinliu notebooks and artefacts, which aims to inform a more substantial funding bid in association with the University of Edinburgh’s new Centre for Data, Culture and Society.

If successful, this in turn could lead to the establishment of a virtual exhibition of Gaidinliu’s notebooks and artefacts.

Collaboration and consultation

“Substantive work needs to be done in order to collate and understand Gaidinliu’s artefacts,” Dr Longkumer explains. “This collaborative project is just the first step, a series of discussions between researchers and curators in Edinburgh and Oxford, and engagements with community and organisational stakeholders in North East India.”

The work will be sensitive, as issues surrounding the repatriation of objects are contentious.

Dr Longkumer continues:

“The UK partners will discuss the pragmatic possibilities of organising a virtual exhibition of Gaidinliu’s artefacts – an online collection, without the physical presence of the objects. As Principal Investigator, I will then travel to Assam and Nagaland to consult the community about how the artefacts can be viewed and engaged with, and to talk to research bodies and public institutions about the exhibition and the historical importance of these objects in the region. 

“At this stage, the main purpose of our work is to collaborate with key partners and stakeholders on the aims, objectives, design, methodology and research outcomes of a more detailed project to research and set up the virtual exhibition.

“An online exhibition could not only unlock the mystery of Gaidinliu’s notebooks but also address contemporary issues around the repatriation of colonial objects.”

Links

University of Edinburgh Challenge Investment Fund

University of Edinburgh Centre for Data, Culture and Society

Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Related article: Prophecy and indigenous knowledge in a digital age

Dr Longkumer's profile page