NAGAS: THEIR HISTORY, LIFE AND CUSTOMS

NAGAS

(Northern Myanmar and Northeast India)

The term Naga is used describe groups of tribesmen of Indian and Chinese descent that live in the hill country along the border of far eastern India and northwestern Burma. Nagas are former head hunters. In World War II, they were recruited by the British to fight the Japanese.

The name Naga was first given to these people by the Ahom people in Assam and other neighboring people. The origin of the word Naga is not known. Some say is derived from the Assamese and Sanskrit wordsfor “naked” ( naga or nanga) or the Hindustani word for mountain ( nag). Many Naga members don’t like the word Naga; they prefer the names of their tribe or group. The term has only been used widely since Indian independence as a way to distinguish them from other Indians and was a name adopted by the Naga independence movement.

Naga descend from Tibet-Myanmar ethnic races. Most live in India in Nagaland of northwest India in the states of Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. Nagas are also found in Assam. India. There are about 3.5 million Nagas, with maybe 2 million of them in Nagaland in India. They have traditionally grown crops and hunted and lived mostly in the mountains and places nobody else wanted to live and maintained a high degree of isolation for other groups. About three fourths of the population of Nagaland are Nagas.

In Myanmar there is a much smaller population of some 100,000 Nagas. In Myanmar they live mostly in the northern part of the country ar near the India-Myanmar border in the valley regions of Patkwai. They are spread around western Sagaing Division: from Patkoi range in north to Thaungdyat in south and from Indian border in west to River Chindwin in east. Some can also be found in Khantee, Lashee, Lahel and Nanyun of Sagain Township. The Chin and the Naga compose about 3 percent of the population of Myanmar. They usually make their villages above 3000 or 4000 feet above sea level. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

By some counts there are 66 tribes. The 15 major ones include the: Konyak Nagas (with 170,000 members), Ao Nagas (with 150,000 members), Zeme (Sema) Nagas (50,000), Phom Nagas (40,000), Chang Nagas (35,000), Rongmei Nagas (30,000), and Maring Nagas (20,000). Among the Naga groups that have been studied are the Kacha, the Angami, the Rengma, the Lhote, the Seama, the Aos, the Knyak, the Chang, the Sangtam, the Yachumu, the Tukomu, the Naked Rengma, the Tangkhul, and the Kalyo-kengu (“the salted-house men”). Much more is known about the Indian Nagas than their Myanmar counterparts.

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Early Naga History

The origin of the Nagas is not know. For that matter little is known of any group believed to be from China that migrated south of the Himalayas. The first record of China people in India is from around the 10th century B.C. Based on linguistic evidence, it is believed that the Nagas and other Indians of Chinese descent originated in a region between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers in northwestern China and arrived in India in several waves of migrations that took place over several centuries after Aryans arrived. Their original settlements were around the Irrawaddy and Chindwin rivers in Burma.

There were contacts between Aryan tribes and tribes of Chinese descent. The Chinese tribes were not homogeneous. There spoke a number of languages and had a number of different customs and social structures. As time went on they migrated out from their early settlements in Burma into Assam, the Cachar Hills and what is now Nagaland.

From 1228 to the British annexation of the region, when Assam was ruled by the Ahoms, the Nagas were pretty much on their own but they did have contacts with the Ahoms and these contacts took many different forms. Nagas that lived on the plains near the Ahom paid an annual tribute to the Ahom which gave them free access to land and fisheries in return for refraining from staging raids in Ahom territory. The Ahom occasionally staged raids into Naga territory but were never able to bring the region under their control. The Naga were also involved in trade. They traded salt (an important commodity often used as money), cotton, medicinal herbs, ivory, bee’s wax and adzes for Assamese rice, cloth and beads.

Naga Under the British

The British were never able to conquered the Nagas and only occupied a small piece of their territory. In 1820, the British added Assam to the East India Company’s territories. In 1832, they attempted to annex the Naga areas but met fierce resistance from Naga guerilla groups, particularly from the Angami tribe. The British sent ten military expeditions into Naga-controlled lands between 1835 and 1851. The resistance continued. The British set up posts in Angami land, which in turn unified the Agami. In 1879 the Angami staged a number of raids on British positions. The British responded by burning Angami villages and were ultimately able to bring the Angami region under their control. Using this territory as their beachhead the British were able to expand their control over much of Nagaland.

British rule was regarded as benign. No Indians were allowed to serve as administrators in their territory and measures were taken to keep the Nagas from being exploited by people from the plains. The British also worked to end intratribal conflict. After annexation, Christian missionaries quickly moved into the region, with American Baptists taking the lead. The missionaries found a receptive audience and the conversion process went relatively quickly.

Later Naga History

The Nagas have never considered themselves part of India. On August 14, 1947, one day before India and Pakistan gained independence, Naga leaders in the Naga National Council (NNC) declared their independence over a chunk of land in far northeast India that became known as Nagaland. Even so India asserted authority over the small state. The Nagas never agreed to join India, and they have been fighting for independence ever since, with both China and Pakistan reportedly at various times supplying the Nagas with arms.

India assimilated Nagaland in 1952, The Nagas responded by boycotting India-imposed elections. Civil disobedience tactics were used in 1953 but achieved little . An armed struggle began in 1955. Some 4,000 Indian troops were called into the area to put down the uprising, in some cases fighting Naga tribesmen armed with slings, and bows and arrows.

In 1956. the NNC declared the creation of the Federal Government of Nagaland. The Naga Peoples Convention demanded statehood. To quiet the Naga independence movement, India made Nagaland a self-governing state in 1963, but restricted access by foreigners.

Violence continued. A peace commission sponsored by the Baptist church was formed and a cease between the government of India and Nagaland federal government was declared in May 1964. The cease-fire lasted until September 1972 after an assassination attempt was made on the India-installed chief minister of Nagaland and the Indian government declared an end to the cease-fire and banned the NNC. Violence continued until the Shillong Accord was signed by the Indian government and the Nagaland federal government in November 1975.

Beginning in 1975, Nagaland was ruled under "presidential rule" by the Indian government. Pockets of resistance continued but were small and isolated. There were reports of separatists being trained in China and Pakistan. A small resistance movement existed in exile in Burma in the 1980s. Violence still and calls for more autonomy appear from time to time.

Naga Language and Religion

Nagas speak languages and dialects that are part of Tibeto-Burman family, which are part of the Sino-Tibetan phylum. But aside from that there is great diversity among the languages spoken by the Nagas. There are nearly as many languages and dialects as there are tribes and groups. Thus far about 30 languages have formally been recognized. The lingua franca of the state of Nagaland is Naga Pidgin (also known as Nagamese, Kachari Bengali or Bodo).

The Naga languages belong to the Kuki-Chin Subgroup of the Kuki-Naga Group of the Tibeto-Burman family of languages. They are all tonal and monosyllabic and had no written form until missionaries gave them Roman alphabets in the 1800s. Many Nagas speak English due to their Christian schooling and from watching foreign programs on satellite television.

Most Naga are Christians. About 95 percent of Nagaland's 1.21 million people are Christian, most of whom are Baptists, thanks to the work of Baptist missionaries that have been in Nagaland since the late 19th century. When Billy Graham spoke in Nagaland in 1973 he drew crowds of more than 100,000. Graham was one of the few foreign visitors that the Indian government allowed to visit Nagaland.

Naga Traditional Religion

Traditional beliefs in spirits, local deities and supernatural forces associated with life events remain strong even among tribes that have adopted Christianity. Spirts are associated with both animate and inanimate objects and most are regarded as either gods or souls of deceased people. Rather than being divided into good and bad spirits, individual spirts are regarded as having good and bad qualities.

Important Angami gods include the Kenopfu (the creator god), Rutzeh (the giver of sudden death), Maweno (god of fruitfulness), Telepfu (the mischievous god), tsuko and Dzurawu (husband and wife dwarf gods), and Tekhu-rho (god of tigers).

An individual tribe will often have several different religious practitioners. Among the Angami are the kemovo (leader of public ceremonies and keeper of historical and clan information); zhevo (healer-magician), tsakro (an elder who presides of agricultural rituals), themuna (diviners with special knowledge about poisons), kihupfuma (sorcerers) and terhope (women who predict the future based on information from their dreams). The status of these practitioners is often arranged in a hierarchy.

Naga Ceremonies and Arts

Angami magic-religion ceremonies are called gennas. Important ones are held 11 times a year. They are linked with the agricultural calendar are accompanied by behavioral restrictions. Special ones are ranged for intertribal and interclan meetings, war dances, head hunting, rainmaking, hunting and the creation of a new village door. Family gennas are performed to mark births, marriages and deaths.

Gennas generally involve animal sacrifices, offering of flesh to the spirits, wearing of ceremonial garments, singing, dancing and the pounding of dhan (unhusked grain of the rice plant), the cessation of work and prohibitions on contacts with strangers. The restrictions on behavior are of two types: kennas (personal behavior) and pennas (community behavior).

Singing and dancing are characteristic features of gennas. There is a rich canon of oral literature and myths, which are often performed as songs. Small wooden dolls are carved and dressed in traditional clothes. Life-size human figures are made and placed over graves. Village doors, house gables and wooden bridges often feature carvings of the heads of humans, pigs, gayals, breasts or baskets. The gayal is a semi-domesticated bovid forest browser bred for meat and ritual sacrifice.

Each tribe has its own distinct style of dance but they have many things in common: namely that the torso is kept erect and the steps in the early stage of the dance are austere and dignified and as the dance progresses become more ecstatic and expressive. The steep patters of the dances are very complex. Positions and formations are determined by the social organization of the tribe and an individual’s position within the group. One formation, for example, is associated with villages ruled by a headman and another is associated with villages led by a council. During hunting dances dancers hold swords and spears and dance in a circle in an effort to drive away evil spirits.

The Naga new year festival is held on January 14 and 15. The main idea of celebrating new year is to enjoy the feast of the gone year and to welcome a better year of harvest.

Naga Funerals

Funeral practices vary somewhat from tribe to tribe. Among the Angami, the deceased is usually buried in a ceremony arranged by male relatives along a village path or in front of his house. The body of a man is interred with a live chicken, a fire stick and one or two spears in a coffin covered with a white cloth, A gadozi seed is placed between the teeth of the deceased. The seed is an offering to a devil in the afterlife and the seed is bit like the coin use to pay the ferryman by the Greeks.

A woman is buried with beads, a reaping hook and a young chicken and the gadzoso seed in a coffin covered with flat stones. On the stones are placed the contents of her carrying basket, rice seeds, millet, other grains, rice beer and drinking cups. Some Naga tribes have traditionally exposed their dead on platforms.

The coffin is covered with dirt and with personal items belonging to the dead placed on the grave. The souls of good people are thought to join the sky god Ukenpenofu. The souls of the bad pas through seven existence below the earth. Life with the sky god is regarded as similar to life on earth but better. Time is spent hunting, drinking, feasting and headhunting.

To make it to this paradise one has to have undergone the zhatho genna and refrain from eating unclean meat afterwards. On the narrow bridge that leads to sky god’s domain, the deceased has to wrestle with the devil. Failure to defeat him leads to the soul wandering between heaven and earth as a spirit that can cause harm. The bridge episode is found among all Naga tribes.

Naga Marriage

There are two kinds of marriage: ceremonial and non-ceremonial. Ceremonial is preferred and is a symbol of status and wealth. It is an elaborate procedure including the service of marriage brokers, reading of omens and the negotiation of a marriage-price, which is generally not too high. In the non-ceremonial form, a man takes a woman into his house and there remains kenna (forbidden) for one day.

Among the Angami, polygamy is not allowed, widows are permitted to remarry and divorce is allowed, with a wife getting a third of the couple’s joint property. Among the Lhota, polygamy is practiced, with a husband taking up to three wives, with a preference for young girls and a high bride-prices. Arranged marriages and divorces are common. Men allow their brothers or other male relatives to have sex with their wives if a man is gone for a long period of time. The Sema also practice polygamy. Their men are allowed to have up to seven wives.

Naga Men, Women and Families

Men have traditionally done the hunting and engaged in warfare while women did weaving and cooking. Both sexes participate in agriculture and trade and sex separation takes place at gennas. Tangkhul women raise children weave cloth, teach weaving to girls, store and prepare food, brew rice wine, dry tobacco, feed pigs, fowl and cattle, carry water and pound rice. Women are often seen with “carry baskets.”

Among the Konyak, men are recognized as the head of the household and the owner of the family home, which is built on land owned by his clan. He is responsible for maintaining the house, granaries and furnishings and purchasing of wooden implements and baskets. Men claim ownership over the tools they use and women claim ownership of the loom, textiles and cooking implements they use. Men take care of rice cultivation and storage; women do the planting, harvesting and drying of taro.

The typical Naga family unit is comprised of a husband and wife and two or three children, with perhaps an aged widowed parent or a younger unmarried brother. Property is handed down with the clan, generally to the next male heir after the wife’s third has been taken out. Men generally try to dispose of their property while they are alive giving out land and property to his sons when they marry. At death the youngest son gets the house and the oldest son gets the best agricultural land. Land may be given to a daughter only on a temporary basis. After her death it is given to male heirs.

Angami Children go through an elaborate ritual after they are born and are breast-fed until they are two or three years old. The ears of girls are pierced after six to twelve months, often after they learn to speak. At age 4 to 6 a boy moves from the mother’s side of the house to father’s side and from this point on he is regarded as a member of the male community.

Young men in some Naga groups live in a morung (young men’s house). A few groups (including the Ao and Memi) have girl’s houses. Boys and girls have a far amount of freedom to engage in pre-marital sex.

Naga Society, Warfare and Headhunting

The Naga are very attached to their land, family, clan and khel (village quarter). The khel is responsible for cultivating a particular parcel of land A village is made up of several khels. Khels are often defined by geography but are generally made up of members of the same clan group or some other grouping.

Naga society revolves around patrilineal clans ( thino) and kindred ( putsa). Clan loyalty is generally more important than loyalties to other groups, even khels. Personal identity is closely linked with clan membership. Clans are rather fluid and can break apart and form anew. Descent is patrilineal. Status was traditionally been measured in war trophies, particularly heads, but now is measured mostly by wealth and sponsorship of festivals. Social status is reflected in the roofing of homes.

Conflict between tribes, clans and villages was common in the old days and headhunting was a feature of warfare. The traditional weapons of warfare were spears and shields. Spears used to be trimmed with human hair. Guns was used to a limited degree after the arrival of the British.

Headhunting and warfare was common into the early 20th century. The practice was largely ended through efforts by the British, missionaries and the Indian government. The last reports of headhunting in Indian Nagaland were in the 1960s.

The have been no reports of headhunting in Burma since 1991. That year in village near the Indian border an intervillage disagreement lead to an attack in which men from one of the villages “hacked 28 heads from the enemy villages” and then brought them home as souvenirs.” [Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003]

Naga Villages

Naga settlements have traditionally been established at elevations between 900 and 1200 meters on hilltops that could be defended from neighboring tribes. The villages were designed to be secure and self sufficient. In the old days when intertribal conflict was common in places that were heavily fortified. Fortified settlements traditionally had one or more heavily guarded entrances and was sometime protected by booby traps such as pitfalls and ditched fields with panjis (pointed bamboo sticks).

The fortifications included large wooden doors (latched from the inside of the villages and made from a single piece of wood), stone walls up to three meters thick, wooden fences coverd with panjis. Footpath approaching the villages were lined and covered with thorn bushes so that people approaching had to walk in single fille. During times of war, roads and paths leading to the village were covered with pegs driven into the ground and rough stones were placed near the village gate. Since intertribal warfare has ended, the villages are no longer fortified.

Traditionally, Naga villages have been surrounded by terraced fields and slash-and- burn plots cleared from the jungle. Each house has an open space in front and is connected to other houses by paths. Small gardens near the houses are used to raise maize, mustard and other crops. Villages are usually named after a geographical feature associated with the village or a historical event or ancient settlement associated with the site.

Most Naga villages also contain a morung (a clubhouse and dormitory for single men). Among the Angami, it serves as a guardhouse, clubhouse and center for communal activities and some ceremonies. Most Angami villages have an open space that serves as a meeting place for the entire village. Sometimes there are pliths here made of stone masonry or wood. Stations, often situated on village walls, or a high point in the village, can be as high as nine meters and may have originally been used as guard towers.

Naga Homes, Food and Clothes

Homes vary somewhat from tribe to tribe. A typical Agami house is a one story structure on the ground. Roughly 10 to 20 meters long and 6 to 12 metes wide, it has a dirt floor and three compartments separated by blank partitions: 1) a front room, where rice and other goods are stored in buckets; 2) a room with the beds, raised a half a meter to a meter off the ground, and a hearth, which usually consists of three stones embedded in the ground to form a stand for cooking containers; and 3) a one-meter-wide compartments that extends the entire width of the house, which is where liquor vats are stored.

Typically no more than five people live in a single house and social status is reflected in the roof of the house. The homes of poor are roofed with thatching grass. Slightly better ones have barge boards. Better ones still have barge boards and kika (house horns). The best houses have wooden shingles and a different kind of kika

Naga tribesmen eat roasted grubs, which some Europeans have described as delicious. They drink rice beer called zu and rice wine called zam. The Angami produce black, blue, scarlet, pale terra-cotta and yellow cloth from cotton, and wuve (a kind of nettle) or gakeh (a kind of jute).

Naga men wear sleeves of logs around their arms and bamboo headdresses that look like an unfolded peacock tail that were traditionally are made of bear fur, feathers, the tusks of wild boar and tufts of human hair. Necklaces and bracelets are made with funnel-shaped beads, shells, animal teeth and claws and precious and semi-precious stones. Gold is molded into the shapes of human heads. Some wear tiger jaws or necklace made of beads and tiger teeth.

Naga men wear necklaces made of seashells and wild boar tusks. One necklace placed on exhibition had four “heads” made of bronze denoting that the warrior who wore the necklace had killed four men in battle. [Source: Brigitte Rozario, The Star (Malaysia), September 17, 2006]

Naga women wear tattoos. They ideally help to keeps the women from being kidnaped. Men traditionally could only wear tattoos on their face if they killed a man. Old timers have pierced earlobes that dangle from their ears.

Naga in Burma wear longys (sarongs ) and Nehru jackets. For dancing they wear an elaborate longji with a white eingyi jacket and a small white head scarf tied in a knot with a bow at the back. Sometimes calf-length trouser are worn and the longyi is draped at the waist. White stockings are worn, sometimes with sandals, sometimes without them.

Naga Government and Health

Villages administration is taken care of by a council of elders, that hears grievances at council meeting and chiefs, whose power varies from tribe to tribe. The government appoints village officials known as gaonburas and they are in charge of administration, collecting taxes and are a go-between for the village council and the government.

The Nagas are literate and have access to schools and decent health care thanks to the work of the missionaries. Traditional treatments include gennas, healing rituals by religious practitioners and potions made from toad bile, earthworms, fish brains, dog eyes, raw eggs and the marrow of the serow (a kind of wild forest goat).

In Myanmar, Naga harvest festivals are open to tourists. The government has forced the Naga to end animal sacrifices and dances with clothes as shoes so as not to appear primitive before the tourists. Many Naga worry their culture will be lost by such pressures. Near the Assam border many Naga villages have no electricity. Across the border in Assam there are abundant electricity supplies.

Naga Economics

Iron, conch shells Assamese chabili (carving knives used by the Ao) were used for barter and currency before the arrival of British rupees.

Village level industry includes blacksmithing (particularly for making iron spearheads, brass ware and brass earrings), making clay pots (a speciality of certain villages), basketry, woodworking. making bamboo tools and mats, producing musical instruments, manufacturing salt, and fashioning tools and objects from shells, bones, ivory and horns.

There is an extensive trade network embracing different Naga tribes trading with each other and with their Assamese neighbors. The Ao trade pan, cotton, chilies, ginger, gourds, mats and the gum of the liyang tree to obtain salt and dried fish from traders in the plains. These are things are then traded with the Phoms and Chnags in exchange for pigs and fowl. Some Ao trade wild tea with the Assamese. Others trade cotton surplus for salt. The Angami are involved in trading beads and other manufactures items with other Naga tribes and the Assamese.

Among the Angami, terraced fields, wood sources, gardens, buildings sites and jhum land are often owned by individuals. Land with thatch grassing or other products needed by a large group is generally collectively owned by a kindred, clan or an entire village.

Naga Agriculture and Hunting

Some Naga tribes are almost exclusively farmers. Others also raise some animals, hunt and fish. Domestic animals include gayals (for trade), cows (for meat and trade), cow hybrids, pigs, dogs (for meat and hunting), cats (for food and magic-religious purposes), fowl, bees and goats. Hunting of serows (mountain goats), wild dogs and deer is done for both food and sport with spears and guns. Fishing is done with poisons.

The Naga grow cops on terraces and jhum (land slashed, cleared and burned from the forest). Jhum land is generally cleared and burned and used for two years and allowed to return to jungle. The Angami use jhum farming and terracing on steep hillsides. The terraces are used to grow rice and are irrigated using channels and bamboo pipes to direct water from a stream into the terrace.

Naga farmers grow food, hunt for food and live simply. The main staple crops are rice and millet. Job’s ear maize, great millet, beans, oil seeds, gourds, cucumbers, chilies, spinach, mustard, and kachu (a kind of taro) are also commonly grown. Cotton and jute are raised for clothing. Wood and bamboo are used for housing, fires and tools. Grass is exploited for thatching. The primary agricultural tools are axes, spades, hoes, mattocks, rakes, sickles and a marking sticks.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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