Hotels in India » Fashion in India » Naga Looms

Naga Looms


For the first time a ‘Naga fusion’ fashion parade was organized in Delhi. Lithe and agile young Naga belles cat-walked confidently down the ramp as it they had just stepped out of ‘Vogue’ in the trendiest outfits. The one most outstanding feature was that every piece of cloth used was handwoven on the loin loom that the Nagas have been using for more than a 100 years. Traditional patterns of the various tribes of Nagaland fused harmoniously with high fashion garments of the West. As the lights dimmed and the show began with a dance of the early Naga warriors, the reverberating and resounding of drums carried one back into the past to the deep remote jungles on the North-Eastern frontier.

Very wild and beautiful, Nagaland was a strange and totally isolated hilly, mountainous region. With the arrival of the missionaries, the First World War and later the Japanese invasion of 1944, British troops arrived and the ‘west wind’ started blowing across this land changing the rhythm of life and within a span of 150 years rapid transformation took place making up for years of isolation.

Till as late as the early 19th century the Nagas lived simple ‘pagan’ lives in their forested mountains sowing and harvesting, brewing rice beer, singing, dancing and headhunting. Always brightly bedecked in gala colours, Naga warriors flashed about almost ‘au naturel’ as their sole garment was a strip of black cotton cloth worn as a kind of kit. Passed around the hips and overlapping in front it was fastened on the left side. The lower corner was drawn tightly between the legs by a string. When a man became a warrior he acquired the right to trim his kilt with rows of cowries (shells) for every head taken he affixed so many cowries. A warrior with three rows was considered a great gun indeed! A long black homespun cloth with a double border of bright scarlet and yellow stripes or white with black and red stripes was draped across the breast and knotted over the shoulder. Another was bound round the waist, the folds were used as pockets.

A warrior’s head-dress was his ‘crowning glory’. All Naga tribes used a lot of hair as tassels for decoration human or animal hair dyed red. Some wore coronets of bear’s hair. For every conspicuous bravery the right was conferred to wear long tail feathers of Hom Bills or Toucans – white with a single broad bar of black at the top. They were fitted loosely so they revolved with any movement. Apart from being decorative, these ornaments served for defensive purposes as well: the long hair so profusely used, waving about with every movement were meant to distract the eye of the foe – disturb the aim. Armlets were made of single slices of elephant tusks two inches wide. Small bands of coloured canework were also worn above the elbow. Leggings made of red and yellow cane followed the shape of the leg fitting at the ankle and just below the knee and swelling at the calf. These accessories served to ward off the spear or axe.

Surprisingly, the women were not quite so picturesquely attired. They wore a sarong and were topless but loaded with numerous necklaces of all sorts and sizes of shells and glass beads.

Due to the bracing climate the shawl has always been and still is the single most important piece of cloth. The shawl and sarong was an indication of the tribe to which they belonged as each tribe had its own particular motif symbols.

Naga women are superb artists of the loom being adept weavers. Almost every home has its loin loom which is compact, simple and portable. It is a kind of tension loom made of bamboo and wood. The warp yarns are stretched between two parallel bamboos. One end is attached to a wooden stick and the other end is held firm by a leather strap that goes around the weaver’s waist against which she leans sitting on a mat. The shuttle is passed over and under the warp and the weft is pushed in by a pieced of wood. The loom occupies little space and can be tied to a tree outside or in any part of the house. The Nagas have clung to certain patterns and motifs that have come down through the ages. These designs have become deeply rooted in the tribal consciousness and become a part of their heritage. Their patterns are mostly simple geometric lines inspired by the intrinsic characteristics of nature – the rotundity of the moon, curves of branches, ovals of leaves, the arc of the sickle moon, the stars, the vertical and horizontal flight of a bird and the swimming of a fish. The fabrics have a ribbed effect and are thick as the warp is dense and covers the weft so when different t coloured yarns are added into the warp the stripes become bold and achieve full strength of colour. Combinations of black, red and white feature frequently and are based on symmetry. In the sarong, stripes run horizontally. Sometimes warp stripes are interrupted by small motifs in extra weft weaves. The back of the fabric shows no trace of the extra weft used.

Although Naga society has rocketed its way to a modern present the loin loom remains steadfast and today weaving is the only cottage industry extant. Naga youths have gone in a big way for ultra-modern garments. Latest trends reach these remote hills long before the cities even awake to them. But the handwoven cloth is still favoured. Old designs have been inspired by inter-tribe marriages resulting in a fusion of various tribal designs.

Gone are the days when tribes eyed each other with suspicion from their hill-top village eyries. There is now a new-found feeling of oneness with the various tribes uniting under the common banner of Nagas. The ring of church bells have replaced the resonance of the village drums and ballads by pop music. Music and dancing in the old Naga style is reserved for special occasions and visiting V.I.P.s. Where earlier each tribe had its own dialect, English and Nagamese is now the language of the people. The best of the old has not disappeared with the zest for the new – a balance has been struck. They are infused with a long-standing sense of pride in the creative talents of their people and this spirit is the greater incentive to the Nagas to keep alive the beauty and vitality of their craftsmanship – a living tradition for all time.