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Nagas – A Spirited Past

Stigmatized as ‘head hunters’ the tribals of Nagaland, considered wild and uncivilized, have nevertheless a lifestyle that is fascinating and unbelievable.

The north-east of India is a region of ethnic diversity inhabited by an innumerable variety of tribes professing a wide range of religions, culture, languages and social systems. Among them is the tribal group called the Nagas. Nagaland – the home of Nagas emerged as a new State of India in 1963. Nagas are not a single homogeneous people but a composite of some 18 tribes speaking about 30 dialects. And yet there are distinct features of similarity amongst them. They are a hardy people, warlike and sternly elemental. They have common food habits, strong resemblance in the various items of their dress as also their mode of agriculture. Until 1958, they practiced head-hunting which earned them both the curiosity and stigma of the outer world. They are, by and large, gay and carefree with an extraordinary capacity for enjoying life.

Before Christianity entered their lives in 1851, they believed the doctrine that attributes spirits to surrounding inanimate objects and to natural phenomenon. The Sema tribe of the Nagas had an innate belief in an unseen higher power that regulated human destiny and, as such, was entitled to obedience, reverence and worship. They believed in three separate categories of spirits. The foremost of them was the Creator holding dominion over the process of creation. The second category related to the spirits of the sky such as angels and the third consisted of the group that inhabited the earth among human beings. While the Creator was beneficient and benevolent, the spirits of the second and third categories were malevolent and had to be propitiated with sacrifies and rituals. The Nagas have a deep faith in the soul which transmigrates after the death of person. The head being the receptacle of the soul was, therefore, regarded as an object of immense vitality and creative energy. Head hunting was propelled by the desire to acquire a head for retention in one’s house or village which would, as a result, be blessed with human and animal fertility. The head of a woman with long hair was specially precious, as it would stimulate an abundance of food crops. The taker of a head gained fame for prowess in the art of war and was, therefore, sought after by young girls.

The practice of head-hunting was accompanied with a variety of other social and cultural activities. It stimulated the carving of wooden heads marked with prominent features and mobile expressions which were worn like medals by the proud, successful head-hunters. Dancing, drinking (local rice beer) and merry-making followed the head-hunt.

Head-hunting also inspired the weaving of special textiles of choice colours and designs for use as shawls by the head-hunter to identify his heroism. Strong and vigorous figures were carved in bold relief out of wood and fixed to the baskets of the warriors, indicating the number of heads taken. Such wooden figures were also kept in houses as prized trophies.

Dances were also inspired by head-hunting, especially after a victory over an enemy village. Dances are, in fact, a regular feature of Naga life which signify rhythm, physical robustness and flexibility. Naga dances are invariably group dances – solo performances are non- existent. They put on their traditional regalia in full finery including the weapons of war- spears, hatchets and self-made muzzle loading guns.

The Naga tribes have a marked community and cooperative spirit. Thus for events demanding considerable labour and physical input such as house-building or preparing the cultivation field for agriculture, the entire village manpower gets mobilized. This collective spirit enables them to share the burden of the unfortunate handicapped individuals or those impoverished by disease or inadequate resources.

Their daily life is governed by an ancient tradition of a customary code of laws which, although unwritten, are universally understood and zealously pursued. The village councils among the Ao and Angami tribes representing a democratic apparatus made up of village elders or the chieftains’ rule as among the Konyak, Sema and Chang tribes, function as court of trial and justice against crime. The judicial process which is simple, quick and final rests on the truthful nature of the criminal. For example, an Angami cultivator once used a stone to drive out a cow that had intruded into his field. Unwittingly, it lamed the cow. Before the aggrieved owner of the cow could report the offence to the village council, the cultivator voluntarily confessed his misdeed to the council and accepted the punishment.

The Nagas live amidst mountains that slope forth into an endless succession of spurs and saddles traversed by innumerable rivers, streams and rivulets carrying clear gurgling water from the lofty springs lodged in the natural catchment areas of the Patkai Hills. The territory is rich in flora and fauna, particularly orchids such as the Blude Vanda, the Red Vanda and the various species of Dendrobium, that bedeck the lush green woods. The Phek District of the Chaksang tribe is particularly picturesque with its groves of pines.

The Nagas produce a variety of food crops but their modes of agriculture differ from the evenly grade and irrigated terraces of the Angami tribe to the primitive, laborious and destructive ‘slash and burn’ operations of the Sema, Konyak and Sangtam tribes. They grow paddy, Job’s tears, maize millet, chillies, oil seeds, pulses and a number of beans. Among the vegetables, cucumber, gourd, and pumpkin are common. The seeds of chenopodium murale and the leaves of a wild aubergine are used to produce yeast. Rice bear, locally brewed, has nutritious value and is used in three forms: as fermented liquor, infused beer mildly fermented. Before drinking, Nagas generally pour a few drops on the ground or blow upon the surface of the drink to drive away the spirits.

Their food consists of rice or millet accompanied by vegetables, fish and meat. Nagas are fond of chillies and can fill their mouth with chillies and nothing else as if they were chocolates. No part of the animal body is wasted in that they eat the skin, and intestines too. Creatures with soft bones, such as birds and frogs, are eaten in total, bones and all. Their diet is strengthened by a sub-tropical array of fruits. Oranges, particularly of a sweet taste and heightened citric flavour, flood the lower hill ranges of the Ao, Angami and Lotha tribes. Papayas and guavas are plentiful and pineapples may weigh as much as five to six kilogrammes. Nagas do not eat crows because these birds eat human corpses; the owl is shunned because it is an ‘idiot’; the brain-fever bird is also shunned lest the consumer should acquire its incessant reiterated outcry. Such prohibitions apply to certain other animals and birds, the list being longer for women than for men.

Illness is treated by the use of herbs and animals apart from religious and magical proceedings. A wound is treated with chewed tobacco or chicken’s gall. For fever, a grasshopper type of insect is toasted and eaten. Diarrhoea is treated with the leaf of a local shrub. The flesh of the black squirrel looks after a headache, while the bitter red flower of a creeper can terminate a cold and cough.

Certain Naga tribes – the Aos and Semas, claim special kinship with the tiger and the leopard. Some of them believe in a twin-soul relationship with them. When a headman of an Ao village fell on the ground with an acute prickly sensation in his sides, he had an explanation for this. He said that his twin-soul tiger companion was passing through a jungle of prickly bushes and shrubs. This phenomenon which is much more than mere lycanthropy extends over a number of individuals.

The last two decades have, however, brought a sea change among the Nagas. A string of colleges and hospitals have been built and State transport vehicles ply over a network of roads bordered by shops and emporia selling the latest consumer goods. Nagaland now has radio and television transmitting stations and its government and private enterprise have embarked upon tea cultivation and the manufacture of paper, sugar and liquor based on local raw materials. The modern industrial culture has overtaken the past.

With the spread of education and expanding opportunities for development, a band of Naga doctors, engineers and administrators constitute their own professional cadres. Modern urban centres have appeared at the capital, Kohima, and the seven District Headquarters. The older traditions and ways of life have given place to jazz and jeans. But they continue to display their corporate spirit, moral and physical toughness, open heartedness, generosity and a warm hospitality. In the remote corners and the rural sector, however, the evidence of the earlier rich socio-cultural heritage is markedly in evidence. The caves and hollows of their mountain habitat continue to resound with the sound of their songs and the powerful stamping beat of their earth-shaking dances. Above all, they remain a dynamic, life-loving people.