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The Yimchungers Red Regalia - Head Hunters of Nagaland

Migrating from Burma, hundreds of years ago, the Yimchungers literally searched for homing ground. They reached and settled in Nagaland and graduated from being head hunters to agriculturists. A look at their vibrant lifestyle.

Nagaland is rain-soaked in August. Non-stop rain and landslides which company it can deter any adventurous person from stepping out, but the yimchunger of Nagaland. Matemeneo, the most important festival of the Yimchungers falls in the first week of August amidst rain and thunder showers. The festival heralds the coming of the new year. It is also the occasion to bid farewell to the souls of those who died in he previous year. Yimchungers believe that the souls of the dead do not leave the earthly abode until the new year has arrived and formal offerings have been made to the ancestors.

Sifting through the ethnographic material on the Nagas, one finds very sketchy information on the Yimchungers who are one of the fifteen tribes who inhabit the hilly state of Nagaland. They occupy the middle eastern region of Tuensang district close to the Indo-Burmese border. This region has remained outside the administrated area during the British occupation. Only occasional punitive expeditions were sent into this unknown territory. It was only after the 1950s that administrative machinery could reach into this area. Today Indian citizens, after obtaining the Inner Line permit can venture into the heartland of Nagaland. The region still remains closed o foreigners.

Yimchungers approximately number 50,000 and are one of the six tribes that occupy the Tuensang district. Yimchungers believe that their legends point towards Burma as their place of origin. According to one such legend they emerged from a cave in larger numbers. After numerous people had come out into this world the mouth of the cave was closed with a huge boulder lest too many people came out and overcrowded the land. One may only conjecture that such legends perhaps point toward a pass in the mountains which might have been crossed by the migrating Yimchungers as well as other northern Naga tribes hundreds of years ago. Yimchungers claim affinity with the neighbouring tribes-Ao and Sangtam. Their respective legends of migration also point towards Longa in Burma. In fact certain similarities in their dress and language suggest an intermingling at some stage.

Yimchungers are divided into four patrilineal clans: Changer, Janchinger, Chiphor and Khiunger. Changer is the priestly clan; the village priest as a rule hails from this clan; the village priest as a rule hails from this clan. Each village has a chief known as Kiulonser, literally village head. He is assisted by a group of subordinates who represent each clan or khel (section of the village). With the coming of new administrative set up the chiefs have been appointed as head gaon bura (village elder), an office which was introduced by the British to bring out subtle changes in the political system. Selection of the chief depended on certain criteria, viz wealth, valour and administrative ability of the individual. A chief of known valour often commanded the respect of not only his tribesmen but also from those of other neighbouring tribes.

Until Tuensang region came under administration, Yimchungers, like most other Naga communities, took pride in collecting human heads as trophies. The heads hunter or the warrior could then wear certain ornaments and a specific kind of cloth which indicated his status as a warrior. Once the head was bought inside the village, the taker would climb up the youth dormintory known as change and give a cry of victory. This would be followed by beating of the huge log drum, sang kang, with wooden pestle, a practice which has been discontinued.

The head taking raids have ceased due to the efforts of a new administrative policy. A number of Yimchungers have become Christians giving up the traditions of their forefathers. A church with a gleaming tin roof is an essential part of every village. Modernization in a limited sense has made inroads into this area; the traditional thatch roofing has given way to corrugated iron roofs; modern education system has been introduced as a result of which there are now primary schools in almost every village.

Changes have definitely taken place, but a number of things have survived from the past. Yimchungers are largely slash and burn or jhum cultivators. The main cops grown by them are millet, rice and maize supplemented with several vegetables. Land ownership is individual and every two year or so a new patch of land is cultivated by the villagers. The area to be brought under cultivation is decided by the chief of the village in consultation with other clan heads. All the available land already belongs to someone but a new piece of land may be acquired in exchange of a cow or mithun semi-wild bison) or presented as a gesture of gratitude by a person whose life has been saved, to his saviour.

Interestingly, a system of bondage is prevalent among the Yimchungers. If a man does not possess any land and has no other means to look after his family, such a person may find a patron from his clan or sometimes even other clans ho provides him and his family a piece of cultivable land, clothes etc. in return the person is obliged to carry out any wok which his patron may ask him o do. Such a person is known as mupur. After the death of the mupur his property and family come under the custody of his patron. The system goes on and once a mupur always a mupur seems to be the rule. The custom is prevalent even now.

Related to cultivation are several rituals which were assiduously performed by the Yimchungers before they took up Christianity. One such ritual, Metemneo, has continued to be performed by both Christians and non-Christians. Performed after the harvest of millet, it literally means celebration of harvest. The ritual lasts for almost nine days; each day is earmarked for a separate activity. On the first day, chine the first reaper, sephipu, and the first sower, yangtampu, kill either a fowl or a pig. From that day onwards till the sixth day of pig liver and six pieces of meat are kept. The plate is hen kept overnight on the shelf on the wall. Next morning the contents are examined for any markings on the meat and liver pieces. A marking on the liver pieces portends ill luck int eh form of epidemic in the village; absence of any such markings on the meat pieces is a good omen for the village. Meanwhile, the Janchanger clan performs another ritual called razasipu. A traditional fire with three hearth stones is lit on which millet is cooked with water. The cooked millet in the form of small round balls is offered to the agricultural implements and o all three hearth stones by the housewife while praying to the god. The purpose of the ritual is to ensure that no bad luck comes upon the village. During Metemneo, prayers are also offered to Richaba, the creator god. For this, six sticks of thumusang tree, some fruits, ginger and liver and heart of a fowl are placed in the field.

On the seventh and eighth days of Metemneo, paths leading to the fields and the village are cleared. On the last day everyone dresses up in traditional finery and celebrates. The men wear their traditional warrior’s costume complete with the head hunter’s regalia. We had the opportunity to watch the final day celebrations. Although it had been drizzling since morning, it did not deter the dancers from performing their ritualistic dance. Onlookers either stood under the sheds of their houses o under the umbrella to avoid getting wet. The men danced separately from omen stitching from one dance formation to another. All along they sang songs in praise of their warriors, interspersed with piercing war cries. The women, to our disappointment, did not wear the traditional clothes but preferred to adorn readymade shirts and indistinct Assamese mekhala or sarong. After dancing in the main village ground, the dancers took a break to eat meat and sip ice beer from gourd containers. After a while they gathered again and marched down to the chief’s hut and sang and danced with gusto. While the elders performed a ritual dance in traditional dress, the young boys and girls dressed in jeans and skirts, danced near by. After the celebration was over everyone retired to their sitting places inside to continue singing and consuming festival food.