The anthropologists and historians hold different views about the place of their origin and the period of their arrival in their present abode. Interestingly enough, till very recently, the Nagas were also quite ignorant of any distinctive tribal name ascribed to them.
The origin of the term ‘Naga’ word is not definitely known and has been disputed by the social anthropologists. There has been a great controversy over the origin of the word ‘Naga’.
According to Hutton (the leading expert on the tribes of North-East India), the word ‘Naga’ means the dwellers of the Naga Hills.
He originally thought that ‘Naga’ was a corruption of the Assamese Noga, probably meaning a mountaineer from the Sanskrit word ‘Naga’ mountain. According to Ptolemy and Shyahb-al-Din Talish (16th century A.D.), Naga means nanga or naked. There is another school of thought of cultural anthropologists. According to them, the word ‘Naga’ simply means people.
This theory holds that the Naga word occurs in Buranjis and its correct form should be ‘Noga’ and not ‘Naga’ which is derived from the generic word ‘Nog’ or ‘Nok’ both the words meaning ‘people’ in the language of some of the Naga tribes (Yimchunger tribe).
In the opinion of Gait also, the word ‘Naga’ has been derived from ‘Lok’ or ‘Log’ or ‘Nok’, which mean ‘folk’ or people in Hindi language.
Some of the Naga tribes believe that they emigrated from Philippines where there is still a place called Naga. Among the Burmese, the word ‘Naka’ means people with pierced ears. The word ‘Naga’ is said to be another form of Naka as the Nagas, both men and women, pierce their ears.
The Naga tribes belong to the Indo-Mongoloid race. It is believed that most probably, the Nagas moved south-east from Sinkiang (China). Some of them trekked along the Brahmaputra into the present Arunachal Pradesh and some of them pushed to Myanmar (Burma) and Indonesia.
From the myths and legends of the Nagas, one gathers that they have some relationship with the natives of Borneo. They have had common cultural traditional way of head-hunting.
With the people of Philippines and Taiwan, they have the common system of terraced cultivation. The embroidery on the Naga clothes resembles the kind done on the Indonesian clothes. Whatsoever the origin of the Nagas may be, they have a high degree of amalgamation of blood.
Each Naga tribe has combined elements of Negrito, Austric and Mon-Khmer people. Most of the Nagas believe that their forefathers arrived in Nagaland from the South-East Asia.
It is most probable that the tribes which are occupying the remote and less accessible areas of Nagaland were the first to enter the Naga Hills from the south.
Nagaland the habitat of Naga tribes—is situated in the north-eastern part of India. It has an area of 16,579 sq. kms, and according to the census of 2001 it has a population of 19, 88,636 with an average density of 120 persons per sq. kms. The literacy rate is over 67 per cent and the sex ratio is 909 females to 1,000 males.
There are nineteen major Naga tribes, namely, Aos, Angamis, Changs, Chakesang, Kabuis, Kacharis, Khain-Mangas, Konyaks, Kukis, Lothas (Lothas), Maos, Mikirs, Phoms, Rengmas, Sangtams, Semas, Tankhuls, Yamchumgar and Zeeliang
The habitat of Nagas is mountainous, characterized by elevated ridges, spurs and peaks of Naga and Patkoi hills which are a southward extension of the Himalayan folded mountain system. Barring a few hundred square kilometres of plains around Dimapur, the entire state of Nagaland is hilly and mountainous.
The general elevation of the state ranges from 914 metres to 3,840 metres above the sea level. The terrain is highly complex. The Barail Range, locally known as Radhura, enters the state from North-Cacher and passing through Kohima runs in the direction of Wokha. Japava which lies to the south of Kohima is the highest peak of Barail (Radhura) Range and attains a height of 3,804 metres above the sea level.
The general climate of Nagaland is monsoonic, but there are micro-level variations in its temperature and rainfall distribution. In the scheme of Koppen’s classification of climate, Nagaland has Am (tropical rain forest climate-monsoon type). In this climate, at lower altitudes, temperatures remain high throughout the year.
The summer monsoon is strong which generally lasts from June to October. Over 80 per cent of the total rainfall is recorded during the summer monsoon period. Winter season in Naga territory commences in November and lasts till the middle of March. At Kohima, the mean monthly temperature of January reads around 8°C. The winter months record relatively less rainfall, though the sky remains occasionally overcast and cloudy.
The hot and humid conditions and mild winters provide a conducive environment for the growth and development of a large variety of flora and fauna.
The floral varieties consist of temperate evergreen, tropical evergreen, pines and coniferous forests. The low lying tracts and ravines are covered with bamboo groves.
There are small tracts of valuable virgin forests, found only in the less accessible and uninhabited areas. Over most of the slopes, the Nagas have left deleterious effects by way of shifting cultivation. The abandoned jhurn lands get infested by secondary vegetative growth, consisting of grasses, reeds, bushes and fast growing broad-leaved softwood trees.
The socio-cultural characteristics of any ethnic group are the direct outcome of its physical environment, socio-economic institutions and cultural values. The society of the Nagas is no exception to this. Most of the Nagas are still living close to the nature and the gamut of their lives is strongly controlled by the prevailing environmental conditions.
The Nagas are known as ferocious eaters. Excepting food that is forbidden, the Nagas may eat almost everything. Rice is the staple food.
Rice is eaten twice a day with fish curry, pork, mutton, or vegetables, and if they can obtain nothing else, they eat chillies, salt and tree leaves. Beef, game, dog, fowls, bird, fish, crabs, beetles, ant and spiders are also eaten.
They appreciate the smell of dried fish. Meat and skin are often half dried over the fire and kept for a considerable time for future consumption.
The whole of an animal including skin, blood, intestine and even the eyes are invariably eaten. Nothing much except the hair and bones is thrown away. Many a times the Nagas raid in the plains of Assam to steal dogs.
The dog’s meat is considered as a speciality, and among certain tribes (Konyaks, Aos) black dog is a delicacy. Eggs and hens are generally consumed during the innumerable ceremonies and festivals.
The Nagas generally do not eat tiger, leopard, gibbon, wild-dog, wild-cat, flying squirrel, bat, mole, eagles, hawks, owls, crows, spotted dove, bull-frog and newt. Most of them refrain from pig’s stomach, bamboo rat, frogs and crabs.
Naga women generally avoid eating the meat of elephant, goat, bear, monkey, scaly ant-eater, fowls and their eggs, mud-fish, locusts, white ants and the kill of wild beasts.
Milk and milk products are still considered as a taboo among most of the Naga tribes. Cows and mithuns are not milched, because milk and milk products are considered as impure foods. Butter, curd, butter-milk, and cheese had never been known to some of the tribes.
The Nagas prefer to drink yi or madhu (a local brew). At the occasion of marriages and festivals, large quantities of madhu are consumed. Many old men survive only on rice bear. In fact, madhu takes the place of solid food for the old and the weak people.
Tea is a popularly consumed beverage. But since sugar is an expensive commodity and cows are not milked, tea is generally taken without milk and sugar. Betel (pan) eating with lime and raw kowai (raw betel-nuts) is universal in Nagaland. Kowai gives intoxication.
In the cool and moist climate of Nagaland, it gives additional heat to the body. Tobacco smoking in pipe is also universal among the Nagas. The local tobacco is quite strong which the Nagas consider the best. Occasionally, they also smoke opium in their long pipes. They produce their own poppy seeds in spite x>f the fact that the government had been trying to discourage its cultivation.
The Naga villages are generally small in size and spatially scattered. The most striking feature of villages and settlements of the Nagas are their site and location.
Almost all the houses (thatched huts) are constructed on the tops of steep hills, cliffs, spurs and sharp slopes. The primary consideration for the selection of such a site is the basic need for defence.
In the historical past, the Nagas were attacked by the neighboring invaders, resulting into the subjugation of the original inhabitants. Moreover, there were inter-tribal and inter-village disputes which sometimes continued for generations. In such disputes many heads were lost.
The strategic setting of the village settlement was, thus, of utmost importance, which used to be a place difficult to reach. Under such a hostile environment, hill tops with steep climbs were the preferred sites.
A noticeable feature of a Naga house is the way in which variations in structures indicate precisely the status of the owner. The details vary from tribe to tribe and from village to village.
The variations are, however, confined to the front part of the house and the decorations of the roof. The layout plan of the main structure is always the same.
The main structure of the house consists of a small front room on the ground level, a large main room on piles, and at the back a sitting out platform also on piles. An average house measures about 8 metres by 5 metres with a platform at the back, measuring about 4×5 metres.
The roof is made of the thatched grasses or palm leaves. Planks are not used at all, the walls and the floors of the house being made of strong bamboo matting, save the floor of the outer room which is of earth. In this outer room is kept the rice pounding table (sumki), spears, baskets and tools.
In the middle is the hearth (atap) furnished with three stones for supporting cooking pots. The roof is always slanting to drain off the water of rains quickly and the ceiling is of bamboo matting.
The water supply to the village is generally made from a spring below the village. The water of the spring is allowed to collect into a little pond. Usually, little efforts are made to keep the water-ponds clean but sometimes, they are fenced on all sides to keep out cattle and pigs and roofed over to prevent leaves of trees falling into water. They are reduce after every two or three years.
In the cool and humid climate of the Naga Hills, the Nagas wear a plain white cloth, locally known as subsu. When the white clothes get dirty they are dipped in dark colour dye.
The female skirt consists of a piece of cloth about one and a half metre long and about a half metre in width, wrapped around the waist. The colour of dress varies from tribe to tribe. Generally, the women wear tsongtem (puttees).
The Naga men wear lengta which consists of a strip of blue or white cloth, some four feet long and 25 cms wide. Boys till they are five or six years old wear nothing. But from seven or eight years they wear lengta. In wet weather, men wear slung over their backs rain-shield made of thatching palm. Women wear large Shan hats.
Each Naga tribe has its own favourite colour. For example, the Angami’s loin cloth is of dark blue colour embroidered with cowries, while those Semas and Lothas is a combination of white and blue.
The Aos are fond of red and blue colours and the Shangtams prefer embroidery work. Many tribes wear feathers and skins of birds and animals on their heads, ears and heads.
The Nagas are very much fond of wearing ornaments. Skull cap of bear skin, hats of red goats’ hair are among the ceremonial wearing. The ears of some of the male Nagas are pierced in three places.
Ornaments and feathers are worn in the ears by the males while the females normally wear brass rings. Now, the traditional dresses are being replaced by the modern dresses. The women folk have started wearing skirts and blouses. Many have given up their traditional mekbala (shawl) and the teenagers may be seen in slacks and jeans.
The armoury of the Nagas is simple. The main weapon of offence is the dao (a large chopping knife). Cross bows are mainly used for hunting rather than for war. Dao is the friend and companion of a Naga throughout his life. The trees are fell with it and the forests are cleared with it. In the past, the Nagas used to cut the head of their enemy with it. The second important tool is spear.
The spears are generally taller than their own bodies. It can be used either for throwing or for thrusting. Made of wood, the spear has an iron point.
The spears of Ao, Angami and Sema Nagas are most colourful. The entire length of the spears in muffed up in some animal’s hair in bands of different colours. Though the weapons of war, the spears shows the Nagas aesthetic urge.
The other weapon for use at long distance is the bow and arrow. Made out of bamboo, it has many varieties, but generally the components are the same. A hardened bamboo and string are used for the bow.
The arrows are very effective with pointed or iron-heads. Occasionally, the arrows are accurately balanced by fixing a few leaves or feathers in the slit at the rear ends.
The arrows are made still more dangerous by applying some local poison at the point heads. This poison is so lethal as to kill a person within forty-five minutes after the arrow punctured the body.
These days, the Nagas have started the use of guns for the killing of animals. Swords are -also used but not frequently. Dao is a substitute to sword. The defensive weapons of the Nagas are the shields and helmets.
In each of the villages of Nagas, there is a large hall in which the bachelors sleep in the night. In fact, it is a club and the hub of the villager’s cultural activities. In the opinion of some of the experts, morung is a training centre and a guard house. In front of the morung, there is a big platform on which the boys sit out and talk.
In dimension it is about 16 metres long and 7 metres wide. It is too high to step over and too slippery quickly to scramble over, so that an attacker, even if he got through the door, would have to jump on to it and down the other side and would be bound to expose him while doing so.
There are sleeping benches around the walls and two hearths on the earth floor. Out of the two hearths, the one nearer the door is reserved for the senior inmates and the back bone for the young boys.
Till recent past, the training of the Naga youth used to be done in the morungs. Normally, boys are entered in the morung at the age of seven years. For the first few years, these boys are assigned the duty to supply torches in the morung for travellers passing through the village late in the evening.
They have to fetch water and wood to be used in the morung. For the first five years, they have to do what they have been asked to do. One who is not a member of the morung cannot interfere in the internal affairs and anyone attempting to do so is to be penalized.
The institution of marriage among the Nagas has been greatly influenced by the physical environmental conditions and the social milieu of the tribes. The marriages are done by mutual consent of the boys and girls. There are common morungs in which the boys and girls sleep in the night and learn the art of marriage.
During a marriage ceremony, when the bridegroom’s parents eat, drink and take rest, the bridegroom goes to the morung and spends the night there. There are cases of elopement also when a lover elopes his beloved and stays in the forest for few days before returning to the village. On their return to the village, they declare about their marriage.
The religion of the Nagas is neither a deep-rooted philosophy nor does it demand any spiritual or mystic participation by the followers. Human needs and biological functions determine their religion which is not free from magic and sorcery.
During the last about 150 years, the Christian missionaries have converted most of the Nagas to Christianity. The Nagas have no idols and they do not believe in image or idol worship. Though Christian by faith, they still follow some of the old practices of tribal religions.
They believe that they will not prosper if they omit the sacrifices due to the deities around them, who if unpleased are ever ready to blight their crops and bring illness upon them and their families. There are several deities which are worshipped by the Nagas.
The Nagas are generally industrious, honest and people of integrity. They are brave enough when things go well, but subject to panic when plans go awry. The Changs and Semas are reputed as the most warlike tribes.
The Nagas believe in guerrilla attack rather than big open fight. They generally attack the enemy from behind. In the guerrilla warfare, the Naga warriors manoeuvre like a cat, enter prohibited territory like a poacher, come out from behind the bush like a panther, and pounce on the enemy with the paws of a tiger and after hurriedly going through the raid melt into the thin air. They conduct their operation with such swiftness that there is no time left for the defender to recover or reorganize.
Every Naga considers him a fine fellow and resent an insult. About sex they have an uninhibited attitude. They are exagomous and do not have intra-clan marriages.
They are superstitious and care too much for good and ill omens. On occasions they become very brutal to human beings and animals. Mithuns are tortured before they are sacrificed and the plucking of fowl alive formed part of many ceremonies. Theft and crimfcs of violence are uncommon and most of them have a great sense of humour.
Head-hunting often used to be associated with the Naga warriors. It was prevalent in the past among the Nagas. The modern Naga youth are enlightened and they hate the word head-hunting.
Among the Nagas, the practice of head-hunting originated from a superstition that the increase in soul matter led to agricultural prosperity and rise in population. It was the belief of the Nagas that soul lies in the head of a male or female.
When a head-hunter beheads a human being and takes the head to his village, it is believed that the soul would also be transferred to that village and would consequently bring prosperity to the people of the village.
The unpleasant feature of this hateful practice had been the indiscriminate chopping of heads. The women, children, old, weak and infirm had been the unlucky victims of head-hunters who could not resist the ferocious invaders. As a matter of fact, a woman’s head was considered as a more prized trophy.
The raids for head-hunting require careful planning. Information is gathered regarding the enemy’s strength, defence, dispositions, obstacles and routes for escapes.
Intensive military training is imparted to the youths. The entire operation used to be put under the command of a warrior whose bravery and velour had already been put to test.
Sometimes a number of villages pooled their manpower and forces against a common enemy and all these men acted under the leadership of one leader.
The practice of head-hunting, though barbaric, fulfils the basic human aspiration of standing superior to others. In an underdeveloped territory like that of Nagaland, there are very few other means of attaining the status of an overlord.
Every community or nation tries to fulfill this inherent desire of moving a step further than the surrounding neighbours—militarily, politically, economically and culturally. But, in the case of Nagas, these forces were very weak or not properly developed and a substitute has to be found.
The Nagas kept themselves in perpetual preparedness for many military engagements. Also their social institutions, community life and other religious ceremonies did not remain uninfluenced by the honour and the privileged position which a head-hunter earned. This very art which was a source of inspiration has now gradually come to a dead end.
Discipline and Democracy:
Almost all the Naga tribes are highly democratic in their functioning. Each village has a headman who is the religious and temporal head.
Their secular chiefs, priests, and village council give the impression that their organization and administration are politically quite democratic, religiously secular, legally effective and militarily alert and prepared against any military adventure. The village heads have no inclination towards dictatorial attitude of the people.
The village council is an important socio-political organization. Its elections are highly organized. The prospective candidates have to fulfill many conditions. For example, one must be over thirty years of age. The seats of the village council are divided amongst the various families of the village.
There is little scope of conflict over such issues. The entire village gathers to elect the new council in accordance with the customary law.
The outgoing members are not allowed to contest the election again. The change of administration from one generation to another is always very smooth. The village council has the legislative, administrative and judicial powers.
The Nagas’ economy is essentially agrarian in character. They largely depend on jhum land and forests for their sustenance. Shifting cultivation, locally known as jhuming, is widely practised in Nagaland.
It covers about 73 per cent of the total arable land of the state. Under jhuming, land is cultivated in hill side tracts as long as it retains sufficient productivity to support the inhabitants, usually from two to three years. Subsequently, the jhumia shifts his cultivation to a new location and develops new fields, leaving the former to lie fallow long enough to regain fertility.
Jhuming is a form of agriculture, in which soil fertility is maintained by field rather than crop rotation. Most of the work is done by manual labour.
It requires extensive territory for its successful practice. The jhumia grows crops for the family consumption. Many a times he grows as many as fifteen crops in his field.
The average annual and seasonal distribution of rainfall, the ownership of land, the quality of soil, the nature of slope and the resilient character of ecosystem are the major determinants of the spread and intensity of shifting cultivation.
Shifting cultivation, though rudimentary technique of land and forest resource utilization represents an intricate relationship between ecology, economy and society the jhum fields, their surrounding forests and the natural areas provide the two alternative sources of subsistence to the dependent population.
In case the jhum crops were not good, the forests could be trapped by them for augmenting their food supply. The Nagas also keep pigs and swines which feed on the vegetable wastes and inferior grains. The pigs function as buffer-stock which are used during the periods of scarcity and/or at the time of festivals and feasts.
Thus, swine husbandry, as an integral part of jhuming, helps the society in becoming self-reliant in the matter of food. This system also enables the jhumias to utilize their time judiciously. In jhuming, mixed cropping is a common practice. The roots of crops sown in a field have different depths and they utilize nutrients from the different stratas of the soil horizon. Jhuming also works as the catalytic force for community life. Natural resources (land, forest, water) are the community assets. Each individual, however, has a right to utilize them.
The basic axiom of the life of Naga is “‘from each according to his capacity and to each according to his needs thus, in the society of the Nagas, the old, infirm, widows, orphans and children have an equal share, and each member of the society plays a productive role according to his physical and mental abilities.
The economy of the Nagas which largely depends on shifting cultivation has been criticized on ecological and socio-economic grounds.
The large-scale burning of forests, destruction of natural habitats, and the consequent reduction in the species of fauna and flora are some of the conspicuous adverse results of shifting cultivation. According to ecologists and environmentalists, shifting cultivation is economically unviable, and ecologically unsustainable.
Its continuation damages the ecosystems beyond redemption, converting lush-green forests into ecological slums. Despite its adverse ecological and environmental consequences, jhuming is not easy to be stopped. Jhuming is a way of life of Nagas, evolved as a reflex geo-climatic condition.
The climate, the terrain, the food habits of the people, their socio-economic and cultural needs, their self-reliance and desire to live close to nature, all have a say in shifting cultivation.
Since shifting cultivation cannot be stopped completely, there is an urgent need to make the system more efficient and ecologically sustainable. The problem needs to be tackled both at the short-term and long-term bases. Each slope is to be properly surveyed to determine its land use and the carrying capacity of the jhum field also needs to be established.
Wherever possible terraces should be developed as in the territory of Angami Nagas, around the Kohima town if adequate steps are not taken to stop the jhuming, the whole of the territory of the Nagas may become unproductive barren land. The government and people have to work together to overcome the ecological problems created by the centuries old system of shifting cultivation. Sooner this wisdom grows the better.
Nagaland is essentially an agrarian state. Most of the Nagas are engaged in agriculture and forestry, followed by the tertiary and secondary activities respectively. In fact, the secondary or industrial sector is almost missing.
Nearly 78 per cent of the workforce is directly dependent on agriculture, while about 1.5 per cent constitutes as agricultural labourer. Livestock, forestry, fishery, hunting, mining and quarrying combined together provide employment to only 0.5 per cent of the workforce. It is interesting to note that tertiary sector (service sector) engages about 19 per cent of the total workforce.
The underdevelopment of the secondary sector may be appreciated from the fact that there is only one paper and pulp making factory and one sugar mill, established in the plain area of Dimapur. Moreover, the heavy pressure of population on the fragile and uncertain jhuming system is the main cause of poor standard of life and food of the Nagas. The Nagas are living at a poor level of subsistence.
Almost all the Naga tribes have their special handicrafts. They have developed great skill in bamboo work, wood work, black smithy and pottery-making. Bamboo is found in abundance in Nagaland.
Raw materials being readily available, the Nagas are expert basket makers. Bamboo baskets are made in conical and cylindrical shapes. Mats and shields of bamboo are also made. There are blacksmiths in every Naga village.
They prepare dao, sickles, axes, and spears. The Nagas are very good wood carvers. The carving is done with the help of crude instruments like dao, axe, chisel and odze. Pottery is, however, not a very popular art.
The physical conditions of the Nagaland are not very conducive to sustain a large population at a reasonably good standard of living.
Most of the settlements, especially in the remote areas, are small. Many of the Naga tribes live in small communities surrounded by forests. With few exceptions of weaving, house construction, metal work, basket making, pottery, their crafts are little more advanced.
The economy needs reorientation and the Nagas should be trained in other economic activities to reduce the pressure from the vulnerable arable land. The possible avenues in which the Nagas may be trained are piggery, dairying, poultry, duck-keeping, bee-keeping, sericulture and fisheries.
The establishment of forest based small industries may also help in boosting up the tribal economy and ultimately their standard of nutrition and overall standard of living.