The Naga people are various individuals or ethnic groups associated to the North Eastern part of India and northwestern Myanmar. The tribes have similar cultures and traditions, and form the majority of population in the Indian state of Nagaland and Naga Self-Administered Zone of Myanmar; with significant populations in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India; Sagaing Division and Kachin State in Myanmar.
A Tangkhul Naga woman in her traditional outfit
|Regions with significant populations|
|Sagaing Division (including Naga Self-Administered Zone)||120,000+|
|Naga languages, Northern Naga languages, Nagamese Creole, English|
|Christianity (majority); Theravada Buddhism, Animism|
The Nagas speak various languages, mostly distinct to each tribe. In addition, the Nagas have also developed Nagamese Creole, which they use between various indigenous communities and villages, which each have their own dialect of language. The Naga tribe is divided into various tribes whose exact numbers and population is unclear. Some prominent Naga tribes are Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Konyak, Lotha, Mao, Poumai, Rongmei, Sumi, Tangkhul, Tangshang, Zeme, etc. The Naga tribes practised headhunting and preserved the heads of enemies as trophies through the 19th century and as late as 1969. Generally, the traditional customs of the Nagas, as well as their lifestyle, are very similar to those of the Wa people further to the Southeast and the numerous parallels between the societies and traditions of the Nagas and the Wa have been pointed out by anthropologists J. P. Mills and J. H. Hutton.
The term "Naga" is derived from a Burmese language word "Naka", which mean "Pierced ears" or "People with pierced ears". Piercing of ears is common tradition of the said people.
The Naga languages are either classified under the Kuki-Chin-Naga languages or the Sal languages. Kuki-Chin-Naga languages include the Angami–Pochuri languages, Ao languages, Tangkhul-Maring languages and Zemeic languages. The Konyak languages fall under Sal languages.
Nagas have more language diversity than any other ethnic group or states in India. Naga people speak over 89 different languages and dialects, mostly unintelligible with each other. However, there are many similarities in between different languages spoken by them. Per Grierson's classification system, Naga languages can be grouped into Western, Central and Eastern Naga groups. The Western group includes among others Angami, Chokri, Khezha and Rengma. The Central Naga group includes Ao, and Lotha; while Eastern group includes Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Chang tribes. The Sumi group originating in both central and western parts. In addition, there are Naga-Bodo group illustrated by Mikir language, and Kuki group of languages illustrated by Sopvama (also called Mao Naga) and Luppa languages. These mostly belong to the Tibeto-Burman language group of the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Shafer came up with his own classification system for languages found in and around Nagaland.
The diversity of languages and traditions of the Nagas results most likely from the multiple cultural absorptions that occurred during their successive migrations. According to legend, before settling in the region, these groups moved over vast zones, and in the process, some clans were absorbed into one or more other tribes. Therefore, until recent times, absorptions were a source of many interclan conflicts.
In 1967, the Nagaland Assembly proclaimed English as the official language of Nagaland and it is the medium for education in Nagaland. Other than English, Nagamese, a creole language form of the Assamese language, is a widely spoken language. Every community has its own mother tongue but communicates with other communities in either Nagamese or English. However, English is the predominant spoken and written language in Nagaland.
Culture and organization
The Nagas are organized by tribes differentiated by language and some traditions. They have a strong warrior tradition. Their villages are sited on hilltops and until the later part of the 19th century, they made frequent armed raids to villages on the plains below. The tribes exhibit variation to a certain degree, particularly in their languages and some traditional practices...
Similarities in their culture distinguish them from the neighbouring occupants of the region, who are of other ethnicities. Almost all these Naga tribes have a similar dress code, eating habits, customs, traditional laws, etc. One distinction was their ritual practice of headhunting, once prevalent among tribal warriors in Nagaland and Naga areas in Manipur, Tirap, Changlang, Longding and among the Naga tribes in Myanmar. They used to take the heads of enemies to take on their power. They no longer practice this ritual. Today the Naga people number around 4 million in total.
The men's clothing is distinctive: conical red headgear is decorated with wild-boar canine teeth and white-black hornbill feathers. Their weapons are primarily a spear, with the shaft decorated with red-black hair, and the machete (dah), with broad blade and long handle. However Nagas today have culturally much westernised and traditional dresses are rarely used except during their traditional festivals
Encounter with others
Apart from cultural contacts with the neighboring Ahoms, the ruler of Assam from 1228, the Naga had little or no contact with the outside world, including that of greater India, until British colonization and rule of the area in the nineteenth century.
In 1828, Britain annexed Assam following the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826. In the 1830s, the British sent expeditionary forces, and in 1845, the colonial power succeeded in concluding a non-aggression pact with Naga chiefs, who formerly had attacked bordering areas in Assam. But the Naga repeatedly violated the agreement, continuing to raid in Assam.
After the 1830s, British attempts to annex the region to India were met with sustained and effective guerrilla resistance from Naga groups, particularly the Angami Naga tribe. The British dispatched military expeditions and succeeded in building a military post in 1851 and establishing some bases in the region. In 1878 the Angamis mounted raids on British camps. The British responded with brutality, burning several Naga villages and killing Naga non-combatants to crush their resistance. Eventually, the region came under the occupation of the British.
During the First World War, two thousand Nagas contributed to the war effort on the European front. In the Second World War, their descendants remained loyal to the British and fought to halt the advance of Japanese forces. The Nagas contributed actively to peace in Europe and the world.
Protestant Christian missionaries from America in the nineteenth century were successful in converting many among the Naga tribes. It led to them dropping many tribal customs and traditions and, along with the spread of English education, was part of the arrival of modernity in the Naga hills. The first missionary in the Naga hills is believed to be Rev. Miles Bronson in 1839, who stayed for a short period in Namsang now Buranamsang under Longleng district. In the 1870s, Dr. & Mrs. E. W. Clark worked among the Ao people. With the help of a Mr. Godhula, an Assamese Christian, they established the first church, a Baptist one, in Molungkimong (Dekha Haimong Village) in 1872.
As the tribespeople adopted Christianity, they began to develop more of a "Naga" identity, a radical departure from their distinctions based on warring tribal villages. Today, more than 95% of Naga people identify as Christians, mostly Baptist. Naga society has changed markedly from what Europeans observed 100 years ago.
Resistance and struggle for identity
The Naga hills have been an area of continued resistance as they had long been isolated from outside cultures. The development of a spirit of nationalism and sense of a common identity are relatively new concepts among the Naga people. According to their traditions, each village is an independent republic; initially, they wanted to be free from all outside domination.
Modern education, together with Christian missions, contributed to the politicization of Naga ethnicity. In 1918, a group of educated Nagas formed Naga Club in 1918. The club wrote to the Simon Commission in 1929 demanding that "Nagas should not be included within the Reformed Scheme of India".
On 14 August 1947, the day before India gained independence from British rule, the Nagas were the first ethnic group from the northeast to declare their territory an independent state, not belonging to the new nation. Angami Zapu Phizo led the initial movement with the Naga National Council (NNC). In the last days of the British Raj, he held talks trying to achieve a sovereign Naga nation. In June 1947, a 9-point agreement was signed which promised to bring the Naga tribes under a single political administrative unit and recognised the Nagas' right to self-determination after 10 years. Disputes arose over the interpretation of the agreement, and many in the NNC opposed it.
Under Phizo, the NNC declared their independence from the British on 14 August 1947, a day before India. In May 1951, the NNC claimed that 99 per cent of the tribal people supported a referendum to secede from India, which was summarily rejected by the government in New Delhi. By 1952, the NNC, led a guerrilla movement. India responded by crushing it with their armed forces. Phizo escaped from the region through East Pakistan and went into exile to London. He continued to inspire the independence movement from there till his death in 1990.
Statehood, factions and ceasefires
The State of Nagaland was formally recognised 1 December 1963, as the 16th State of the Indian Union. The State consists of eleven Administrative Districts, inhabited by 16 major tribes along with other sub-tribes. Each tribe is distinct in character in terms of customs, language and dress.
This was followed by peace overtures. A major role was taken by the Nagaland Baptist Church Council (NBCC). In its third Convention held at Wokha from 31 January – 2 February 1964 which was said to have been attended by 5,000 representatives from all tribes of Nagaland, the NBCC made a historic resolution welcoming the proposed "Peace-Talk" and to request the Government to make available the services of Jayaprakash Narayan, Bimala Prasad Chaliha and Rev. Michael Scott with the object of the restoration of peace.
With this, the Peace Mission was formed. The mission was led by Rev. Michael Scott, an Anglican Churchman; Jayaprakash Narayan, a Gandhian and Sarvodaya leader; and B.P. Chaliha, the Chief Minister of Assam.
Ceasefire agreement 1964
The Peace Mission, supported by church leaders, headed by Rev. Longri Ao and the sponsorship of the State Government, resulted in an agreement for Cessation of Fire signed by the Governor Vishnu Sahay, on behalf of the Government of India and the Peace Mission, and Zashei Huire, Biseto Medom and L. Zhenito signed on behalf of the NNC underground government.
Even though the agreement was officially declared on 6 September 1964 by organising public meetings and special prayer meetings all over Nagaland, the actual agreement was signed on 23 May 1964 at Sakraba Village in Phek district.
The ceasefire declaration was followed by a series of peace talks primarily between the members of the peace mission, the underground leaders and team of peace observers. Eventually, the level of talks was raised and the venue shifted to New Delhi culminating in six rounds of talks in 1966 to 1967 between Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and the underground leaders.
The first round was held on 18–19 February in New Delhi and the underground delegation was led by Kughato Sukhai, their Prime Minister. The other members were Imkongmeren, Vice President, Issac Swu, Foreign Secretary, S. Angami and Dallinamo. The final round of talks with Indira Gandhi was held in New Delhi on 3 October 1967. In all peace talks in New Delhi, the underground delegation was led by Kughato Sukhai. However, no positive agreement could be reached as a result of these talks.
Period of uncertainty
There were charges and countercharges between the Security forces and the Insurgents for breach of the terms of the agreement. On 3 August 1968, "Gen" Kaito, an underground leader, was assassinated in broad daylight in the heart of Kohima town. On 8 August 1972, the Chief Minister Hokishe Sema was ambushed by suspected underground members near Kohima. The Chief Minister escaped without any bodily harm but his daughter was seriously injured.
On 31 August 1972, the Government banned the three underground bodies, 1) The Naga National Council, 2) the Naga Federal Government, and 3) the Federal Army. Secondly, the Government decided against a further extension of the ceasefire agreement.
Renewed peace effort
Though the peace mission was dissolved when Rev. Michael Scott left India in 1966. The cessation of ceasefire ended in 1972.
The Nagaland Peace Council (NPC) was re-formed at the initiative of the Church leaders. Discussion for peace continued. The effort was stepped up with renewed vigour after President's Rule was promulgated in March 1975.
In May, 1975 the Liaison Committee of the NPC, consisting of Rev. Longri Ao, Kenneth Kerhuo, L. Lungalang, M. Aram, and Lungshim Shaiza, had requested Kevi Yalley to be a spokesperson for the underground. Next, the underground leaders selected six of their representatives to hold discussions with the Government. This was closely followed by a series of five talks between the underground representatives and the Government represented by the two advisers to the Governor, Z. Zopianga, and Ramunny.
Shillong accord 1975
These discussions finally resulted in the Shillong Accord signed on 11 November 1975, by the Governor of Nagaland L.P Singh representing the Government of India and the NNC leadership represented by Assa and Kevi Yalley. The NNC agreed to unconditional acceptance of the Indian Constitution and surrender of arms.
The immediate result was a large scale surrender of arms and personnel. Villages containing NNC members, persuaded them to cease their clandestine activities. Five districts of the State were almost cleared of the underground elements. For some time there was little insurgency inside Nagaland.
The accord was condemned by many Nagas, and marked the beginning of factionalism among the revolutionaries. The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) was formed in the late 1970s by Thuingaleng Muivah, Isak Chishi Swu and S. S. Khaplang. The NSCN later splintered into two, when Khaplang started another group.
Renewed violence occurred in the State from the middle of the 1980s. The fratricidal confrontations among the various Naga groups and the State authorities led to loss of lives, disturbed public order and thwarted the economic development of the State.
Fratricidal violence among revolutionary groups continued into the 1990s. In Manipur particularly, ethnic violence erupted between the Nagas and Kukis, with both sides suffering hundreds of casualties.
On 23 January 1993, the Isaac-Muivah group of the NSCN (NSCN(IM)) was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO). This was seen as a means to gain international attention to the Naga cause.
Ceasefire agreement 1997
After talks with the NSCN (IM), the Government of India heeded the wishes of the people and on 25 July 1997, the Prime Minister, I. K. Gujral, in a statement in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha, announced a ceasefire with effect from 1 August 1997 for a period of three months. The ceasefire declaration was followed by setting up of a Cease-fire Monitoring Cell to enforce the Ground Rules as laid down by Government of India. The ceasefire was later extended further. However, according to the UNPO, in 2009 the NSCN considered the biggest impediment to peace to be the refusal of the government of India to officially extend the ceasefire to all Naga-inhabited areas outside of Nagaland. Clashes continued between the Indian army and the NSCN cadre. A complete solution for peace, which remains crucial for the people of Nagaland and the development of India's northeastern states in general, has not completely been found.
Nagas in Myanmar
Nagas in Myanmar are basically found in Sagaing Division and Kachin state. The Naga territory in Myanmar is marked by Kabaw valley in the south bordering to the Chin state, the Kachin on the north and the Burmese on the east.
The townships which are inhabited by the Nagas are: 1. Homalin 2. Lahe with Tanbakwe sub-township 3. Layshi with Mowailut sub-township and Somra sub-township 4. Hkamti 5. Nanyun with Pangsau sub-township 6. Tamu of Sagaing Division and 7. Tanai of Kachin state
Anal and Moyon are mainly found in Tamu township on the south and a few Somra Nagas are also found in and around Tamu bordering to Layshi jurisdiction. Makury, Para and Somra tribes are mainly found in Layshi township. Makury Nagas and a few Somra Nagas are also found in Homalin township. Lahe is highly populated by Konyak, Nokko, Lainong and Makury tribes. Nanyun on the north is the home of Tangshang tribe which comprises more than 54 sub-dialect groups. Homlin township is highly populated by the considered lost tribes (Red Shans). But Kukis, Burmese, Chinese and Indians are also found there. Hkamti township is populated altogether by all the Naga tribes majority and with a number of Burmese, Shans, Chinese and Indians. Tanai in Kachin state of Myanmar is inhabited by the Tangshang Nagas among the Kachin people.
The Naga tribes have an egalitarian society. The village is a closely knit unit, consisting of intermarried households of different clans.
Villages were divided into a certain number of clan territories or khels. The Naga traditionally live in villages. The village is a well-defined entity with distinct land demarcation from neighbouring villages. Each has a dialect, which fosters a strong sense of social solidarity within the village. Almost every home rears pigs, as they provide meat with little care needed. The people of the village are held together by social, economic, political and ritual ties. The villages have their own identities, but not in isolation, as there are interdependent relationships with neighboring villages. Modernization is slowly eroding the centrality of villages as a social unit, as large commercial towns are rapidly developing in every region of the Naga hills. This has brought about dramatic changes in the values, lifestyle, and social setup of the people.
The family is the basic unit of the Naga society. Marriages are usually monogamous and fidelity to the spouse is considered a high virtue. Marriage within the same clan is not permitted, as it is considered to be incest. Incestuous couples were previously ostracized from the villages. The family is the most important institution of social education and social control. There is deep respect for parents and elders in the Naga society. Material inheritance, such as land and cattle, is passed on to the male offspring, with the eldest son receiving the largest share (indicating that the society is pseudo-egalitarian).
Status of women
The traditional Naga society is a patriarchal society with a strong warrior tradition that valued the birth of boys. A Naga woman is traditionally expected to be obedient and humble. Her roles are complex and varied: wife, mother, child bearer and rearer, food producer, and household manager. She supplements the household income by weaving and selling colorful shawls, an activity done exclusively by women. Women are traditionally not included in the decision-making process of the clan or the village.
However, in recent decades, women's organizations have influenced and effected major social and legal changes, most notably with the Nagaland Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1989.
While for other purposes traditional culture is suitably compromised, increase in women's participation in politics is violently denied citing virtues of tribal culture. Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA), spearheads the women's movement in the state to improve upon opportunities of political participation for women of Nagaland.
Each khel had its own morung. The morung was a self-governing body aiming to protect the village and train men to channel fertility into their community. Under the umbrella of the village authority, this institution had its own leaders and rules. The morung, or youth dormitory, used to be an essential part of Naga life. Apart from the family, a person's time living in the morung was the most important part of education and acculturation. The morungs were grand buildings, constructed at the village entrance or in a spot to be effectively guarded. Beginning at puberty, young boys and girls were admitted to their respective gender dormitories. Elders conveyed the Naga culture, customs, and traditions from generation to generation through folk music and dance, folk tales and oral tradition, wood carving and weaving,while the young lived in the morungs. Announcements of meetings, the death of a villager, warnings of impending dangers, etc., were made from the morungs by the beating of log drums. Since adopting some modern practices, the Naga have abandoned the use of time in morungs for their youth.
Europeans were struck by the Naga practice of headhunting. Ursula Graham Bower described the Naga hills as the "paradise of headhunters." "Most villages had a skull house and each man in the village was expected to contribute to the collection. The taking of a head is symbolic of courage, and men who could not were dubbed as women or cows. There is nothing more glorious for a Naga than victory in battle by bringing home the severed head of an enemy." There was no indication of cannibalism among the Naga tribes. Headhunting has been eradicated.
Transformation and challenges
Continuing changes have challenged Naga society, as traditional relations between elders and the young have been upended, as well as systems of cultural transmission. The model of detached nuclear families, as distinguished from tribal villages, is becoming widespread among the Naga people as they have greater interaction with contemporary Indian society. The clan and the village have been eroded as agents of social control.
The Naga tribes are expert craftsmen. Their dwellings are made of wood and straw and these are ornately carved and arranged. Each tribe has a unique way of constructing their huts. A common practice among all the tribes is decorating the entrances of their dwellings with the heads of buffaloes.
The Naga people love colour as is evident in the shawls designed and woven by women, and in the headgear that both sexes design. Clothing patterns are traditional to each tribe, and the cloth is woven by the women. They use beads in variety, profusion and complexity in their jewelry, along with a wide range of materials including glass, shell, stone, teeth or tusk, claws, horns, metal, bone, wood, seeds, hair, and fibre.
According to Dr. Verrier Elwin, these tribes made all the goods they used, as was once common in many traditional societies: "they have made their own cloth, their own hats and rain-coats; they have prepared their own medicines, their own cooking-vessels, their own substitutes for crockery.". Craftwork includes the making of baskets, weaving of cloth, wood carving, pottery, metalwork, jewellery-making and bead-work.
Weaving of colorful woolen and cotton shawls is a central activity for women of all Naga tribes. One of the common features of Naga shawls is that three pieces are woven separately and stitched together. Weaving is an intricate and time consuming work and each shawl takes at least a few days to complete. Designs for shawls and wraparound garments (commonly called mekhala) are different for men and women.
Among many tribes the design of the shawl denotes the social status of the wearer. Some of the more known shawls include Tsungkotepsu and Rongsu of the Ao tribe; Sutam, Ethasu, Longpensu of the Lothas; Supong of the Sangtams, Rongkhim and Tsungrem Khim of the Yimchungers; and the Angami Lohe shawls with thick embroidered animal motifs.
Naga jewelry is an equally important part of identity, with the entire tribe wearing similar bead jewelry.
The Indian Chamber of Commerce has filed an application seeking registration of traditional Naga shawls made in Nagaland with the Geographical Registry of India for Geographical Indication.
Folk song and dances
Folk songs and dances are essential ingredients of the traditional Naga culture. The oral tradition is kept alive through the media of folk tales and songs. Naga folk songs are both romantic and historical, with songs narrating entire stories of famous ancestors and incidents. Seasonal songs describe activities done in a particular agricultural cycle. The early Western missionaries opposed the use of folk songs by Naga Christians as they were perceived to be associated with spirit worship, war, and immorality. As a result, translated versions of Western hymns were introduced, leading to the slow disappearance of indigenous music from the Naga hills.
Folk dances of the tribes are mostly performed in groups in synchronized fashion, by both men and women, depending on the type of dance. Dances are usually performed at festivals and religious occasions. War dances are performed mostly by men and are athletic and martial in style. All dances are accompanied by songs and war cries by the dancers. Indigenous musical instruments made and used by the people are bamboo mouth organs, cup violins, bamboo flutes, trumpets, drums made of cattle skin, and log drums.
The various Naga tribes have their own distinct festivals. To promote inter-tribe interaction, the Government of Nagaland has organized the annual Hornbill Festival since 2000. Another inter-tribe festival is Lui Ngai Ni. The tribe-specific festivals include:
Lamkang Naga Date Depending on the time the person who offers the Merit Feast decides.
|Chavan kumhrin||Anal Naga||October (23)||Chandel|
|Ngada||Rengma||November (last week)||Kohima|
|Luira Phanit||Tangkhul Naga||February/March||Ukhrul|
|Chagaa, Gaan-Ngai, Hega n'gi, Mlei-Ngyi||Zeliangrong Communities - (Liangmei, Rongmei, and Zeme)||December (last week), 10 March for Melei-Ngyi||Tamenglong-Cachar, Jalukie|
|Sükhrünyie, Tsükhenyie||Chakhesang||January & March/April||Phek|
|Moatsü||Ao||May (first week)||Mokokchung|
|Aoleang||Konyak||April (first week)||Mon|
|Monyu||Phom||April (first week)||Longleng|
|Miu||Khiamniungan||May (second week)||Tuensang|
|Naknyu Lem||Chang||July (second week)||Tuensang|
|Metemneo||Yimchunger||August (second week)||Tuensang|
|Amongmong||Sangtam||September (first week)||Tuensang|
|Tokhu Emong||Lotha||November (first week)||Wokha|
|Thounii Festival||Poumai Naga||January (18th to 22nd)||Senapati|
The word Naga originated as an exonym. Today, it covers a number of tribes that reside in Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states of India, and also in Myanmar.
Before the arrival of the British, the term "Naga" was used in Assam to refer to certain isolated tribes. The British adopted this term for a number of tribes in the surrounding area, based on loose linguistic and cultural associations. The number of tribes classified as "Naga" increased significantly in the 20th century: as of December 2015, 89 tribes are classified as Naga by the various sources. This expansion in the "Naga" identity has been due to a number of factors including the quest for upward mobility in the society of Nagaland, and the desire to establish a common purpose of resistance against dominance by other groups. In this way, the "Naga" identity has not always been fixed.
The Kuki people of Nagaland have been classified as "Naga" in the past, but today are generally considered a non-Naga tribe. The Kuki have had good relations with the Naga in the past, but since the 1990s, conflicts have risen, especially in Manipur.
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