It’s a culture I’ve always considered the most unique in our diverse country. Reading more about Naga culture led to a fascination which lasted for years. Now that I have visited this amazing place in pursuit of knowing more about them, only added to my fascination.
What follows is an abstract from the book “Traditional Naga Village System and its Transformation” by A Nshoga. Hope it helps you to learn a bit more about the Naga culture. I might also come up with a piece on how the traditional Naga village is shifting towards the global Christian community.
The village is a group of dwelling houses, built it cluster with cultivable and uncultivable land around it. It is a habitat place for them and a center of community. The village may be located in high, low and plain (ideally top of the hill) with all the forest around it. The Naga Village is characterised by man-made enclosed bamboo spike fence and ditches with thorny or itchy plants around the village to act as a defence. The size of the village is mostly of that space up to which the lowing of a cow at the end of the village can be heard at night.
Selection of Traditional Village
To select a new village, it is a custom and tradition of the Nagas to send a team of experts, who would go in search of an uninhabited land by setting up a camp in the virgin soil and halt a night or two to examine the suitability of the site, whether the site is safe and secure from defence point of view, as well as the portend through the interpretation of their dreams to decide the selection, followed by settlement. The site is summarily rejected if the omen of their dreams was a nightmare or signify portend, though the site is suitable for habitation and in a defensible location. The site should also be suitable for cultivation and should be near a water spring.
Location of the village and village boundary demarcation
The strategic location of the Naga village is the direct consequence of their head hunting culture. On account of the Naga warfare characteristic, the village is often isolated from one village to another. Every Naga village have their own defence arrangement by locating the village on an elevated position. The Naga village is generally demarcated by erection of boulders along the border of the area or designated with the help of a stream, river, ridge or mountain ranges. The demarcation of the inter-village boundary is defined with the consent of the two villages, performing a rituals according to the custom of the village in the form of oath that whoever violated the boundary would entail curse or death. Sometimes, inter village war took place due to encroachment of neighbouring villagers. The inter village relationship and ties between the two villages depended on well defined boundaries and how respecting they were for one another.
Nomenclature of a village
The Naga village is established with a distinctive name given to it. Naga villages are invariably named after the founder f the village, nature of the site, name of a river, peak, incident etc. Sometime, the name is given from the names of two or more villages into a common name for proper identification of the people. The name of the village is given after due consideration of the place and the nature of the environment. Improper use of name is said to have led to the believe that the inhabitants would suffer from diseases, famines, plagues, misfortunes and other natural calamities. In view of this belief, the naming ceremony of a village takes place by propitiating the deity or spirit with an animal sacrifice and offering of eggs, rice beer, chicken and rice. Naming of a village is given great precaution and intelligence. It is the custom and tradition of the Nagas that the name of the village is invariably given by the wise men, warrior, eldest member of the village or the founders of the village. Nomenclature of a village may be ascribed to anything but it is necessary to ascribe suitable title to it. For example- Viswema village is named after the founder’s name Vise and then to Viswema means ‘men of Vise’. It is believed that Jakhama is named after the term ‘Mejakha’ which means ‘to stop the ‘Mejamia’, the Northern tribes- Semas, Lothas, Aos etc from invading Angami tribe and thereby the word Mejakha came Jakhama.
The village is the institution of political, social, economic and religious organisation, where all the cultures and customs are evolved. As already mentioned, every village is located in a defensive position to thwart surprise attacks from enemies. Proper arrangement of the houses according to the lie of the land in uniformity of the village was another unique feature of traditional Naga village structure. All houses were built in uniformity, where the front gable is arranged. The only difference in houses of the rich and the commoners was that a rich man’s house was decorated with a horse-horn, carved post and semi-circular gable roof but a poor man’s house is built with simple structure.
The village was divided according to clan or topography into Khel. A Khel is the smallest unit of a village institution, where the eldest member of the Khel represents as the head. Each khel of the village has a Morung which serve as the defence of the Khel and the village. In some villages, Morungs were constructed in the middle of the village, while in the others it was constructed a few yards away from the village. There were also some villages, where the Morungs were constructed at the entrance of the village near the gate. The reason of constructing a Morung near the gate was to guard the village from enemy attack. The village defence is the foremost priority for the formation of a Naga village. In the past, no village could survive without a proper defence arrangement. All Naga villages were individual village-states.
The entrance of a Naga village was marked by a Village gate. A village gate was/is the index of village life and culture. It indicates the pride of the village. A gate is usually hewn out from a single tree trunk and engraved with various motifs, symbolizing various animal heads, sun, moon, stars, dao- case, ladies’ breast and a life size of hornbill, snake etc. The main object of constructing a strong wooden gate is the defence of the village. A village gate is also an indication of unity and integration of the people.
Ownership of village land
Land is the greatest assent of the Nagas, like any other community. This asset is held by the individuals, family, clan, khel and village. A land, which is held by the village, is the common property for the whole community in the village. Community land is possessed by the time when the village was founded. From this land, a sizeable plot of land is portioned out and residential and agricultural purposes in the village. In such type of land, every inhabitant of the village is the owner of the land but the allotment of such land can be done only by the chief and his Councillors of the village. Illegal encroachment of such lands is controlled by the village authority and a fine is usually imposed on the encroachers.
Traditional Naga village culture
Megalith culture is associated with the Naga’s origin. The ancestors of the Nagas trace back their origins from the cave. The Angami, Rengma, Lotha, Sema and Chakhesang traced their origin of migration from Khezhakenoa stone, while the Aos and the Phoms pointed their origin from Longterok (Rock of six stones) at Chungliyimti. On the basis on this tradition, Nagas have been associated with the stone culture. The ancestral remains of the Nagas are marked with menhirs to commemorate their past glories. Stone monuments have been found in all the Naga inhabitated place and location from their erection of monoliths and megaliths where ever they migrated. The Naga feasts of prestige are often associated with the erection of monoliths infront of doner house to symbolise the deeds of men to cherish in the succeeding generations. It is tradition of the Nagas that the village is enclosed with stone walls for the fortification of the village to prevent the enemy’s attack. The Angamis ‘kuda forts’ are often built with massive megalith stones to fortify its village.
Tattoo: The practise of tattooing was one of the Naga culture found among the Aos, Konyaks, Phoms, Sangtams, Changs and Khiamniungans. The custom of tattooing was found both in men and women among the Konyaks, Changs and Phoms. Every Naga village has their own pattern of tattooing. After a head hunting expedition, the victorious warriors were traditionally allowed to have the beheaded man’s image tattoted in their bodies. The Konyak Naga, in particular, cover the faces of warriors with an extensive pattern of curved broad lines, giving them a fierce expression. The tattoos on their chests consist of geometric patterns combined with small figures of men which represents enemies killed in war.
Head hunting: Nagas are bellicose in nature and head hunting was their favourite sport. Naga warriors were associated with head hunting, which was considered a benevolent act of bravery and manoeuvre. The practice of head hunting though barbaric in nature, yet it fulfilled the basic aspiration of the Nagas tradition and culture. According to the traditional tale of the Nagas, the origin of head hunting began from an orphan boy. It so happened that one day, an orphan boy brought a piece of wood, locally called ‘chingkho’, from the jungle and engraved a human figure thereon. To make it more perfect he decorated its ear holes with a kind of animal hair. Then with a cane, he tied the engraving to a bamboo post and placed it on a road side. Everybody that passed the spot saw the lovely human image. On seeing it they thought, “it would be more beautiful and lively to look at if human heads were kept on dangling by the road side”. Soon after that they decided to kill each other and since then head hunting began.
Angami- Sekrenyi Ao- Maotsu
Chakhesang- Sukhrunye Rengma- Ngada
Chang- Naknuyulem Khimaniungan- Tsokum
Konyak- Aoleang Monyu Lotha- Tokhu Emong
Phom- Monyu Sumi- Tuluni
Pochury- Yemshe Sangtam- Yemshe
Yimchungru- Metemniu Zeliang- Hega, Chega, Gadi
Naga Customary law exist where there is no written law. Naga customary law is unwritten law which varies from tribe to tribe and village to village. Customary law is the highest authority in a village and it is obeyed by all individuals, clans, groups and tribes. There is no authority or power above the customary law. Customary law cannot be rectified or amended. It is a fixed decision making body, which does not possess any short comings.
Dresses and ornaments: Who said Naga means ‘naked’? The paucity of clothes on the body of the Nagas cannot be the basis for speculation that the Nagas were naked. No doubt, during their remote past when the use of cotton was unknown, the Nagas at par with other primitive societies, lived with certain degree of nudity, but it cannot be speculated that they were devoid of using clothes out of necessity. The ancestors of Nagas have been living in isolation for many centuries without any interference from outside. That is why the technology of manufacturing clothes came much later in the Naga world. Therefore, when the foreigners came in contact with the Nagas they simply appellated the Nagas as ‘Naked’ on the basis of their physical description through a conjecture.
Nagas have a rich and unique culture of wearing ornaments by both men and women which is very unique from the outside world. The ornaments are made from different birds, animals, bamboos and even sometimes from human remains. The design of the ornaments varies from tribe to tribe and even from village to village.
Other unique customs of the Nagas
Feast of prestige
Beating of a Log-drum