Naga people

Naga people
A Naga warrior in 1960
See Naga people (Sri Lanka) for the semi-mythical people of Sri Lankan tradition.

The term Naga people (Burmese: Naka, Hindi: नागा) refers to a conglomeration of several tribes inhabiting the North Eastern part of India and north-western Burma. The tribes have similar cultures and traditions, and form the majority ethnic group in the Indian state of Nagaland. Some of the prominent Naga tribes are Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Liangmai, Lotha, Pochury, Phom, Poumai, Rengma, Rongmei, Sangtam, Sema (Sumi), Tangkhul, Mao (Memai), Zeme, Zeliang, Yimchunger,.

There are 15 officially recognized tribes in the Nagaland state of India. The other Naga tribes can be found in the contiguous adjoining states of Manipur, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and across the border in Burma. Some of these tribes are: Zeme, Tangkhul Naga, Maram, Liangmai, Mao (Memai), Nocte, Phom, Pochuri, Poumai Naga, Rongmei, Tangsa, Tutsa, and Wancho

The Naga tribes practised headhunting and preserved the heads of enemies as trophies before the 19th century.[1]



The Naga tribes live in the Indian state of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and the northwestern hill tracts of Burma such as the Naga Self-Administered Zone formerly in Sagaing Division. The Nagas, though they have no common language, speak many varieties that belong to the Tibeto-Burmese language group of the Sino-Burmese language family. A language known as Nagamese creole is commonly spoken in Nagaland, and adjacent Indian states. It is a language based on Assamese and does not truly reflect the various languages and dialects spoken by the different Naga tribes in Nagaland and acts as a binding force to the different tribes of Nagaland. However, the present official language of the Nagaland state is 'English' with which a majority of the urban people are fluent but rarely spoken in the rural areas where Nagamese is popularly used to communicate between villagers of different tribal districts. The Kaccha Nagas of Manipur communicate with their fellow kaccha Nagas in Meitei language. According to the oral folktales(Prominent among the Nagas) it is believed that the Kaccha Nagas and the Meiteis who have a long history with each other were actually brothers with a common ancestry, language and customs.


The Naga people traditionally are tribally organized, with a strong warrior tradition. Their villages are sited on hilltops and until the later part of the 19th century, they made frequent armed raids on the plains below. Although the tribes exhibit variation to a certain degree, considering the diversity in their languages and some traditional practices, they have many similarities in their cultures which set them apart from the neighboring occupants of the region. Almost all these tribes have a similar dress code, eating habit, customs, traditional laws etc. However, one trait that sets them apart from the other groups in the region is their Head Hunting Custom (Which was prevalent at one point of time in Nagaland and among Naga tribes in Myanmar,and in Manipur Naga) Though they no longer practice head hunting at present, there is enough evidence to prove that they once used to practice head hunting. The Nagas(including the nagas of Manipur) people today number around 4 million in population.


Contact with the outside world

A photo of Naga taken in the 1870s

Apart from cultural contacts with the neighboring Ahoms, the rulers of Assam from 1228, the Nagas had little or no contact with the outside world. Real exposure to the outside world came with the British annexation of Assam in 1828 following the Treaty of Yandabo.[2] 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 used to attack the bordering areas in Assam. But the Nagas violated the agreement time and again and their war and peace tactics continued.[3]

Attempts by the British after the 1830s to annex the region were met with sustained and effective guerrilla resistance from Naga groups, particularly the Angami Naga tribe. The British responded by dispaching numerous military expeditions until they succeeded in establishing a foothold by building military post in some areas in 1851. The conflict culminated in 1878 when the Angamis mounted raids on British camps. The response was brutal with the burning of several rebel villages by the British forces. The resistance met with failure and eventually the region fell under the administeration of the British.[4]

The advent of Christianity

The most important landmark in the history of the Naga people with considerable social, cultural and political ramifications is the arrival of missionaries and the spread of Christianity among the Naga tribes. The acceptance of Christianity marks a departure from their many tribal customs and traditions, and along with the spread of English education, heralds the arrival of modernity in the Naga hills. The first missionary to arrive the Naga hills is believed to be Rev. Miles Bronson in 1841 although he stayed only for a short period. In the 1870s, Dr. & Mrs. E.W. Clark worked among the Ao people and with the help of Mr.Godhula, an Assamese Christian, established the first Church in Molungkimong in 1872.[5]

The missionaries served as an agent in forging a greater "Naga" identity which is a radical departure from the age old set up of warring village republics. The dreaded custom of head hunting slowly declined and disappeared as more and more Nagas embraced Christianity in the early 20th century. Today, more than 95% of Naga people claim to be Christians. Christianity has changed the Naga society entirely and it bears little semblance to the tribal society that it was a century ago. The Christian missionaries interfered in the social and cultural practices to a far greater extent than the government.[6] The new educational system and religion disrupted the indigenous pattern of life as both the British administration and the Christian missionaries brought about dramatic changes among the Naga tribes thereby effecting the tribes to discard their age old social patterns, cultural practices and traditional political setup without providing functional substitutes.[7]

Resistance and struggle for identity

From the arrival of the British till date, the Naga hills have been an area of constant strife and turmoil. However the case of the kaccha Nagas of Manipur were totally different from that of the Nagas. In fact these kaccha Nagas were used by the British and the Meitei rulers to try to defeat the Nagas(Angamis in particular) in the present Nagaland, however they failed to do so completely as parts of Nagaland were never conquered and were left on their own. The Tribes are a fiercely independent people and they have resisted any incursions into their territories using brute force. The dawn of a spirit of nationalism and a common identity, however, are relatively new concepts among the Naga people. This is because, according to the people, every village is a republic, free from all outside domination and their desire had been to preserve the status quo. With the coming of modern education, the politicization of Naga ethnicity began. The first instance was the formation of the Naga Club in 1918 by a group of educated Nagas(From present Nagaland). The club submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 with the demand that "Nagas should not be included within the Reformed Scheme of India"[8]

After India's independence from British rule, the 'Nagas' were the first ethnic group from north east India to rise up against accession to India. The legendary Naga leader Zapu Phizo spearheaded the initial movement with the Naga National Council (NNC). In the dying days of the British Raj, hectic parleys were led by him for a sovereign Naga nation. Consequently, in June 1947, a 9-point agreement was signed which promised bringing the Naga tribes under a single administrative unit and the Naga' right to self determination after 10 years. However, disputes arose over the interpretation of the agreement, and many in the NNC opposed it.[9] Under Phizo, the Nagas 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 tribals supported a referendum to secede from India which was summarily rejected by New Delhi. By 1952, the NNC which consisted mostly of Nagaland Nagas led a guerrilla movement which resulted in a violent crackdown by India's armed forces. Phizo escaped from region through East Pakistan and went on an exile to London where he inspired the movement till his death in 1990.[10]

Statehood, factions and ceasefires

In 1960, the Naga People's Convention (formed in 1957 supposedly as a people's forum but dubbed by Naga groups as India's creation) signed a 16-point agreement with the Indian government through which statehood was granted to Nagaland in 1963 and the kaccha Nagas from Manipur refused to join the state as during that time they enjoyed their status as hill tribes of Manipur and did not want to be a part of the tribal government of Nagaland.

A ceasefire was signed between the NNC and the Indian government and they had six rounds of talks till 1972 with no real progress. The first ceasefire and talks broke down in 1972 when an assassination attempt was made on the Chief Minister of the state. In November 1975, a delegation of the NNC signed the infamous Shillong Accord through which the revolutionaries agreed to unconditional acceptance of the Indian Constitution and surrender of arms. The accord was condemned by many Nagas and it marked the beginning of factionalism among the revolutionaries. An immediate repercussion was the formation of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) in the late 1970s by Thuingaleng Muivah, Isaac Swu and S.Khaplang. The NSCN later splintered into two with the breaking away of Khaplang. The 1990s were marked by fratricidal violence between the revolutionary groups. The mid-1990s were a time of turmoil especially around Manipur as ethnic violence erupted between the Kaccha Nagas and Kukis, inflicting hundreds of casualties on both sides.

On January 23, 1993, the NSCN(IM)(a mouth piece organisation for the Kaccha Nagas) was admitted to the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which was seen then as a step towards gaining more international attention to the Naga issue. In 1997, the NSCN(IM) signed a ceasefire with the Indian government and negotiations continue till date. The NSCN(I-M) leaders also enjoy the hospitability of the Indian government whom they accuse of being insensitive to the Kaccha Naga issue. They are presently enjoying Z+ security from India and staying in bungalows provided to them by the Indian Government while at the same time profess to be working for the "Naga" people. Recent trends in talks indicate that the NSCN(IM) have mellowed on their demand for sovereignty and instead strengthened the demand for autonomy and unification of all Naga areas in Manipur, Assam, and Arunachal Pradesh with Nagaland[11] which triggered strong protests in Manipur. According to the UNPO, the biggest impediment in the peace process, as the NSCN sees it, is the refusal of the government of India to officially extend the ceasefire to all Naga-inhabited areas outside of Nagaland.[12] The Indian government has shown little enthusiasm in solving the Naga issue considering the fact that little progress has been made in the last 12 years of talks. On the other hand, the ambiguity about the territorial scope of the ceasefire agreement is resulting in continuing clashes between the Indian army and the NSCN cadre.[13]


The people are simple, straight-forward, hard-working and honest people with a high standard of integrity. They possess a strong sense of self respect and rarely submitted to anyone who roughshod over them. A hallmark of their character was their hospitality and cheerfulness. The Naga tribals have an egalitarian society, and the village is a closely knit unit consisting of households of different clans.In fact the Naga tribes don't have a common language, one clan communicate with other either by broken English or Nagamese. Other Kachha Nagas of Manipur communicate with each other in meitei language which serves as the lingua franca of the Manipuri Nagas or the Kachha Nagas as well as their fellow meitei brothers.

The village

They traditionally live in villages. The village is a well-defined entity with distinct land demarcation from neighboring villages. Each has a dialect of its own and as such there is a strong sense of social solidarity within it. Almost every home rear pigs as pigs do not need much caring and provide meat.The people in it are held together by social, economic, political and ritual ties. The villages have their own identity but not in isolation as there are interdependent relationships with neighboring villages.[14] The impact of modernization is slowly but steadily eroding the centrality of villages as a social unit as large commercial towns are rapidly coming up in every region of the Naga hills. This is bringing about drastic changes in the values, lifestyles and social setup of the people.

The family

The family was the basic unit of the Naga society. Marriages were usually monogamous and fidelity to the spouse was considered a high virtue. Marriage within the same clan is not permitted and it amounts to incest. Incestuous couples used to be ostracized from the villages. The family was the most important institution of social education and social control. There used to be a deep respect for parents and elders. Material inheritance, such as land and cattle, is passed on to the male offsprings with the eldest son receiving the largest share (indicating that the society was pseudo-egalitarian).

Status of women

In the classless, caste-less Naga society, women have traditionally enjoyed a high social position, with a pivotal role in both family and community affairs. However, being a patriarchal society with strong warrior tradition, it is considered an honor to be born as a man. The traditional culture and customs expect a Naga woman to be obedient and humble; also expect her to perform the roles of wife, mother, child bearer, food producer and household manager. She also supplements the household income by weaving colorful shawls, an activity which is done exclusively by women.[15] Women are highly respected and given a great deal of freedom, however, they are traditionally not included in the decision-making process of the clan or the village.

The Morung system

A Yimchunger Naga woman at the Morung of Kutur village

The Morung, or the bachelor dormitory system, used to be an essential part of Naga life. Apart from the family, it was the most important educational set up of the people. The Morungs are grand buildings, constructed at the village entrance or a spot from where the village can be guarded most effectively. On attaining the age of puberty, young boys and girls were admitted to their respective dormitories. The morungs of the Lothas(Kyong),Aos,Angamis and the Semas are the most prominent as these are the major naga tribes with population far exceeding other tribes in Nagaland. The Naga culture, customs and traditions which were transmitted from generation to generation through folk music and dance, folk tales and oral tradition, wood carving and weaving, were conveyed to the young in the Morungs.[16] Announcements of meetings, death of a villager, warnings of impending dangers, etc., were made from the Morungs with the beating of log drums. With the onset of modernity, the Morung system is no longer in practice among the Tribes.


Skulls from headhunting days on display in Kohima

One of the most striking social characteristics of the Nagas was the practice of headhunting. Ursula Graham Bower described the Naga hills as the "paradise of headhunters."[17] 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.[18] There is however, no indication of cannibalism among the Naga Tribes. This practice is now entirely eradicated with the spread of modern education in the region.

Transformation and challenges

The Naga society is undergoing tremendous transformation. The spread of Christianity, the growth of education and developmental programs undertaken by the government have all unleashed forces which are churning up the tribal society and rapidly changing its complexion and character. The modern set up of detached nuclear families is fast catching up with the people as they have greater intercourse with the modern world. This is leading to the erosion of the role of the clan and the village as agents of social control.


Replica of a Naga dwelling

Art and crafts

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 thing about all the tribes is that they decorate the entrances of their dwellings with heads of buffaloes. The Naga people love colour and this is evident in their colorfully designed shawls and headgear. Here again, the designs on the costumes are unique to each tribe. They use beads with variety, profusion and complexity in their jewellery along with a gamut of materials like glass, shell, stone, teeth or tusk, claws/horns, metal, bone, wood, seeds, hair, fibre, etc.[19]

According to Dr.Verrier Elwin, the arts and crafts of this group of tribes reflect their self-sufficient lifestyle - “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.“.[20] The various craft-work done by the people include basketry, weaving, wood carving, pottery, metalwork, jewellery 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 wraparounds (commonly called meghala) 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; the Angami Lohe shawls with thick embroidered animal motifs etc.

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.[21]

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 folks songs are both romantic and historical, with songs narrating entire stories of famous ancestors and incidents. There are also seasonal songs which describe various activities done in a particular agricultural season. The early Western missionaries opposed the use of folk songs by Naga Christians as they are 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.[22]

Folk dances of the tribals are mostly performed in groups in synchronized fashion by both men and women, depending on the type of dance. Dances are usually performed in 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 themselves. The various indigenous musical instruments used by the people are bamboo mouth organs, cup violins, bamboo flutes, trumpets, drums made of cattle skin, and log drums.[23]


Some of the major Naga festivals include:[24]

Festival Tribe Time Major center
Sekrenyi Angami February Kohima
Ngada Rengma November (last week) Kohima
Nga-Ngai Zeliang December (last week) Kohima
Mimkut Kuki January 3rd week Kohima
Tsukhenyi Chakhesang March/April Phek
Nazu Pochury July/August Phek
Moatsu Ao May (first week) Mokokchung
Aoling Konyak April (first week) Mon
Monyu Phom April (first week) Tuensang
Miu Khiamngan May (second week) Tuensang
Naknyu Lem Chang July (second week) Tuensang
Metemneo Yimchunger August (second week) Tuensang
Amongmong Sangtam September (first week) Tuensang
Tokhuemong Lotha November (first week) Wokha
Tuluni Sema July Zunheboto

List of Naga tribes

The definition of the term Naga is vague. Following are some of the tribes classified as Naga:

The Kuki are a non-Naga tribe living in Nagaland among the Nagas. The Kukis are included in the Naga tribes by Dr. Rev Dozo (in The Cross over Nagaland) and Renthy Keitzar. The Kukis were also the signatories of the first Memorandum in the history of the Nagas, submitted to the Simon Commission in 1929.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Michael Fredholm (1993). Burma: ethnicity and insurgency. Praeger. p. 182. ISBN 9780275943707. 
  2. ^ Tezenlo Thong, "A Clash of Worldviews: The Impact of Modern Western Notion of Progress on Naga Culture, 1832-9147," Journal of Race, Religion and Ethnicity no. 2, 5 (2011): 1-37
  3. ^ Upadhyay, R. Naga Insurgency - A confusion of war or peace (Paper No.1256, 17.02.2005,
  4. ^ Consolidation of British Powers in the Naga Hills Retrieved on 16th June 2009
  5. ^ No Longer Strangers: History of the Council of Baptist Churches in North East India (since 1836) Retrieved on 17th December 2009
  6. ^ Tezenlo Thong, “‘Thy Kingdom Come’: The Impact of Colonization and Proselytization on Religion among Nagas,” Journal of Asian and African Studies, no. 45, 6: 595-609
  7. ^ Shikhu, Inato Yekheto. A Re-discovery and Re-building of Naga Cultural Values (Daya Books, 2007. ISBN 9788189233556). p 77
  8. ^ Prongo, K. Dawning Of Truth To Crown Indo-Naga Talks. ManipurOnline. September 22, 2002
  9. ^ Ramunny, Murkot. The 'ceasefire with the Nagas'. The Hindu. July 04, 2001
  10. ^ Mujtaba, Syed Ali. Nagaland peace talks still elusive Retrieved on 18th June 2009
  11. ^ Radhakrishnan, R. The Naga Peace Talks: Some Glimmer Of Hope. ManipurOnline January 28, 2003
  12. ^ Nagalim. Retrieved on 25th September, 2009
  13. ^ Longkumer, Along. Ceasefire Flaw or End Game? Retrieved 19th Dec 2009
  14. ^ Shimray, U A. Equality as tradition (Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. XXXVII No.5) Page 375
  15. ^ Shimray, U A. Naga Women’s Intervention Retrieved 17th December, 2009
  16. ^ Shishak, Dr. Tuisem A. Nagas and Education Retrieved 19th June 2009
  17. ^ Bowers, A C. Under Headhunters’ Eyes (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1929) p 195
  18. ^ Jamir, David Meren. A Study on Nagaland, A Theology of Justice in Cross-Cultural Mission (Lombard, Il: Bethany Theological Seminary, 1986)
  19. ^ Ao, Ayinla Shilu. Naga Tribal Adornment: Signatures of Status and Self (The Bead Society of Greater Washington. September 2003) ISBN 0972506624
  20. ^ 'Arts and crafts of the Nagas' Retrieved 23rd June 2009
  21. ^ Naga shawls in for geographical registration. April 7, 2008
  22. ^ Shikhu, Inato Yekheto. A Re-discovery and Re-building of Naga Cultural Values: An Analytical Approach with Special Reference to Maori as a Colonized and Minority Group of People in New Zealand (Daya Books, 2007) p 210
  23. ^ Mongro, Kajen & Ao, A Lanunungsang. Naga cultural attires and musical instruments (Concept Publishing Company, 1999), ISBN 8170227933
  24. ^ "Tourism: General Information". Government of Nagaland. Retrieved 2011-10-24. 
  25. ^ Zeliangrong is a composite term of three smaller tribes viz. Zemei, Liangmei and Rongmei AND Puimei

Further reading

  • Stirn, Aglaja & Peter van Ham. The Hidden world of the Naga: Living Traditions in Northeast India. London: Prestel.
  • Oppitz, Michael, Thomas Kaiser, Alban von Stockhausen & Marion Wettstein. 2008. Naga Identities: Changing Local Cultures in the Northeast of India. Gent: Snoeck Publishers.
  • Kunz, Richard & Vibha Joshi. 2008. Naga – A Forgotten Mountain Region Rediscovered. Basel: Merian.

External links

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