Thursday, January 3, 2013

Naked Warriors and Dancers: the Recent Naga Past

Mike and I recently toured the Kisama heritage village outside of Kohima that was established 12 years ago to preserve the customs--design, art, dance, festivals, etc--of the 16 Naga tribes. Every year, the government of India helps to fund the Hornbill Festival to feature the traditional music, dance, games, and artistry of the distinct Naga tribes. Sadly, Mike and I missed the festival--but here is my attempt to give a snapshot of the recent past of these 16 curious tribes that inhabit Nagaland, India.

Pre 1900
Before Nagas came into contact with the British and/or Southern Baptist missionaries between 1850-1900, the 16 Naga tribes and their many sub-clans lived in isolation from the outside world—and sometimes even from each other. They did not trade with the nearby tribes that were part of the Assam Kingdom (in what is now the Assam state of India) or the Kingdom of Manipur (now Manipur state) to the south. They were cut off from the cosmopolitan silk-road trade route. Instead, they lived in ornately carved wooden huts, hunted, cultivated rice, believed in natural spirits, weaved, made pottery, held frequent harvest festivals with music, dance, games, etc., and warred with each other, cutting of human heads and keeping the skulls (more on this later.)

The origin of how Nagas came to settle in the hills at the foothills of the Himalayas is still a mystery. The presence of sea shells on the dress of some Naga tribes has led some to wonder if the Nagas migrated long ago from an island community in southeast Asia. But how and why would an island people migrate to a landlocked area in the hills? Their features remained distinct from other nearby tribes and very distinct from the features of nearby Bengalis or Northern Indians. Nagas look more Asian with their almond shaped eyes, straight black hair.

Wood carving of Ao woman in traditional dress. The Ao tribe was in the Northwestern area of today's Nagaland.

From what archeologists know from Nagas’ oral traditions and broader study of Northeastern India, Nagas lived in isolation even among themselves. Though different tribes were separated by as little as 20 kilometers, their languages and customs were so different that they could not communicate.  Their world was small. But their world was also rich with customs, ornate festivals to promote the growing season and celebrate their warrior prowess. They carved ornate wood sculptures, wove shawls and clothing (that slightly resemble some of the works of the indigenous communities I have come to know in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala). They hollowed out larger tree trunks to make large drums that they used to communicate from far distanced. They domesticated a native Buffalo called the Mithun. They made rice beer, smoked tobacco and sometimes opium. They sang and danced. And of course, they head hunted (more on this later).  

Here are a few photos from Kisama village highlighting the way Nagas lived as recently as 50 years ago.
Our wonderful host Theja outside of Kisama Heritage Village 9 km from Kohima

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