The Naga

The term Naga describes a loosely related, fiercely independent group of tribes, who for centuries have lived in relative isolation in the hills and mountains of Northeast India and Northwest Myanmar(formerly Burma)and who practiced headhunting well into the 20th century.

The Naga are particularly famous for the institution of Morungs (bachelor dormitories), the Feasts of Merit celebrating the power and deeds of great men, the practice of headhunting and their beliefs about death, fertility and the human skull. The human head was seen as the seat of wisdom, of fertility and of the human soul: it was the repository and conductor of power. He who owned another's head gained prosperity in this world, the esteem of his fellows, and a guaranteed happiness in the after-world. *

All of Naga life had a ritualistic aspect, as the spirits that controlled the realities of Naga life (disease, human and crop fertility, rain) needed constant attention. The animistic beliefs and shamanist practices of the Naga are reflected in their unique artwork, jewelry and costumes, as well as in their traditional architecture and crafts.


The history of the Naga is mysterious. After millennia of wandering, a number of different ethnic groups ended up in the hills of the Eastern Himalayas. Strange coincidences of culture and language through the Pacific led some scholars to suggest that the Nagas were an offshoot of groups that had originally descended from the central Asian plateau. And their burial customs, ornamentation, agricultural practices and even games and crafts, linked them strongly to the tribal peoples of Borneo and the Philippines. Here was a culture that might provide clues to some of the great migrations in human history*. Ethnically the Naga are of Mongoloid stock and linguistically belong to the Tibeto-Burman family.

Geographically, the Naga cultural area is confined by the hills and mountains running in a generally north-south direction on the northeastern border of India and the northwestern border of Myanmar. The Naga live in four states of the Indian Union -Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Assam- and in the hills of the northwestern part of Myanmar's Administrative District of Sagaing.

The Naga depend mostly on slash-and-burn cultivation (jhum), cultivating their staples of rice paddy, maize, millet and five varieties of Job's tears. Like many tribal groups who practice the labor-efficient methods of slash and burn cultivation of rice, the Naga had a great deal of leisure and large surpluses of grain. They used this to develop an elaborate and beautiful world in the forest, a unique way of life that rarely separates the spiritual from the social.

The Naga tribes live in villages, usually occupying hilltops or the highest possible points along a hill slope; this is largely the result of headhunting as inter-village feuds were frequent and being able to see who was coming was crucial. The villages are divided into Khels, meaning a ward or a quarter, which are often inhabited by a particular clan who claim descent from a common ancestor.

At the centre of each Khel is the Morung. This is most prominent house in the village and shows the solidarity of clan members. It is the Morungs on which the most embellishment and care was often lavished, particularly in terms of size and woodcarving.

Apart from serving as guardhouses and as storage for all the village's weapons, it was here that the males from around eight years to marrying age lived. Here boys were educated by older housemates in everything of importance for personal and communal life in village society.

Often the Morung held the skulls of slain enemies, in which the essential fertile power was thought to reside. In addition, the sacred log drum, considered a magical instrument, was stored there.

Leisure activities include wrestling, a popular sport, particularly among the Southern Naga groups. A favorite drink is rice beer. Also opium cultivation for personal consumption is still practiced. Traditionally it was used as a medicine, mainly against gastrointestinal diseases. The addiction rate, however, is high.

In the 19th century, with the advent of British rule, Christianity was introduced, and Baptist missionaries became especially active in the region. As a result, the population now is predominantly Christian.

Stirn & van Ham, 2003 p. 26, p. 33, p. 58

*Macfarlane in Saul, 2005 p. xi-xii

Headhunting and Fertility

As an agricultural community, the Naga linked sacrifice closely with agricultural growth and fertility. Their sacrifices were meant to enlist the aid of benevolent spirits and appease malevolent ones. Securing and increasing fertility, or life essence, and handing it on to the community are central to Naga culture. And the best way of enhancing personal fertility was by taking another person's fertility. For the Naga, this fertile "potency" resides in a person's head, which is why headhunting was practiced. By taking a head, that person's fertile power becomes an accessible source that the victor can direct at will.

Their life essence diffuses to the villagers, their crops and their livestock; their fertility can be channeled successfully to the fields so that the crops may ripen well.

Headhunting for the Naga was the path to becoming entitled to wear certain status ornaments and to getting married: if a man had not "touched meat" he was not nearly as likely to beget a child as there was no surplus life around him. A headhunt was also necessary to inaugurate a new log drum, a magical instrument kept in the Morung. The act of killing excited envy and admiration among other youths and increased a man's reputation among the elders. Head hunting was also believed to be ritually essential for clan survival.

There were rules about who could be killed. Most important was that the victim did not belong to the same clan or family, even if he or she lived in a different village. Certain Naga groups valued taking a long haired woman's head more than a man's, because with it the female soul-substance would be acquired which had the highest fertility value. Among certain groups the highest value was placed on a child's head, male or female, because to obtain it the warrior had practically to enter the enemy's village. Infirm and insane people were taboo.

(Stirn & van Ham, 2003 p. 106, p. 119, p. 122)

Feasts of Merit

As one of the most conspicuous and most important features of Naga fertility rites, feasts of merit relate both symbolically and practically to life and prosperity. By giving feasts of merit, a feast giver's status rises, ensuring he will be remembered after death. Feasts of merit are performed in stages. Each successive stage is more exacting then its predecessor in terms of the number of mithun (a type of buffalo) sacrificed and the quantity of food and drink to be served. Each completed stage entitles a feast giver to show his status through certain ornaments, clothes or house carvings.

Only with the completion of the final stage of feast-giving, however, is a stone monument or wooden Y-shaped fertility post erected for the feast-giver, the stones or post symbolizing his wealth and the completed stages of feast giving. Stones have ritual significance and are seen as magical. Luck stones are believed to be animate and capable of breeding. These stones are believed to bring the villagers bountiful harvests, prosperity, success in hunting, children and cattle in plenty.

After the final stage in the feast of merit, all the men of the village erect one or more stones or sink a new fertility post into the earth, both symbols of the feast-giver's fertility returning to the soil and so back to the villagers. A feast-giver who reaches the final stage of feast giving is seen as being a carrier of great fertility. This final stage transfers the feast giver's personal merit to the entire community. Such feasts are so expensive that they reduce a feast-giver's wealth to the level of the rest of the villagers, reintegrating him into society. Poorer members of a clan or village also benefit from the sharing of food.

(Stirn & van Ham, 2003, p102-3)

The Naga and Woodcarving

The Naga are amongst the best weavers and woodworkers in the world.

Woodcarving was done with an axe and primitive tools such as an adze and a chisel and working with such limited tools resulted in the typically crude, strong style of Naga carvings. The large or even life size motifs carved in high relief on Morung pillars, crossbeams and front panels of rich men's houses are extremely varied. Of the many Naga art forms that exist, none is more striking or spectacular than their woodcarving and even today the woodcarvers have retained their deep sense of proportion.

Many local forest trees are used for wood, including the Nahor palm wood -the ironwood of the Naga hills, and oak. Carvings are done on the Morung and on feast-giver's and chief's houses as well as on granary doors, village gates, Y posts, certain furniture items and funeral statues.

Village gates were often carved with motifs symbolizing an increase in population of the people and their mithun. They also displayed a clan's valor and prowess by depicting tigers, human heads and warriors and were thus intended to instill respect in and protection from enemies. At time heads are stylized into patterns of squares, signifying successful headhunts.

Y posts, either supporting the cross beam in houses or those erected for a feast of merit, have been said to represent a simple genealogical tree, where the left branch represents the maternal heritage and the right the paternal. They often have a carved mithun head (which represents the fertility needed for the growth of the family) and carved depictions of enemy teeth. Other themes are gongs, seats and guns, as well as breasts or genitals.

(Stirn & van Ham, 2003, p168-170)

Symbolism in carving

Carvings of full-size human figures usually represent house owners -one figure for each feast they have given. Carvings of humans upside down indicate warriors who died bravely on the battlefields and whose heads were taken. When shown with heads in hands it means they were able to decapitate enemies before their own deaths.

Carved female breasts are a symbol of fertility and prosperity and peaceful, stable, harmonious family/community life.

Erotic themes of couples engaged in intercourse were common on Konyak and Wancho Morungs. Often they were a focal point for romantic ties between village adolescents. Similarly couples were also depicted with exaggerated sexual organs, underlining once again the theme of fertility. It is also common to depict children as smaller heads between or above a couple. In such cases the sexual organs are generally no longer enlarged.

The meaning of carved rows of human figures varies. They may represent a dance, e.g. a commemoration of the house-warming ceremony. They can also signify community support for the chief, in which case they are smaller than the main figure.

Rows of carved skulls on elevated crossbeams of houses indicate high community esteem for the hero who has taken many heads. Depicted lower down, they reflect the correspondingly lower esteem in which the victorious community holds the defeated and decapitated enemies. Skulls on circles signify the custom of keeping enemy skulls on troughs.

Bunches of grass and thatch hung from the apex of the Morung signify wealth, as do bamboo containers along the roof's ridge. Cane balls hung from the eaves represent heads of slain enemies.

Many different forms of lunar and solar disks and stars are found on Naga morungs. Often these carvings commemorate ritual celebrations of an eclipse.

(Stirn & van Ham, 2003, p61, p177-183)

The Animal World

The Naga feel intimately related to the animal world around them. These animals include tigers, leopards, Asian black bears, hoolock gibbons, wild mithun buffaloes and gayals, wild boar and wild mountain goats, the great Indian Hornbill and the pied Hornbill.

Among the Naga, many legends exist of relationships between humans and animals and even plants, e.g. trees, indicating Naga animist beliefs.

Lycanthropy, the belief that humans can metamorphosis into an animal such as a tiger or a mithun, is a curious Naga belief still alive today. The fact that the tiger has five claws on each foot is said to indicate that it can receive a human soul. This metamorphosis of soul is most likely to occur between old and new moons, coming at the bidding of spirits that cannot be denied. The human soul usually enters the tiger during sleep, returning to the human body at daybreak. But it may also remain in the animal for several days, during which time the human body is conscious but lethargic.

Certain Naga clans identified their communities with certain animals. Such totem animals were perceived either as group ancestors or as guardian spirits and clan members identified with the totem animal's attributes. In northern Naga groups there exist lizard, tiger and frog clans.

All Naga groups seem to regard the ancestry of man and tiger (or leopard) as intimately related and man and tiger are seen to be brothers with the same primal mother. After killing a tiger or leopard the Angami tribe would wedge its mouth open with a stick and lay the head in running water, so that if the animal tried to tell the spirits who killed it, nothing but the sound of water could be heard.

Even today the belief prevails that in killing an animal its qualities and powers pass on to the hunter. As a consequence hunters adorn themselves and their houses with hunting trophies. Fate and the future can be read from animals' intestines and animal sacrifice is practiced to appease the spirits and gods. The Naga people's lust to hunt them is increased by the desire to display their feathers, beaks, horns, skulls, tusks and fur as status symbols.

(Stirn & van Ham, 2003, p23, p72-80)

Symbolism related to animals

Mithun (pronounced"meetoon"), a semi domesticated type of buffalo, is the most prestigious animal sacrifice, and has great spiritual power, because of the mithun's massive appearance, large horns and its longstanding association with fertility.

Its horns, in particular, have symbolic fertility powers. Both on the Morung and on the house posts and house fronts of wealthy men and chiefs they symbolized fertility and wealth.

Nobility and royalty are attributed to the Hornbill -the king of birds- by most Naga groups. For the Naga the hornbill's strength equals that of the tiger because of its tiger- like call and the sound it makes while flying. They also see the breeding habits and social behavior of hornbills as resembling human behavior, which associates it closely with humans. Carved hornbills on Morungs indicate fertility and beauty and signify status when carved on furniture. According to JD Saul, "a carving of hornbills signified that 'the enemies that came were like hornbills'" (Saul, 2005, p. 146) and "hornbills were seen as representing warfare and bravery" (idem p. 38).

Hornbill beaks signify beauty and are highly valued. Traditionally, one tail feather of the Hornbill was considered equal to a mithun head.

Real Hornbill feathers were reserved for successful headhunters; acceptable substitutes are imitation feathers made of paper.

Boar tusk collars or hat ornaments are the insignia of the successful warrior who had taken an enemy head, speared a victim or killed a tiger.

The horns of the Himalayan goat antelope, often used as ear ornaments, have status because of the difficulty of acquisition.

Monkey skulls generally symbolize beheaded enemies amongst northern Naga groups, and are used to decorate head-takers' baskets and hats. Monkey hands and tails are also valued and are kept as trophies. Monkeys carved on Morungs symbolize smartness and cunning of the men living within and their skill in warfare.

Carved tigers on Morungs indicate that inmates will become fierce and are also a symbol of intelligence and strength. They are usually carved upside down, showing the hunter's victory over the beast

A long row of tiger teeth on the chinstrap speaks for the bravery of its wearer. The wearing of tiger ornaments such as claws and teeth is surrounded by numerous taboos and regulations. Tiger, leopard and bear claws are worn in the belief that the animal's strength will be imparted to the wearer. Most Naga groups still swear oaths by tiger teeth.

Snakes are avoided by the Naga if possible, especially pythons and cobras. Fear of pythons has led to them being depicted on front posts of Morungs. Carved snakes symbolize both beauty and danger. The carved cobra symbolizes fierceness.

Bearskin is used to make a coronet headdress with hornbill feathers attached to the top. Bearskin is used for leggings by the central Naga groups; these may only be worn by those who themselves have slain a bear. It is believed that the wearer will be made into a strong runner.

The souls of the dead are said to enter insects such as beetles and butterflies. As a consequence, wing cases are used to embody the souls of departed ancestors

(All taken from Stirn & van Ham, 2003, unless otherwise stated)


The Hidden World Of The Naga, by Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham, 2003 Prestel/Timeless Books

The Naga of Burma -Their Festivals, Customs and Way of Life, J.D. Saul, 2005 Orchid Press

The Nagas - Hill Peoples of Northeast India, Julian Jacobs, 1990 Thames & Hudson