Wednesday, February 13, 2008


One of India's most colourful states is Nagaland, located on the eastern margin of the Himalayan range in Northeast India. Nagaland is home to a range of colourful tribes, such as Angamies, Tangsas, Chakesangs, and so on.

Nagas have a hoary past, which is reflected in the village patterns, locales and house constructions. Nagas are hill dwellers and their settlements are highly inaccessible as they are located on hill slopes or the highest possible points along a hill slope. This settlement pattern is largely a result of the custom of head hunting, formerly prevalent throughout the Naga cultural realm. The Nagas believe that a person has several different 'souls'. One 'soul' travel to the realm of the dead, while another remains associated with man's head, or skull. It is for this reason that Nagas were one keen on returning home with their victim's head. Head hunting is a legacy of past now, but the isolated location of villages still take us back to the time when Nagas indulged in their favourite sport 'head hunting'. In the past, inter-village feuds being frequent, it was necessary to situate villages out of reach of raiding parties. Climate was yet another factor which influenced Naga settlement pattern. Below 500 m the climate is hot and unhealthy; above 1500 m it is unpleasant – cold in winter, and during monsoon, cloud is perpetual. Abundant springs are infrequent above 1500 m and water tends to be scare. Due to these climatic factors most of the Naga villages are located along the hill slope.

Naming of Naga villages are also shrouded in mysteries. For example, the name of Rengma village of Tesophenya derives from when the jungle was cleared to build the village and a great number of black ants (teso) appeared. The Rengma took this as a favourable sign.

Naga village patterns differ from group to group, ranging from disperse, terrace to linear arrangement of houses. Ao and Lhota arrange their houses along regular streets. Tuensang with its four village quarters is built along winding, stone-paved lanes. Stone paths are unique feature of some Konyak villages. Constructed for the monsoon period, they divide village quarters, or lead to important village sites and often have magic symbolic associations.

No two villages are alike. In some, houses are grouped in a compact block and enclosed by a fence, in others, houses are scattered, interspersed with vegetable plots and bamboo groves. In the absence of levelled surfaces, some time groups of dwellings stand at different levels, even separated by gorges and broken ground. The Tagas build their houses on hill slopes, one above the other in an orderly manner. Angami and Chakhesang houses, though irregular, are generally built in two rows, the fronts facing east, the gable ends of each row of houses projecting towards a street. This is prompted by the traditional belief that after death the soul wanders westwards to the land of dead. In many southern villages houses are surrounded by stonewalls forming compounds where cattle are kept at night. Among the Zeliangrong of Cachar, it was a common practice to move village every four or five years because of difficult terrain and limited workable land.

Most Naga houses contain a central living space, an entrance area. In the living space the family sleeps, eats and lives and in the entrance area the guests are greeted and entertained. Porches, anterooms and storage areas supplement the living space. There are three basic types of houses found in Nagaland – earth floor, earth and raised floor and raised floor only. The first style extends to almost all southern groups and also occurs among the Lower Konyak and Wancho tribes. The second style, where the living area or a portion of it is raised above ground level, is found among all the central Naga groups. The Lhota, who may have adopted this from the Ao, cover the raised floor with earth, while others use woven bamboo slats and mats. The southern groups also favour a simple layout with a barn-like double-pitched roof and plain gable end. In houses where the floor is earth and raised, the each part is normally located at the front where the rice plunder is kept; the living quarters are raised and extend to a platform at the rear where tasks such as weaving are performed.

The interior of Naga house is 3-5 m from floor to ridge. A large part of this height, specially the space above the fireplace is used for storing provisions in swing like racks that hang from the ceiling.

Naga houses having no windows, the only light in an otherwise pitch dark interior come through the cracks in the bamboo walls and from the fire. Nor are there any chimneys or ventilation holes for the smoke to escape through, no soot gradually covers the entire interior; this, naturally, makes the dwellings seem even darker; it also contributes to the inhabitants' relatively low life expectancy. Houses often catch fire. The spirit responsible for a fire must be appeased by the shaman in a ritual during which the family shelters in a neighbouring house.

After the erection of the main posts and beams it takes two or three days to complete a building. The owner gives every worker a free meal each day, serving rice beer at regular intervals. Before the house is complete its owner is anxious to move in, mainly to avoid the evil spirit. It is a common practice among the Maram – when the house is partly complete, the owner enters the house with a spear, a shield, a live cock and burning wood to chase away any evil spirits. A man assists the owner in lightning the first family fire at the three-stoned hearth to the right of the door. The fire is kept for five days. The family enters the house on the first evening and would prepare a meal from the sacrificial cock.

In the past, if the house to be constructed was of a chief then the rituals and taboos among the Maram were more elaborate by far – a freshly hunted human head from an unfriendly village had to be procured. Customs have changed now, yet the sacrifice of a wild animal is still required. Among the Tangsa dog sacrifices were customary.

While a chief’s house is being built the entire village is genna – no one may work in fields, and commodities like rice, vegetables, cattle or poultry may not enter or leave the village, whether sold or as gifts. As soon as the main pillar and beam are up the chief starts a three-stage ceremony spread over a year. In the first stage he kills three cows and distributes the meat to every household. One of the cows is black procured from outside the village. It is killed first and specific rituals meaning attach to certain of its bodily parts. The right leg is sacrificed to Sarai, wrapped up and doused in rice beer before being hung in the back of the house. Similar offerings are made to the village ancestors. Stage two of the ritual takes place in September. The chief gathers as many men as possible to collect firewood with him and entertains them with special rice beer. The third stage takes place at harvest time, when the chief once more entertains the people with food and drink, this time also feeding the villagers.

Naga villages are usually divided into two or more khels (quarters, wards), depending upon the size of population. In some villages a khel is inhabited exclusively by members of a particular clan claiming descent from a common ancestor and naming their khel accordingly. Inter-clan rivalries were frequent. A clan inhabiting a certain khel was often closer to another village than to its immediate neighbours. Circumstances like head hunting game in the past have led villages not only to be defensively situated but also fortified with stone walls, bamboo spikes, wooden gates and a perimeter ditch. In general village attachments are strong, particularly towards main or parent village, and generally people only live the latter when available land is insufficient for the population.

The centre of the village is morung, called differently by different tribes (Wancho calls it pa, Phom calls is bang). This remarkable and most prominent house in the village gives visual, institutional and architectural expression to the solidarity of clan members. Morung architecture is as diverse as the house architecture. Morungs are known for the woodcarvings, size or any other special decoration such as front rafters from which fronds of grass or can are hung. Apart from serving as guard houses and as storage for all the village’s weapons, it was here that males from around eight years of marrying age dwelt. Here boys were educated by older housemates in everything of importance for personal and communal life in a village society. Even though Christianity has transformed Naga culture to a great length, still the morungs function as the village community centre where arts of weaving, costume adornment, dancing, oral traditions are carried out. Morungs are also the village theatres where hunting skills and techniques of traditional warfare are passed onto society’s younger members. They are still meeting places and reception and entertainment houses for guests. Important decisions are often taken there.

In the past morungs were ideal focal points for attackers. Those who controlled the morung controlled the people. Christian missionaries understood this and destroyed them to erect churches on the sites, bringing a great loss to the Naga culture.
There are morungs also for girls. However, they lack elaborate decoration. Girl morungs are traditionally the places where girls learn everything to do with household and agricultural affairs, as well as the arts of singing and dancing, while publicly speaking, they function mainly as meeting places for young couples, married and unmarried. Admission to girls’ morung takes place when a girl reaches puberty. There are two basic category of members – those with official love affairs with whom they associate and sleep in the dormitory, and those who have no official boyfriend, consorting with any morung boys they please. Each couple sleeps side by side under a rug. As long as the sexual art is not seen, decency and decorum are not considered to be violated. Only unmarried girls can have such relationships. However, pregnancy among unmarried girls is regarded as a severe offence, rendering to a heavy fine.