Claimers of sovereignty, the Nagas are bounded within the walls of nations, but their culture is boundaryless. It is their progressive spirit that drags the civilised world from far, to applaud them at large. Often considered barbaric and a less developed chunk of society, they are magnetic poles for Westerners.
My inexplicable zeal and the sheer curiosity of my traveller friends made us cross the border from Moreh to Tamu, Myanmar. This marked the beginning of a new journey into the world of Nagas in western Myanmar. It gave us the opportunity to sail on the Chinwin river and to visit the Naga traditional new year festival at Khamti. Retracing the memories; the rich cultural Mandalay and the kingdom of beautiful Pagodas, Bagan, cannot be forgotten. The boat journey was the icing on the cake. Sailing in the river, stopping at small villages to venture into their culture and enjoying the luxury of a self-sufficient boat with adequate food and drink made the journey easy.
The journey had begun. I just could have not imagined a better world for me than this when on a bright Sunday afternoon I was standing on a hilltop. The eyes could witness the beauty of magnificent mountains on the Indian side and on the other side were the mountains of Myanmar covered in the dense blanket of lush greenery.
I instantly knew that here I will encounter some spirited travellers and some indigenous people; their living and their cultural perspective that might shape my perspective to imbibe and explore. Venturing in their domain I observed that prior to the 20th century there was no common identity as “Naga”. The identity is a modern political construct. These tribes though called Nagas, defy a common nomenclature. But based on their art, material culture, language tone, etc., many people have written reflecting different views on them. Nagas have some link with Indonesia and Malaysia, belonging to the Tibeto-Burman family. They exhibit a racial inter mixer in great ranges from the Himalayas, Burmese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Filipino, Polynesian, Indonesian and Melanesian.
The history of the Nagas is a fusion of blood and races among the various tribes. The Nagas, thus, are believed to have certain unique custom, unique ways of living and unique ideas which no other tribes exhibit. The Ahom tribe of Assam has always claimed to trade with the tribe in general called Naga. They traded salt, cotton, spices, etc., and were known to each other as a different set of people. The British who tried ruling over them were actively resisted more than once. Gradually though, getting succumbed to the British pressures they lost their autonomy.
Though we got fascinated to travel to Sagaing, Myanmar to satiate our curiosities about the Naga tribe which so distinct is actually the tribe which has established itself as symbolic of preserving the ancient cultural wealth despite encountering the brutal intrusions from the outside world for assimilation. It has maintained the constant harmony and hope in preserving its social identity of “being”. (Being is the real identity where one is what one actually is). My mind started questioning myself and my surroundings. I wanted to play with all the possibilities that tie together the two worlds (Naga and Western) by a common thread.
We know as a matter of fact that societies in their transition phase, face strong revolutions, battles, struggles, and rebellions. Europe faced them in the early 19th century. India faced them in the late 19th and early 20th century. The cultures undergo this because to make their culture stable enough to endure the harsh winds of intrusive change and still stand to evolve and imbibe in its fold new practices. The fight is not to let the culture stale, stink, and smell. The Nagas have preserved their perspective to evolve beautifully enough that attracts the westerners as they can identify their own culture with them. Slowly my “insight hunt” to search the reasons that attract the Western travellers to come to this land seems to be finding solace and direction. Thus satisfied, I decided to go back to my delectable food.
On the second day of our trip while breathing in the fresh air of cultural richness another question started tickling me – Is it for this culture and its freedom to live, to meet the simple approach to life, and to carry the hope of happiness as existing in Naga culture or to acquire the similar goals that the societies rebel?
As the day proceeded and we probed in the Naga villages, exploring and celebrating their cultural traditions. We found ourselves soon in the new year celebration of Nagas at Khamti. The inaugural ceremony of the festival was attended by all the Naga tribes who had come from every corner of the Naga Land (in Myanmar) who took turns in the dancing. Responsible leaders and elders spoke words of guidance and for remembrance on the occasion. Gifts were exchanged. The tribes sang traditional Naga songs to the beat of the big Naga traditional drum made of hollowed log installed at *pane. (sheet of glass). Khaung Yay* (an intoxicating brew) and grilled and fried Nwar Nok (oxen) meat was served in the morning of the ceremony while cooking for supper went on. The main menu was rice and oxen meat. The oxen meat was cooked in various ways: curried, grilled, baked and fried. The famous Shwe Lan Bo chilli paste of the Naga region was very, very hot.
Day 3. As a traveller, my thoughts were wandering and my soul was a wanderer. I was keen to know more about the world of Nagas. Their simple but magnetic “being” is something that drags people to know and explore more about them. They lead life in peace and harmony with the environment; engaging themselves in agriculture and growing rice, millets, beans, cucumbers, spinach, gourds, etc. The spiritual, cultural, socioeconomic, and ecological settings are symbiotically interconnected at this place. Indigenous people viewed the natural surrounding and its beauties often tinged with a conviction that the land with which they are deeply associated is imbued with the spirits of their ancestors. So their connection to the land is emotional and ritualistically motivated.
Their socio-economic fabric is weaved by the threads of economic equality and minimum disparity. Your mind might, looking at the conditions here, want to draw an analogy with the “economic equality” propounded by Plato, where there is no economic disparity and the wealth is for society’s well being. At least my mind did it. The Nagas here have sufficient wealth to feed their families and there is no severe economic disparity (though we also observed that some Naga families could afford an extra display of wealth by possessing a variety of domesticated animals including cows, pigs, dogs, and cats). Equality in practice is ingrained in society.
This is because women’s association with social ethics begins at the family level. And through the wise management of the family, Naga society is able to sustain its customs and values. Indeed, the mother of a household is the first who teaches her children social etiquette and moral conduct in society. The rigid hierarchical structure in Hindu societies, based on caste and class, is non-existent in Naga society. In social, cultural and religious matters, all have equal rights. In some communities, women enjoy a higher position than men. Many women in more civilised parts of India may well envy the women of the Naga Hills, their high status, and their free and happy life; and if you measure the cultural level of people by the social position and personal freedom of its women, you will think twice before looking down on the Nagas as ‘savages’.
But the religion of the Nagas was in the form of animism. They believed in the existence of souls and spirits. The Nagas lived closer to nature and sense its mysterious powers and believed in the existence of a single supreme God, benevolent spirits, and malevolent spirits. Besides the supreme God, the Nagas also believed in the existence of ancestral spirits, village deities, household deities, etc. These deities were worshipped with reverence and were offered sacrifices of food and drink.
Staying and interacting with people made us realise that inter-village head-hunting was very common in Naga society before colonisation. It has been recorded in Naga oral history that human sacrifice in the form of the enemy’s head was often made before the cultivation of virgin land. This was done to please the gods of paddy for a good harvest.
They believed that if human heads were not offered, the spirit of the mountain would harm those who cultivated the land. British Christian missionaries removed the superstitious belief and also the compelled Nagas to abandon such practice. The practice of tattooing was also carried by men and women; it reflected their village of residence, it also reflected that the one wearing a tattoo was a head-hunter.
Talking to people there, we got to know that the arrival of protestant missionaries in the 19th century had put a stop to most tattooing. Today only a few Nagas wear the tattoos, in remote villages. However, the interesting fact is their tattooing was symbolic of residential or bravery token and they have abandoned it long back. However, their practices very well have been adopted by the apparently developed world as a statement of fashion.
Everyday for all those three days with them, there was a curious attempt to draw the connection with their culture and practices, every minute my mind used to get involved in the self-argumentative mode questioning their subtle ways to exist independent and strong. Finding ourselves in Naga villages, we soon realised that here even ornaments have their voice and they act as tools for reflecting the social position of the person in the society. I was curious to know more about them. Their ornaments are made of bamboo cane, orchids stems, stone, glass, goats’ bone, teeth, and claw. Some ornaments can be worn by anyone, but most ornaments have a particular meaning and they are therefore powerful and the right to wear them is strictly controlled.
For example, a maiden girl is identified with short hair and a married female with long hair. So expressing openly the sexual liberty is not considered as a taboo here. This openness, without any veil or shadow of hypocrisy, in speaking their mind and reflecting the same in their actions, made the Naga world closer to the Western world. The two worlds (Naga and Western world) could visualise their individual cultures interacting. So it becomes an obvious choice for the travellers to explore the land without a veil. A world away from westerner’s land but closer to them in a heart. It was at this juncture that I could find the answer to why societies rebel in their transition? The search is always to prosper and be happy. When a culture in its transition fails to address the concepts of equality, liberty, and community goals, the rebels spontaneously gain ground.
It was a journey for me that quenched my inquiry and gave me answers which were tickling my head for years and years. It was a memorable trip that made us rejoice the instant connect we had with the Nagas. Their perspectives pondered us to question our societal lives, living in shadows of hypocrisy.
This heritage walking tour in Yangon covers some well- known site Pansodan Street of the old financial district and some of the hidden places that are off the tourist trail as well. You will also have a chance to witness the lifestyle of locals as you pass some open market along some main street.