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Origin Of Nagas
Gangmumei Kamei

It is not clear how the name "Naga" was derived. There have been several attempts made by the anthropologists and historians to trace out the origin of this word. Yet as Verrier Elwin points out, "the derivation of the word is still obscure." Even three decades after Elwin made this observation the problem remains unsolved. An attempt has been made to present the explanations made by different scholars and find out the correct position. The issue is complicated due to the continuing process of identity assertion, formation and expansion movement of the Naga themselves.

In the Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are references to the Kiratas who have been identified with the Indo-Mongoloid tribal people of North East India. (The Puranas and the Epics refer to many Naga dynasties (Naga Vansa). In the Mahabharata, Arjun, the great Pandava here is to said to have married Ulupee, a Naga Princess. Indian scholars have attempted to identify the Nagas of the ancient Sanskrit literature with the Nagas of North East. This is evidently not correct. The Nagas of the Sanskrit literatures may be identified with the Nagas, who in their climax of glory came to rule in Northern India, after the fall of the great Kushanas before the rise of the imperial Guptas in Northern India, the descendants of whom may be the present Naga Sadhus of central India. Thus it is hard to accept the theory of "Naga" originating from Sanskrit "Nag" meaning serpent. There is no snake worship cult among the Nagas, though the Python is revered sometimes and its killing is done ceremonially and elaborately. Some have connected the "Naga" with Sanskrit "Nag" meaning mountain as the people live mostly in the hills, thus implying "hill men."

Long ago, in the 2th century A.D. Ptolemy, the famous Greek geographer of Egypt, in his Ancient Geography refers to a group of people known as "Nangalogae" with the Naga. Nangalogae (Nanga Log) means in Sanskrit Naked people (Nanga, Naked and Logae (Log) = people).

In the middle ages, the chronicles of the Ahom kings of Assam, specially "Ahom Baranji" refer to the Naga, who fought against them. The first reference to "Naga in the Ahom chronicles dates back to the 9th century A.D. when the Ahom-Tais or Shans were living in Upper Burma and had not crossed over to the Brahmaputra vallley: This reference to "Naga" in G.C.Barua(Ed.) Ahom Buranji has been doubted, as the Shan and Burman name for the Nagas was Khyen or Khen. The Muslim writers including Shahabuddin Talish, the chonicler who accompanied Mir Jumla, the great Mughal general of Aurangazed in his invasion of Assam in the middle of the 17th Century A.D. have referred to the Nagas. In the 18th and 19th centuries the word "Naga" become very popular. The Assamese called the Naga tribes as "Naga". Many European writers had accepted that the word was originated from Assamses or Sanskrit or Hindustani "Nanga".

The early 19th century views is well expressed by William Robinson (1814) when he observes, The origin of the word Naga is unknown; but it has been supposed to have been derived from the Sanskrit word (Nanga) and applied in derision to the people, from the paucity of their clothings but there seems little foundation for the etymological derivation, as the term has never been, known to be applied by the Bengalees to either the Khasias or the Garos with whom they were better acquainted than that with a greater degree of nudity than of the Naga tribes with whom we are acquainted.

Despite the "Nanga" theory of the Nagas which became popular with the Naga's fight against British their famous head hunting practice a new theory of the origin of the "Naga" was propounded by a British explorer and tea cultivator, S.E. Peal that it came the word "Nok" meaning man in some of the Tibet Burman languages like that of the Ao, Nocte, Garos, etc. The tribes, it is true, call themselves mostly man or people indicative of the absence of any class or distinction in social order E.A. Gait, the great historian of Assam in 1906, wrote on the subject. "The collective designation by which they are known to the Assamses seems to be derived, as suggested by Holcombe and peal, from "Nok" which means folk in some of the tribal dialects when strange parties meet kthe places, they are said to ask each other term Noke or Noke meaning "what folk are you?" and Nok range, "the people of the sky." In this connection it is worth nothing that the khonds call themselves "Kui Luika" and the Orans 'Ku Nok'. The lengthening of the first vowel sound in the Bengali and English rendering of the word is probably due to the old idea that is connected with snake worship."

However, the Nanga theory continued to be more or less accepted when the great anthropologists J.H. Hutton and J.P. Mills, through their magnificent monographs on selected Naga tribes and research papers supported Ptolemy's view. Baron Von Haimendorf, "Naked Nagas", J.P. Mills, 'Naked Rengmas' and the colonial authority's practice of presenting the Naga tribal dobashis and dancers in the exotic Naga dresses went a long way to confirm this view in popular mind. The "NOK" theory was first forgotten till the appearance of Verrier Elwin's "Nagas in the 19th century" (1959) and "Nagaland" (1960) Elwin writes in 1959, "The meaning and derivation of the word Nagas has long been disputed. Our chief authority of the Naga tribes, J.H.Hutton, originally thought that it was a corruption of the Assamese Noga (Pronounced Naga) probably meaning a mountaineer from the Sanskrit naga, a mountain or inaccessible place. Later the reluctantly recanted this opinion in view of the fact that Ptolemy in the 2nd century and shihabuddin in the 17th century speak of the Nagas as Nanga or Naked. This does not seem a very strong argument. Waddel, on the other explains Noga as meaning hillmen. Verrier Elwin in his Nagaland (1960) continues the issue. "The most likely derivation to my mind is that which traces "Naga" from the word (Nok or people which is its meaning in a few Tibeto-Burman languages, as in Garo, Nokte and Ao. It is common throughout India for tribesman to call themselves by words meaning "man" an attractive habit which suggests that they look on themselves simply as people free from communal or caste association. Thus Elwin's prestigious opinion revives the Nok theory of the Nagas.

Meanwhile, a few Naga scholars who want to discount he colonial writer's views proposed two theories. One is that Naga was derived from the Kachari word Nok or (Nokhhar) meaning warrior or fighters as the Kacharis came into violent conflict with Naga tribes like, the Angamis and Zeliangrong. The latest proposal was made by R.R Shimray in his "Origin and Culture of the Nagas" 1985) that it was derived from the Burmese word Na Ka meaning pierced ears. He also quote a Thia tradition from Chiang Mai of Thailand that a group of people with pierced ears migrated to Burma and they were known as "Nakari." The British came to know of these people and anglicised their name into Naga. Theese two theories have created more confusion to the whole problem.

These explanations are not convincing; because, the "Nok" theory is a generalizations of a tribal self image. True, most of the Naga or other tribes use to call themselves by the general term man. But 'Nok' to be applied to the Naga as a general term is not reasonable. The Naga tribes call themselves by their tribal names. In the early period, the names Naga was not known but it was the outsiders like the Assamese, Bengali and Ahom, with whom they had very wide contract, gave this name to the tribes. For example, the tribes like Angami, Ao, Zema, Rongmei etc. are known by the outsiders' names not by their own original names. The meities name further subdivision, the tribal names like Tangkhul, Mao, Maram, Maring, Anal etc. are also used. Therefore 'Nok' theory does not explain much.

Though to final word has been said on the derivation of Naga. It is certain that the name was given by the outsiders - the inhabitants of the Brahmaputra and Barak valleys to mean the Naga. The name was popularised and enforced by the British colonial authorities during the introduction of the their rule in the Naga areas. The problem has been more complication by the political touch which is adopted to identify a particular tribe a Naga tribe have been reproduced to understand the problem of identify faced by the western anthropologists rather than accepting its validity (1926)."

  1. The Nagas speak different languages. But a comparative study of the language as done by A.Grieron in the Linguistic Survey of India show hat there is no doubt, that in the remote part, they came from a same stock.
  2. Peculiar characteristics of the Nagas being different from their neighbours are given below:
  • Head Hunting: The custom of head hunting is a very special factor in the social life of the Nagas. The fame of the Nagas rests more in the head hunting practice.
  • Dormitory: Common sleeping house for the unmarried men
  • Dwelling house built on the post or piles
  • Disposal of the dead on the raised platform
  • Betel chewing
  • Trial Marriage system
  • Aversion of milk as an article of diet
  • Tatooing by pricking
  • Absence of any powerful political organisation
  • The double sylinder vertical forge
  • The loom for weaving cloth
  • A large quadrangular or hexagonal shield
  • Residence in his region and crude form of agriculture

These characteristics do not longer hold true in characterising the Naga traits.

In Manipur, with R.B. Pemberton's writings the identification of the tribes as Nagas was started with the colonial contact. Whatever, the British officials applied to the Naga, Hills was also applied to Manipur tribes. The colonial ethnographeeers did not bother themselves to give thought on the issue. T.C. Hodson's "The Naga tribes of Manipur (1911)" is almost silent on the problem.

The Naga tribes

The Naga are concentrated in the states of Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh of India and Somra Tract of Upper Burma. The following Naga tribes have been identified and located.

Nagaland: Ao, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Rengma, Chakhesang, Yimchunger, Kalya, Kongnyu, Konyak, Chang, Sangtam, Phom, Zeme, Liangmei, Rongmei(Zeliangrong), Khiemungan.

Manipur: Anal, Maring, Moyon, Lamkang, Chothe, Tangkhul, Mao/Paomei, Maram, Thangal, Zeliangrong, (Zeme, Liangmei, Rongmei, Puimei) Chiru, Kharam, Koireng, Tarao.

Arunachal Pradesh: Tangsha, Wancho, Nocte.

Burma: Konyak, Tangkhul, Phom and Yimchunger

Assam: Zema, Rongmei and Rengma.



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