The Naga


Nāga (Naga) refers to a sometimes vaguely defined collection of more than 20 tribes that reside in the hills that separate Assam from North-West Myanmar (Burma), a region referred to colloquially and administratively as "Nagaland." The Nagas live in one of the most remote and inaccessible places on Earth and are seldom visited by outsiders. The term "Naga" had been used in Assam to refer to certain isolated tribes. The British adopted this term for a number of tribes in the surrounding area based on loose linguistic and cultural associations. Though they share many cultural traits, the tribes have maintained a high degree of isolation and lack cohesion as a single people. 

The Naga way of life was summed up by RB McCabe who, writing about the Nagas in the 19th century, said, 

"Grouped in small communities of from 100 to 3,000 persons, the Nagas have remained isolated on their hill tops, only deigning to visit their immediate neighbours when a longing for the possession of their heads becomes too strong to be resisted".  

The Nagas were regarded by some Victorian commentators as constituting "the wildest and most turbulent tribes adjacent to any part of our Indian dominions."  

The most important of the 40 or so tribes that constitute the Naga are/were the Angamis (Ang), Aos,  Chakhesang, Chang (Changhai, Changru), Kachas (Kachin), Lhotas, Pochury Rengmas (Rongmei, Ruangmei), Semas (Zemi, Sumi), and numerous small tribes referred to collectively as the Eastern or Naked Nagas, or Konyaks.

Although the practice is said to have ended, the Naga are known as the most fearsome of all head hunting tribes. The Naga are a fiercely independent group of tribes that customarily raided each other and neighboring areas in the pursuit of human heads. 

The Nagas dealt with foreign incursions by practicing what they had always done: taking the heads of their enemies - preferably, the heads of children; the idea being that children, protected by their parents, were harder trophies to take and therefore more valuable as well as more terrifying to their enemies. The Nagas defended their land against incursions by invaders. They also killed for personal glory and for the glory of their villages. 

A Naga warrior with neckless that depicts the number of heads he has taken.

Only a successful headhunter was allowed to tattoo his face and body, and as a demonstration he could wear a brass head on a necklace for each head that he had seized (see picture at right).  

The Nagas needed human skulls because they believed that only with these skulls they could guarantee the fertility of the fields and their people. Although Nagas would not buy skulls, slaves were bought to be decapitated for their skulls and their heads were hung in baskets high in bamboo groves with arrows driven through the eye sockets to ensure that the ghost would protect the village. Traditionally, Nagas differentiated between the soul, a celestial body, and the spirit, a supernatural being. They believed that the human soul resided in the nape of the neck and could only be set free by beheading. The spiritual being, in the head, brought good fortune. Heads of enemies as well as fallen comrades were collected to add to those of the community's own ancestors.

These beliefs have not ended, but Christian missionaries and British colonialists convinced or forced the Nagas to give up the habit of cutting off human heads. Headhunting was banned in Nagaland in 1991 and is believed to have died out (only recently). Today human skulls have generally been substituted by wooden heads. Nevertheless, the rituals persist.  

The Naga reside in a region called “The Nagaland State”, a specially governed zone of India, bordering also Tibet, China and Burma. As a “state”, it was created by India in 1963. Many of its hills and valleys were uncharted until recently, and the eastern regions remain far beyond the reach of the skeletal road system despite the fact that the forested mountains rarely exceed 3000 meters in height. 

The Nagas are not confined to this region alone, but are found in adjacent areas as well. The fiercely independent Nagas have historically been surrounded by many groups who wanted to civilize them, convert them or just dominate them. India, Burma, Assam, Tibet, China, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians and various Imperialist rulers all tried, without success, to dominate them. The Nagas were always outnumbered and out-armed.

Prior to British rule, the Nagas did not have any independent, self-governing and well defined political structure.  The were a group of heterogeneous, primitive and diverse tribes. They spoke in well over 30 dialects and living in far-flung villages that had very little in common and negligible contact with each other. The main “contact” between villages was through the savage practice of headhunting.  Life was full of distrust; people and villages led insular and isolated lives. 

The peoples of the Naga are primarily of Mongol heritage, although they have differentiated into multiple readily identifiable ethnic groups with their own arts, dress, fashion, and traditions. Despite their “terrible ways”, the Nagas were and remain happy and cheerful, with a strong love of music and color. Knowledge of the outside world was until very recently completely absent and education unknown.

The British empire entered the Naga region in force in the early 1830’s, and then created the “Naga Hills District” in 1866. However, it took them almost five decades to consolidate effective control over the Nagas. By the beginning of twentieth century Naga Hills became an integral part of British India.  

The Nagas remained isolated while under British governance. They were first exposed to the outside world during the World War I when about 2000 Nagas were recruited in the labor corps and served in France. A force of several hundred tribal warriors fought with the British and Indian forces in the decisive battles in Nagaland that turned back the Japanese in WWII.

The British administrators of Nagaland arrived at a truce with the Nagas towards the end of the nineteenth century, and agreed not to penetrate beyond certain boundaries;  their maps left numerous blank areas that today remain poorly charted.   Much of the region, being covered in mountains and jungles and home to warring tribal groups such as the notorious 'Naked Naga' headhunters remained off-limits and are still rarely if ever visited by outsiders.


Map depicting geographic regions associated with the major Naga tribes.