Northeastern region is known for its cultural diversity and is probably one of the most diversified regions of the worlds. If records are to be believed more than 200 tribes live in the hills, mountains, valleys and plains of the region. But among all the states, Nagaland stands quite apart simply because of the vast number of tribes living here.
There are many things that come to mind when one thinks of Nagaland – ferocious, head-hunters, elaborate costumes etc. The state which lies at the edge of the country and shares its border with Myanmar is widely popular as the ‘wild east’ of India because of its dazzling hills and valleys, unexplored forest covers and of course the ‘head-hunting tribes’. Nagaland holds significant importance in the socio-geographical dynamics of the country because it is home to numerous tribes. Together the inhabitants of Nagaland may be classified as ‘Nagas’ but ethnically and culturally all the people living in the state are not ‘Naga’. ‘Naga’ is more of an umbrella term which vaguely clubs together several tribes who have lived in close proximity for centuries and speak distinct versions of the Tibeto-Burman language.
However, it is necessary to mention at this point that ‘Nagas’ do not necessarily and compulsorily mean only the tribal groups living in the state of Nagaland. The term ‘Naga’ is used is a much larger context. Nagas, in the larger sense of the word, are the ethnically similar groups who inhabit parts of North East India and north-west Myanmar. ‘Nagas’ can also be found in four districts of Manipur, one district of Assam and two districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
As of 2012, the state of Nagaland officially recognized 17 Naga tribes. In Manipur, there are as many as 15 recognized Naga tribes while in Arunachal Pradesh there are 3 recognized Naga tribes. Since Nagaland is inhabited with so many different tribes who not only follow different cultures but also speak different languages, a common lingua-franca for the state is spoken by all tribes. The creole, called Nagamese is heavily inspired from Assamese. Nagamese is the preferred form of communication in all public forums and even households.
Major Tribes of Nagaland
The Angamis are one of the major tribes inhabiting Nagaland. The Angami tribe traditionally occupied the hill areas of the state and they were considered warriors. A majority of their time was spent in war with enemy villages. Angamis are one of the head-hunting tribes of Nagaland. The tribe was primarily dependent on agriculture and life-stock rearing. Their specialty was terraced wet-rice cultivation. Today majority Angamis have adopted Christianity as their faith though as a community they continue to celebrate their indigenous festival the ‘Sekrenyi’ every February. Traditionally, Angami men wear shawls while the women wear Mechala or a wraparound skirt. Both men and women adorn themselves with large ornaments.
The Rengma tribe largely reside in Nagaland though a substantial number also live in Assam. Due to lack of documented history, not much of verified information is available about the Rengmas. However from what is known is that the Rengmas were also agriculturists and were believed to be experts in terrace cultivation. The costumes worn by the tribesmen vary according to the status and position of the weaver. For example, Rhikho is worn by a person who has never offered a great feast or killed an enemy. This dress is characteristically white in color with four narrow black bands. The other types of dresses are Moyet tsu and Alungtsu, worn by different categories of men. There are two sub-divisions within Rengma – the Eastern Rengma and the Western Rengma.
The Ao Nagas are one of the largest and most prominent tribes of Nagaland. The Ao Nagas largely inhabit the Mokokchung district, which is also called the Home of the Ao. The Ao Nagas are vastly popular for their clothing, especially their warrior shawl called the Mangkotepsu. The Mangkotepsu is primarily worn by the men and according to their tradition, only the brave men. For a man to earn the right to wear this shawl, he had to take human heads in warfare and host large feast as proof of his wealth. Today almost all Ao Nagas have adopted Christianity.
The Change Nagas reside primarily in the Tuensang district of Nagaland. Traditionally, the Chang Nagas were head-hunters, though the practice subsided after the British entered their territory. The Changs were originally animists and believed in the continuity between humans, nature and supernatural forces. Today most Changs have adopted Christianity. Like the other Naga tribes, the Changs have elaborate ornamental headgears and shawl-like garments.
The Sumi Nagas inhabit the Zunheboto district of Nagaland and are considered a very aggressive yet united tribe. The Sumis were also head-hunters though the practice has ceased now. The Sumi Nagas were animists and worshipped nature. However with the arrival of the Baptist missionaries in the 20th Century, most of them have converted to Christianity.
In spite of the fact that the Sumis have adopted a new religion, they continue to practice their traditional festivals such as Tuluni and Ahuna.
Though only a handful of Naga tribes have been described above, the fact remains that Nagaland is one of the most diverse land in the country. Major General S. C Sardespande beautifully summarized the Nagas in his 1987 study of the Pakoi Nagas. He said, ‘Nagas are magnificent. You have to see and live amidst them to believe this simple statement. A very large majority of us know little about them. The little that we now is about their nakedness, headhunting and anti-national, hostile, underground, insurgent activity for the last thirty years of independence India's consciousness of it north-eastern periphery…By nature they are suspicious, sensitive, wary, distrustful, inward-looking, volatile and very very proud. There cannot be a better friend than the Naga once he identifies his friend; there cannot be a worse foe than the Naga once he feels deceived or let down. Deep inside his inscrutable exterior and penetrating eyes there is tremendous warmth, great geniality, sharp intellect and immense good-will.’