Head-huntings : Nagas' perspective
- Part 1 -

Kendy Pamei*

The rich culture and tradition of the Nagas unceremoniously took a radical change with the advent of the British in Naga country. The early encounter and experiences of the white men with the Nagas were not very affable. Rather than understanding the intricacies of the rich Naga culture and tradition, like in any part of the world they intrude, the preconceived notion of "The White men's burden" was always in their mission and agenda.

The British imperialist deemed that white man has a moral obligation to rule the non-white peoples of the Earth, whilst encouraging their economic, cultural, and social progress through colonialism. The Nagas traditional practices, culture, values and deities were not only disdained but perceived to be obsolete and savage.

Most British army official, anthropologist and missionaries records and travelogues found today did not attempt to understand or percolate the customs and traditions, the way the Nagas preserve and practice, rather the sacred and divine customs and traditions were misinterpreted from their own shallow and vague imagination of their perceived understanding of the Nagas as 'wild savage and ignorant jungle settlers'.

Such attitude of the westerners towards the Nagas created ambivalence between them; in-fact the British were met with great resentment and antipathy, the Nagas even fought/revolt against the colonial power on several occasions. The British took ten major expeditions spanning 18 years to contain the Naga tribal, the tenth expedition led by Capt. Vincent, defeated the Angami Naga in the historic battle of Khonoma in 1850, this marks the advent of British in the Naga area (Tjenjuba Ao, 1958).

Consequently, the traditional Nagas socio, economic and belief system transformed drastically. Such changes or avert from traditional life to a newly imposed, so called white men's 'civilization' is a concoction, in simple language it can be termed as "Boon and Bane".

The fact that, primitive Naga have rich culture and tradition is irrefutable. The Nagas intimacy with nature and wild lives is illustrated in the traditional practices, habitat and even deities. The worship of nature like sky, big trees and rocks portrays not only the physical intimacy with nature but also the spirit and souls buried in it.

The food habits, tools, way of cultivation and the love for "the good earth" depict the co-friendly nature and lifestyle. The life of Nagas and their environment thrives side by side; such beautifully enriched culture of the Naga is notable even in the present traditional life of a common man.

The advent of British to the Naga County brought forth many notable transformations, but many valuable traditional practices such as Morung, Folktale and Folk Songs (Oral tradition), Traditional sports and food habits etc. poignantly waned. However some appalling practices like Head-hunting, inter-village feuds, polygamy, animal sacrifices and others were considered a taboo with the introduction of Christianity and western education.

The Nagas, often called as 'head-hunting tribes' or simply 'head-hunters': "the Nagas are known as the Head-Hunters" (B B Kumar: Naga Identity), such pseudonym adversely affected the image of Nagas. Western writers often portrayed the Naga as savage, naked people and head-hunter which is a misnomer, without giving a platform to appraise the perspective behind the motive of Head-hunting.

Such is the blunder and injustice committed by previous generation of historians or anthropologist with keen interest in the history of Nagas. They failed to comprehend and relish the insight perspective of the people; rather they misconstrue and ignore the intricacy and value systems behind such traditional practices and cultural differences.

However, this does not mean that their work and thesis should be discarded. It was seen that by using such term they wanted to portray the Nagas as the primitive tribes and take control of the Nagas, "This concept of head-hunting was used as one of the elements to colonize the tribals /natives by the colonial power by depicting them as 'head-hunters', 'primitive', 'lovers of war' or 'barbarians' who needed civilization" (Maisuangdibou: Tribal Theological Hermeneutics).

And since they considered head-hunting to be an aberrant social behavior, we have also been conditioned to accept head-hunting through the eyes of the others. Head-hunting, in fact, 'is an organized, coherent form of violence in which the severed head is given a specific ritual meaning and the act of head taking is consecrated and commemorated in some form'.

T.C Hudson (1911) wrote, "The raid in order get a head is a religious business, and not lightly undertaken, whatever its motive……. before, as well as after, a raid the young warriors are genna, secluded from intercourse or speech with women, compelled to live apart". It would be unfair to facilely explain head-hunting as a form of primitive warfare triggered by the expression of man's aggressive nature in stateless societies. In most instances, the practice of head-hunting among the Nagas embodies political, religion & economical and social connotation.

Politically, head-hunting was practiced with the belief in serving justice to the victim of inter-village feuds and also to safeguard the village from the enemies. Such strong patriotic characters of the warriors, attached to head-hunting are nullified by the earlier writers.

Religiously and economically, the Nagas believed that a successful annihilation of enemies during war can appease the spirits of the dead, to ensure the fertility of land for good production of crops. Apart from these, it was also believed that a successful expedition of head-hunting brings good fortune to the entire villagers.

"The possession of a head brought wealth and prosperity to the village" (TC Hudson 1911). However, such religious beliefs attached, were overlooked and head-hunting was explained or understood simply as a practice to appease the blood thirsty desire of the warriors. Such shallow explanation not only distorts the history but also exposes the Nagas erroneously to the outside world.

"The simplest and most obvious form of head-hunting is associated with the blood feud, where the duty of vengeance remains un-sated until the tally of heads is numerically equal" (Major. Butler 1855), such rhetoric writings depicted that; the clear concepts of the head-hunting were totally ignored.

Another attachment to the traditional beliefs was that the criminals or outlaw were not worthy to be alive, as such to diminish his status in the land of dead, they were hunt down and killed. "The Liangmais believed that any criminal (hardcore criminal) should be hunted / killed when he was still alive on this earth so that when entered the land of the dead he would be inferior then others for some time" (Maisuangdibou: Tribal Theological Hermeneutics).

To be continued....

* Kendy Pamei (freelance writer) wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was posted on July 05, 2017.

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