Colonial Encounter and the Cultural Processes of Nagas

Colonial Encounter and the Cultural Processes of Nagas By: Tuisem Ngakang

By: Tuisem Ngakang

This article is an attempt to see the cultural processes of the Nagas as a result of their encounter with the colonial rule and Christian missionaries since the early half of the 19th century. The cultural processes will be seen through three successive stages:

 1. Cultural elimination

2. Cultural imposition and adaptation

3. Cultural revitalization and construction.

However one should note that the processes cannot be put in the sequential order as sometimes several cultural processes work simultaneously within the same period. Attempt has been made to associate these processes with beginning or latter phases in the growth of Christianity.

Cultural Elimination: While talking about the elimination of culture, one should not only contempt the disappearance of the rich cultural heritage of the Nagas but also acknowledges as well as credited for stamping out the social ills and practices of the Nagas. The missionaries and the administrators deserved the praise for abolishing and putting down the evil practices, like head-hunting which combined with superstitious as a symbol of honor, valor and manhood, as means of pleasing god and as a source of prosperity. And some of the practices like polygamy and polyandry were abolished as a precondition for acceptance as a Christian faith. The practice of killing the twins by some of the Naga tribes was abolished as against principle of Christianity and the British administrators considered such kind of barbaric practices should not exist in their governed areas. As a result of the abolition of these practices, a new era of peace and goodwill emerged amongst themselves and a good neighborly friendship with others tribes developed.

While acknowledging the missionaries, we should also not forget their cultural arrogance. The early missionaries supposed it necessary to give up completely the indigenous practices by the Nagas converts since the missionaries considered the practices of “pagans” and that of Christianity to be contradictory to each other. The missionaries also felt that if the newly converts are allow to continue with their old practices, they might go back to their indigenous religion.

The first and the foremost step taken by the missionaries were to eliminate or demonized the numerous spirits worshiped and revered by the Nagas as contradictory to Christian beliefs. The Christian missionaries painted the terhoma in the most malicious manner. “ The missionaries in their blindness”, writes, Hutton, “teaches the Angami converts to regard all terhoma as evil and mission taught Nagas are in the habit of translating the generic terhoma into English or Assamese as “satan” . All of these, Satan as they are called, are however very far from having those qualities which traditionally are associated with the Devil. They considered the sacrifices made to the spirits as superstitious and several elements of Nagas tradition, like festivals, divinations, and geenas as in direct conflict with Christianity and thus they think it their moral right to attack and eliminate the indigenous practices.

In the sphere of rites and festivals related to death, like thisam phanit (festival for sending off the dead soul practiced by the Tangkhul Naga) which was the longest festival for the death was completely stopped in 1920, and a fine of Rs. 600 was imposed to anyone who attempted to celebrate! The disposing of death body by exposing by some Naga tribes like Ao Nagas and offering of food and drinks to the deceased was considered as opposed to the Christian faith and ideals were eliminated. The Feast of merit or ‘status earning distribution’ one of the most important means of earning status in the society was discouraged and eliminated by the missionaries. For the Nagas man does not gain social respect by just possessing of wealth, but only by spending it for the benefit of the community. To gain the social prestige a man has to give a number of feasts. By giving a Feast of merit, a feast giver’s status rises, ensuring he will be remember even after death. The one who hosted a Feast of merit, show his status through certain ornaments, clothes or house carving. With the discouraged of this noble practice, the community spirit has broken, and individualism began to assert itself.

With the elimination of the Feast of Merit, rice-beer, the favorite drink of the Nagas was brutally contempt as unchristian and was substituted by tea which has far inferior nutritive value.

The peculiar and unique hairstyle of the Nagas, like of Ao Nagas, cut off squarely all round , or that of Tangkhul Nagas cutting off closely at the sides leaving a broad crest which was essentially the sign of manliness was eliminated as a price for conversion to Christianity. The converts’ youth was to cut it off same as the missionaries or in western hair cut so that they might not be mistaken as non-Christian Nagas. For the same reason, the use of massive bangles and other traditional ornaments has been eliminated; they have been replaced with modern ornaments. Tattooing or beautifying of body through bricking with various pattern which was widely done by both man and women of northern Tangkhul Nagas and Konyak was eliminated as against the Christian faith as considered by the missionaries as the violation of the clean and holy body given by God.

The missionaries considered every indigenous thing as ‘heathen practices’, which they considered as their duty to get ride of as a service to the Nagas.

Tribal songs, dances, sacrifices, celebration of various kinds were slowly removed from the converted Naga Christian. The morung, the Nagas centre of learning music was disapproved by the missionaries on the ground that a morung was a place of ‘vice’ . The missionary detested the tribal culture of breaking out into community singing and dance practiced with big feast. The missionary fear that the newly convert Christian might reverse back to ‘heathenism’ if they are permitted community singing and dancing.

The missionaries did not hesitate in eliminating some of the food habits of the Nagas. One of the strongest evident in the changing of food habits was the refusal to eat the pig meat by the Nagas who accepted the faith of Seventh Day Adventists in the fifties of the 20th century.

The elimination and the disappearance of the various practices of the Nagas as seen from the above discussion were motivated by two factors. Firstly, some of the practices were partly abolished by the missionaries as against the Christian faith and partly by the administrator as their moral duty to eradicate the ill practices in their administered areas. Secondly, in order to show their sense of distinctness by the newly converts Nagas and to show their cultural segregation from their non-converts, they themselves gave up their indigenous practices. The early converts being falsely impressed by the white missionaries, the acceptance of ruler’s religion i.e Christianity gave them a sense of religious superiority over the Naga indigenous belief system.

This false feeling of religious superiority supported by a sense of distinction from the believers of indigenous belief system motivated the converts to eliminate some practices even though they did not necessarily conflict or associated with the Christian faith.

Cultural Imposition and Adaptation: For many years even after their acceptance of the Christian faith most Nagas were still a nominal Christian and hardly understand the implications of the Christian faith. But in their outward appearance and life style they have change superficially into western mode of living.

With the elimination of the various practices of the Nagas, the missionaries advocated the Nagas to adopt certain tangible symbols of “Christian civilization”- the wearing of clothes, the cropping of hair, and introducing of some new food items in the life of the Nagas. Simple villagers were taught to change their life style like European as far as possible, in appearance and in behavior.

With regards to music, from the beginning of their work, the missionaries had realized the importance of music in Naga society. However it was not the traditional Naga folksong that they were interested, or they intend to encourage. On the contrary, the missionaries introduced new style of singing-Christian hymns and simple gospel songs. To the convert Nagas, the missionaries encouraged singing of gospel songs and some of them also prepared new ones. In the church and during religious services, the hymns and gospels taught by the missionaries became to occupy and continue to play a large role in prayers and worship services.

Naga learn new style of singing through these religious practices. Giving a special number in the church service before the congregation has become the fashioned of the newly convert, and thus the division of performers and audience has emerged. Before the Naga encountered with the missionaries there was no such classification of listener or performers. The converts Nagas began to imitate the light Western music in their own way.

One of the strongest evident of cultural imposition was the introduction of tea, in place of rice beer. Rice beer was contempt by the missionaries as they thought that it was the part and parcel of “paganism” and the roots of violence and debauchery. Giving up of rice beer was the sign of Christian lifestyle. Today, the Nagas take tea in place of rice beer, and tea is served to a guest and on any festive occasions.

There were some aspects of culture which were not consciously imposed by the administrators or missionaries but the native considered as an integral part of the missionaries. One such example was the European-style house. For the missionaries and the administrators building the European-style house was just a place where they can sheltered themselves, but this has become a matter of admiration and imitative for the simple Nagas. Though the missionaries doesn’t not imposed the European-style house they did not approve the traditional style, since the Naga traditional house contained carving of animals, birds or human figure and thus the missionaries considered unchristian. With the stopping of beautiful carving made on the pillars of the houses and doors, the Nagas were left with no choice but to adopt the simple and inartistic western style house.

Utensils of various kinds were also replaced as a result of their contact with the missionaries. The skillfully carved bamboo vessels were replaced by enamel mugs, aluminums pots takes the place of old bamboo vessels. Western furniture like tables, chairs etc were also gradually imitate by the Nagas.

Cultural Revitalization and Construction: Cultural construction and revitalization is a deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture to identify themselves and make sense out of their historical experience. This stage of cultural process starts from second half of the 20th century in 1950’s, when the Nagas have rooted in Christianity and their search for identity were at its zenith.

Two factors are responsible for this stage of cultural process. One: this cultural process takes place when the converts have acquired a considerable understanding of Christianity and when they are in a position to make their own value judgments. This process involves the re-evaluation of earlier eliminated elements of Nagas traditional practices and the re-adoption after essential modifications. Secondly, the construction of culture was the initiative taken by the Naga nationalist to assert their own identity.

The passing of imperial rule and the irresistible weight of traditional culture have led many Naga scholars and leaders to question ever-increasing the status which western culture ascribed to native culture and to seek a new Nagas cultural values. Amidst the usual uncertainties and anxieties of personal and national identity crisis, including the confrontation of such question as what to retain, reject, accept, modify and fuse, there has been a legitimate rejuvenation and revival of traditional culture. In some pockets the actions necessary for the survival of traditional culture are being taken. In a Tangkhul Naga village like Ringui, a dancing club name Mathotmi Dance Club was formed in 1952 after returning from performing in New Delhi in India Republic Day celebration and till date the Club occupy an important place in the village as the guardian of the cultural tradition such as dance form, folk songs etc.

Recently, Tangkhul Mayar Ngala Long, in order to revitalize the disappearing colorful attires of the Tangkhul Nagas pronounced that, in every marriage costume there should be at least one item of Tangkhul traditional dress should be worn both by the bride and groom. It emphasizes more on the external aspects of the culture than focusing on the whole traditional marriage rituals. The Long i.e organization also prescribed that it is a must for every Tangkhul Naga individuals to have the traditional shawl.

Building a cultural basis for the sake of rescuing the disappearing cultural tradition is not the only goal prompting cultural reconstruction. Cultural construction is also method for revitalizing ethnic boundaries and redefining the meaning of ethnicity in existing ethnic populations.

Cultural construction is especially important to pan-ethnic groups like Nagas as they are often composed of subgroups with histories of conflict and animosity. Thus the construction of one social and cultural identity was necessary to strengthen their oneness.

Some names of the traditional festivals of different Naga tribes are also merged to one name to give a new meaning. Lui-Ngai-Nii is one such name. This festival is an annual seed sowing festival celebrated every year on 15th February by all the Nagas from Manipur since 1990. The name is derived from the combination of three festivals of different tribes; Lui is taken from the Tangkhul Naga seed sowing festival Luira, Ngai from Gaangai (seed sowing festival of Zeliangrong Naga) and Nii from Thounii (seed sowing festival of Poumai Naga), thus form a generic name Lui-Ngai-Nii. The hallmark of this festival is to promote peace and harmony among the Nagas and to uphold Naga cultural identity. The people were confident that by organizing such festival, they would be protecting the common facet of cultural values among the Naga communities and also to endeavor to conserve their cultural identity. The celebration of Lui-Ngai-Nii includes dances and folk songs by representing of all ethnic Naga tribes. The period of the encounter with the missionaries and the colonial rule was marked by the decadence of the rich cultural heritage like folk songs, folk dances and some of the noble institutions like bachelors dormitory. By the second half of the 20th century Naga scholars and nationalist in their attempt to revive their culture to prove their unique cultural identity and to have a dignity culture, there emerge a new kind of cultural form which are not purely Nagas and not western in form, but resulted into a kind of cultural synthesis, synthesis of European and Naga traits.

The writer can be contacted at tuisem.ngakang[at]gmail[dot]com

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