Head-huntings : Nagas’ perspective


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).

“Valued as a practice of self evaluation and social elevation, the number of heads taken determining the prestige and status of being warrior” (I L Aier: Naga Social formations and ethnic identity). A Naga warrior, who successfully brings home enemy’s head, is considered a prominent warrior and a hero, his prestige, fame and status in the society are elevated and respected by all and such status cannot be merely achieve without proving their worthiness. A warrior in order to prove his bravery, chops off the head of the enemy and brings home the trophy from the enemies’ land. Head hunting is also test of proving ones worth being man (manhood) or simply endorsement of transition from boyhood to adulthood, worthy enough to be called a warrior. “Success on a head-hunting raid would fairly serve as a mark of manhood and as qualify for promotion from one stage in tribal life to the higher stage of married man” (TC Hudson. 1911). Writer like Maj. Butler pointed out that a young man could not find a woman to get married with, unless he brings home enemy’s head, however, this fact was denied by many Nagas. Another misconception about head-hunting is on the narrative of hunting woman’s or baby’s head. Outsiders critique that hunting women’s and children’s head is unethical, barbaric and immoral. However in the Nagas society, women and child are considered weakling and precious, hence the belief is that, a warrior who can transcend the enemy line of defense and get hold of what they considered most precious and dearly protected (women and children), such warriors are glorified as man of valor or the bravest one, such is the art and technique of war in any part of the world even today. Hit the enemy where it hurt most. BB Kumar in his book Naga Identity wrote “The woman’s head was prized most partly due to the decorative hairs and partly as it needed more valor and feat to get out of the protective cordon of the warriors of enemy camp”, such assumption and explanation of woman’s head for decorative hairs is not only misleading but lacks substance.

Head-hunting in the Nagas society is closely attached to social, religion and political beliefs and cannot be simply understood as, savage or that head-hunting is associated with the blood feud, where the duty of vengeance remains un-sated until the tally of heads is numerically equal etc. One should understand that, Naga villages were tightly-knit, self-administered social units and the state of affairs was far from being anarchic or chaotic and it should be noted that head-hunting wasn’t merely practiced to uphold one’s honor and prestige in the society as the earlier writers often portrayed that, the hunters engage in head-hunting and slay each other for fanfare or to display their bravery. On the account of Liangmai tribe TC Hudson wrote, “A raid in order to get a head is a religious business, and not lightly undertaken……… but they prepare themselves for the sport with solemn rites. Before as well as after, a raid the young warriors are genna, secluded from intercourse, or speech with women, compelled to live apart”, he also wrote “it was usual to keep the gruesome trophy for five days, and then to return it to the village to which it belonged. Sometimes it was put in the grave of the family of the successful warrior……. Then for three years all raids on the particular village were forbidden”. Thus, it is clearly seen that head-hunting was never carried out at one’s will rather, warriors before the raid were subjected to vigorous training and certain rules and taboos were followed strictly, such as abstaining from women, intercourse, and even forbid foods cooked by women. It can also be seen that the victim’s heads were often return after performing certain rituals and due respect was paid to the victim’s village by maintaining mutual relationship without any feuds, such valuable aspect of head-hunting were totally ignore or not underlined, only the dark side or personal perception of the authors are often highlighted and stressed upon, thus antagonizing the Nagas culture and tradition by denouncing its values and disparaging the society with derogatory names like “head-hunting tribe”, “head-hunters’ or ‘head-seekers.”

History shows that during the warring era, it was observed that gruesome form of murder such as; Death by a Thousand Cuts (Originally from China, this was one of the most brutal execution methods ever fashioned. It was in used roughly from the year 900, until it was banned in 1905), Crucifixion (Ancient form of execution, widespread during the reign of Alexander the Great), Flaying (In the year 415, Hypatia of Alexandria, famous female mathematician and philosopher, was allegedly flayed alive by a enraged Christian mob, using sharp oyster shells), Brazen Bull (The brazen bull, sometimes called Sicilian bull, was a execution device designed by Perilaus of Athens in year 560 BC), The Boats (Cruel method of execution originates from the ancient Persia) and many more, were extensively adopted in different part of the world, however, none of the writers or historian wrote/associate such gruesome form of murders with any particular tribe as they depict the Nagas.

The misconception of the Nagas as the most brutal or fear-some people and the misinterpretation of Naga cultures traditions and value systems is poignant. The misnomer is not only misleading but diminishes the rich cultures of the Nagas, such trends and colonial notion of portraying the other as uncivilized and uncultured needs to be deconstructed. There is weighty need to look into Naga’s perspectives, and present a holistic view of who Nagas are and the significance of rites, rituals and practices of the Nagas. It is worthy to note that Nagas’ practice of head-hunting had no direct relation to intentional revenge and the spirit world as viewed by the outside world, the fact that Nagas are well known for their hospitality, friendliness, humorous nature etc have found no place in the westerners writings was a clear indication to demean the tribal culture and way of life.

(Kendy Pamei is a freelance writer)

Source: The Sangai Express


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