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The Nagas Introduction
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Photos by Pablo Bartholomew

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As a child, my father would tell me stories of how he with his family fled Burma (Myanmar) to India, during the 2nd World War. Fearing persecution by the invading Japanese forces, Burmese with Christian names fled, walking the General Stillwell route from Rangoon to Ledo, in North Eastern Assam. It was during this escape that he and his family encountered the Burma Naga and their kindness and hospitality. Snippets of these stories have remained with me, about how these strange tribes used to, salt wrapped in corn leaves, hang from their thatch roofs. On arrival to a Naga village, after a long days march, they would be welcomed with drink and food. If there was no food in that village, then animals or birds would be killed and meals cooked. This was the seminal seed of curiosity that took me into the Naga Hills, 47 years after my fathers journey, to look meet and become friends with one of the world most unique and beautiful tribal people.

After I dropped out of high school in New Delhi, having abundant time on my hands, befriending Nagas who were in colleges that had come to study from their homes in Nagaland. Through them I learnt more about there lives which rejuvenated my interest in the Nagas. My traveling to the Naga Hills eluded me with some close misses. Time – Life Books asked me to photograph the Naga tribes, for a series called the "Great Tribes of the World". Just as the assignment was supposed to start, the whole series was killed. It was finally in 1989 that I started over a 6 years period of travel, spent over 500 days in that region.Nagaland, constituent state of India, in the northeastern corner of the country. It is bounded on the east by Myanmar (Burma), on the south by the Indian state of Manipur, and on the west and northwest by the Indian state of Assam. A small section of Nagaland extends north from the Myanmar border into the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. The capital is Kohima. Nagaland has a wet monsoon climate, except for a small area of plain, the entire state is covered with ranges of hills that are part of the Himalayan system.

Nagaland has no early written history. The word Naga designates the many tribes and subtribes that occupy the area. The name may have derived from the Sanskrit naga ("snake"); from Hindi nanga ("naked"); from naga ("belonging to the hills"); or from nok ("people," or "folk").

Myanmar ruled the Naga from 1819 to 1826, at which time the British established rule over Assam and gradually annexed the Naga hill areas to the British Empire. The British put an end to headhunting and intervillage raids, and the Naga settled down to a more peaceful life of cultivation and trade. Indian independence in 1947 sparked a movement for an autonomous Nagaland, but after prolonged negotiation the Naga people accepted statehood within India in 1963 under the stewardship of it’s first Chief Minister P. Shilu Ao. However, rebel activity continued, increasingly assuming the form of banditry and often motivated more by tribal rivalry and personal vendetta than by political aspiration. Ceasefires and negotiations did little to stop the insurgency, and in March 1975 direct presidential rule was imposed on the state. Although leaders of the underground agreed in November 1975 to lay down their arms and accept the Indian Constitution, a small group of hard-core extremists continued to agitate for Naga independence.

The Naga people belong to the Indo-Mongoloid ethnic group. Though sharing many cultural traits, these tribes have maintained a high degree of isolation and lack cohesion as a single people. There are more than 35 tribes and subtribes, differing in physique, dialect, and customs. There is no common language but rather 60 spoken dialects; in some areas, dialects vary from village to village. Intertribal communication is carried on in a broken Assamese called Nagamese. Many Naga also speak Hindi and English. English is the official language of the state. About two-thirds are Christian, one-tenth are animist, and the rest other faiths. Most Naga live in rural villages, some of which have as many as 10,000 inhabitants. Kohima, Mokokchung, and Dimapur are the major urban centers. The Konyaks are the largest tribe, followed by the Aos, Tangkhuls, Semas, and Angamis. Other tribes include the Lothas, Sangtams, Phoms, Changs, Khiemnungams, Yimchungers, Zeliangs, Chakhesangs (Chokri), and Rengmas.

The traditional Naga religion is animistic, though conceptions of a supreme creator and an afterlife exist. Nature is seen to be alive with invisible forces, minor deities, and spirits with which priests and medicine men mediate. In the 19th century, with the advent of British rule, Christianity was introduced, and Baptist missionaries became especially active in the region. As a result, the population now is predominantly Christian. Tribal organization among the Naga varies from the powerful Konyak angs (chiefs) and hereditary chieftainships of the Sema and Chang to the democratic councils of the Angami, Ao, Lotha, and Rengma. A prominent village institution is the morung (communal house, or dormitory) for young unmarried men, and some tribes maintain communal houses for unmarried women as well. Women hold a high and honorable position in Naga society, work on equal terms with men in the fields, and wield influence in tribal councils.

Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy. About four-fifths of all workers are cultivators. Crops include autumn and winter rice, small millets, edible seeds, oilseeds, sugarcane, potatoes, and tobacco. An inadequate amount of fertile land and the practice of slash-and-burn (jhum) farming practices have resulted food shortages and depletion of forest and wildlife.

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