The Naga of Burma
In Burma (Myanmar), around 120.000 people live in the northwestern hill tracts, in the the Naga Self-Administered Zone within the Sagaing Region. The Naga people are a conglomeration of several tribes inhabiting the north eastern part of India and north-western Burma (Myanmar).
There have been many attempts to explain how the Naga people arrived into these hills but so far no satisfactory explanation has been put forward. The absence of written history records may mean that the hypothesis about the origins of Naga will remain unrevealed.
Today the Naga people count approximately 2 million including people living both in Indian and Burmese side. The tribes have similar cultures and traditions and speak various Tibeto-Burman languages. Each tribe and village has their own dialect, mostly unintelligible with each other. The Naga people are organized by clans who exhibit variation to a certain degree, particularly in their languages and some traditional practices.
The life of Naga always had its strong ritual aspect: all activities, from simple household and economic tasks to dancing and feasting, had a mystical or religious significance. The spirits which Naga believed, controlled life, disease, fertility, rain, and so on and so forth, needed constant attention. One of the most famous rituals that was practiced until the 1960s was the practice of headhunting. Naga used to take the heads of their enemies in order to take away their power. The human head, believed to be the seat of wisdom and human soul, the repository and conductor of power. Who owned another's head gained prosperity, esteem of his fellows and guarantee of happiness in the after-life.
Apart from cultural contacts with their neighbors, Naga people had little or no interaction with the outside world until the British colonization in the nineteenth century. At the same time the activity of the protestant missionaries caused conversion of many Naga to Christianity, particularly in the actual Indian side. That process led to renunciation of many tribal customs and traditions. Together with the spread of English education, “modernity” arrived in the Naga’s hills.
This modern education contributed to the politicization and self-determination process of Naga people. In 1918 a group of educated Nagas (from today’s Indian Nagaland) put forward demands for independence. The development of a national spirit and sense of a common identity started to emerged.
For a long time, an intermittent struggle waged by Naga separatists has rendered their region inaccessible to outsiders. The Naga fighters intended to create a single state that would include all Nagas presently living in Burma and the Indian provinces of Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh.
A recent and tenuous ceasefire allowed some groups of outsiders to visit certain areas of the Burmese Naga Hills. Particularly during the Naga New Year's festival in January who are still managed and organized by the military regime. At this time it is to be hoped that the prime focus of the festival will stay focus on its local participants and their desire to retain their own particular identity within the emerging Burmese national spirit. Especially that there is a real danger that this festival, by emphasizing its exotic elements at the expenses of understanding the particular custom, will become over commercialized and will lose its essential meaning and purpose.
Nevertheless, there are some positive indications that the Naga themselves start to be concern about all these modern developments. To stop the annihilation of their culture they began to re-incorporate certain elements from their tradition back into their life.
In the last decades the Naga people have emerged as a coherent national force with a newly founded sense of identity. It can only be hoped that this sense of community will continue to bind them together and extend their recognition in the region. The public attention that Naga experienced gave them some advantages. Basic services improved including schooling, medical services and sometimes even access to water and electricity. The style of housing is changing as more materials are available and few people still wear traditional clothing in their daily life.
But still it is hoped that the exposure to an international culture will bring advantage to the Naga people instead of pushing them into a cultural limbo, where they can be caught between the wish to emulate the global culture and the practical difficulties of integrating that culture.