History #3 – Migration of the Nagas

Migration of the Nagas

The ancient history of the Nagas is unclear due to lack of documented historical evidences except for oral legends, folk song, and folk tales passed down from generation to generation through oral traditions. Many theories have been put forward by historians, geographers, anthropologists and other scholars on the origin of the Nagas. Based on these theories, it is generally accepted that the Naga race is the result of the coming together of tribes originating in China. However, the exact origins of the tribes are shrouded in mystery.

Different scholars have come up with theories linking Nagas with Tibet, China, and Southeast Asian countries like Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar based on Naga art, material culture, language and practices. The natives of Nagaland and Borneo both have similar traditional way of hunting and similar system of terrace cultivation. On the other hand, the loin loom for weaving cloth and the embroidery on the Naga clothes resemble that on Indonesian clothes.

The Nagas have various theories of migration and settlement through oral legends, which were recorded mostly by foreign writers.

According to some oral legends, Naga ancestors migrated from Yunnan in China. Some claim they were forced to leave during the construction of the Great Wall of China.

Sir G.A. Grierson traced the origin of the Nagas to that of the Tibeto-Burmese on the basis of language.
[Grierson, G.A., Linguistic Survey of India, Vol.III, Part II, 1903, p.11.]

Hiuen Tsang , the Chinese pilgrim who visited Assam in 645 A.D. during the reign of Bhaskar Varman , mentioned the Naga tribes in the hills, east of Assam. Hiuen Tsang mentioned that the inhabitants of the border hills showed similarities to the barbarians of South West China.

The Ahom Buranjis (historical chronicles and manuscripts of the Ahoms) records that the Nagas were already settled in the Naga Hills when the Ahoms came to Assam in the 13th Century. [ Gait, E.A., A History of Assam, 1967, pp.78-79.].

On the basis of physical traits and cultural characteristics, some scholars classify the Nagas racially as the ‘Indonesian type‘- the type of people belonging to Malaya and Indonesia. Nagas also seem to have similarities with people outside the Asiatic mainland such as the Dayaks and Kanyans of Borneo, the Aattacks of Sumatra, the Igorots and other groups of Philippines and some aborigines of Formosa.

Though written sources on the Nagas do not provide the exact date of the Nagas’ arrival into the Naga Hills, the exact place of origin, or why they migrated, it is believed that the Nagas entered the Naga Hills before the Christian era. It is also believed that migration of Nagas did not take place in one wave but must have continued for some centuries in various groups. This is also evident from the oral sources, folklore and other legendary sources, which suggests that all the Naga tribes did not split up into different tribes only from Naga Hills itself.

Routes of Migration

The exact route by which the Nagas migrated to their present homeland is not definitely known. However, there are two main theories of migration of the Nagas to the Naga Hills.

A) Settlement in the Naga Hills while en route to South East Asia from China

One theory suggests that the Naga settlement in the Naga Hills happened while migrating from China towards South East Asia through the Himalayan Section. This route extended downwards through the Patkai, Arakan Yoma and the Banda Arch towards Java and Sumatra.

This theory proposes that the Nagas settled in the Naga Hills en route to South East Asia, while the rest of the tribes continued their journey southwards towards South East Asia.

A) Migration upward from South East Asia

The other theory suggests that the migration of Nagas happened upwards from South East Asia.  According to Hutton, all Naga tribes traditionally point to migration from the South except in the case of Kacha Nagas. [ Hutton, J.H., The Angami Nagas, 1921, p.6].  These observations pointed out that the Nagas are a Mongolian stock, which migrated from China, before the Christian era.

The theory of migration from South East Asia is supported by the oral sources and traditions. Based on the fondness of cowries and conch shells as ornaments and for decorating their dress, it is believed that Nagas once settled near the sea. The log drums are also believed to have certain relation to the dug out canoes of the Pacific Islands.

“The hypothesis that the Nagas must have come from the seacoast or at least seen some Islands or the seas is strengthened by the life-style of the Nagas and the ornaments being used till today in many Naga villages. The Naga being left undisturbed for such a long time, have retained the culture of the most ancient times till today. Their fondness of Cowries shells for beautifying the dress, and use of Conch shells as ornaments (precious ornaments for them) and the facts that the Nagas have many customs and way of life very similar to that of those living in the remote parts of Borneo, Sarawak, Indonesia, Malaysia etc. indicates that their ancient abode was near the sea, if not in some islands.” –  R.R. Shimray (1985): Origin and Culture of Nagas, New Delhi: Somsok Publications, p-13

From the available sources and theories, whatever their origins and the routes they followed, it is commonly believed that Nagas belong to the Mongoloid race, and that the majority of the Nagas immigrated from South-East through Indo-Myanmar border to the Naga Hills. The various Naga tribes migrated at different times, each settling in the north-eastern part of what is now India.

Different legends of migration within Naga Hills

From the oral folk tales and legends, different tribes have different stories of migration.

Angami : According to Angami legend, they spring from ancestors who emerged from the bowels of the earth, not in Angami country, but in some land to the south.

Semas : The Semas point to the village of Swemi as the place from which they came.

Rengmas : The Rengmas point to the Mao area. These tribes wandered through the plains of Manipur and settled in Maikhel (Dispersal site of Naga tribes). They then moved to Khezhakenoma (Another dispersal site of Naga tribes) where they settled for a long time before further moving in different directions.

From oral sources, many Naga tribes trace their origin to Khezhakenoma in Nagaland and Maikhel in Manipur. Many Naga tribes accept the  Makhelian route namely- Angami, Chakhesang, Mao, Maram, Inpui, Pochury, Poumai, Rengma, Thangal, and Zeliangrong (compose of Rongmei, Zemei & Liangmei ).

Ao : According to Ao legend, they originated from six stones shaped in the form of the male and female human reproductive organs. These
stones are at Chungliyimti, a village in the Sangtam region where they are located till today. It is believed that the Sangtams, Khiamniungans, Yimchungers, Changs and Aos belonged to one group thought they entered the present habitat at different times possibly by different routes. It is believed that they probably came through Thaungdut, which is now Eastern Nagaland in Myanmar.

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