Origin of the word Naga

The name NAGA is used for a group of inhabitants of a mountainous region of Northeast India and Myanmar (Burma). There is no generic term for the tribal groups as a whole. Actually the name or term “NAGA” was applied to this group of people by the neighbouring dwellers of the plains. According to Naga legend, this term was derived from the Burmese word “No-ka” meaning people with pierced earlobes. ‘No’ Means ear pierced or to make a hole in or through, in Kachin language. It is spoken by the Kachins of Burma. Therefore description of the tribal neighbor may have derived from the Burmese words “No-ka,” meaning Pierced ear. This theory is supported by the Naga legend. Long time ago there was a war between Assam ruler and the people of Burma. At the end of the fierce war there was total destruction. As a result this battle ground was named `Saphamati’ meaning ‘Cleared place’ in Assamese language. Finally they made a truce so that each side could identify their own stained warriors. Thus the Burmese identified and counted the bodies by ‘No-ka’ meaning pierced earlobes. There are Burmese Nagas who are akin to the Nagas of India. Both groups are hill people living in villages on mountain ridges.


Some writers even empathically claimed that the word ‘Nag’ (cobra) in Sanskrit, therefore, the word ‘Naga’ must have derived from this source.

However, as far as I know, Nagas do not worship snakes. This is what Verrier Elwin has to say on this subject. It Is the greatest mistake is connect them with this snake worshipers. ‘Nag Bungsus’ of India. Neither Nagas or Manipuri’s, or this worship, or have any traditions connected with it, and any snake, cobra (nag) or otherwise, would receive small mercy at their hands.”

There are various theories and suggestions presented by writers and scholars trying to pinpoint the origin of the term “NAGA.” After researching in-depth on this subject, I have come to the conclusion to agree with the explanation given by Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham on the term “NAGA” and origin and migration of our people. This presentation on these issues come closest to our tradition oral history as presented by forefathers. The term Naga was actually applied to these highlanders by the dwellers of the plains. It may have derived from the Burmese word No-ka people with pierced earlobes. Or, the Assamese word ‘noga’-naked.’, in Sanskrit literature such as the Vedas and the Mahabharata, it means “golden-skinned people named the kiratas are said to have roamed the sub-Himalayan region “kiratas,” refers to all non-Aryan people of Indo-Mongolaid stock, whether the Naga in particular were intended is not clear. The Nagas area part of the wide scattering of the Mongolian people found in areas as diverge as China, the Arctic and Amazon. They began to spread through South-east Asia approximately 12,000 years ago, possibly from northern China, and seems to have assimilated element of Australoid and Negrito populations. This is seen in certain aspects of Naga culture: tools, megalethic stone settings, forked wooden posts, belief in soul matter residing in the head- as well as in physical features. Eg. Small size woolly hair. Cultural and social parallels exist between Naga and Indonesian and oceanic societies. Yet Naga language show no Austro Asiatic or Austronesian traces. The Naga themselves have their own generally mythological stories of origin. Although some related to definite geographical localities indicated by local landmarks such as mountains, hills of arrangements.”


  1. Aglaja Stern and Peter Van Ham. The Hidden World of the Nagas, living traditions in Northern India and Murma Munich, Prestd, 203. P. 32

Nagaland is the strategic Eastern Frontier State of India. This mountainous region is the home of a multitude of tribal population of mongoloid race. This region was ruled by Myanmar (Burma) from 1819-1826, when the British began annexing its hill areas. Within this region there was a strip of mountainous area known as the no man’s land.” During the World War II, the American pilots overflow this particular region an route to Chungking, China, and they used the term “over the hump,” case in point, on August 2, 1943, C-46 plane with “special cargo” of a team of American and Chinese Officials, Eric Sevareid of CBS War correspondent and American soldiers crash-landed between India and Burma while flying over the hump in” “no man’s land” to Chungking, China. The 20 year old pilot. Flight Officer Harry Neveu was the brave pilot. His daughter lane came to see me in 2004 while I was working at Emory University in Atlanta. This famous meeting was filmed under the title “Meeting of the daughters” and aired on the leading TV programme 5 times under the TV main Topic “Antique Road show FYI” in America. My college friends started calling me after 50 years. It was a great blessing and fun to be in touch with so many of them. Now I can send my newsy yearly letter to all of them via e-mail. I thank God from the bottom of my heart for such priceless blessings.


While working in France as a member of the labour corps to serve British Government, the Nagas of different tribes began to realize the benefit of this united force. Soon after the end of World War II, the idea of Independence germinated and slowly grew into an obsession among the various Naga tribal leaders. By the early 1947, even the High School students supported the national leaders by organizing demonstrations.


The Nagas differ basically from the main population of the plains which helped them to realized the Instance of forming separate Naga State. In the 1950s, Naga Independent movement and guerilla warfare developed into a full-blown underground warfare fighting for freedom and greater Nagaland that would unite all the Naga tribes. Such activities for independence from India was rarely reported. Over the years, thousands of Nagas have been killed along with the Indian soldiers.


The Nagas differ basically from the main population of the plains, which helped them to preserve their own ancient culture and tradition. Due to the long unbroken isolation of the region, sandwiched between Myanmar (Burma) and the mainland of India, it remained untouched by the Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam.


This remote comer of the world, largely remained unknown even to the average or ordinary Indians of further stretches of the country. However, since the early 1940s, this area has been a pinch point


Historical origins of the Nagas without a recorded history, and with very little archeological evidence, It is extremely difficult to trace the origins of Nagas. In the second century A.D. the famous Egyptian astronomer and geographer, Claudius Ptolemy identified on one of his maps a place called “Nanga logai,” which was located in an area of the Indian sub-continent roughly equivalent to the Naga Hills!


The name “NAGA” is used for a group of inhabitants of a mountainous region of Northeast India and Myanmar (Burma). There is no given term for the tribal group as a whole. The term/name “Nag” was actually applied to these group of people by the neighbouring dwellers of the plains. According to Nagas of Nagaland legend the term Naga was derived from the Burmese word “No-ka” meaning people with pierced earlobes.


There are various theories and suggestions presented by scholars and writers trying to pinpoint the origin of the term “NAGA”. After researching in-depth on this subject and as a person of Chang tribe, I have come to the conclusion to agree with the explanation given by Aglaja Stirn and Peter van Ham on the term Naga, and their origin and migration of our people. Their presentation on these issues came closest to our traditional oral history as presented by our forefathers.



The Nagas were formerly known mainly as warriors and headhunters, but today they are making rapid progress In every field of development, and specialty in education.


The name ‘NAGA’ was not in general use among the Nagas until the early Independent movement of India when the people became aware of the importance of a generic name to encompass the different tribal people of the whole region starting with the Naga National movement all the tribes began to use Naga to identify themselves as the people of Nagaland. The impetus grew and people began to take pride in the new found generic name NAGA when they travel beyond Nagaland. However, deep down in their hearts the people of different tribes will rather address themselves according to the tribal identification rather than the generic term Naga. I will identify myself as a NAGA when I am in another state. When I am in a foreign country I identify as an Indian, but when I am speaking to a church organization I identify as a Naga and explain about the Nagas when I am another State In India I’ll identify as Chang tribe.





Dr. Joseph Puthenpenakal describes the Nagas after observing them for nine years: “their extra ordinary capacity for dialogue and their whole hearted commitment to what they perceive as true. But this inborn ability for dialogue and love for truth have not been utilized in any considerable manner for the cause of Christian Unity and united proclamation of the Good news “…A Naga by nature is one who is ever eager to know things, it is for this that He discusses problem first as home then at the level of his clan, then in the village and in the Level of his clan, then in the village and In the meetings of The representative of his entire tribe. At each level anyone present has full freedom so express his views and to ask questions.



During the World War I the British Government recruited 2,000 Nagas representing the various tribes to a labour Corps, and sent them to France. The Sumis responded particularly well, but the Angamis did not contribution.

The Corps was composed of

Semas sent                     –              1,000

Lothas sent                     –              400

Rengmas sent                –              200

Aos sent                          –              200

Changs and Others      –              200


–               2,000


My grandfather, Paramount Chief Sipongchu was the leader of the Eastern Labour Corps. Nagas use the term GERMAN TAWA for WWI.

Throughout the fighting of the Second World War, the Nagas remained loyal to the British but also rendered this valuable assistance. They provided coolies, passed in the evacuation of the wounded, and harassed the Japanese in many ways.

The help rendered by the Nagas during these critical years was acknowledged by Field Marshal William Slim In his book “Defeat into Victory,” where he spoke of “the gallant Nagas whole loyalty, even in the most depressing times of the invasion never faltered.”

Achilla Imlong Erdican

Duncan road, Dimapur