Origin of the word ‘Naga’

A theory that retards standardization of Naga dance costume

T Penzü

This is with reference to and in continuation of the serial no. l of my suggested measures to standardize Naga folk dances, stated earlier in the 4th paragraph of the article ‘The Need to Standardize the Naga Cultural Dances’. (published Saturday, May 12)

Is the word ‘Naga’ originated from the word ‘naked’?

No, not at all. It is wrong to think that the word ‘Naga’ originated from the word ‘naked’. This is a wrong theory. Yet we Nagas are entertaining this wrong notion or misunderstanding from the beginning of Naga literacy in the later part of the 19th century.
This wrong theory was first expounded by the British writers during their rule in our land. They were the first exponents of this theory, connecting ‘Naga’ etymology with that of nakedness, because they found the Nagas naked or semi-naked during their colonial administration in our country.

Then, later in the 20th century, till today in this first decade of the 21st century, Naga scholar-writers too simply rely on the theory hypothesized by the British authors. It seems that the Naga writers did not undertake any independent field research by themselves, but just rewrote the readymade theory available in already published books. This is evident from the bibliography the Naga writers had listed in their books.

Through this article I want to expound an alternative theory on the origin of the word ‘Naga’. I am neither proving the other earlier writers wrong, nor do I contradict with their hypothesis. Since it is not a legal matter we need not think that my finding is complicating the century-old theory of naked–Naga connection. It is a food for thought, to be digested by the Nagas; to repel if not acceptable. Yet to accept it as body nourishment if found fit with flesh and blood of the Naga body. My theory is given below as this:

Beginning of piercing holes on the ears of Naga males

Naga males started the practice of piercing holes in their ears from the pre-historic time when they were living in China. No Naga knew from where they came to China – from Mongolia in Central Asia or elsewhere. No Naga has any idea so far as my crude research has found. It means the pre-historic known Naga existence period starts from their living in China. There is a dim theory that the Naga forefathers had participated in the construction of the Great Wall of China, as labourers. World history shows that the said Wall was built during the 3rd–4th century B.C.

The word ‘Naga’ means ‘people with holes in the ears’

From China, mass Naga migration towards the west began. On their migratory journey they sojourned or temporarily lived in a region in Burma (present Myanmar) for many, many years. They mixed up am developed friendship with Burmese inhabitants there; and also with several other people who are today found in South East Asian countries.

In Burma, the Burmese found that the group of people who came from China and settled there had holes on both their ears even among the male members. Of course, there was no strangeness in piercing of holes in women’s ears all over the world from ancient time. But males with holes in ears were discovered as very strange by the Burmese. In their Burmese language they called it ‘Naga’, meaning men with holes in ears. Thenceforth the name ‘Naga’ stuck to the Nagas.

It is presumed that the Nagas might have had an original name of their entity or nation’s name before that. That former name might have been replaced by that Burmese-given name ‘Naga’. No Naga now knows that original name used in China. Perhaps it can be dug out some day by future Naga researchers by digging deep inside. Also, in Burma, there are and were many languages. We do not know from which of those Burmese languages our name ‘Naga’ has been derived.

What was the purpose of piercing holes in the males’ ears?

Each Naga scholar may give one’s own assumption in this respect. Herewith is my hypothesis. Ancient Nagas, as those today, were lovers of flowers, festivals and dancing. The purpose of piercing holes in the males’ ears was to wear flowers during festivals, dancing and also while working in the paddy fields. Also it was for wearing cotton rolls during cultural-folk dances in festivals. It became a Naga traditional practice which continued till very recently.

Both sides of my ears too have holes which were pierced by my parents during my childhood. I wore flowers in my ears till I was a high school student. During school holidays I worked cultivation works in the paddy fields; not alone, but in groups of boys and girls numbering 10 to 15. We both boys and girls would wear wild flowers, which were available in plenty. During dances in my village during Moatsü festival, we boys wore flowers in our ear holes. Some boys wore feathers of drongo tails (drongo is a beautiful bird with long feathered tails) in their ear holes. These were the golden days of Naga cultural dances at their zenith in Naga community.

My present undoubted assertion of ear-hole theory on the meaning of the word ‘Naga’ is based on my practical life. You will see here my photo with flowers in my ear-holes even today.

General characteristic of ancient Nagas

Ancient Nagas in general lived simple, happy and contented life. They loved festivals associated with dancing, merry-making, meat and home-brewed wine. They also played the undermentioned traditional games in competitive spirit, not only during festivals, but on social work days which were held frequently. Some of the games and sports were as follows:- tug of war, target hitting by spears, swinging on ropes knotted in branches of trees, cutting wood and big-size bamboos by daos in one single stroke, etc.

Of course, they faced maximum hardships and struggles of life for existence. But they were habituated to the hard mountain-life, enduring and surmounting all hardships just as normal game of life.

Disagreement with all other theories with due respect

Different theories have been suggested by different authors on origin or etymology of the word ‘Naga’. Some have given at least 6 theories. One scholar-author has suggested upto 14 theories.

In my field research I have analysed each of the given theories from the aspects or point of view of history, sociology, cultural, geography and Naga folklore. Here I am not enumerating the theories one by one, to shorten the length of my article.
Among those respected authors some have mentioned the ear-hole theory also, among others, which I have already asserted as the sole, one etymology out of my field research. However, the aforesaid authors did not tick-mark it as their choice with firm assertion. It is mentioned just as one of their many vague theories. Their similarity with my choice is only a coincidental occurrence but not supportive to my unwavering assertion.

With due respect and apology to those honourable authors and scholars I humbly express my disagreement with their suggestive theories. I stick to the ear-hole theory, with my conviction and firm assertion. I request the Naga people to analyse each of those authors’ theories as and when they come across these theory-carrying books. Giving more theories by authors is not wrong, because it is on a pre-historic subject. It is a sign of their wide knowledge. My ‘disagreement’ means ‘let us narrow down our choice, and pin-point to a single one theory, out of many theories given by earlier authors.’ And here I recommend to chose the Naga male ear-hole theory, which is found to be the most credible, logical and convincing among all the other theories.

My deep-rooted rural background

To clear would-be critic’s mind and inquisitiveness, if any, to my above given two ideas of ear-hole ‘Naga’ etymology, and for more decent Naga dancing costume, I would like to add few more lines as follows:- I am not an academic post-graduate research scholar in university level. I am a voluntary, self-sponsored research field activist in the field of Naga folklore and culture. I am a rural man, a rural village product. I was born and brought up in a village, and served rural people when I was a government servant, and later as a public leader in my prime of life. I have a deep-rooted village background. I feel proud to be called a rural man, a village product, gaon-olia in Assamese.

I hardly got my basic education; passed mere B.A. from an evening college, while serving as a school teacher in a high school during the day-time in a semi-urban small town. My undertaking of field research (not research in libraries) is out of my sheer interest in the said subject. My present residence in a city is just for research and writing of books on my field research, but not for seeking better facilities of living style.

My research is not that of doctorate type, not university-sponsored, professor-guided research. But mine is of rural people-based, in grass-root village level research. I used to have lengthy talks with story-bearing, old-generation people, men and women, mostly illiterate folks in remote, interior rural villages. I treat those illiterate people as my research guides.

While doing so, I have covered many areas of the length and breadth of Nagaland and also many Naga inhabited areas outside my State during my research journeys undertaken from New Delhi. I have travelled frequently by train and air between Delhi and the N.E. region with my meagre budget during the last 7 years.

Conclusion: For fundamental change in our existing notion

Let us revolutionize our existing notion of the origin of the word ‘Naga’ synonym to nakedness, vis-à-vis in relation to our scanty folk dance dress prevailing at present. Salient points are as follows:-

1. All Naga forefathers were semi-naked. Some were fully naked. It was so from earliest time till recently.

2. This does not mean that Nagas were the only naked/semi-naked people in the world.

3. All the world’s people were naked in pre-historic and early historic time, in their cave-dwelling and meat-hunting age. There are still naked people today in some corners of the world today, e.g. Irian Jaya people in New Guinea Island in Indonesia, etc.

4. By dancing semi-naked today, modern Nagas are making their forefathers as representative of all the world’s naked peoples; and warrior Nagas are made object of despise; and looked down upon with frowning faces of disapproval by the eyes of all civilized decent people.

5. If we Nagas today want to emulate our Naga forefathers’ virtues and qualities, we can emulate their bravery, courage, endurance, hard-working life, honesty, patriotism, unity, and efficient village administrative system. But re-enactment of their nakedness and scantily-dressed folk dances rather make their virtues funny and somewhat laughing stock in modern multi-culture society.

6. Let Nagas today standardize their dances and costumes/dresses in modern decent design, for viewing with free-feeling mind, befitting all different cultures with different sentiments of the world’s audience or spectators sitting and standing around the dancers.

7. Origin of the word ‘Naga’ is from the Burmese word Naga, meaning ‘people with holes in ears’. It originated at a pre-historic time when Nagas sojourned (temporary halt) for a period of many years in Burma during their migration from China to their present country.

8. Etymology of the word ‘Naga’ does not match with any one of the following suggestive theories given by earlier authors:

(1) Derived from mythical snake people called Naga which is mentioned in Indian mythology. They could transform to human beings or snakes at their will. Under their king Parekshet they lived in underground city with good palaces. Not a single myth or folktale of our present Nagas indicate even a slightest similarity with that mythical snake kingdom.

(2) Derived from nag meaning snake in Sanskrit and Hindi, has no possible similarity with the word ‘Naga’.

(3) Derived from the Sanskrit and Hindi word nanga, meaning hill, and formed as ‘hill people of Nagas’. Nagas are no doubt hill people. But the Naga people of Barail, Japfü, Patkai and Namkin ranges are quite different from those hill people of Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Deccan and Arakan Yoma mountains.

* Origin of the word ‘Naga’ matches, perfectly, only with the ear-hole theory stated above, historically, geographically, and socially. I humbly suggest that, let us single out the ear-hole theory as ‘final’ in the origin of the word ‘Naga’, with no more groping blindly in darkness of various unmatching theories in this respect. Let us stabilize our history, with documentation, without delay.

The writer of this article, T Penzü, a former Minister of Nagaland, is at present a self-sponsored Researcher–Writer–Promoter of Naga folklore and culture, with residence in New Delhi. During the last seven years, 2000-06, he has rescued nearly 200 pieces of vanishing and near-extinct Naga folklore tales and narratives. His 5 books on his research, now in print, are going to be released within this year.