Origins of the Nagas

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

Having travelled from China through the jungles of Myanmar, the Nagas arrived at Makhel. The Naga tribes pronounce the name in different ways – Makhriffi, Meikhel, Mekroma, Mekharomei, Mekrimi, Makhel, or Makhriohfu – but there is no dispute over the exact location of the village or its significance.

Makhel is a small village near Sajouba, Tadubi village of Senapati district in Manipur on the border of Nagaland State. But Makhel existed long, long before the existence of Senapati, Manipur, or even India.

It is said this village became so prosperous that the people had to leave and migrate to different parts of the region. The community must have grown and flourished because there came a time when the land could no longer provide for all of them. It was time to move once again. It was a time of parting, a time to separate from one’s loved ones, search for new lands and establish new villages.

Before they dispersed, the people of Makhel planted a pear tree and under the tree they took a solemn oath that they would one day come together again. Even today the tree stands and is called Chütebu. No one was allowed to cut even a small branch of this sacred tree. Legend has it that anyone who tries to cut a branch will instantly fall to his death and a terrible storm will follow.

However, if a branch of the tree broke on its own, the chief of Makhel would immediately send a message to all the people of Makhel and they would observe “genna”, during which period no one could go to the fields and all had to maintain a state of ritual purity. The fallen branch would be left to decay and return to the soil. This custom was practiced in living memory of Nagas before their conversion to Christianity. In 1880 a British army officer passing the village of Makhel noted that there was a pear tree which had stood for three or four hundred years, and was greatly venerated by the villagers. However, he did not discover the reason for this veneration.

Often Naga scholars have described the tree as an apple tree in an attempt to link it to the Garden of Eden; they have not speculated on the symbolism of the pear tree. Pears are native to China. In ancient Chinese civilisation, the pear tree symbolises longevity and immortality.

There is a Chinese superstition that pears should never be shared. In Chinese, the phrase for “sharing a pear” is 分梨 (fēn lí). It is a homophone of 分离 (fēn lí) which means “to separate”. Therefore, sharing a pear would mean you separate from the person with whom you share the fruit.

On January 1, 1992, a monolith was erected at the site of the pear tree (Chütebu) and the inscription on the monolith reads: “This tree is known as the oldest tree in the history of the Nagas...This tree still stands as a symbol of unity and oneness of the whole Naga tribes...”

Beginning of Naga resistance

Naga nationalists trace the beginning of Naga resistance against incursions into their territory to the time of the Tai-Ahom invasion in the thirteenth century. The Tai people came from what is today the border between Myanmar and China’s Yunnan province. The Tai (or Shan) people are called Ahom in India.

The Ahom dynasty (1228–1826) was established by Sukaphaa, a Shan prince of Mong Mao who came to Assam after crossing the Patkai mountains. The Ahom dynasty ruled for 598 years; their rule ended with the Burmese invasion of Assam and the subsequent annexation by the British East India Company following the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826.

According to a statement issued by the Naga National Council in 1955 the genesis of the Naga political resistance started in 1228 AD when the Tai invaded Assam. This position was reiterated by Thuingaleng Muivah in an interview in 2009, when asked by journalist Subir Ghosh: “The birth of Naga nationalism is seen by many as the submission of a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929. Do you agree that the formation of the Naga Club (in 1918) was the first concrete step towards Naga nationalism?”

Thuingaleng Muivah replied:

“It would be a serious mistake if one thinks that the submission of a memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929 was the birth of Naga nationalism. The Nagas’ history did not start with this incident. Alien forces in the past had met with stiff resistance from the Nagas—the Shans from the east and the Ahoms from the west, prior to the British intrusion into Nagaland. The British suffered many setbacks from the resistance put up by the Nagas. All these acts actuated from the love of their country. Indeed, Nagas were zealous of their homeland. The formation of the Naga Club and the submission of the memorandum to the Simon Commission are, of course, historic in that the Naga Club officially represented the Nagas and the memorandum expressed the national aspiration of the Nagas as a whole.”

Apart from these statements by Naga nationalist leaders, the oral tradition of the Nagas, including their songs and folk stories, testify to their resistance against Ahom incursions. For instance, Ao Nagas have a song about a warrior called Kumnatoba who led an army of Naga warriors right into Rongpur, the Ahom capital, and killed many enemies young and old, carrying back countless heads as trophies of war along with cattle, utensils and clothing.

It was in December 1228 AD that Sukaphaa, the first Ahom King, crossed the Patkai through the Pangchao Pass (through which the Stilwell Road was made during the World War). He faced stiff resistance from Naga warriors but they were ultimately defeated. This
is how the Ahom Burranji records Sukaphaa’s savagery:

A great number of Nagas was killed and many were made captives. Some Nagas were cut to pieces and their fleshes (sic) cooked. Then the king made a younger brother eat the cooked flesh of his elder brother and a father of his son’s. Thus Sukaphaa destroyed the Naga villages. The inhabitants of other villages being very much afraid acknowledged his subjugation.

However, the Nagas continued their resistance to the Ahoms. There were altogether forty Ahom Kings who ruled for six hundred years from 1228 to 1838 when the British deposed the last King and annexed Assam.

The Burranjis record confrontation between Ahoms and Nagas in the reign of sixteen Ahom kings, with the conflicts intensifying after the thirteenth king ascended the throne in 1493 and expanded his kingdom into Naga territory. The conflict was often over control of salt wells located in Naga lands.

Naga resistance to British colonial rule

The Naga resistance to British incursions is well-documented by various authors including Tajenyuba Ao in his book British Occupation of Naga Country.

The British sent ten military expeditions against the Angamis from 1839 and 1865. The tenth expedition was sent to Khonoma in 1850 when a force of 500 soldiers of Assam Light Infantry and 200 soldiers of Cachar and Jorhat Militia were sent along with two mountain guns and two mortars. The force entered the hills in December, where they were attacked by the Nagas with showers of spears and rocks, killing thirty-six sepoys.

In November 1879 the British again attacked Khonoma, and this time also the Naga warriors defended their village by throwing huge rocks and spears from their strongly built fort on top of the hill. In that battle two British officers and one native Subedar Major were killed, two British officers and two native officers were wounded, and forty-four soldiers were killed.

The British imposed a heavy penalty on the villagers as punishment for resistance. Here is a vivid description of the destruction of Khonoma village by the British:

“In 1880 the village of Khonoma had its wonderful terraced cultivation confiscated and its clans were dispersed among other villages. The result was that the dispossessed villagers found themselves not only deprived of their homes, but, by confiscation of their settled cultivation, they were during the whole year reduced to the condition of homeless wanderers, dependent to a great extent on the charity of neighbours and living in temporary huts in the jungles. The result was widespread sickness and mortality.”

This was the experience of hundreds of Naga villages throughout the colonial era. There are songs about the suffering of the Nagas during colonial rule like this one composed by the people of Khonoma:

“You from far unknown valley
Looking more ghost-like than man
With peculiar wooden toys
Crushing neighbours without much effort 
Have settled in our land
May we with good fortune
Conquer and defeat
And have our serenity once again.”

The Nagas deeply resented the rules and regulations made by the British which were both humiliating and oppressive. T Aliba Imti, the first President of the Naga National Council, describes these rules in his book Reminiscence: Impur to Naga National Council. He states that the regulations did not come in writing but were passed on the whims of the Deputy Commissioner. For instance, he recalls that in the Naga hills, Naga students were forbidden from dressing in Western clothes or having Western haircuts. He writes:

“They were to dress in loin cloth, as that was the dress of the tribals, and to have their hair cut in the tribal way, round the head, and anyone not found in this tribal attire and haircut was to be fined a sum of 2 rupees – a big sum in those days. In this regard, I told the Mokokchung High School boys that this was nonsense and a stupid order which should be challenged. ‘I am the owner of my head’ I said. This was in September 1946, and this practice was still in force. I told the boys in the hostel that if they so desired they could keep their hair cut any way they wanted. This statement was very much appreciated and applauded. I jokingly said this should not create any students unrest! Anyway, from the next day the boys went all out and cut their hair in the Western or as the British called it the Bengali style.”

Excerpted with permission from Kuknalim – Naga Armed Resistance: Testimonies Of Leaders, Pastors, Healers And Soldiers, Nandita Haksar and Sebastian M Hongray, Speaking Tiger.