“...racks of blue and crimson cloths were airing outside every house; skeins of dyed thread, red, white, black, orange, green and gold, were stretched to dry or lay beside the women as they worked. In every porch was a loom, with a cloth on it at one stage or another; and all up the street of dark, smoky houses and sudden gleams of colour there were plum-trees in flower…”  

This vivid excerpt is from Naga Path, the memoir of the British anthropologist and World War II guerrilla Ursula Bower Graham, who documented the lives and labours of Naga communities in the 1930s and ’40s. Though her description of a weaving centre is almost a century old, the art of weaving remains a significant aspect of the culture and identity of the Naga people. “For the Nagas…textiles are not simply cloths but are repositories of world views, meanings, and narratives….[and] bear much of the community’s ideologies, values and beliefs in tangible form…,” writes Thingminao Horam, a doctoral scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in her 2021 essay Weaving Resistance and Identity: Politics of Contemporary Textile Practice of the Tangkhuls.

Across the 17 major ethnic groups spanning three of India’s seven North Eastern states and western Myanmar, Naga communities have preserved a rich textile culture which continues to be reinvented by contemporary practitioners, whether as a form of communication, an artistic practice or as an act of political resistance.

The first of these functions becomes obvious from a case of a Naga women’s group taking legal action against what it deemed to be the misappropriation and distortion of the “deep rooted meanings” of the iconography of their community’s shawls. In 2016, the Chakhesang Women Welfare Society had applied for, and obtained, a Geographical Indication tag for the 14 types of shawls made by the women of the Chakhesang Naga community, the only Naga textile form currently granted this recognition. In 2020, the Society filed a civil suit against designer Ritu Beri and the government-run Tribal Cooperative Marketing Development Federation of India for “infringement of registered GI” by showcasing Chakhesang shawls incorrectly at a fair that year.

Although the lawsuit may have been about intellectual property, it ends up highlighting not only the importance of shawls in Naga culture but also that of each one’s specific connotations and deep-rooted meanings. In her prefatory essay to The Nagas: An Introduction, University of Bern anthropologist Marion Wettstein notes that, historically, the communities’ traditional “artefacts were motivated not by aesthetic considerations, but by semantic ones; they served to distinguish their bearers and to denote their social position in the village; as such they were closely woven with the owner’s identity”.

Nagaland University anthropologist Mhonyani Sangma states in an essay titled Symbolic Meaning of Naga Traditional Clothing that “[s]hawls are the predominant cloth…worn by young and old and the designs…are gender and age specific.” Due to historical and sociocultural overlaps among the many Naga ethnic groups, the Geographical Indication tag itself encompasses genres of Chakhesang shawl which have equivalents in the heritage of other Naga communities as well. Sangma notes that the status denoted by Naga shawls was earned in one of two ways (or both): through head-hunting, or through a ritual called “the feast of merit”.

A Chakhesang Naga man. Credit: Yves Picq/Wikimedia Commons [GNU Free Documentation License].

Eclectic iconography

One such artefact related to the latter is the so-called “elephant cloth” woven by the women of the Chakhesang community residing in Nagaland and Manipur. The garment has many folk legends connected to it – that multiple women would have to work together to complete it in one go to prevent ill luck befalling the wearer or that the embroidery would have to be finished before dusk. This storied article of clothing is permitted to be worn by members of the tribe only when they have acquired enough social status to be able to host a feast for their village.

The elephant cloth has different names among the three subgroups constituting the community (the Chökri, Khezha and Sangtam or Pochury) – commonly known as the Thüpikhü or Chipikwü, its other labels include the Elicüra, Hapidasa and Thsüketsüra. Woven with cotton, with a thickness between 1 mm and 1.5 mm and a length between about 4 feet and 7.5 feet, the Thüpikhü is black (the dye made by boiling walnut and mixing clay) with a “red/orange border on both side[s] of the selvedge” (prepared by the elder tribeswomen because red is associated with death). The shawl is adorned with multicoloured motifs. These include floral, faunal and astral designs: namely, elephants, bullhorns, peacocks, butterflies, stars, the sun and the moon. Meant to denote the social and economic standing of the wearer, the symbols vary according to the wearer’s gender, with men donning mantles featuring mithun bulls and elephants and women sporting ones with shells and brass bangles.

In order to understand what this eclectic iconography stands for and how the loosely-named elephant cloth became a marker for prestige, we need to take a look at its possible origins and significations. In her essay Fabric and Tradition – Textiles of Northeast India, textile historian Lotika Varadarajan mentioned the Chipikwü shawl in the context of the intersection of Naga weaving traditions with Manipuri embroidery in the mediaeval period. While Meitei kings were crowned in Naga regalia, they in turn bestowed embroidered ceremonial shawls upon their warriors, attracting Naga wearers and influencing the symbology of their shawls. They thus came to be associated with a distinguished reputation. “Among the Chakhesang Nagas,” Varadarajan writes, “the wearing of shawls with chipikwü designs was a privilege accorded to those who had given three Feasts of Merit.”

What is a Feast of Merit? Nagaland University historian Chubala Sanglir says in her article Feasts of Merit: The Naga Concept of Surplus Distribution and Promoter of Cultural Traditions that it is a tradition involving “a series of feasts, each one costlier and more lavish than the preceding one” taking place over a period of time and comprising various rites and ceremonies. Rooted in what Sanglir describes as a non-accumulative agrarian worldview, the sharing of the “blessing” of surplus grain in the form of a feast allowed the prosperous to invest their good fortune into their community, consequently earning merit and honour. Throwing a feast thrice would entitle the host to certain attire and accoutrements, the elephant cloth being a prominent example of such prestigious clothing within the Chakhesang tribe.

Diverse motifs

About the meaning of the seemingly disparate designs on the shawl, an essay by anthropologists Yekha-ü and Queenbala Marak titled Elicüra: The “Feasts of Merit” Shawl of the Chakhesang Nagas of Northeast India offers information and insight. For starters, the term for the shawl used by the Khezha subgroup of the Chakhesang tribe – Elicüra – comprises three parts: eli meaning buffalo, cü meaning horn, and ra meaning shawl. This suggests that “the name of the shawl is derived from the animal, buffalo, sacrificed in the feasts, though mithun and other livestock are also sacrificed”. Yekha-ü and Marak expand on the configuration of colours and patterns constituting the Chipikwü or Elicüra shawl that the Chakhesang Women Welfare Society summarised in their Geographical Indication application: “The basic black background cloth, the vertical side borders that close the hem (the tassels), the horizontal side borders, the six bright-colored stripes that divide the background cloth into five horizontal parts or panels are first woven and later embroidered with the colorful motifs of animals (echükhuni), flowers (menapa), and celestial objects such as sun (thinike), star (e ye), moon (ekhrü) on a black background.”

These diverse motifs are present in pairs, possibly to denote the couple usually performing the feast together. Among the animal imagery, the elephant represents the wearer’s strength and power; the horse indicates speed, grace, endurance and loyalty; the short-tailed mithun (the most valuable sacrificial animal among the Nagas) and long-tailed buffalo are derived from the abstract forms of wood wall carvings. The peacock stands for beauty and magnificence and the butterfly for good morale, while the flowers symbolise the satiety engendered by the feast at which wealth has been shared. The celestial motifs are equally eloquent: the sun and moon connote the abundance and eternity (from dawn of day to fall of night) of the feast givers’ wealth, while the stars stand for the couple themselves.

Identity marker

As is apparent, these individual graphics are not merely decorative, but woven together into a gestalt of meaning that offers a window unto Naga cosmology. Yekha-ü and Marak describe the traditional animist Feast of Merit (the Zhothi, Zatho and Trayo in the Chakhesang languages) as a three-stage activity involving different rites, foods and combinations of guests. Becoming progressively costlier and inclusive, the feasts involved elaborate implicit codes of conduct and visual, performative and architectural aspects. For example, those who completed the second level of feast had the right to ornament their walls with representational and abstract depictions of the animals sacrificed, or to install mithun horn beams atop their roof. For the third and final stage, all the men of the village would participate in a ceremony that entailed dragging a stone and setting it upright in the main pathway of their locality. Such stones would then be set up on other paths and the paddy fields of the village, “showing the wealth and prosperity of the village as a whole”.

Similar to Sanglir’s interpretation, Yekha-ü and Marak draw on the work of French sociologist Marcel Mauss to read the ritual as the manifestation of a non-market “gift economy”. They explain the complex symbolic exchange expressed in the intricately woven shawls that mirror the endowment of the ritual “with political, religious, economic, and hierarchal implications, whereby the performer of the feasts shares wealth with the people in return for honor and respect”. Besides being the sartorial manifestation of a social dynamic, in premodern times, Yekha-ü and Marak posit that the shawl might have been a way for members of a group to aspire to social and economic mobility and have a say in the decisions of the community.

From technological changes in the weaving apparatus to the societal shifts engendered by modernity, many facets of the making and wearing of the shawl have indeed been altered. Yekha-ü and Marak assert that the shawl continues to be an important “ethnic identity marker” to distinguish the tribe that produces it from other Naga communities. Younger generations of Chakhesang Nagas seem to agree. High-profile Chakhesang women such as the Tetseo Sisters, a popular contemporary folk music quartet from Nagaland, have discussed the Chipikwü for its enduring importance to the community’s sense of belonging. Apart from the remarkably resilient iconography itself, what remains largely unchanged about the elephant cloth, Yukha-ü and Marak observe, is the taboo associated with wearing it without actually earning it. In a 2018 blog post titled The story a shawl tells, poster Rovimeno Hoshi delves into their desire to one day earn the right to wear the sort of thupikhü shawl that they remember their grandfather draped in. Describing it “as the ma[r]ker of my achievements, the shawl of stories, the history of my life”, they emphasise the true value of the thupikhü shawl in its being bequeathed by elders to the worthy: “Sure one can break the rules and wear one…But does it feel ethically wrong? Yes it does…‘You have to earn the honour’...”

Source of pride

As with most societies, Naga communities have transformed and adapted with time, yet retaining many symbolic forms of old traditions. Yukha-ü and Marak point out that since the adoption of Christianity by the Chakhesang, there have been modifications in the manner and meaning of the Feast of Merit, with the provision of a Christmas feast also entitling the host to the Chipikwü or Elicüra shawl. In an essay on another Naga community’s textile politics, Wettstein notes by way of comparison that modern Chakhesang people have revised the conditions of the right to wear these high-prestige clothing items: “...today a highly esteemed, so-called elephant cloth may only be worn by lawyers, men with high academic degrees, or by notable political functionaries.”

In the past, patriarchal norms governing the conditions to wear the shawl meant that, though created painstakingly by the tribe’s women, it was worn almost exclusively by men to wield power. Yukha-ü and Marak report that for the few women who did attain the honour, the shawl – featuring cowrie and conch shells and bangles – naturally became a source of pride and prominence. Today, as their court case against Beri suggests, it is Chakhesang women who are vocal advocates for the preservation of their tribe’s craft and material heritage on their terms, in the face of its decontextualised commodification.

Unravelled from its conceptual basis in social reciprocity, the Chipikwü shawl too acquires new layers as an object circulating in the national and global marketplace, misshaping the “deep rooted meanings” tethering it to traditional Naga looms. Its concatenation of animals, flowers, insects, birds and heavenly forms bespeak a particular view of the world shared by its community of origin, who in turn share this perspective with others. Inside frames that don’t reflect their makers’ gaze, the visual feast of the elephant shawls become mere ornaments, “simply cloths”. In fact, like Naga textiles in general, the Chipikwü or Elicüra represents the uniqueness of the tribe that produces it, the principle of mutuality that is part of the Nagas’ ethical heritage and the warp and weft of relations woven by a people.

Kamayani Sharma is an independent writer, researcher and podcaster based in New Delhi. She is a Kalpalata Fellow in Visual Culture Writing for 2022.