The northeast region of India is a lesser-known haven of unique culture and scenic views. One of the eight states that comprise this part of the country is Nagaland – home to the famous Hornbill Festival and the popular trekking destination, Japfu Peak. The Naga are a people proud of their brave and creative heritage.
A particular aspect of Naga culture that has made itself known across the country is the traditional ornaments of Nagaland. These tribal jewelry are made of colorful, ancient beads of various shapes and sizes, getting their value from being passed down by generations of women.
Jewelry is also made commercially, but the traditional ornaments that have belonged to the family for years have different cultural significance. Read on to know more about their importance in this article.
In Nagaland, jewelry is more than an accessory and is associated with a deeper significance, including class, tribe, and even personal identity. As in most regions in the past, Naga men would go to war while women would take care of the house, so both have traditional ornaments that suit these purposes.
Jewelry like necklaces, belts, armlets, anklets, and earrings are common for both genders, but men also have traditional headgear in their full attire. Nagas use a range of natural materials available in the hilly regions of the northeast to make their jewelry.
Some of them include carnelian and glass beads, coral, bronze shells, ivory, conch shells, and cowries. The colors used are usually bright, eye-catching, and put together in contrasts. Orange, red, yellow, blue, green, and bronze are common colors you will note in Naga traditional jewelry.
Wearing multiple necklaces at once is completely normal, and some necklaces even have multiple strands with many small beads woven into one.
One important thing to note is that though the region of northeast India is small, all states are further divided into different tribes, each with its own cultural attire and traditions.
Nagaland also has 17 major tribal communities, these being Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khiamniungan, Kuki, Konyak, Kachari, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sumi, Sangtam, Tikhir, Yimkhiung, and Zeliang. They are further divided into sub-tribes and clans, but traditional clothing is affiliated with the common tribe.
Hence, when we use the term ‘Naga’, it is in reference to the whole group of tribal communities that come together under this one major identity.
Due to the northeastern region being a neglected area by the country, there is little to no written information about the eight states that comprise it. Information and history are mostly passed down orally, and the present-day tribes are a phenomenon of migration from the bordering countries.
Some of the tribes of the state, in particular, historically migrated from north-west Burma, so there is a lot of similarity in traditional attire and jewelry. For the Naga, ornaments are more than just decorative elements; they represent an integral aspect of the wearer’s identity as well as the identity of the tribe to which they belong.
It is worth noting that since tribes are divided by region, information on some communities is more easily accessible. Following are some of the traditional ornaments of Nagaland that are more commonly known by the people, and can also be found more easily for purchase.
Naga men and women both enjoy accessorizing themselves with their colorful indigenous jewelry that completes the entire tribal attire. These pieces, which depict the symbiotic interaction between humanity and the environment, reflect their passion for color and design and are usually made bold and large.
Each piece of Naga jewelry is unique in its customs, traditions, coordinating attire, and representation of the region’s historical past.
Various beads, feathers, brass, bronze, shells, claws, wood, glass, valuable stones, boar tusks, claws, horns, and ivory are used in their creation. A point worth noting is that tribal people are deeply connected to nature and wealth, and property for them lies in these natural materials that you can derive from the environment.
Hence, these ornaments that are made using completely natural items are also considered to be wealth by the Naga people, despite the fact that they are not made of gold, silver and precious jewels like jewelry is typically done.
Beads are important to the Naga people as a sign of status – the thicker the beads on your necklace, the wealthier you are considered to be. The Naga people value beads as talismans with a value comparable to that of jewels.
Since Nagas have the belief that the beads hold all prayers offered and sustained under the glittering mountain sun, the beads have become an integral part of traditional rites and festivities to this day.
Men’s and women’s jewelry can differ according to purpose – while men have light ornaments made for functionality, women have beauty-oriented, colorful jewelry that also often has various strands of beads. The larger the beads on the neckpiece, the wealthier the lady and her family were considered to be.
Konyak Collar is a traditional neckpiece of the Konyak tribe of Nagaland and is a heavy piece of jewelry with lots of strands and beads of various sizes. The beads are made of ancient deomani glass and many of various shapes and sizes are strung together, signifying different things according to their color.
Most of these deomani beads are either cylindrical or tubular and the smaller ones are made of brass. Red is a common color that is apparent in Naga traditional attire, as it is believed that red is the color of blood, flame, and danger. Hence, these collars were also a symbol of the wearer’s warrior status and societal superiority.
Among tribal men, the one who could provide the most as a hunter was considered to be superior to his peers. Similar to this, the status of the Konyak man comes from the number of lavish feasts he threw, which came from his mastery of hunting and warfare.
Hence, a lot of Konyak collars also boast of tiger teeth, which is a symbol of courage for the warriors. Put together by local bamboo strings or fiber, the Konyak collar is a heavy neck piece that is mostly worn as a symbol of pride on various festivities and important occasions.
Another important part of the Konyak tribe attire is the Konyak Trophy Head, which is an item usually worn with the collar. Similar to the Konyak collar, it is made using red and blue beads that are put together on a string, with molded brass heads as the centerpiece.
It is a piece of jewelry that is also a symbol of bravery worn by tribal warriors, with its unique design also holding significance to the occupation. The brass heads have intricate details on their surface that resemble faces, and stand for each enemy or ancestor that the warrior has slayed or beheaded.
This dark practice seems to come from ancient times when headhunting was a popular warrior tradition, which the Naga take a lot of pride in. It’s also what distinguishes the tribe from others, and Nagaland from the rest of the northeastern states.
The practice of beheading their adversaries was a method of solving territorial and regional disputes. The severed heads would then be carried back as prizes in a specially made basket and then proudly displayed on the warriors’ walls and entrances, signifying the strength of the warrior clan and developing into a group totem.
The Konyaks believe that the head is a sacred part of the body. It is the hub of knowledge as well as the center of spiritual divinity, so cutting off your enemy’s head would be the ultimate form of victory. The headhunting practice was also carried out as a reputation because it was believed that beheading would help the warrior achieve a slave in the next life.
Konyak Trophy Heads are important to a Konyak man the way generational jewelry is passed down by mothers is to a Konyak woman. The heads are considered a ‘trophy’ as a warrior was given his first Konyak trophy head when he came of age and had hunted his first head, after which he was also permitted to choose a bride.
Hence, these trophy heads are sacred to a warrior and are considered to be a source of strength and good fortune.
The Kuki tribe is another significant tribe in the state of Nagaland, that differs from the other major ones. Each tribe has its own weaving pattern and design that the people usually use for making clothes and jewelry. This one, in particular, takes its inspiration from snake designs.
This is in relation to a tribal folktale about a serpent that fell in love with a beautiful woman. Drawn by her beauty, he would go over to the banks of the river and sit beside her while she wove. The maiden too would watch the snake, his intricate patterns, and the way he moved.
Due to this daily habit, her designs started to be those that resembled snake scale patterns, hence starting this practice which is now a trademark of the Kuki tribe.
To conclude the folktale, there is a particular pattern that is popular in Kuki jewelry and garments, called the Ponmongvom pattern, which is said to be the final pattern that the old maiden weaved when she died on the weaving wheel.
Traditional ornaments of Nagaland for men originate from their purpose in society, which was to hunt, go to war and provide for the family. Hence, a lot of men’s jewelry is made using boar tusks, ivory, and deer or tiger teeth. Since the raw materials are derived from animals, they stand as a symbol of the man’s hunting skills and courage.
Compared to a woman’s traditional jewelry, which is colorful and intricately designed, ornaments to a Naga man are usually accessories for his contributions to his community as a provider. They also wear all kinds of jewelry, including cuffs, chest pieces, armlets, anklets, cord belts, chest cross bands, necklaces, and earrings.
Fur machetes and spears are also considered to be part of their attire, and most men’s jewelry is more about purpose. They are designed very practically and for functionality – for example, brass leg rings worn by these warriors are used as a tool for climbing trees more easily.
While jewelry for men is designed for functionality, women’s ornaments are usually just meant for adorning oneself and are made to look elegant and pretty. Even the raw materials differ, and their jewelry is usually made using brass, shells, ivory, or precious stones.
Normally, cotton wool, red paper, or any other material that takes the maker’s fancy is used to make earrings. Traditional ornaments for Naga women also include armlets, large neck pieces, conch jewelry, waist belts, medallions, and beaded shawls.
These beautiful ornaments hold a special place for women as they have been passed down through generations. They are also typically the only hereditary items that women receive as property and are usually passed on to the daughter as a parting gift after marriage or on the demise of the mother.
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Traditional ornaments are very important to the Naga people, and each individual owns jewelry that is bound to them. In case of death, all of one’s possessions along with the ornaments are put together with the body of the deceased so that it may go with them beyond life.
Those who pass away from unnatural or violent deaths, like animal attacks or suicide are abandoned without any important ornaments or belongings. This is because their death is considered to be God’s will. Hence, you can imagine how important Naga beads are to their existence.
Naga ornaments are worn for various attire, including celebrations, festivals, war, or daily activities. The religious one, in particular, is different from other normal jewelry. Apart from that, beads could also signify one’s status.
Similar to a Christian rosary, there are bead necklaces given out after prayer, as the Naga believe it holds the prayer to keep the wearer safe from disease, spirits, and the evil eye. These are usually circular beads made of conch shells or wood and attached with local bamboo strings.
Beads are also significant to one’s status in society. In ancient Naga society, the thicker the beads on one’s neckpiece, the wealthier they were considered to be. Larger beads were also a symbol of a higher status and were worn by important figures in the village.
These necklaces were usually made from glass beads of different colors and woven together by local fiber cords.
It is fascinating how one’s attire can hold so much history and identity for a group of people. The traditional ornaments of Nagaland are not just an accessory to beautify oneself, but also a memento from the past, and an heirloom of the various Naga women that will continue for years to come. The jewelry is as beautiful as the state of Nagaland with its natural hub of mountains and rivers. So if you ever want to get yourself one of these beautiful ornaments do consider visiting this state to experience all the culture firsthand!