In the textile history of India, the warrior shawls of Nagaland have a special place and like their counterpart, the Scottish kilt, these too need to be nurtured as a legacy. We have 16 major tribes in Nagaland and the warrior shawls of each vary a lot.
In the past , it was possible to identify a tribe by simply looking at the shawl of the wearer and occasionally even guess the group of villages he came from, his social status and the number of ritual feasts he had performed.
Even within the same tribe, not everybody is allowed to wear just any type of shawl as each pattern signifies the social standing of the person. But nowadays this identification is not possible as Naga elders do not force their young to adhere to the tradition.
One of the common features of a Naga shawl is that three pieces are woven separately and stitched together. In fact, the central stripe is more decorated than the other two, which generally have more or less the same pattern. The Naga designs vary from a formal arrangement of lines to elaborate patterns of diamonds and lozenge shapes. Simple straight lines, stripes, squares and bands, varying in width colour and arrangement are the most traditional design and motifs.
Each tribe has its own distinct patterns.
Many shawls, many tales
Tsungkotepsu: This is an exclusive male shawl and a most characteristic dress of Ao tribe. Exclusively for men, this shawl may be worn only by someone who has taken heads in war or offered a mithun (local bison) as sacrifice. In Naga society, this ritual can be performed only by rich men. Earlier, anyone wearing this shawl without proper credentials was taken to task by the village council and had to pay heavy penalties for violating the code.
The shawl is woven on a general dark base. The cloth has a median white band and on either side of it, there are horizontal bands of contrasting colours like red, black and white. The median band is painted with a pattern in black, which includes various symbolic figures.
Angami: This is a black shawl with thick bold embroidered animal motifs. Worn by warriors of Angami tribe, the shawl carries an entire range of wild animals against a black background divided into horizontal panels by woven bands of colour.
Supong: It is a typical Naga shawl worn by the Sangtam tribe. This is supposed to be used by rich people. The shawl on a black base has four grey bands at the top and another four bands of the same colour at the bottom.
Rongkhim: It is one of the most attractive shawl worn by Yimchunger Naga tribe. The shawl is in red and black with narrow grey bands at the two edges. This shawl is mainly worn by warriors of great renown.
Tsungrem Khim: It is exclusively meant for women and very popular.
Lotha: This a typical Naga shawl worn by the Lotha tribe. The shawl has several patterns that indicate the number of social feasts given by the wearer.
Khekaisa: This is a shawl to be worn by only the elected public leaders or the elected public representatives (MP/MLA/MDC), gazetted officers, ordained ministers (Reverend) and social activists.
The Angami priests don the Phichu-pfe shawl, which portrays their distinct social status. A kind of black shawl, ideal for rough wear (used by both sexes) is known as Ratapfe.
The special shawl for ladies is known as Loukaisa. Naga women are excellent weavers and the colourful shawls, woven by them are extremely popular. A number of traditions and beliefs are also associated with the weaving and wearing of the traditional dress.
A chang cloth requires all the zig-zag lines to fall uniformly, or else the young warrior wearing it may die a premature death. When a Konyak woman gets married she wears a Shatni shawl which is preserved and later used only to wrap her dead body.
Convention demands that a Rongtu shawl be worn only if the mithun sacrifice has been carried out over three generations. Textile dyeing is a significant art among the hill tribes of the region with each tribe possessing one or two special types of dyes. Superstition and belief also dictates the selection of colour. The weavers believe that if a young woman dyes her clothes red, she is sure to die a violent death and hence only old women dye their yarn red.
Before wool was imported in the Nagai villages, the material for these shawls
were the threads that are taken from the barks of plants that come up during the monsoon season. These were pried apart and then dried, boiled with ash, stretched, dyed and rolled on spindles before the actual weaving.
Of late the Naga elders no longer insist on strict observations of the code for wearing particular shawls, as the era of head hunting and tribal fights to show their valour is no longer in vogue.
Six years ago, the Sumi Hoho, which is the apex organisation of the Sumi tribe, decided to allow graduates to wear shawls earlier donned only by those who had offered ceremonial feasts for the tribe.
Not every community elder however approves of the changing mindset. “We altered the rules of educated youth, but we do not want anybody to dilute our traditions. The shawls that we used to wear only during festivals are now being used whenever one chooses to.
‘‘Warrior shawls, priced at Rs 4,000 are hardly seen,” says Vikto Sema, a senior member of the Sumi Hoho. “Machine woven shawls are more popular than the hand woven ones because these come cheaper. The markets have become villages,
while villages are becoming markets,”adds Vikto.
A plethora of new patterns and motifs has been introduced too, to reflect the younger generation’s sartorial choices. A women’s co-operative weaving society based in Kohima village set the trend with its progressive designs about a decade ago. “Changes have come about over the years, but the youth still adhere to traditional designs during festivals and important occasions”, says urban affairs minister Shurhozelie Liezietsu, who is from Kohima village.
There is such a great demand from tourists for the Naga shawls that the Indian Chamber of Commerce has filed an application seeking registration of traditional Naga designs with the Geographical Indications Registration System in India. Unfortunately, so far none of the designs have been certified and retained as an exclusive possession of the tribe .
Failure to do so has resulted in imitation Naga shawls being produced by machines in Delhi, Chennai, Patna or wherever and being sold at a little over Rs 100, when an original shawl with the same design should fetch nothing less than Rs 1,000-1,500 in the Nagaland handicrafts emporium. Hopefully, something will be done to rectify the situation.