Bamboo covers it all...

They are ever-smiling and cheerful. They have a colourful history, as colourful as their attire. Their rituals and practices, their crafts and culture make them a unique tribe. They are the Nagas, belonging to the beautiful hill state of Nagaland.

A casual visit to Nagaland is enough to acquaint us with the rich cultural heritage of this hill tribe. The most distinctive of their crafts is the bamboo craft. Everywhere you look, there’s bamboo — be it furniture, mats, baskets or cups. No wonder, it is generally said that Nagas start their life in a cradle of bamboo and end it in a coffin of bamboo. Such is the use of bamboo in their daily lives.

One reason for the extensive use of bamboo, and their expertise in crafts involving bamboo, could be its availability in the forests of Nagaland. The variety available has even made them identify specific bamboo types for specific purposes.

For instance, the species Dendrocalamus hamiltonii is used for basket-weaving, Bambusa bamboo for house construction, Melocanna Bamboo Soides for floors and walls, and so on.

Nagas take pride in their tradition of basket-weaving. The best part is that basket-weaving is considered an intrinsic part of their lives, a leisure activity, and not a profession. They weave baskets for every reason. There are baskets for storage, baskets for carrying essential items, baskets for carrying food, and baskets for carrying small children, too.

And, only men weave them. Their expertise in basket-weaving is believed to give them an edge when they are looking for suitable partners for marriage. Their first gift to the women of their choice, as a symbol of their commitment, is also an intricately woven basket.

Watching the Naga men at work is an interesting exercise as very few tools are used for basket-making. Traditionally, only a broad-blade machete known as dao, a small knife, a pin, and a hacksaw are used, though some of them have now started using cutters and bamboo-splitting machines, too. The process of basket-making begins with the splitting of young bamboo into thin strips, and then scraping them with the tools till a smooth texture is achieved. These bamboo strips are then woven according to one’s choice to fashion the baskets of desired designs. For the finishing touch, they flame the surface to burn the bristles of the bamboo, and smoke it in the fireplace for that gloss.

The cutting of bamboo is done only in the dry months from October to April. Headgear, hats, musical instruments like flute, trumpet, mouth organ and cup violin, mats, tea cups, rice beer mugs, shields, crossbows, animal and fish traps, ornaments like neckbands and armlets, kitchen utensils like bowls, cooking and serving spoons and spatula are also made out of bamboo. In several instances, cane is used with bamboo to give it that extra sheen. Cane craft is as popular as bamboo craft among the Nagas.

One only hopes these interesting crafts will survive for generations to come.

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