What the Ancients meant?

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 7/9/2019 11:35:23 AM IST

 Sometime in the 1870s, Captain John Butler, a British agent in the Nagas Hills, made a comment that the word Naga could have come from the Kachari word nahngra, meaning “warrior.” But this was nothing more than a conjecture as it has no supporting historical evidence. After all, Butler was just a political agent, not a historian. Besides, it is very unlikely that the Kacharis, who had suffered greatly at the hands of the headhunters from the hills, would extol these Nagas with such a glamorous term as “warriors.”

Almost all historians and anthropologists, past and present, are of the opinion that the name Naga was a non-native derivation given by non-Nagas. But the question is: Who were the people who originated it and when? And who was a Naga according to those people?

Around 100 AD, Ptolemy, the Greco-Roman geographer, was most likely told by the Vedic Aryans about the existence of some hill people who lived on the eastern side of the River Brahmaputra, whom the Vedic Aryans called Nangalogue, meaning “naked people” in Sanskrit. Such derogatory name-calling implies that the Aryans clearly looked down upon our ancestors, perhaps because they were barely clothed and ate all kinds of animals, let alone of a different race. No wonder Ptolemy not only faithfully recorded the word Nangalogue as he heard it but also added that where this people lived was an “unprotected country,” meaning, not under any nation-state. That means the existence of Nagas living in their own land was known as far back as two thousand years. As for the word Nanga, it could have, over the last two millennia, morphed into its current form, Naga, as many proper names often do. For example: Keniak into Konyak, Gnami into Angami, Mokongtsu into Mokokchung.

Another possibility for the origin of the word Naga is the Sanskrit word Nag, which means “mountain.” Many scholars think this to be the most probable root meaning, as it would benatural for the early Vedic people of the Gangetic plain to call any of the hill peoples who lived in their close proximity as the people of Nag. If this was indeed the case, then the name “Naga” could refer to any person who lived in the lower Himalayan regions: from the hilly areas in Kashmir to other hilly areas in Himachal Pradesh, Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Northwest Myanmar, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, and Bangladesh’s Chittagong hills.

Indeed, the presence of a non-Aryan race living along the Himalayan regions, starting from north India to Northeast India, is well attested in the Rig Vedas and Mahabharata. Sometimes they are described as a race of mysterious creatures or dreaded “serpent” (“Naga” in Sanskrit).  At other times they are presented as real people. For example, the Vedas mention about the Kiratas as hillmen of gold-like complexion inhabiting the eastern Himalayas (Shukla Yajurveda, ch. 30.6; Krishna Yajurveda, ch. 3.4, 12; Arthavaveda, ch. 10.4, 14). Also, in the Mahabharata, their race is linked with River Iravati in Kashmir and the lower Himalayas (Book I: Adi Parva, Sections 13-58). These Nagas are depicted as enemies of the Brahmins and “persecutors of all creatures.” At some point in time, their race in North India was almost completely annihilated by Janamejaya, king of Kuru, who conducted a massacre at Takshasila. This genocide, however, was stopped by Astika, a Brahmin whose mother was coincidentally a Naga. The point to note here is this: Since these compilations of stories in the Vedas and Mahabharata date back to around 10th century BC, it implies that the “Naga race” existed even prior to that time. Even eminent Indian historians, such as Akshoy K. Majumdar and S. K. Chatterji, believe that some “Nagas” inhabited the eastern Himalayas, including the hilly areas of Bangladesh and Tripura, for several millennia.

So, then, are we the Nagas of Naga-land to be considered as the direct descendants of the ancient Nagas mentioned in the Vedic Scriptures? Perhaps not. But it seems very probable that at least this historic name eventually got stuck to us. After all, we may be the last Indo-Mongoloid people still standing not totally absorbed by the Indo-Aryan civilization. And if this assumption is correct, when could have this narrowing down of the appellation to the Nagas of Naga-land happened? Surely it must be before the arrival of John Butler in the Naga Hills around 1870s, because he was then already attributing the term Nagas to those living in the present Naga Hills, whether correctly or incorrectly. Or, it could be the British who adopted the same appellation(s) and applied it/them to the hill tribes of Naga-land when they arrived in the Indian subcontinent around 1800.

Regarding the times when our Naga ancestors arrived in their new homeland, we have almost zero written records. But in the words of V. Nienu, a Naga archeologist and ethnographer, “The fact that none of the Naga tribes could trace their origin beyond Khezakeno or Chungliyimti—the mythological places located within Nagaland—from where they claimed to have originated, testifies that Nagas have been living in their present habitat for several millennia. This fact is evidenced by recent archeological discoveries.”

So, how do we determine who a Naga is today?  Here the answer cannot be based on whether or not a person belongs to one of the tribes in the State of Nagaland, because the term Naga must be interpreted the same way the name-givers meant it (the Law of Interpretation). This being so, the determining factor could be just this: Any person of Mongoloid race whose ancestors had lived in the hills and mountains of Northeast India and North Myanmar and were traditionally very different from the plain- and valley-dwellers. And yes, since the word Naga is generic, supra-tribal and somewhat elastic, it must transcend tribalism to unite rather than discriminate. That way whoever fits the above descriptions would gladly wear that nameas a badge of honor. 

Mazie Nakhro

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