In the North-Eastern state of Nagaland, handwoven shawls and sarongs are not a style statement; they are a proud assertion of identity. Time was when these bright and colourful shawls were a signature not only of an individual’s tribal identity but also of their status within the tribe, their sub-tribe and a whole lot more. All this was deftly woven into the colours and distinct motifs on the shawls, which are a core part of Naga culture even today.
Nagaland is home to as many as 16 major tribes and other tribal groupings. The early history of the Nagas is lost in the mists of time but a few tribes of the Nagas themselves trace their ancestry to an Indo-Tibetan group of people who migrated to India. Traditionally warrior tribes, they wear adornments like shawls, hornbill feathers, cowries and necklaces, which are markers of valour. Some of them wear special shawls called ‘warrior shawls’ that sport motifs that speak of bravery.
– Each Naga tribe has its own colour and motif code, which represents its distinct identity.
While there is no recorded history of how and when weaving among these tribes began, they have their own stories and legends about this practice.
According to the folklore of the Ao Naga tribe, a woman called Longkongla initiated the tradition of weaving. Said to have magical powers and a special link to the supernatural world, she is believed to have started the tradition of weaving to separate the clans from each other. According to a legend among the Yimchunger Nagas, the art of weaving and spinning was learnt from the realm of spirits.
There are many features that make Naga weaving unique, one of them being that it is the preserve of women. Girls are trained to weave when very young. In fact, weaving is considered an important part of womanhood itself.
For instance, the Lothas used to believe that a woman was not ready for marriage if she could not weave and that she was ready to tie the knot only when she could weave a man’s loincloth. A Zeliang woman would traditionally present a shawl she wove to her fiancé. And, in another custom, a Chang Naga groom was supposed to wear a shawl woven by the bride on their wedding day. In earlier times, weaving equipment even found a place in a bride’s trousseau.
Turning yarn into Naga weaves is a three-stage process that involves spinning the yarn, dyeing and then weaving.
Spinning involves simple tools. The cotton is cleaned, the seeds are removed and then rolled on a flat stone with a short stick. Alternatively, two wooden rollers are geared to revolve in opposite directions, which are turned by hand. The fibres are then separated, rolled and spun into thread, using a spindle.
The spindle is a traditional bamboo tool that the Naga woman puts in a small basket or a broken piece of an earthen pot that she spins clockwise with her right hand. The skeins of the cotton yarn are then damped and beaten on a wooden board, with a rice pounder or a bamboo. This is then starched with hot rice water.
Naga textiles were traditionally dyed with dyes sourced from indigenous materials obtained from the forests. Nowadays, chemical dyes are used for strong colouration. Blue and red are the two main colours used, and sometimes yellow.
The blue dye is obtained from the leaves of the Strobilanthes flaccidifolius, locally called Mosak, or Assam indigo plant, which grows in the dense forests and is also cultivated in sunny fields. Mosak leaves from the forests are spread out on palm leaves and left to dry, and then kept in a cool place for about a month. Then, they are immersed in cold water along with skeins of cotton yarn, and this is left to rest for three days. Wood ash is added to this solution on the third day, and the yarn is left inside for another day. Depending on the intensity of the colour required, the yarn is kept in the dye bath and then boiled in water with Mosak grown in the sun.
Red dye is prepared from the root of a creeper called Aozu or Aowali and also Tsenyhu. The roots are dried and pounded along with dried leaves of a tree called Tangshi, and this mixture is blended with the husks of an acid berry tree called Tango. The yarn is dyed in a solution of this mixture and water, again for the time it requires to get the right intensity, and is later dried in shade.
Yellow dye is prepared by the Angami tribe from the wood of a plant called Athuo.
A Unique Loom
Naga weaves are created on one of the oldest kinds of looms. It is called the loin loom or the back-strap loom, and it is still used by tribes in Nagaland today. This is an incredibly simple contraption that consists of six bamboo sticks held parallel to each other, and the continuous warp, that is, the set of horizontal threads, is stretched between these sticks. The weaver uses her back as a support for the loom, hence the name ‘back-strap’.
One end of the warp is held with the back-strap. On the warp are slipped two loops of bark strings, set apart at a distance covering the cloth to be woven. The weaver keeps the tension of the warp constant, with the support of her back. The other end of the warp is tied to a door or a wall.
Pit looms and fly shuttle looms are also used by some tribes, but the loin loom is the most commonly used. Weaving is done by moving the beam rods up and down, and inserting through shuttles the weft, that is, the set of threads that go in at right angles to the warp.
Patterns are formed with the precise arrangement of coloured threads for the warp and the weft.
Median bands in white are painted with motifs like elephants and the Dao spear against a black background by tribes like the Aos, Lothas and the Rangmas.
Motifs & Designs
Signifying valour and strength, the motifs used in Naga weaves are specific to a clan or a tribe. Designs are made of simple, straight lines, squares and bands with varying colour arrangements and the use of specific motifs. Mostly done in reds, whites, blacks and blues, the motifs include stripes, spears and even some conventional ritual objects.
Mithun: Mithun, or Gayal, a large domesticated bovine, is the state animal of Nagaland. It was the animal of choice for sacrifice, and a person who had offered a mithun in a feast of merit, a cultural practice of significance amongst the Nagas, which conferred social status to a person, had the privilege of wearing a shawl with a mithun’s head motif woven into it.
Rungu: This is a spear used by Naga warriors and hunters, who fought to protect their land and dignity. It was also used to hunt wild animals for food.
Zeshe: This is a machete holder that warriors wore while going to war and farmers wore while working in their fields.
Muraba: A chevron-like pattern that signifies the traditional stool or seat in every Naga household.
Chapili: Modelled on an old form of currency used by the Ao and Chang Naga tribes. It looked like a long, thin piece of iron with a bulge at one end, looking like a long knife. This motif is usually woven into the middle bands of Naga shawls.
Spear and Dao: Symbols associated with fighting, these are actually two different weapons traditionally used by a warrior. The Dao is also used by the Nagas as a kitchen knife.
Tiger & Lion: Often depicted in mythological stories in South-East Asia, Northeast India and the Himalayan regions, the tiger stands for strength and valour and was synonymous with the warrior who wore it. Equally strong, the lion motif also depicts similar symbolism. The lion and tiger are woven or painted in pairs, facing each other.
Hornbill: The feathers of the hornbill are used by almost every Naga group as a headdress, and are given utmost importance.
The Ao tribes wear a special warrior shawl called Tsungkotepsu. It has a dark base with median white bands on either side, and horizontal bands in contrasting shades of black and red. These are painted with motifs of the tiger, elephant and mithun. The colour red usually represents the blood of the enemy.
The Lothas weave the Sutam shawl, which is traditionally a white base with dark blue, horizontal stripes. Phom Nagas weave Henyu, a red shawl with narrow horizontal bands at regular intervals. The Sangtam tribe weaves a shawl called Supong with four grey bands on the top and bottom, on a black base.
Chakhesangs, or the Eastern Angamis, wear the Khonoma shawl, which is a warrior shawl woven with the spear motif. Mozaluo is also a warrior shawl woven with spear motifs. Angami textiles, symbolizing bravery, are traditionally woven in a combination of yellow and orange on a black background, and with animal motifs embroidered on them.
With the passage of time, the warrior culture of the Naga tribes waned and their traditional ensemble have evolved into elaborate textiles and motifs reminiscent of the signatures used by ancient tribes in this region to reflect their identity.
These traditional colour combinations are now changing to suit modern tastes, and even colours like pink and green on black backgrounds are now used. Sometimes, motifs inspired by neighbouring states, associated with Christianity, are also seen, such as church bells and holly.
The winds of change have impacted traditional handicrafts all over the world but the Naga weavers and tribes are determined to keep their tradition alive and turn it into a sustainable craft. Peepul Tree is an e-commerce platform committed to taking traditional arts and crafts to a wider audience.
Supporting the determination of the Naga weavers, Peepul Tree offers some of the Nagas’ most traditional motifs through a range of cushion covers sourced from women artisans in Dimapur, Vekuvolo Dozo and Lovitoli, in Nagaland. These are hand-woven on the traditional loin loom, in motifs and colour combinations that are typical to the tribes of Nagaland.