Nagas are versatile artisans and they leave an impression of ethnicity on most of their objects of everyday usage. The sheer impulse of the Nagas to decorate even their deadly weapons is evident from their daos and spears. Their bamboo drinking pots are embossed beautifully with various cultural motifs. The wood carving on massive doorways and the village gates as well as on log drums are still on display.
The dress materials for everyday use produced on the primitive looms by the female folks are a visual delight. The process of weaving is a very slow and tedious and therefore, the end products are usually a trifle expensive.
In some tribal communities each member has the right to put on decorative attire and jewellery signifying his or her belonging to a certain ethnic group, there are others where only those who distinguished themselves by virtue of their deeds or those who desire to indicate their high social status are privileged to wear special attire and put on personal ornaments.
Among the Nagas 2 categories of clansman until the recent past had the right to adorn themselves in a particular way- the head takers and the givers of ceremonial feasts. In many cases not only, they but their wives and even members of their families were entitled to distinct items of dress.
The insignia and achievements fall into two categories:
1) Those concerned with head hunting
2) those concerned with feast of merit that were a demonstration of an individual’s level of prosperity and some gift of it to the community.
The type of body cloth worn by men and women differs from one Naga group to another. The design and colour, which varies not only between the tribes but also sometimes between clans of the same tribe and between different villages, records the wearer’s position in society. There are around 16 tribes in Nagaland and each may have its own distinctive design and colour combination. Each may have a different design for some special occasion. The tribes are: Ao, Konyak, Sema, Chakesang, Angami, Lotha, Sangtam, Phom, Chang, Kheimungan, Yimchunger, Zeilang, Rengma, Tikhir, Mokware, Chirr. The different designs and symbols are discussed later.
Technique of Spinning
Spinning, like dyeing and weaving is performed by women and every Naga woman is supposed to weave the cloths of her family. Until recently, it was essential that every marriageable girl should know how to spin and weave, and tiny girls can often be seen with little toy looms experimenting with weaving. The usual process of spinning is rather primitive and a few simple tools are used in the whole process. The cotton is cleaned off its seeds by being rolled on a lat stone with a short stick used like a rolling pin. The cotton having being cleaned off its seeds is carded by being flicked with a small sized bow. The clean cotton is gently rolled by hand with the help of a round stick over a flat stone or plank into sausages like silvers. The Naga spindle is a very primitive affair. The spindle is made of along spike of hard wood frequently of the sago palm with a point at the bottom, greatest thickness being just above this point. Above this again is a round flat stone spindle-whorl, cut, trimmed, and bored in the middle, through which the wooden stem is passed from the other end. This stone weights the spindle and for a long time, the point being potsherd covered with a cloth to keep it from wandering. The thread is gradually wound round the wooden stem as it is spun. From the spindle, the thread is wound on to a sort of double T- shaped stick. From this it is unwound and steeped in hot rice-water hardening as it dries, and when it is dry, it is wound on to a light bamboo frame. From this frame, it is wound into a ball.
In case the yarn is to be dyed, the dyeing process takes place after the yarn is transferred into skeins. The indigenous colours are, in recent years, fading away and are replaced by chemical dyes. Further the easy availability of coloured thread in the bazaar does not encourage the necessity of producing the old indigenous colours. The Nagas use dark, blue, red and rarely yellow dye. The whole process is carried out by women who are also taboo among some tribes to handle any dye during pregnancy less the foetus be effected by the colour. Blue dye is obtained from the leaves of the Strobilanthes flaccidifolius. This is a universal Naga dye and the plant is grown on the outskirts of the villages or in patches cleared in heavy jungle. There is a slight difference in the method of preparation and use of the blue dye among the different tribes. One of the commonest Naga methods of preparation of blue dye is to boil the leaves in water in a big pot. Then the cloth or thread to be dyed is dipped in it and boiled for nearly an hour. It is then taken out and dried in the sun. If the colour does not take properly, the same process is repeated twice or even three times.
The indigenous red dye is less used than the dark blue. The red colour being of blood, a young woman using this colour in dye operation is superstitiously believed to die a violent death or loose her head in a raid. Therefore, only old women dye yarn in the red colour. Some other tribes like the Lothas consider this a risky occupation likely to bring on dysentery, and therefore, only suitable for old woman who are of less value to the community.
Only a few tribes make yellow dye. Angamis prepare it from the wood of a plant locally called ‘athuo’. The wood portion of the plant is light yellow in natural colour. The bark of the plant is first removed with a dao; the wood is then sliced into chips, which are boiled in water with the thread. The thread is then taken out and dried in the sun. Rengmas make yellow dye from the flowers of a tree.
Use of the dye of any colour is restricted before harvest, there being a strong feeling that the process is in some way detrimental to crops.
Technique of Weaving
Unlike other parts of India, where much of the spinning and weaving is in the hands of man, spinning and weaving in Nagaland is the exclusive monopoly of women. Weaving can begin as soon as the first fruit of the new rice have been eaten. The Naga loom, though of the type known as Indonesian tension loom, but is interesting to see working. The loom is simple back strap one with a continuous horizontal warp consisting of six sticks serving the function of warp beam, lease rod, heald stick, beating sword and extra warp beam. For setting the loom, first the warp beam is securely fastened to the wall of the house or any other suitable form supporting in a horizontal position. On this are slipped two loops of bark string. The loops length of which is adjusted from an already woven piece of cloth, are set at a distance apart equal to a little more than the breadth of the piece of the cloth to be woven. The lower bar or cloth beam is notched at either end so that the weaving belt can be attached to it. This belt is worn by the operator in the small of her back. By it, as she sits on a low bench in front of the loom with her feet pressing on a firm support, she can keep the necessary tension on the warp. The women keeps the necessary strain by sitting with the belt (Aphi) in the small of her back, attached to a bar from which the warp (kotong) runs to the beam, itself firmly attached either to the well of the house or to stakes fixed in the ground. The heddle, lease rod, and bar above the lease rod, round which the warp is twisted once. The shuttle is shot enough through by hand, and the woof beaten up with wax or with a very fine white powder, found on the underside of the leaves of a species of wild plantation. The patterns in cloth are obtained by the necessary combination of different coloured threads in the warp and weft. Weaving specimens from the various districts of Nagaland comprise a wide range and number which themselves as pieces of the precious treasures showing in respect of designing and processing, an accomplishment of great measure. The distinctive costumes and apparels comprise wrappers and shawls, waistcloths and bodice, girdles, scarfs, skirts, aprons and lungis resplendent with skilful colour combination in their own fashion and style.
It nearly takes 10 hours for an expert weaver to complete the plain strip or in other words, 30 hours are required to weave a complete cloth. One of the common features of Naga shawl is that three pieces are woven separately and stitched together. In fact, the central stripe is more decorated than the two others, which generally have more or less the same pattern. In case of shawls for children and skirts for women, the stripes are reduced to two only.
Painting on Cloth
Painting on a few clothes are practiced only by the Lothas, Aos and Rengmas. The Ao art of painting resembles that of the Rengmas although the conventional pattern is different. Aos paint the white band of their famous warrior shawl, which can be worn only by one who had taken heads in war or who has performed feasts of merit. The figure of elephant, tiger, mithun, cock, dao spear and human heads are painted with black on the white median band. The colour is prepared from the sap of a tree, which is mixed with very strong rice beer and the ash of its own leaves. Sometimes, the ash of bamboo leaves is used in place of Tangko leaves resulting into a grey fluid, which is applied with a pointed end of the bamboo stick. Painting is done by old men only. He works free hand on the lines of the thread. The same medium is used by the Rengmas.
Design and Symbols in Textiles of Nagaland
The Nagas set great value on their costume worn on ceremonies or festive occasions, though some pieces were for everyday use. That of his wife and daughter. The insignia were highly desirable because of the achievements necessary to gain the right to wear them. The design and colour, which varies not only between tribes but also sometimes between different villages, records the wearers position in society. The designs vary from a formal arrangement of lines to elaborate patterns of diamonds and lozenge shape. Simple straight lines, stripes, squares and bands, varying in width, colour and arrangement are the most traditional design and motifs. Naga women are great experts in the choice and combination of colours. Each tribe has its own patterns with simple, clean lines, stripes, squares and bands being the most traditional design motifs.