Weaving Naga Magic

In 1998, John Robshaw, a buyer from USA, asked me to supply some shawls from Nagaland he wanted to sell them in his store as ‘Head Hunter Shawls.” Originally, Naga shawls are made of Cotton yarn and died of natural dies but over the years cotton yarn was replaced by synthetic acrylic (casmilon) and natural dyes gave way to bright-chemical colors. Secondly, weavers also stopped making shawls as the Naga adopted western attire and shawls for only worn on ceremonial occasions.

After a lot of research and contacts we manage to locate some weavers in Manipur’s Ukhrul district, a Naga dominated region on the Burma border. It was challenging to reach the weavers’ villages except by 4 x 4 jeep as there were hardly any roads. Moreover it is a highly sensitive area because of the Burma border, the Kuki-Naga dispute and militancy. We also had language barrier as few people could speak English.

John and I, successfully managed to make contact with a local coordinator and motivated to group to weave shawls for us. The biggest challenge was availability of natural dyed cotton yarn as the weavers had completely switched over to synthetic yarns and chemical dyes. We started the dying process in Jaipur at our workshop and slowly the looms were repaired/replaced by original looms as our first batch of natural died yarn was flown in Imphal. The weavers, I was told later, were shocked to see the subtle natural died yarn and thought we would never be able to sell the shawls as the Naga were by that time used to brightly coloured shawls. Finally, production commenced and we started getting the shawls from the weavers.

After working with the weavers for some years, the local coordinator invited us to visit the weaving villages in 2006 to interact with the craftsmen. The flight from Delhi to Imphal was bumpy and the road trip from Imphal airport to Ukhrul was equally rough. Thankfully, the Jeep could reach the villages and we were able to spend a whole day with the craftsmen. After spending three days with the weaving community and learning about Naga shawls, our journey ended with both good memories and experiences.

The Nagas are versatile artisans and they leave an impression of ethnicity on most of their objects of everyday use. The sheer impulse of the nugget to decorate even their deadly weapons is evident from their dao (swords) and spears. Their bamboo drinking pots are embossed beautifully with various cultural motifs. Their woodcarvings on massive doorways and village gates as well as on log drums are still displayed.

The dress material for everyday use produced on the primitive looms by women are visual delight. The process of weaving is a very slow and tedious and therefore, at the end products are usually a trifle expensive.

In some communities each member has the right to put on decorative attire and jewelry signifying his or her belongings to a certain ethnic group, there are others where only those who distinguish themselves by virtue of their deeds for those who desire to indicate their high social status are privilege to wear special attire and put on personal ornaments.

Among the Naga, two categories of clansman- the head takers and the givers of ceremonial feasts- have the right to adorn themselves in a particular way. In many cases not only the men but also their wives and even members of their families are entitled to distinct items addressed. The insignia and achievements fall into two categories: those concerned with headhunting; and those concerned with feast of merit that were a demonstration of an individual’s level of prosperity and seem gift of it to the community.

The Naga Shawl is one woven fabric that has an incredible history and significance behind it. It combines different fibers and colors reflecting the aesthetic value of the community that invented the Naga shawl. The main lever, a woman, inherits a rich talent of weaves that is extremely colourful and the varied design motifs depict the primary aesthetic sense of the connection between man and nature.

Spinning Technique

Spinning, like dying and weeding, is performed by women and every now that woman is supposed to weave cloth for her family. Until recently, it was essential that every marriageable girl to know how to spin and we’ve, and tiny girls can still often be seen with little toy looms experimenting with weaving. 

The usual process of spinning is rather primitive interview 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 been cleaned off, it seeds are carded by being flipped with a small-sized bow. The clean cotton is gently rolled by hand with the help of around stick over a flat stone or plank into sausages- like slivers.

The Naga spindle is a very primitive affair. This spindle is made of along spike of hardwood frequently of the Sago Palm with a point at the bottom, greatest thickness being just above this point. Above this again is around flat stone spindle-whorl, cut, trimmed, and bored in the middle, through which the wooden stem is passed from the other end. This stone weighs the spindle and for a long time, the point being potsherd covered with a cloth keeps it from wandering. The thread is gradually wound-round the wooden stem as it is spun. From the spindle, the thread is wound onto a sort of double T – shaped stick.

Then take it out and driving the sun. The Rengma make yellow dye from the flowers of a tree. The use of dye, of any color is restricted before the harvest because of the belief that the process is in someway detrimental to crops.

Weaving Magic

Unlike other parts of India, where much of the spinning and weaving is in the hands of men, spinning and weaving in the Nagaland is the exclusive monopoly of women. Leaving can begin as soon as the first fruits of the new rice have been eaten. The Naga loom, like the Indonesian tension, is a simple backstrap with a continuous horizontal work consisting of six sticks serving the function of work being, lease fraud, held 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 hook supporting in a horizontal position. On this are slipped two loops of bark string. The loops link which is adjusted from an already woven piece of cloth, or set ended distance apart, equal to a little more than the breadth of a piece of 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. As she sits on the low bench in front of the loop with your 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 too steaks fixed in the ground. The heddle, lease rod, in bar above the lease fraud, round which the warped 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 the species of wild plantation. 

The patterns in cloth are obtained by the necessary combination of different colored threads in the warp and weft. Weaving specimens from the various Naga areas 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, skirts, aprons and lungis resplendent with skillful color combination in their own fashion and style.

It takes around 10 hours for an expert weaver to complete the plain strip or another 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 other two others, which generally have more or less the same pattern. In case of shawls for children and skirts for women, the strata reduced to two only.

Finishing Touches

Painting on cost is practice only by the Lotha, Ao and Rengma. The Ao art of painting resembles that of the Rengma although the conventional pattern is different. The Ao paint the white band of their famous warrior shawl, which can only be worn 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 color is prepared from the sap of a tree, which is mixed with a very strong rice beer and the ash of it’s own leaves. Sometimes, the ash of bamboo leaves is used in place of tangko leave resulting into a gray fluid that is applied with a pointed and of the bamboo stick. Painting is done by old men only. He works freehand on the lines of the threat. The same medium is used by the Rengma. 

Designs & Symbols

The Naga set great value on their costume worn on ceremonies or festive occasions, though some pieces are for everyday use. The insignia are highly desirable because of the achievements necessary to gain the right to wear them. The design and color, which varies not only between tribes but also sometimes between different villages, records the wearers’ position in the social hierarchy.

The designs vary from the formal arrangement of lines to elaborate patterns of diamonds and lozenge shape. Simple straight lines, stripes, squares and bands, varying in width, color and arrangement are the most traditional design and motifs. Naga Women are great experts in the choice the combination of colors. Each clan has its own patterns with simple, clean lines, stripes, squares and bands being the most traditional design motifs.

With inputs from Dr. Sinalei Khayi, Lecturer, Pettigrew College, Ukhrul (Manipur).