Brief discourse on the origin of Naga Tribes

naga tribes

Nagas are considered to be the people, who belong to old warrior tribe. Some of the myths also inform that these people are from Mongoloid origin.  People often believe that there is only one Naga tribe or that Naga is a single tribe. However, there are about 32 known Naga tribes, which are distributed in various areas and territories of Nagaland, hills of Manipur, Western border of Burma and in many other areas of North-East. Origin of the Naga people always remained a significant issue, as they were believed to be of Indian origin. However, the Naga people have always disagreed from that fact that they have any ethnic, social, cultural or political roots in India. Naga people have always stated that their origin is different from India; therefore, they should have a separate Political and Cultural existence. “Different History, Different Destiny” have been the ‘motto‘ of their political movement.

Scholars have made various theoretical attempts to characterize and to locate the origin of the Naga tribes in India. Scholars have also accepted that Nagas are the strong indigenous groups in India that consist of various tribes and sub-nations and have inhabited the areas of Naga Hills since centuries. The Naga Hills are occupied by these tribes lies between the tri-junction of India, China and Myanmar. Although, their intriguing culture, traditions and history has baffled many Western scholars[i]. Julian Jacobs has stated that “Here was a culture which might provide clues to the great movements in human history[ii]. This statement has ben made in relation to the settlement of the Nagas in India, as it is believed that the tribes came from other countries and settled in this tri junctions that is situated in Naga Hills.

The actual origin of the Naga people is still obscure. There are various stories and legends regarding the origin of Naga, which are different from each other. However, one common aspects that all stories and legends have informed about is that Nagas have originated from Eastern part of the world. The origin of the Naga tribe is associated with their different cultural practices. The different cultural practices have been started and followed by different tribes and their societies since time immemorial. According to EA Gait, in his book “A history of Assam” he has stated that apart of the non-Aryan dialects of Assam, all the remaining dialects belong to Tibet-Chinese and mainly to Tibeto-Burman sub-family and these dialects are very common among the Nagas.[iii] Therefore, many scholars have informed that probability of the Nagas sharing their culture is significantly associated with South-East Asia.

While scientific details about the origin of Naga people is not clear, many myths and assumptions have also associated their origin to be Indo-Mongoloid. Some of the myths and legends have also informed that Nagas have a dim relationship with natives of Borneo. This relationship is seen in their similar practice of head-hunting. Nagas are also found to have the relationship with Philippines through their common system of terrace farming and cultivation. The evidences have also shown that Nagas are related to Indonesia, as the embroidery on their cloths is similar to that which is found on Indonesian cloths[iv]. Therefore, the various speculations of different scholars about the Naga people informs that Nagas are not pure blood. The tribe has been found to be combined with various elements from different cultures.

One of the strongest link about the origin of the Naga people have been seen with the with the Igorots tribe from Philippines. The main tradition of this tribe is to chop off the head of the victim and carry them home in the form of trophies. Therefore, they were also called as the head-hunters and the Nagas are also called as head-hunters. The Igorots (Philippines tribe) are specifically grouped in the six ethno-linguistic groups. These ethno-linguistic groups include Bontoc, Ibaloi, Ifugao, Isneg (Apayao) Kankanaey and Kalinga. The ethno-linguistic groups of Igorots that include Kalinga, Isneg and Bontoc are mainly the head hunters like Nagas in India. Nagas also chopped the heads of their victims and brought them to their homes in the form of trophies and also considered as the victims and their heads as the form of celebration and feasting. The main belief that lied behind head hunting by these tribes was that great power and strength lies in the heads.[v]

Head hunting in Igorots and Nagas was done by the great head hunters and by the warriors, who were highly praised in the society. This is the first reason due to which the Nagas are considered to be originated from the Igorots tribe of Philippines. Praising the warriors and head hunters in both tribes was very similar which was followed by the feast of the whole village or tribes. It was only after the advent of Christianity in Naga tribes and Igorot that head hunting was stopped[vi]. Therefore, scholars have also asserted that in various aspects customs and traditions followed by the Igorots in Philippines is very similar to the customs and traditions followed by the Naga tribes in India[vii].

The main similarity that is found between the Nagas and the tribes from Philippines is about their settlement. Most of them settled close to the rivers or in hilly areas, which was mainly away from the other population or developed areas of the country. For example, Bontoc tribe lived on the bank of Chico Rivers and this group was significantly known for its headhunting practices. Currently this tribe has significantly changed its life and traditions and it is peacefully involved in farming and agriculture. The Isneg tribes also inhabited the banks of the Apayao River and also inhabit the tributaries located in the Northern Luzon. Like most of the Igorot tribes, these people were also head hunters. These people had the tribal awareness, but Igorot were never considered to be united, as different tribes had issues with other tribes. However, the main aspect of peace keeping is to make peace pacts with other tribes, such as in the case of Kalingas, who also had the strong sense of traibal awareness[viii]. With the development of the peace pacts the traditional warfare among the tribes and the practice of head hunting have been stopped and these people are involved in agriculture.

Since, these people lived in the Hilly areas, they adopted farming and agriculture as the main occupation. If the roots of origin of Nagas is associated with the Igorots, it is clear that like many of the Igorot tribes, Nagas settled in the Hilly areas and by the banks of the rivers and after the end of wars and head hunting their main occupation is also agriculture and farming. Though, head hunting in the Naga hills was ceased after the British colonization, as many Naga villages were controlled by the British colonizers. However, the head hunting practice continued in the Tuensang areas and some other villages as well. The last incident of head hunting in the Naga tribe of India was reported in 1958[ix].

Another similar system that has been identified among the Nagas and Igorots is the Morung (Naga Dormitory) system, which was mainly practices in the old days. Under this system, the young boys and girls from the Naga tribes slept in Morungs and these were considered as the institutions from where the young boys and girls learned many things about life. The Morung were also considered as the centre of education. Different kinds of training were given to the boys and boys lived their till they get married. In every village there were two to three morungs for all the girls and boys. The girls were also required to live there till they get married. Boys were allowed to go in the Morungs of girls, while girls were not allowed to go in boys Morungs. A similar dormitory system was found to be highly prevalent in the Bontoc and Kankanaey tribes of Igorots[x]. The Bontoc social structure has also ben found to be cantered around the village wards and the villages contained 14 to 50 homes. The young men and women of the villages lived in dormitories. Another similarity is that the Morung system from the Igorot tribes and Naga tribes vanished when Christianity entered these tribes.

Kankanaey tribe of the Igorots also have the similar system of dormitories. They also had the separate dormitories for boys and girls. The courtship between boys and girls took place in the dormitories and the similar tradition was also followed in the Naga culture, where the courtship between boys and girls took place in dormitory.  However, courtship is not carried out in the similar manner as in earlier days, but now the young boys can go to the girl’s house to have fun. Such system is still prevalent in Naga villages.

The ‘origin of Man’ has always been a hot topic of debate that has haunted human intellect. The ancient history of the Nagas is hidden somewhere in the unfathomable darkness of TIME. Scientists, Historians, Sociologists, Anthropologists have attempted to demystify the history of Nagas however, no effort reached to the clear conclusion. Nagas share striking similarities not only with Igorots and other south Asian tribes but also with Red Indian Tribes in USA. Moreover, reflection of Naga traditions can also be seen in some African and Indian tribes, however, ‘Animistic belief’ is the common link-a belief system that connects every tribal culture on Earth with each other.

Aniruddha Vithal Babar,, D.H.R.L., LLM (International Law and Human Rights), M.A. (Political Science with specialization in International Relations and Conflict Studies), Former Advocate; Bombay High Court and independent researcher with interdisciplinary temperament. He has respectable hold on political and Socio-legal philosophy and thought with research interests include International law, Tribal Jurisprudence (with special emphasis on the development of Naga Jurisprudence), Applied Politics, Idea of justice, Peace & Conflict Studies, Northeast Studies, Subaltern Studies and Human Rights. Presently he is pursuing his PhD in the interdisciplinary fields of Law, Governance and Conflict Management at SSLG, JAIPUR NATIONAL UNIVERSITY. He may be contacted at [email protected]


[i] Sanyu V. A history of Nagas and Nagaland: dynamics of oral tradition in village formation. Commonwealth Publishers; 1996.

[ii] Julian Jacobs, in Nagaland : A Contemporary Ethnography, Editor: Subhadra Channa, DelW, 1992, p.297.

[iii] Gait EA. A history of Assam. Thacker, Spink & Company; 1906.

[iv] Saha N, Tay JS. Genetic studies among the Nagas and Hmars of eastern India. American journal of physical anthropology. 1990 May 1;82(1):101-12.

[v] Thong T. Civilized colonizers and barbaric colonized: reclaiming Naga identity by demythologizing colonial portraits. History and Anthropology. 2012 Sep 1;23(3):375-97.

[vi] Longkumer A. ” As our ancestors once lived”: Representation, Performance, and Constructing a National Culture amongst the Nagas of India. HIMALAYA, the Journal of the Association for Nepal and Himalayan Studies. 2015;35(1):10.

[vii] Sanyu V. A history of Nagas and Nagaland: dynamics of oral tradition in village formation. Commonwealth Publishers; 1996.

[viii] “People OF The Mountains – Igorots of the cordilleras”. Available at:  <3 June, 2018>

[ix] Thong T. Civilized colonizers and barbaric colonized: reclaiming Naga identity by demythologizing colonial portraits. History and Anthropology. 2012 Sep 1;23(3):375-97.

[x] IGOROT Ethnic Groups. Sagada. Philippines and the Igorot People. Available at : < 3 June, 2018>.




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