The Nagas

Hill Peoples of Northeast India

Project Introduction The Naga Database


The "military" phase of observation

Since we cannot visit Nagaland and in any case the period covered by this disc is long past, we are forced to look over the shoulders of others who lived and worked in Nagaland. We see the Nagas through the necessarily distorted mirror of European visitors.

Over time, it is possible to divide this observation into two broad and overlapping phases.

The first phase (1832 to c.1880) might be termed "military", in which initial contact was dominated by an attempted pacification in the face of an unorthodox resistance by the Nagas. In this phase, where the Nagas represented an unexpected obstacle to the smooth expansion of British political power and economic interests (principally tea), the potential for ethnographic description was limited.

The Nagas, who had achieved equality with neighbouring valley Hindu kingdoms, did not always accept the British presence willingly; while their institutionalised violence and lack of over-arching political organisation, made British control difficult to effect. Yet by the end of this phase a significant body of descriptive writing by surveyors, soldiers and administrators had been built up.

The writing was on occasion patronising and, to the modern eye, racist, and it emphasised the obviously exotic features of Naga society, such as head-taking. But its descriptive thoroughness, in questions of dress, ornamentation, and house-building (features which seemed to make it possible to identify different groups or even tribes), raised the key question which still informs Naga studies: are the Nagas one people or many?

The "administrative" phase of observation

The second phase, which we might call "administrative", saw overt military control largely replaced by a policy of indirect rule through administration. Within the (ever-expanding) administered area, the British guaranteed peace, while setting up structures of courts, schools, taxes, headmen and labour obligations; outside the administered area the British practised non-interference, except where raiding threatened administered villages or valley tea estates.

This policy of non-interference necessitated a need for the most thorough knowledge of the people concerned: their indigenous laws and kinship systems, the demands of their ritual observances, their understanding of social status, their relations with their neighbours, their economy and systems of ownership. The variations in these matters between groups of villages, were studied intensively, often under the influence of the then current theories about migration and social evolution.

It is for this reason that the administrative and ethnographic projects were parallel, and indeed the ethnographic monographs of the 1920s doubled as administrator’s handbooks. The naming of the separate Naga "tribes" (largely on the basis of material culture and language) was effected by this stage: although a British way of seeing things rather than a Naga one, this classification continues to be important in Nagaland, which since 1962 has been a state within the Republic of India.

The Naga videodisc particularly features the work of six individuals, from different points in this long process of contact and interaction.

Colonel R.G.Woodthorpe

Representative of the early imperial, expansionist and military phase, is Colonel R.G.Woodthorpe. Col. Woodthorpe began survey work as an Assistant Superintendent in 1871-2, working in the Lushai Hills, and subsequently in the Garo and Naga Hills. His 1882 lectures on the Nagas remained a standard work for many years; he illustrated his own writings with some fine drawings.

As the administration became more settled, District Officers were appointed: their on-the-spot experience was held to be essential to the project of indirect administrative rule.


Dr.J.H.Hutton, later Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, served in the Indian Civil Service from 1909 to 1935, almost entirely as an administrative officer in the Hill areas of Assam. He was involved, as a magistrate and taxation officer, in a practical way in Naga life. He recorded in detail their customs, languages and social organisation. He did this, both for posterity and, as he saw it, to make it easier gradually and non-coercively to integrate this culture into the British Empire.

Through the encouragement of the Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, Henry Balfour, Hutton began systematically collecting and documenting artefacts for the museums at Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere. He also took a large number of still photographs, made some early wax cylinder recordings from 1915-19 and took the copious field notes upon which his lengthy and detailed monographs on the 'Angami Nagas' and 'Sema Nagas' were based.


Hutton was followed by an equally talented administrative officer, J.P.Mills (1890-1960), later Reader in Anthropology at the School of Oriental Studies. Educated at Winchester, Mills served in the Naga Hills between 1916 and 1938.

Inspired by Hutton, by a similar friendship with Balfour and by his deep affection for the Nagas, as well as the practical necessity of advising and arbitrating, he collected and analysed with equal energy. On his numerous trips through the administered and unadministered areas he documented the Naga way of life as fully as he could. He added to and complemented the collections of artefacts, particularly in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

As a result of the combined efforts of Hutton, Mills and Balfour the collections of material culture artefacts for this relatively small and isolated group of tribes constitutes one of the finest tribal collections in the world, and undoubtedly the finest in the Pitt Rivers Museum. The collection is also superbly documented, with details about the use and origin of most objects.

Mills, like Hutton, was a keen amateur photographer and the joint collection of their early photographs comprises about 1500 plate glass slides or negatives. Mills' ethnographic observations resulted in three lengthy and detailed books on 'The Ao Nagas', 'The Lhota Nagas' and 'The Rengma Nagas', as well as numerous articles, constituting some two thousand pages of very careful documentation of these groups. Unfortunately, only a little of his unpublished materials in the form of letters and diaries, have survived.

Hutton and Mills are representatives of the colonial officer combined with anthropologist. A fully trained and talented example of the new professional anthropologists appeared in the Naga hills in 1936 when Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf arrived to study the Konyak Nagas.

Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf

Born in 1909 and educated in Vienna and London, Furer-Haimendorf was for many years Professor of Anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He was the first in the Naga Hills to live for months at a time practising the new form of 'participant-observation' fieldwork in a single small group of villages. He learnt the language, went hunting, fishing, planting, weeding, dancing and feasting with his co- villagers.

While interested in the comparative and theoretical problems of anthropology, he also wished to understand and then convey what it must feel like to live in a Naga village, to start to interpret Naga culture from the inside.

The feelings, thoughts and interconnections of Naga society fascinated Furer-Haimendorf and he set out to document and bring back as much information as possible about this very alien world. He wished to translate this culture into terms that were comprehensible to a European audience. He tried to do this in four ways.

Firstly he used the written word. In the field he kept very detailed diaries totalling about two thousand hand-written pages, covering one year, and in fifteen notebooks a parallel set of more detailed notes, genealogies and house lists. On the basis of these he published the evocative 'The Naked Nagas' , a short anthropological work on the 'Konyak Nagas' and a series of articles.

Secondly, he added to the collections of artefacts started by others. Thirdly, he made about five hours of moving 16mm film, both black and white and in colour. As a movie camera was not available during his first fieldwork, Furer-Haimendorf returned in 1962 and 1970 to make these films, at a time when the Naga hills were closed to all other foreigners.

Finally, he was an energetic and accomplished photographer. There remain over two and a half thousand black and white 35mm photographs (as well as some later colour photographs) of his year among the Konyak Nagas. Using a Contax camera fitted with a telescopic lens, he was able to capture with unusual intimacy the life around him.

Ursula Graham Bower

A few years after Furer-Haimendorf, but working at the other end of the area among the Zemi Nagas of North Cachar, was Ursula Graham Bower.

Born in 1914 and educated at Roedean, she first visited a friend in Manipur in 1937 and then spent some seven years living among Nagas between 1938 and l945. For long periods she was without European company and was faced with the advancing tide of Japanese invasion during the Second World War. She immersed herself in the culture and language and even led a small section of 'V' force irregular troops against the Japanese. Like those before her she sent home material culture artefacts to British museums.

In an unpublished anthropological thesis she made an analysis of the social organisation of the Zemi Nagas. In notebooks and diaries she kept a record of her own life and analysed the folklore, language and other features of the southern Nagas. And in her best-selling autobiographical account, 'Naga Path', she tried to convey the experience of a young woman living among the Nagas.

Like Furer-Haimendorf, Ursula Graham Bower was an enthusiastic and gifted photographer. Despite the rationing and disturbances of war, she took over two thousand black and white photographs. She somehow procured a 16mm movie camera and film stock and made a series of black and white and colour films lasting over an hour and a half. These parallel with considerable technical ability her photographs and writings.


The final major figure is W.G.Archer, a late example of the colonial officer and anthropologist.

Archer had previously worked and written about the tribal art of middle India. When he was made Sub-Divisional Officer in Mokokchung in l946, he decided to make a study of Naga art with a view to publishing a book. He consequently rapidly assembled over 800 photographs, numerous sketches and notes. He was only able to remain for a year, sandwiched between the devastations of a war which had just finished and the rapid ending of British rule.

His insights were complemented by the detailed diary of his wife Mildred, who kept a diary. Both were to go on to pursue distinguished careers in the Victoria and Albert Museum and India Office Library.

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