Book Reviews

cover image
The Naga of Burma
Jamie Saul
with photography by
Dominique Viallard

2005. 214 pp., 213 col. pl., 12 b & w pl., 56 sketches, 3 maps, notes, bibliography, index, 22 x 23 cm. Softcover

ISBN-10: 974-524-065-6 $36.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-065-0

Book review by Nicholas Tapp, Australian National University

(Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania No.163.2/3 2007)

Saul has been involved in researching the Naga of northeast India and Burma for some 40 years, initially under Mutton’s guidance (some readers of Man may remember Saul’s 1969 review of Hutton’s revised version of his 1922 The Sema Naga). Since 2000 he has undertaken five field visits to the eastern Naga of Burma, on which this book is partly based. The book is superbly illustrated with colour photographs by Viallard and line drawings by the author, and has two useful maps of the region (pp. 2, 22). Extensive knowledge of published and unpublished materials shows in the valuable and comprehensive bibliography. Saul also knows Indonesia and sometimes draws comparisons with the Toraja. Alan Macfarlane’s Foreword provides an admirable overview of the book and of the Naga. As he points out, the Naga have a particularly interesting society with possible historical links to the cultures of Borneo and the Philippines (p. xi). Little research has been possible in Nagaland or among the Naga of Burma since 1947, but their culture is in a sense particularly accessible because initial contact with the outside world occurred relatively late. They were ‘expert craftsmen and artists’ and their material culture, well documented here by Saul through the library resources he knows so well in addition to his own meticulous research, is of great value and interest. Macfarlane also points out how this book will supplement recent publications by Julian Jacobs (The Nagas; Society, culture, and the colonial encounter, 1990), Stirn and Van Ham’s The hidden world of the Nagas in 2003, and his own long-term visual data project on Naga materials available through
   The book comprises an encyclopaedic compendium of Naga material culture and social life in an ‘ethnographic present’ the author dates from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth (p. 30). Yet it is frequently complemented and enlivened by his own observations, for example of sacrificial posts, tattoos or divination rituals, and his own interviews and conversations with the many Naga he thanks.
   Chapter One provides a lively introduction to a ‘national’ Naga festival organized by the Burmese authorities, which the author attended in 2002. The entry of different warrior parties representing the extraordinary diversity of Naga sub-groups is very well described; Saul remarks on the ‘profound sense of raw power’ they emanate (p. 5), and the ‘genuine warmth of the Naga’ (p. 7).
   Chapter Two provides a geographical introduction to the region based on very extensive knowledge; the author knows exactly where each sub-group is based and mostly where they migrated from, and the precise valley where refugees escaped from the Japanese or the British mounted punitive expeditions. This chapter moves into a valuable exposition of each sub-group, with some account of their migration routes and myths and dialects. Robbins Burling is thanked for extensive inputs here, but this author sometimes has his own suggestions and remarks on the need for more extensive linguistic work. However, no essentialism is assumed; Saul notes that tribal organization was largely a British administrative fiction (p. 17) and that village organization seemed to have been primary, and while regretting the loss of wildlife ranging from elephant to tiger and miihun, remarks on the ‘continual transformation’ which took place in the area throughout and subsequent to colonialization (p. 18).
   Chapter Three deals with the external markers of these identities in a comparative way, from hairstyles to tattooing (the ‘language of skin’, p. 33), clothes, and bodily ornaments like ear-plugs and armlets. It is clear that this is where the author’s primary interest lies, but it is a well-informed interest, remarking on differences of status and gender with clarity and erudition.
   Chapter Four describes the ‘environmental’ aspects, again with particularly clear descriptions of variations in house structure (one group has longhouses) and the widespread morung or men’s ‘clubhouse’, and the log drum which a morung contained, often carved, which was beaten to warn of the approach of enemies, fire, or death.
   Chapter Five sets out to deal specifically with politics and society, and here one feels perhaps something of the drawbacks of the dependence on colonial and previous ethnographic records for much of what we know. Macfarlane (p. xi) notes the ‘good fortune’ which brought to the Naga hills a series of ‘gifted observers’, and it is certainly true that some of the materials we have are exemplary in clarity of material description. Still, one feels much social context must be missing owing to the lack of long-term participatory fieldwork immersion. We hear of tributary relations between villages and of frequent warring and raiding, often for the purpose of head-hunting, and something of the difference between autocratic styles of leadership associated with hereditary chieftains and classes, and more egalitarian structures like village councils which sometimes combined with chieftainships. Under ‘Displaying wealth’ (pp. 105-7), Saul deals well with the feasts of merit which established status and culminated in the erection of wooden posts or large stone slabs. But one cannot help recollecting that Christianity impacted the Naga strongly in the late nineteenth century and that while non-Christians survive, these customs have long been discontinued.
   ‘The journey of life’ (Chapter Six) takes us, again in a structural and synthetic way comparing variations among the different sub-groups, through the stages of birth and naming, youth age-groups (in some areas), and the extraordinary variety of customs associated with death—platform burials, the ritual removal of skulls, and the use of burial pots were all practices followed by different divisions of the Naga. The account of the ‘Daily grind’ (pp. 114-6) is particularly well done. Chapter Seven (which might have been coupled with Chapter Four) introduces us to the economics of jhum (swidden) cultivation, combined in some areas with terraced rice cultivation, with details also of hunting and trapping and how fish were poisoned, and of the regional trade in salt, iron, hornbill feathers, honey and cattle.
   In Chapter Eight one again feels the author’s expertise as he describes in great and precise detail the weaving and dyeing of cloth (and other natural fibres), smithery, woodworking and carvings in wood, and something of the ‘lexicon of carving’ (p. 149); a tiger stood for the ‘bravery of the morung’, a human head for a ‘great head-hunter’. Basketry, the use of shells and beads, and some pottery, are also all well described and illustrated, and the chapter concludes with an account of songs and dances, and then sports and games (tops and wrestling).
   Chapter Nine deals with the beliefs in spirits and the festivals and rituals associated with them, some observed by the author. Not, however, the human sacrifices (often of slaves) which took place, which are also described in some detail. The legend of the beaten Toad who caused the Flood, and of the loss of records (very widespread in the region and further afield in parts of Southeast Asia and China) are described (p. 185). The penultimate chapter concerns the precise details of head-hunting and the well-recorded rituals and practices associated with it. Head-hunting continued off and on until ‘at least 1983’, when it was last officially recorded, although there were reports of its recurrence in the 1990s (p. 188).
   The last chapter (‘The external world and its impact’) makes the point that the Naga have never really been isolated; pressured by the Kuki on one side and Jinghpaw on the other, colonialization had an obvious impact in reducing some of the migratory processes which might have been expected to occur. The summary history of raids and migrations on pp. 195-6 impresses on one something of the long story of violence in this region, and here (p. 198) the author mentions the Naga struggle for independence in India and liberation groups in Burma which have made the whole area such a sensitive zone. In conclusion the author notes the rapid disappearance of such practices as tattooing, ritual festivals, and head-hunting, but notes that a revival is taking place in India which may rescue some cultural elements from otherwise certain oblivion. This is a rich and fascinating account of an extraordinary culture in a little-known region which should be of interest to a wide public concerned with ethnic artefacts as well as to anthropologists and historians of the region. The book is beautifully produced, and has the effect of bringing to mind a creative complex composed of wood carvings and hornbill feathers, head-hunting parties and beliefs in ancestral essence, feasting and mortuary rites, chiefly prowess and spears proudly brandished against outsiders.

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