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Cultural similarities between Naga people of India and Myanmar regions, and the people of Borneo

The Naga people are tribes who live in northeastern India and northwestern Myanmar. They make the majority of the population in the Indian state of Nagaland and Naga Self-Administered zone of Myanmar.

The Naga people are known for their strong warrior tradition. In the olden days, the Naga people practiced headhunting, as they took the heads of their enemies in the belief that they would also take their power.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles from India and Myanmar, the indigenous people of Borneo also had a culture of headhunting. But what do these two indigenous groups share besides cutting off the heads of their enemies?

Former Sarawak Museum curator Edward Banks explored this question in a paper published in The Sarawak Museum Journal in August 1983.

According to Banks, there were many other things the Naga and Borneo peoples did the same way because they lived under the same conditions, not because they are related.

The Naga people made an appearance during Rainforest World Music Festival in 2019 at Sarawak Cultural Village.

Here are some of the comparisons between the Naga people and the ethnic groups in Borneo according to Banks:

1.Clothing

The Naga people, like the tribes in Borneo, wore loin cloth in the olden days. In Assam, they called it lengta.

2.Slash and burn method of farming

“Both sides plant rice by first cutting down the jungle, burning it off and then planting hill rice in the clearings,” Banks wrote.

To celebrate bountiful harvest, both cultures also have festivals at the end of harvest season.

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3.Rice Wine

Most societies that rely on rice as a staple food tend to use its surplus to brew rice wine.

Here in Sarawak, we are known for our tuak and burak. The Naga people also have their own version of rice wine.

Banks stated, “The brews seem to be very much the same, boiled rice fermented with the dust from the winnowing of the husked rice. The taste seems to be much the same and so does the result, not very intoxicating at the time you merely feel rather ill the next day.”

4. Knife and sword

Naga knives, known as “dao”, were made so that the hilt angled upwards from the blade to prevent the back of the hand being skinned against the tree trunk or log which was being cut.

The “dao” mostly resembles the Bidayuh people’s war sword called pandat as well as the parang latok or latok from Kalimantan.

5. How a woman was buried

Banks in his paper pointed out, “One of the oddest things common to Kayans and to Nagas was the hanging up of the departed lady’s sun hat beneath her tomb. I do not know anyone else does this and it is an extraordinary custom to crop up thousands of miles apart.”

6.Bachelor’s house or head house

A baruk (also known as pangah/baluh/balu/pangarah) is an important architectural feature in a traditional Bidayuh village.

It works as a meeting hall, shelter and where they used to keep the heads of their enemies.

Similarly, the Naga people have a bachelor’s house where they had meeting, welcomed strangers and kept the heads.

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In the olden days, women were not allowed to enter this house.

7.Jar burials

Jar burials were common in many cultures throughout Southeast Asia. However, the manner of how a jar burial was conducted might differ.

According to Banks, the Kelabits used to cut a ridge in the jungle, dig a trench, put in the jar containing the bones of the deceased and erect an upright stone pillar with a large flat stone at its base.

“These menhirs are just the same as those used by some of the Nagas, the likeness is astonishing,” he stated.

8.The naming of a son

Banks also claimed there was a similarity in the ceremony for naming a son between the Naga people and the Kayans.

He stated, “A 100 foot jointed bamboo pole was placed in the ground and supported by a forked stick about one third of the way up so that the rest of the pole bent over in a graceful arc with the tip almost touching the ground. The pole was covered with bamboo leaves, gourds and flat pieces of bamboo were tied on near the tip and the whole thing clapped away merrily when the wind blew. You can see a picture of one in Hose’s book. In pre-war days, there were lots of these lovely things up and down the banks of the Baram river.”

Black and white photographs taken by R.G. Woodthorpe, c.1873-1875 Tangkhul Nagas photographs Tangkhul Woodthorpe/ R.G.(1873-1875). Pitt Rivers Museum Archive, Oxford AL.62.1.4 Credit: Public Domain.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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