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Title: Nagas in the museum : an anthropological study of the material culture of the hill peoples of the Assam-Burma border
Author: West, Andrew Christopher
ISNI:       0000 0004 2690 9589
Awarding Body: University of Hull
Current Institution: University of Hull
Date of Award: 1992
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In many ways this thesis is concerned with the meaning of the term 'Naga' especially when it is applied in the identification of historical material culture held in British museums. In the examination of the development and use of Naga collections in British museums, the connections with the ethnology and anthropology of the 19th century are explored. It is fitting, therefore, that we should begin with a reiteration of the early explanations of the word 'Naga', for whilst the theoretical basis and aims of this thesis are different, it could, ironically, be said to be following on from the work of early writers and their search for meaning. The many different early definitions of 'Naga' are of interest for two reasons. First, they give an impression of their writers' ideas, and secondly because they indicate the starting point for the collection of Naga material culture. The following examples are not given in any particular order: from nangta or nanga meaning 'naked' (Butler 1875, Dun 1886, Shakespear 1914); from the name Naga used in the Mahabharat meaning 'beautiful dragon', like the beings against whom the hero Arjuna fought (Dun 1886); from nok meaning 'folk' in some dialects (Chakravorty 1964 from Gait 1826); from the word naga meaning 'snake'; from the Kachari work Naga meaning a 'young man' or 'warrior' (Woodthorpe 1881-82, who also noted the 'naked' and 'snake' explanations); from Na-Ka meaning 'people or men or folk with pierced ears', a name given by the Burmese to Nagas and possibly passed on to the British (Hokishe Sema 1986). Essentially the word seems to have been a derogatory term applied by local outsiders, such as the people of the plains, to the people of the hills, and it was then taken up and used by the British. As early as 1841 Robinson recorded that 'whatever the origin of the word Naga, it appears that the appellation is entirely unknown to any of the hill tribes themselves'. The preoccupation with the derivation of the word continues, for in 1986 Hokishe Sema, as noted above, was suggesting that the name was known in Burma from Na-Ka, and the British got to know of Nagas from the Burmese wars 1795-1826. The practical looseness of definition was realised in the 19th century and comes across in the work of Butler (1875) where he stated that Naga is a 'comprehensive term ... including the whole group of cognate races ... hill and upland' and then gave limits around the compass by reference to geographical features and approximate lines of latitude and longitude; he also suggested that the Kachin and Chin were offshoots of the Nagas. In 1886 Dun firmly noted that: In cases where a large number of tribes have been classed together (Abors, Singphos, Nagas), the differences between tribes separated socially and geograpically from one another have, since the imposition of the name, been discovered to be so great as to suggest doubts as to the advisability of attempting any such wide generic classification. The imposition of the name is the crux of the matter, with connotations for modern identity. Whatever its origin, the term Naga is now used with pride by some hill peoples on the periphery of mainland South-East Asia, predominantly those around what is now the international border of India and Myanmar. Hokishe Sena, a Naga, gives a contemporary view in noting that 'it is a name given by outsiders' and was long resented by the people 'till political expediency caused it to be accepted as describing the separate identity of these people as distinct from other ethnic tribal people and also from the people of the country at large'. Thus, the term Naga already can be seen to offer layers of complex meanings, from its application by outsiders including the British in the 19th century to the centrality of its political use today. It is against this background that this study discusses the ethnography and anthropology of the Naga peoples, particularly in relation to their historical material culture which was collected in the 19th and 20th centuries by the British and deposited in museums in Britain.
Supervisor: Hill, Lewis G. Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: South East Asian studies