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  • Naga Totem

Wood
19th century
Indo-Burma border, North-East India

Large carved panels such as this totem are particular to the Naga warrior tribes who traditionally inhabited the hilly regions of the eastern Himalayas. Hewn from enormous logs of wood, the panels were used as pillars and beams of the community halls known as morungs,as house fronts of the chief and senior members of the clan, to construct village gates or as Y-posts erected on ceremonial sites.

Carved on the panels are symbols that served as markers of territory as well as announcements of prosperity, courage, and skill at warfare. Representing the horns of the mithun, an indigenous buffalo species reared for their milk and meat, the carvings on this panel represent the number of horns communicating the relative affluence and fertility of the clan, and by extension, that they were seldom defeated – a sign to deter their enemy or at least to give them pause. They also commemorate the completion of the ‘feast of merit’, an animal sacrifice held by a member of the tribe - a marker of status, thanksgiving for one’s prosperity and as an invocation for future abundance. Fertility rituals were believed to bring the feast-givers and their clan bountiful harvests, prosperity, children, cattle and success in hunting.

Above the mithun horns, a hornbill is depicted as though in flight. Known commonly as the ‘King of all birds’ hornbills are revered for their intelligence and courage.

Fierce headhunters until the early 20th century, the Nagas believed that the decapitation of their enemies transferred their life essence to the victorious warrior. Stylised human heads on the upper section of this panel represent the number of heads successfully taken. The rows of aghuhu or enemy teeth attest to the ferocity of the vanquished enemies, enhancing the prestige of their conquerors.

Similarly, carvings of animals, such as the tiger carved into this totem were thought to transfer the spirit of the animal, it’s ferocity, strength, and cunning in warfare to the young warriors of the clan.

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