Scarier than Witchcraft!


By Monalisa Changkija

This happened in the summer of 1998. I had gone to Guwahati by road with a friend for a couple of days. While returning, as we approached Kaziranga, our Driver suddenly braked and stopped our vehicle. I asked him, "What happened?" He replied, "A cat crossed the road. Shall we return to Guwahati?" "Why?" I asked him. "Well, it is said that a cat crossing the road right in front of our vehicle is a bad omen".

I said, "If you believe in Jesus Christ, just carry on." He started the vehicle and off we continued towards Dimapur, without any mishap or untoward incident. In fact, we forgot all about the cat; we were singing all the Beatles songs we could remember — even our driver joined us in singing old favourites — he's quite a good singer.

All three of us are Ao Nagas, the first Naga tribe to have converted to Christianity and the first Naga tribe to have received modern education over a hundred years ago. Was it because of that, we didn't seriously consider a cat crossing our path a bad omen? Or, was it because of Jesus Christ we reached home safely?

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Or, was it because a cat crossing the road in front of your vehicle doesn't mean anything but just that she happened to cross the road just as your vehicle was approaching? And, when did Nagas come to know, or learn, that a cat crossing our path is bad omen? It was supposed to be the deer — well at least that's what JH Hutton wrote in The Angami Nagas, (page 244, first published By Macmillan & Co. Ltd. London, 1921). He actually quotes Captain Butler: "… the crossing of the path by a deer was a most unlucky omen for an expedition …"

From accounts of JP Mills, JH Hutton, WC Smith, Verrier Elwin, etc., who wrote extensively about various Naga tribes, we are given to understand that Nagas too were highly superstitious and full of fears of malevolent spirits hence to propitiate them our forefathers observed a good number of rites and rituals, which means that the Naga tribes had priests, medicine men, diviners, necromancers, etc., to do the needful.

But what the aforesaid worthies wrote were about the Naga tribes prior to the 18th and 19th centuries, prior to the advent of the British to our parts of the country and prior to the introduction of Christianity and modern education by Baptist missionaries in the 19th century.

But what is the reality now in Nagaland, amongst Naga tribes, now that we hear of numerous allegations of deaths caused due to alleged witchcraft in different parts of the Northeast? As any other indigenous community of this region the Nagas too remain inextricably rooted to their cultures and traditions, most of which have transformed into modern avatars.

And because we continue to be rooted to our cultures and traditions, the superstitions and the fears of malevolent spirits persist although now Nagas pray and fast to a Christian God instead of seeking the services and intervention of traditional priests and intercessors with divine spirits who are a dwindling group amongst Naga tribes today. Praying and fasting to a Christian God has also replaced the age-old practice of genna, the meaning is more akin to the English word 'forbidden', rather than 'taboo'.

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However, although the present Naga tribes have evolved greatly from their ancestors and ancestresses were, primarily because of modern education and Christianity, Naga tribes, like all other indigenous North-eastern communities, too are 'educated' and 'modern', as compared to their forebears, but not really enlightened.

Hence, yes, superstitions abound depending on the levels of education and exposure an individual or a section of individuals may have received or not received. Even within a tribe, some villages are still more 'traditional' than others till today because of their migratory history and genesis. In fact, amongst all Naga tribes, there are villages that still believe that they alone are the repositories of all customary laws, culture and tradition of their tribes. But it is difficult to ascertain how much they continue to uphold the traditional practices because some of these villages are very staunch in their practice of Christianity too.

As regards witchcraft, etc., from the accounts of JP Mills, JH Hutton, WC Smith, Verrier Elwin, etc., as well as the present day Naga writers such as Takuyuba, Talitemjen Jamir, Temsula Ao, L Sosang Jamir, etc., it is abundantly clear that Naga tribes did not practice human sacrifice and rarely end any individual's life through witchcraft although the earlier foreign writers did write about the practice of "… making a straw image of an enemy in another village, and after addressing it by name spearing it".

(The Lotha Nagas, JP Mills, page 168, first published By Macmillan & Co. Ltd. London, 1922). Mills also writes: "Witchcraft, in the evil sense of the word, was probably never common among the Lothas …" He also writes: "The Eastern Rengmas seem to be happily free from black magic, but the fear of it is very real in the Western section of the tribe", in his book The Rengma Nagas. On Magic and Witchcraft, Hutton writes: The use of the term magic here is not intended to suggest any very clear distinction in the Angami mind between the magical and religious rites. There are however practices directed against persons with intent to work them harm to which the term may perhaps be not aptly applied.

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Magic in this sense may be practiced by the community in certain cases. The observation of penna (community genna) or kenna (genna observed to preserve objects of utility) by the village may cause the death of a person named as its subject." (The Angami Nagas first published By Macmillan & Co. Ltd. London, 1921)

Earlier foreign writers have written about the use of charms for romantic reasons and the use of stones and berries with 'magical' properties to heal and/or harm, etc., among Naga tribes but it may be safely said that the culture of magic, witchcraft, occultism, sorcery, necromancy, etc., was never strongly embedded in the Naga psyche ergo the Naga tribe.

This could be the reason why the three of us didn't think twice about that cat crossing our path near Kaziranga, and not so much because we are educated and Christians. Or, perhaps, a cat of Assam has no 'magical' powers over three Nagas! It is difficult to explain human belief-systems, both at the individual and collective levels.

Meanwhile, it must be said that there is a number of Naga individuals, who seek the intervention of non-Naga fortune-tellers and the like to attract and invite wealth, fame, professional, especially political, success, etc., and pay any amount to buy the advised and prescribed talisman and gems that would ensure their desired goals.

Yes, there is also a great deal of interest in astrology, numerology, etc., amongst a section of our so-called educated and modern Nagas. It is difficult to explain belief-systems, especially seeing how our education systems do not address the complex workings of the human heart and mind. Still, as yet, there is no reported and recorded instance of death attributed to magic and witchcraft in the modern era amongst Naga Tribes. In the case of Naga society, perhaps the dao earlier and now the gun has proved to be more potent than witchcraft?