Why Naga-‘Land’, Not Naga Pradesh?
Because we as a people suffer either from collective amnesia or from sad ignorance of the remarkable role the Nāga community played in the cultural history of India not only at the national level but also on the global scale, from Japan in the Far East to Mexico in the Far West
Nearly 200 years ago, in the year 1835, Macaulay made a speech in the British Parliament in which he praised Indians as a highly civilized, cultured and moral people, and then added : “I do not think we would ever conquer this country unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and therefore I propose that we replace her….ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self-esteem, their….self-culture, and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.”
Macaulay’s recipe worked beyond his imagination. For even after more than half a century of political independence, English continues to dominate the Indian mindset. A glaring example of this mental slavery was a newspaper article an “intellectual” wrote a few short years ago in praise of Macaulay, in which he went to the extent of arguing that those who do not know English are “lesser” Indians. Another bizarre but “official” example is the half-English name of one of the north-eastern states of “Bharat that is India”—Naagaa-‘land’.
Why Nāgā Land? Why not Nāga Pradesh? Because we as a people suffer either from collective amnesia or from sad ignorance of the remarkable role the Nāga community played in the cultural history of India not only at the national level but also on global scale, from Japan in the Far East to Mexico in the Far West.
Original Home Kashmir
This history begins with Nilamata Purāna, the earliest-known Sanskrit work of Kashmir, composed a millennium and a half ago, around 6th century AD. In scholarly opinion a study of the history of Kashmir would not be complete without the study of two texts—Nīlamata Purāna and Kalhana’s Rājatarangini (12th century AD). Kalhana, one of the great historians of Kashmir, is himself said to have taken the help of this Purāna. Nīlamata Purāna (or Nīla Purāna) is one of the Upa-Purānas, but it is considered so important that it is quoted by writers on Dharma-Shastras. Reputed German Indologist Buhler praised it as a “real mine of information”.
Now, according to a startling thesis presented by eminent cultural historian Dr. Balaram Chakravarti, the Nāgas of the North-East originally hailed from Kashmir, and Nīlamata Purāna was composed about them by their saintly chief Muni Nīla. It says Kashmir is the original homeland of the Nāgas. In hoary times, as has been accepted by geologists, Kashmir was full of lakes, and Nāgas lived on their shores. As a result, they developed an aquatic culture. They built their houses on stilts, possibly because of the proximity with water. Now, although present-day Nāgas lives in the hills they still build their houses on stilts, perhaps following their ancestral lifestyle. Furthermore, the ancestors living by the lakes in Kashmir used light canoes for fishing, but they could also lift them out of the water, put them on the ground upside down, and beat them like drums, either to make music for song and dance, or to send signals / messages to other groups living at a distance. Now Nāga drums are still shaped like canoes.
Present-day Nāgas also make ornaments from shells although they now live in the hills. These ornaments are cherished possessions of a Nāga home. The Nāgas also introduced cultivation in the Ziro valley of Arunāchal Pradesh, where it was previously unknown. Here it may be noted that the root-meaning of the term Arya is “cultivator or tiller of the land”.
According to Chakravarti Nīlamata Purāna describe the reasons for the migration of the Nāgas at different times in various directions. There is no timeline available, but the migration to North-East India must have taken place much before the period of the Mahabharat (Bharat War, 5100 BP, Before Present). For not only had the Nāgas reached the North-East in proto-historical times, they had settled down enough to establish their own kingdoms, like neighbouring Asura, Dānava and Kirāta clans. Many of these kings had fought in the Bharat war, the most prominent among them being the Kirāta king Bhagadatta, who fought on the side of the Kauravas as his daughter Bhanumati was married to Duryodhana. Even before the Bharat war Arjuna had invaded Bhagadatta’s kingdom and defeated him, after which he advanced to the Nāga kingdom, where he married the Nāga princess Ulupi.
Kingdom in Cambodia
From the North-East of India the thread of Nāga migration extended eastward up to Cambodia, which has a Hindu history of 2000 years. It began with an adventurous Brahmin youth from south India by name Kaundinya reaching its coast in circa the first century AD. The place he arrived at was one of the many small kingdoms of the time, called Funan by the Chinese. It was ruled by a young princess by name Somā. On seeing the ship of the stranger from India, accompanied by an army, the princess gave battle, but was defeated. Later Kaundinya married her, and thus they became king and queen of Funan. This Funanese princess was the daughter of a Nāga king, and this Nāga kingdom had been established around the first century BC.
The dynasty Somā and Kaundinya founders ruled over a prosperous kingdom in the Mekong delta for as long as 550 years, and its rulers proudly described themselves in Sanskrit as Kaundinya-Somaduhitra-Prabhara, “descendants of Kaundinya and daughter of Soma the Moon”. Thus it was a Nāga princess who contributed to the writing of a glorious chapter of Hindu history of South-East Asia, the world’s most Hinduised region outside India.
Did the Nāgas’ eastward migration out of India stop at Cambodia? Apparently not, speculates Chakravarti. Rather, he asserts it would not be illogical to assume that the Nāgas who were so advanced in Cambodia more than 2000 years ago may quite possibly have reached Japan long before that. Coming down from proto-historic to ancient historical times, presumably over a long period the migrants from the west came to be known as the indigenous people of Japan called Ainu.
This has now been accepted as a historical fact. According to Chakravarti the Nāgas who reached Japan settled in the coastal regions, and he mentions old accounts that “link the Ainu to the Nāga, a people of aquatic culture.” In Japan: A Short Cultural History he writes: “In the coastal plains the houses of the Ainu are often built on stilts to avoid submergence from overflooding rivers or tidal seas. The practice of building houses on stilts might have been brought by these ancient people of Japan from their ancient homeland in the coastal areas of the lakes of ….Kashmir, from which they are said to have migrated to Japan….”
There is also another link, at a deeper level, between the Nāga-Ainu people of ancient people and India, to which Chakravarti alludes. He says the Ainu practised a “shamanistic religion” akin to the “Bon religion which sprang on the shore of Lake Mapham (Mānas Sarovar)” in Tibet. This is a clear Hindu link. For, as this writer has explained at length in Tibet: From Tranquility to Turmoil, Bon/Shamanism is remarkably akin to Hinduism in major respects. The very word Shaman is derived from Sanskrit Shramana, which means an ascetic (not only a Buddhist monk). Later, says Chakravarti, their Shamanism evolved into Shintoism, but “the numerous tribal communities living in the river basins of Japan held to their aquatic culture or their Shinto or Nāga beliefs even till….early in the 7th century AD”.
Nāgas in Far West
If the Nāgas reached the Far East, they also reached the Far West. For in his series of the cultural history of various countries Dr. Balaram Chakravarti extensively dwells on how the Nāgas reached right up to South America, where they played a significant role among the ancient Indian progenitors of human civilization in the western hemisphere. He points out that various ancient Sanskrit texts narrate how the ancient ‘Amerindians’ came to be composed of Nāga, Asura, Dānava peoples. Giving a geographic context to these age-old migrations of the Indics, Chakravarti speculates that the Nāgas migrated from Kashmir by sailing across the Atlantic, the Dānavas may have reached by the Pacific, while the Asuras may have crossed over on foot by walking across the frozen Bering Strait between the tips of Siberia and Alaska around the end of the last Ice Age. He also mentions a migrant group he calls “Indra-worshippers” which may have come to be called AriiΆrya. Here it would be relevant to point out that Indra was the most prominent deity of Vedic Aryans.
This historical fact of a Hindu America has also been acknowledged by a number of modern western scholars including American, Mexican, Spanish and British historians and archaeologists. Among them Mackenzie writes in Myths of pre-Columbian America, “….the interesting fact emerges that there was a “snake” people in America as there were and are Nāga people in India.” American researcher Gene Matlock in his monograph Journey to Baboquivary writes thus about civilized Nāgas’ contribution to Amerindian civilisation: “The Nāgas were a highly civilized ruling, maritime and mercantile clan, who once inhabited north-west India and contiguous regions”. To this praise M.Oldfield adds in The Encircled Serpent: “Originally, the Nāgas were not only a civilised people, but a maritime power, and in the Mahabharat….the ocean is described as their habitation….The Nāgas were expert navigators….and had founded colonies upon distant coasts.”
Civilisers of Arizona
In their American colonies the highly-developed Nāgas taught the O’odham aborigines of Arizona (now in the U.S.) how to build dwellings. They also taught them about the Creator God, Dyaus or Jyaus. Even today the O’odhams call him Jeoss or Joss. The Nāgas also dug deep wells in the desert for water, which they siphoned out with thick tubes (with the outer end painted like a human month) which looked like writhing serpents when water flowed up through them. For primitire Arizonians they looked like real serpents, and they called the water pipes Nah-Big, Snake Lord. Some O’odhams and other native tribes of south Arizona also called this mythical serpent Corua, which, says Chakravarti, is derived from Kadruja (the sons of mother Kadru, as in Hindu mythology). Indian Nāgas wear a buffalo head-dress on ceremonial occasions as a symbol of power. In the same manner various native American tribes, such as Mandanau, Hopi and Sioux Red Indians also wear it in their ritual dance to this day. (To add a relevant etymological titbit here, the name of the Hopi Red Indians is derived from ophis, the Greek word for “serpent”, which in turn is derived from Ahi, Sanskrit for “snake”. )
In Mexico there are Nāga temples with serpent columns and balustrades, and, says Chakravarti, ancient Mexicans celebrated a festival very similar to Nāga Pamchami of the Hindus. He also points out that the textile designs of Peru resemble “in every detail” the colourful designs preserved by Nāga weavers even today. According to Chakravarti, the ‘Serpent’ (Nāga) people of the Amazon Valley in Brazil had migrated to Peru, and in course of time they went further down to Chile, where they were joined by the “people of Tani”, the Tānava / Dānava people who had come from across the Pacific, to build a composite culture of the Nāga-Dānavas, which, he asserts, is the “bedrock of the Chilean culture”. The descendants of these Nāgas are the indigenous Chileans, called Mapuche and Aymara, as also Araucanians. Chakravarti holds that the Aymaras can be identified as the Nāgas and the Mapuches as the Dānavas. Finally, World Book Encyclopaedia says the first inhabitants of what is now Panama were Indians but the time of their arrival is not known. On the other hand Chakravarti holds that migrant Nāgas from India, after reaching Panama by sea, might have settled in a forested area they called Vanam (forest), which, in course of time became ‘Panama’. This may be a stretch, but it is interesting nevertheless.
All in all, even this brief overview of the far-flung contribution of the Nāgas to the cultural history of India abroad—from Japan in the Far East to Mexico in the Far West, should suffice to convince us that it merits due and honourable recognition. A small, symbolic, yet significant way to do that would be to discard the outlandish, half-foreign name of their state, and change it from Nāgā land to Nāga Pradesh.
By Sudhakar Raje