As in every form of weaving, the making of the Naga Shawl has a close connection to the rituals and beliefs of the people. Nagaland is in North East of India and the Nagas are divided into sixteen tribes. The Nagas are Indo-Tibetian people who were probably migrants, into India. They were headhunters, and wore the heads of their enemies as trophies, and were rewarded for their acts of “valour” by gifts of adornments, like shawls, hornbill feathers, cowries and necklaces. There were special shawls called warrior shawls, where motifs of spears were woven.
The Naga Shawls are bright red and black which are the main colours, and sometimes yellow and a bit of blue are also used. The red in the shawl signified the blood of the enemy. The blue was derived from leaves which were taken off plants grown in a bit of land cleared and kept for this purpose in the outskirts of the village. The Nagas believed that their enemies could be warded off with their own brand of magic spells.
Throughout India, weaving is considered the man’s occupation, as it is hard work, sitting at the loom for hours. The women of the household did smaller jobs which would assist in the weaving of cloth. In Nagaland, however, weaving was very much a woman’s activity. Every Naga woman learnt to weave cloth for herself and her family. This was done on a simple backstrap loom, and the warp fixed to a wall in the house. The loom was strapped to the small of her back.
The designs were woven into the cloth in different colours through the warp or through the weft threads, using a stick of bamboo, or even porcupine quills. Because of the nature of the loom, the designs were always linear and geometric. Sometimes the shawl was woven in three different pieces, and joined together. Weaving as we all know is a laborious process, and each piece could take about ten hours for a practised weaver.
If you were a tribal wearing a shawl, the Nagas could gauge the status in society by just looking at it, because certain designs were reserved only for chieftains or for powerful clans within the tribe. There were other restrictions for the weaver women, like a pregnant woman could not weave. When one was weaving a warrior shawl, the weaver could not eat or drink in anyone’s home.
Sometimes painting was done on the shawls, and the pigment taken from a tree, blended with rice beer! This painting was done only by an old man who told stories of his life as he painted. Originally the shawls were in cotton, but wool did come in later. The special shawls were not worn everyday but for an occasion.
NOTE: Cloth is woven when the warp is intertwined with the weft. Warp is made up of threads going across, horizontally. Weft threads are vertical, and both woven together makes the cloth.