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 16 tribes. The Nagas are Indo-Tibetan people who were probably migrants, into India. They were head-hunters, 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 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, off plants grown for this purpose in the outskirts of the village. The Nagas believed that their enemies could be warded off with their magic spells.
Throughout India, weaving is considered a man’s occupation, as it is hard work, sitting at the loom for hours. The women did smaller jobs assisting in the weaving. In Nagaland, however, weaving was a woman’s activity. Every Naga woman learnt to weave cloth for herself and her family. This was done on a simple back strap 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 with warp or 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 is a laborious process, and each piece could take about ten hours for an expert weaver.
If you were a tribal wearing a shawl, the Nagas could gauge your 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 weavers, like a pregnant woman could not weave. When one was weaving a warrior shawl, one could not eat or drink in anyone’s home.
Sometimes a painting was done on the shawls. The pigment was 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 only on 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 make up the cloth.