The hill states of North East India are home to various tribal communities who share somewhat distinct cultures from their plain counterparts owing to geographical limitations but nonetheless show many similar attributes.
Nagas are among these tribes and are spread out over the hills ranging from the Patkai in Arunachal Pradesh to the Barail in Assam’s Dima Hasao to the rolling hills of Manipur.
There is a general misconception among many Indians that their Naga brethren are some radically different community that have little in common with them.
However, this is far from true considering the region falls under a cultural continuum with some of these tribes having more Indic influence and some relatively less.
This is the first article in a series that will put a special focus on some of the Naga tribes of North East India that have come under the umbrella of Hinduism.
The first of the Naga tribes that came under the purview of Hinduism were the Noctes, who inhabit the Tirap-Changlang belt of Arunachal Pradesh with smaller numbers in Upper Assam.
The traditional Nocte pantheon comprises a vibrant list of deities called jauban, who are largely benevolent in nature.
The names of the deities vary depending upon the geographical location and dialect spoken by the individual but some notable ones include Jo jauban (deity of water), Dong jauban (hill deity) and Lam jauban (deity of paths).
Priests oversee the conduct of the rituals to propitiate the deities which may include ritual sacrifices of animals, largely chickens but can also include boars and occasionally dogs.
Animal sacrifices are however not done on the sacred day of Jama (which coincides with the Shakta festival of Ambubachi), as observed in Noksa village of Tirap.
Apart from following their traditional faith, the Nocte tribe also has a long history of professing Vaishnavism.
The form of Vaishnavism that is dominant among the Nocte tribes today is Kala Samhati school of Eksarna Naam Dharma (also called Mahapurushiya Vaishnavism), as propagated by the sixteenth century saint Srimanta Sankardeva of Assam.
Its followers are called Rati khowas (lit ‘night eaters’) as a result of the nocturnal dietary habits of the devotees after completion of their rituals.
The success of this form of Vaishnavism among the Nagas may be attributed to the liberal approach of the propagators allowing the consumption of non-vegetarian diet.
Hence, it is not surprising to see Hindu Noctes offering wine during ceremonies such as Hum Kamhaon, the ceremony to honour the Nocte guru Narrottama.
Local folklore credits the adoption of this unique form of Vaishnavism among the Nagas to the influence of the Namsang king Lotha Khunbao.
The valorous chieftain is believed to have had a divine epiphany where a divine being appeared in his dream.
Aroused by the curiosity to find this sacred entity, he ventured out into the plains of the Brahmaputra valley accompanied by a dozen of his compatriots.
He floated some bamboo tubes filled with gold coins into the Dehing river and followed its direction until it was picked up by Shri Ramadeva, the abbot of the Bareghar Satra at Sasoni, Upper Assam.
After undergoing a small test to examine his devotion, the guru was pleased with the sincerity of the Naga king.
Thenceforth, under the spiritual guidance of Guru Rama Ata, he was initiated into the ways of Srimanta Sankardeva on the banks of the Dihing river adopting the name of Naga Narottama.
His fellowmen would also follow him into worshipping Krishna such that by 1981, 66.82 per cent of the Noctes in Arunachal returned themselves as Hindus.
The sacred Narottam Kund stands today as a testimony of the divine grace of these two Vaishnavite saints whose waters continue to be an important pilgrimage site for its devotees.
It is believed the waterbody was created by Shri Ramadeva when the locals of the area complained of severe water scarcity.
The wise man then threw one of his kharam (slippers) which pierced into the hills resulting in the creation of the spring.
Since then, water has not been an issue for the inhabitants of the place and many Noctes believe that looking into the spring’s waters with devotion and sincerity can result in a sight of the guru’s kharam (Dutta).
Naga Narottama is also reported to have penned down his philosophical thoughts into a set of texts called Bhakti Premvali.
Historian Dr Parul Dutta’s research on the Noctes led her to visit the Bareghar Satra where she met then abbot Shri Gopal Krishna Dev Goswami who showed her an existing manuscript of the same written in the Assamese script.
Her research led her to conclude that the text kept in the Satra library was a copy of an original that is otherwise lost to the sands of time. Although the Sanskrit used in the writing was unchaste, she could nonetheless decipher the text with the aid of the holy man.
“masabda maghah saumbasabdoh
Bhisanda ashtamam premavali
(Translation: It is the month of Magh, eighth day of Saka 1781)
Over the last few centuries, Noctes have undergone significant acculturation with the greater Assamese society alongside their Hinduisation.
The Assamese village of Pontuan in Dibrugarh district of Assam is a very good example of this co-existence.
Situated around 30 kms away from the Nocte heartland of Tirap, the village was settled by the tribals in 1814.
Even after two centuries, the people of this area continue to follow the tradition of their forefathers, having built a temple in honour of the Nocte saint Narottam Ata.
The villagers are well versed in their native Hawakhun dialect (of Nocte) as well as the state’s lingua franca of Assamese.
Bihu, the Assamese harvest festival, is celebrated with fervour by the folks of this village just as much as their traditional festivals such as Loku.
Barsharani Borah’s 2015 documentary Nocte Hasong gives a small glimpse into the vibrant culture of this community and their traditions, notably married Nocte women applying sindoor akin to other Assamese Hindu women (NocteDigest).
The vibrant Vaishnavite tradition of the Noctes has still held strong against the monumental pressure put forth by a lax administration and decades of neglect.
Although the majority of their Naga brethren have yielded to Christian missionaries resulting in great loss of their traditions, Hindu Noctes still show exceptional resistance to the overtures of the Abrahamic faith unlike their converted brethren who are undergoing cultural change.
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