Nagas in the 21st Century


Jelle JP Wouters
Royal University of Bhutan
Michael Heneise
The Kohima Institute


The title of this special issue; ‘Nagas in the 21st Century’, is both an adaptation and a (modest) self-proclaimed sequel to Verrier Elwin’s (1969) iconic Nagas in the Nineteenth Century. In this anthology, Elwin introduces and brings together a collection of administrative reports, tour diaries, and ethnographic descriptions on Naga tribes, all written in the 19th century. During the colonial era Naga tribes turned into an ethnological hotbed, even a cradle of British social anthropology. Back then, writings on Nagas were many, varied and colorful, and included rituals and religion, political structures and sentiments, taboos and omens, dress and ornaments, funeral customs, head-hunting, monolithic cultures, and so on. This ubiquity of colonial accounts, however, contrasts starkly with the scant material generated during the post-colonial period. In fact, as a corollary of the protracted Indo-Naga conflict scholars working on Nagas now grapple with a decades-wide ethnographic void. This, however, is now starting to change. The contributors to this special issue take Elwin’s anthology, or other colonial sources, as a point of reference, and then link these texts to their own areas of research, offering critiques, comparisons, and contrasts as they proceed. Taken together, the articles aim to offer a set of insights and new departures into the study of contemporary Naga society.

Author Biographies

Jelle JP Wouters, Royal University of Bhutan

For the past years Jelle has done ethnographic and historical research among the upland and tribal Naga in India's generally lesser known Northeastern region, writing about colonial ethnography, hill-valley dynamics, politics of identity, and social history. His main research focus today – in his PhD thesis and beyond – is with Naga political lifeworlds, vernacular democracy, and the development state and draws on roughly twenty-four months of fieldwork (funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation) in a Chakhesang and Chang Naga village.  He studied anthropology at the universities of Amsterdam, Shillong, and Oxford (MPhil, Distinction), and currently he is a PhD candidate at the North-Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Before joining Royal Thimphu College (Bhutan) as a lecturer he taught for two years at Sikkim Central University, where he was asked to establish the Anthropology Department, and was a visiting fellow (2014-2015) at Eberhard Karls University on a “Teaching for Excellence” award granted by the German Research Foundation. 

Michael Heneise, The Kohima Institute

Founder and publisher of Highlander Press, Heneise has conducted research in the Andes of South America, and in the Himalayas of Northeast India, and is generally interested in the intersection between indigenous knowledge, sacred ecology, and modernity. His doctoral research at Edinburgh explored the relationship between dreams, sacred landscapes, and personhood among the Nagas in India. He is editor-in-chief of The South Asianist, co-editor of The Highlander, both open access journals published by Edinburgh University. He is also on the editorial board of Gitanjali and Beyond which promotes creative writing, artistic expression and research on Rabindranath Tagore’s work and life. Prior to Edinburgh he studied anthropology in Ecuador at the Latin American School of Social Sciences (FLACSO). He is a member of the Edinburgh Centre for Medical Anthropology, and is presently based at The Kohima Institute, where he is a Firebird Foundation Research Fellow, recording and documenting the Karbi Kecharhe Alun funerary epic in Assam.

Cover for Nagas in the 21st Century