Naga - A Forgotten Mountain Region Rediscovered


22.08.2008 - 17.05.2009

Museum der Kulturen Basel and Jakarta

Do you know where the world's hottest chilli pepper grows? – In an mountain region on the border between northeast India and western Myanmar (Burma). The area is home to the Nagas, a people comprising roughly 30 different ethnic groups. In earlier days the Nagas were feared as fierce warriors and head-hunters, not least because they dared to defy the power of the British colonial empire. At the same time their clothing, jewellery and weapons, actually their material culture as a whole, was admired for its beauty and appeal. Following India’s independence in 1947 the Nagas were all but forgotten after the region was declared a no-go area for foreigners due to protracted political unrest. This did not change even after Nagaland officially became an Indian federal state in 1963. The situation has calmed down in recent years and since 2000 foreign visitors have been allowed back into Nagaland. Against this background the Museum der Kulturen Basel presents an exhibition (opening on August 21 2008), which gives the viewer the opportunity to rediscover the cultural heritage of the Naga people.

The status-conscious Naga people and their culture, in the past famous for their grand feasts of merit and the practice of head-hunting as well as the extraordinary aesthetic appeal of their clothing, ornaments and artefacts quickly attracted the attention of colonial officers, travellers and anthropologists alike. The fascination for this unique culture and people in the first half of the 20th century resulted in numerous detailed ethnographic monographs and collections, which today still rank as important testimonies of traditional Naga culture.

Some of the most significant Naga collections assembled between the 1870s and 1990s are held in museums in Switzerland and Germany. Adolf Bastian (1826-1905), founding father of German anthropology was one of the first travellers to visit the Naga tribes in what was then the District of Assam. He stayed there between October 1878 and March 1879 and collected a substantial number of objects for the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde Berlin, of which he was the founder and first director. In the person of Otto Ehrenfried Ehlers (1855 – 1895) Bastian found an experienced collector who, equipped with a 'list of desiderata', travelled again to Assam in 1893 and 1895. During his explorations in Assam Ehlers was not slow to perceive the value of the knowledge of S. E. Peal, a tea planter, botanist, entomologist and anthropologist in Assam in the second half of the 19th century. Ehlers employed him to procure a collection of ethnographic artefacts of the various hill tribes of Assam, and it is now believed that in consequence Berlin possesses quite as fine as, and in some respects a better collection of Assam ethnological objects than is to be found either in the Indian Museum, Calcutta, or the British Museum, London.

In February 1911 during an extensive research and collecting expedition to Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and Burma (Myanmar) the director of the Königlich Ethnographisches Museum in Munich Lucian Scherman (1864 – 1946) together with his wife Christine travelled up the Chindwin River in Burma. In Thaungthut on the upper Chindwin they acquired a substantial ethnographic collection from various Naga tribes inhabiting the Upper Chindwin District. To this day the Naga collection in the Munich museum is unique as it contains numerous objects from the Burmese Nagas, who are otherwise only marginally represented in Western museums.

The collection of the Museum der Kulturen Basel is comparatively younger, however, it covers a large time span. In 1936/37 the German anthropologist Hans Eberhard Kauffmann (1899 – 1986) went on a research and collecting expedition in the then Naga Hills District of Assam and was commissioned to purchase for the Basel museum a collection of ethnographic objects from the Naga area. Shortly after, in 1939, the Basel museum acquired a small collection of Naga artefacts from the Basel anthropologist Paul Wirz (1882 – 1955), who travelled in the Naga area in 1938. In 1989 finally the Museum der Kulturen acquired an exceptional collection of Naga artefacts from Milada Ganguli (1913 – 2000), a native Czech researcher. Through marriage with the Bengali writer Mohonlal Ganguli she acquired Indian-Czech dual citizenship, which enabled her to travel the Naga area regularly between 1963 and 1992. She was the only person who assembled a representative collection of Naga artefacts in the years after Indian independence in 1947. Her collection therefore represents an era in Naga history that is otherwise virtually unrepresented in Western museums.

In the exhibition shown at the Museum der Kulturen Basel the most important pieces of these collections are now being presented to a general audience for the first time on a comprehensive scale. Covering more than 120 years of Naga history the exhibition enables the visitor not only to learn about traditional Naga culture but also to apprehend changes that affected the Naga society during the 20th century. In their capacity as testimonies of a bygone era, these collections have become a precious archive that not only helps us to better understand the present situation in Nagaland but also serves the people of Nagaland as a foundation for interpreting their own history – so look forward to more than just hot chilli peppers!




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