In Nagaland, woodcarving as an art form relates largely to architecture and ritual practice and has been the forte of most of the 17 major Naga tribes in both eastern and western parts of the state. Wood craft is traditionally practised only by male members of the community and continues as such even today. However, the Naga, Konyak, Phom and Angami communities are especially noted for their amazing woodcarving skills.  All the other tribes have similar skills, but are distinguished by signature styles with marked differences in the usage and portrayal of designs and symbols. In the past every male member of the community had some sort of basic woodworking skills; nowadays, the skill is confined to specialist master artisans who have made it a livelihood or profession. Motifs of bison or mithun and human heads are common to all tribes, but degrees of use vary.

Nagaland as a whole, is vibrant with a rich architectural wood craft tradition which has its roots in an animistic past: a lost culture of magnificent huge wood-carved building façades and village gates with the mithun or Indian bison horns and head dominating all else with their immense visual appeal. The mithun head and house horns were the most powerful wood-carved elements, especially among the Angami and Chakhesang and to a lesser extent, the Ao and Sumi (Sema) tribes. However, among the Eastern Nagas like the Konyak and Chang, woodcarving lent itself more to human figurines and heads as fertility symbols and hornbill motifs which had a special significance in the social hierarchy of the time. The hornbill was the elite symbol of the Ang or village chief, who enjoyed a divine status in the Konyak tribe who inhabit Mon district lying at the northern tip of the state.

In most parts of Nagaland, with the exception of a few interior areas of the eastern Nagas, a lot of the old architectural wood carvings have disappeared as many villages were burnt down during the British era. In later years during the height of insurgency in the ’50s, the Indian army contributed to the destruction, when they conducted flushing-out operations and resorted to the same violent modus operandi as the British. With changes in the social context and technology, the craft has developed an economic avatar which pays lip service to traditional motifs but is obviously completely disconnected from its past form and meaning. There is a revival of sorts in some recent architecture which seeks to mimic the symbolism without its context. It even changes material at times, as the woodcarving style is translated into concrete and stone expressions. As the new context looks for new expressions and new ways in wood craft, design elements are being introduced in the craft to preserve its spirit and revive and renovate this age-old skill. What now remains as mute testimony of the past is only a tiny glimpse into a once magnificent tradition, that struggles for survival in a new world and milieu. Bits and pieces of a lost world.

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