Stories on warp and weft


THE Ao Naga shawl in its present avatar is familiar to many in the red and black mantle drawing one’s attention to the series of emblematic representations embroidered on its white median band and popularly referred to as the Naga head shawl. Before coloured embroidery work was introduced on the median, most probably around the 50s and 60s, the white band was painted upon and called tsungko tep - tsungko painted cloth, with each figurative emblem encoded in narrative communication.  The shawl traces its origins in the oral traditions transmitted from a forgotten past of the Ao Naga to the present.

In the textile traditions the woven cloth is a distinctive signature in the material culture of the Ao Naga. Until the mid-20th century, cotton was abundantly grown by the Ao to weave cloth along with the application of natural colorants to dye cotton yarn and woven textiles. However, the introduction of mill spun yarn around the early 20th century rapidly eroded cotton cultivation and dyeing practices became a casualty due to the easy availability of commercially coloured yarn preferred over laborious processes. Today, the use of synthetic yarn is highly prevalent among weavers who are attracted to the vast palette of striking fast colours.

The Ao possessed no written script until the advent of Christianity around 1872. In due course of time, the Roman script was introduced through education and teachings by early missionaries who encouraged the participation of the girl child in the education process. Therefore, in the absence of a written text the Ao relayed the orality of verbal expressions through songs, folklores and in the language of cloth, articulated through the transmission of oral traditions passed down across generations.

Suffice to say, the woven cloth is a narrative record categorized to those eligible and deserving of special textiles, in accordance with rigid adherence in self-entitlements, which were projected in specific textiles pronounced by the supplementary warp motifs, painted insignias, colour palette, arrangement of coloured stripes, and bands and with decorative accessories on the woven cloth. These indicators ascribed to village identity, age group, sex, clan, Morung membership, wealth, prestige, and status achieved out of hosting the feast of merit, enemy head taking exploits, as well as membership to authoritative village bodies.

In the textile traditions of the Ao, the production of cloth is the sole domain of women and taboo to men. However, weaving implements are crafted by men who display remarkable knowledge and expertise in sourcing raw materials at the appropriate time and season. On the other hand, it is absolutely restrictive for women to drape male shawls and equally shameful on the part of a man to drape female body cloths.





Painting the median band on the tsungko tep was dominantly practiced by male members and seldom by women. It taxed a lot out of a man engaging in the craft by way of taboo observation, self-restriction, dietary control and to practice celibacy when painting the median band so as to achieve good results and ward off negativity on the self. Moreover, not every male member was a practitioner the craft being mainly confined to the artistically inclined. It is said women, who perhaps stood apart from their peers, sometimes engaged in the craft.

The same set of restrictions applied to her too. Sometimes in the absence of practitioners in any given Ao village (with the exception of a few villages) it required of the people to depend on other villages for painting their tsungko tep . Today the craft practice has all but vanished and is only occasionally visible during cultural events.

In the textile inventory of the Ao Naga, the painted tsungko cloth, has a long oral history traced back in songs and folktales to an ancient past when the Ao lived in the ancestral village of Chungliyimti. In the animist past pre-Christianization, the Ao considered this male mantle the embodiment of idealism, valour, wealth, and prestige exemplified in a series of emblematic icons painted on its median band. Rather the right to merit the shawl was in itself a testimony of exemplary deeds. It was indeed a self-declaration that the individual, the wearer of the shawl, had achieved specific hard-earned duties and merit and was, therefore, awarded the entitlement. Furthermore, draping the mantle was eligible to married men who had accomplished themselves.

The tsungko tep is composed of three panels: Two broad panels in red and black bands hosting narrow horizontal stripes that are stitched on either side of the four-inch white median band, the canvas on which the required qualifications are fulfilled. In the textile vocabulary of the Ao the red colorant is associated with wealth and prestige and is exclusive to the textile of the rich and merit achievers.

In earlier times, the aim of each wearer would be to gain the right to the maximum number of graphic representations of animals, material objects, geometrical and stylized emblems hosted on the shawl. Moreover, a particular symbol was not inserted randomly. Rather, to gain access and the right to wear certain emblematic symbols required permission which was decided by the authoritative body in the village, or a heavy fine would otherwise be levied on any individual going against the rule. Such being the stipulated prerequisites, when special qualities were recognized to fall into the parameters of the ideal, by virtue of these indications the village body would announce to the collective habitat that henceforth, the individual is given permission to insert specific emblematic narratives on the median band of his painted tsungko shawl.




The viewpoint among the Ao, is that a man’s shawl is not merely indicative to who he is but rather who he ideally should emulate. In this case, the animist Ao having lived in close quarters with nature observed the behaviour of certain animals within their environment and recognized these qualities with respect. However, insertions of the illustrative series of entitlements does not merely indicate ‘who a man is’ but rather ‘who he ideally should be’ and that portrayal being amply manifested in the characteristics observed from animals, birds, and figurative interpretations on the median band.

As work begins on the white median, the practitioner uses a natural pigment to paint on the cloth that is remarkably tightly woven so as not to allow the ink to penetrate through the woven cloth. If it does, it’s taken to be a sign of bad omen resulting in negative consequences on the self and the wearer. Such being the case, the cloth is rejected, and the artist starts afresh with a new piece. The emanation of aura surrounding the shawl from the time it is merited of exemplary deeds and actions, to painting its canvas and draping it, was indeed worthy of awe, respect and held sacred to the Ao Naga in the primordial past.

Here is an image of the tsungko tree from where the white latex sap is sourced and used in painting the tsungko tep . The extraction process is as follows:

Using a dao or machete the practitioner cuts deep zig-zag incisions on the trunk of the tsungko tree.

These gashes release a thick white latex which is collected in a bamboo jar and kept aside to prepare the next step.

Next dried tsungko leaves are gathered and burned, the ash collected and crushed with the fingers to achieve a fine powdery consistency.

The ash is mixed and stirred together with the sap in a bamboo mug resulting in a grey solution.

An expert artist paints free hand on the median band guided by the warp and weft threads with the tsungko pigment using a bamboo nib.

A young apprentice applies the tsungko pigment onto a pre-sketched canvas using a bamboo nib.

In order to engage a closer examination, the white median band is divided here into four sections hosting the requisite vertical lines, animals, birds, emblematic and stylized symbols.


Section 1: Wulam – At the outer corners on the narrow three lined band four concentric circles are depicted in a vertical arrangement that allude to bird’s eyes. This symbol is also used in house and Morung decoration on the frontal horizontal beam in the vernacular structures of deserving individuals eligible to drape the shawl such as a giver of the feast of merit, head taker, among others.

Kala – The zig zag pattern is a spacer in artistic application between two symbols.

Jung – The shield is the emblem of male symbolism. It is used by men in battle and tiger hunts and mandatory for every married male member to have the shield in his armory or face a fine. It therefore finds representation in the band.

Atsü – A series of vertical lines running the length of the median band outlining each figurative symbol is called Atsü which alludes to a fence and inserted in aesthetic considerations.

Antipong – The rooster played a central role in the pre-Christianized past and was held sacred in the rites and rituals of the indigenous animist faith. A fine rooster was always sacrificed in any special ceremony to propitiate well-being on the self and fertility upon the collective habitat. Furthermore, the rooster unfailingly crows each morning to wake up the collective habitat and on the median band draws a parallel indicative to taking command with authority.

It is an important emblem granted only to persons having authority and leadership positions in the village. Its inclusion alludes to leadership and control. Therefore, in drawing a parallel, such leadership characteristics and authority are expected to be present in the wearer of the shawl.

Jabili – The ancient currency used by the Ao was a slim flat iron piece represented in the median in a row shaped with two triangles at one end. Iron was a valuable metal to the Ao and bartered from the plains of Assam in the past. Its presence in the tsungko tep signified wealth and indicative to the wearer’s liquidity.


Section 2: Sükolak/Mithun Heads – The most valuable animal is the mithun. Not only is it valuable to the Ao but to all Naga groups. Its valuable status is illustrated in two forms on the median band – in a stylized presentation and of the whole profile in the other. Sükolak mithun heads are always placed in a row on the top of the median projecting an abstract illustration in an open V sign indicative to the animal’s horns. It signified the wearer of the shawl has performed the feast of mer.

Shiti/Elephant – In the animal kingdom the elephant being the mightiest and largest was respected by ancient Ao’s for its size and strength. A song in the repertoire of Ao folk music is sung in praise of its mightiness and strength while simultaneously encouraging the bravest of warriors – the Nokinketer, who have taken several enemy head trophies and won many battles to strive and emulate its mightiness. The insertion of the elephant in the band suggests to the warrior to exhibit strength and mightiness in his actions when facing the enemy. The pair of elephants represented in the median band is an artistic interpretation of not leaving the elephant alone.

Tenem Ozü/Hornbill – The hornbill is highly coveted for its black and white striped tail feathers that are distinguished in the male headdress of the Ao as well as held in high esteem among other Naga groups. In Ao mythology, the hornbill is linked with two important events. First, it gave one of its feathers for ornamentation to Longkongla an early ancestress of the Pongener clan of the Ao. Second, the birth of the Ozükum clan is traced to the hornbill feather. Further-more, the act of decorating the male headdress with six hornbill feathers is enshrined in song when the womenfolk of Chungleyimti encouraged the men to return with enemy head trophies and be eligible to insert six hornbill feathers in their headdresses. On account of the importance equated to the hornbill for its associated mythical attribution, the purpose of ornamentation value has transcended on the median band as an emblematic icon to signify the achieved status of the shawl wearer to a head taker.

Yimyu/Drongo – The drongo bird finds a special place in the material culture of the Ao. It’s long tail feathers are prized adornments worn as earpieces by both men and women to decorate themselves. The drongo is depicted on the white band, facing the hornbill, having two long slender tail feathers. A special quality was observed by the ancient forefathers that the drongo would fight to the death in saving her nest. It always assumed the role of leadership with flocks of different bird species when flying and scouted ahead to give warnings on predators. For these characteristics the bird was called the ‘king of birds’. Another rare trait noticed in the drongo is when it dies it ensures the protection of its long plumage from damage even in death. The drongo draws a parallel on the median by these extraordinary characteristics alluding to leadership qualities in the shawl wearer when surrounded by the enemy to fight bravely and if overcome by the enemy to die with dignity.

Keyi/Tiger – The right to wear the symbol of a tiger relates to the perceived qualities of the tiger being wild, ferocious, having a fearsome loud roar with a deadly strike and bite. Yet, these mannerisms were envied and respected by the forefathers. Therefore, the tiger in the tsungko tep signifies a prestigious token indicative of the wearer to exhibit the same ferocity as the tiger, to swiftly strike down the enemy instilling fear with deadly results and to take the head trophy with pride. Again, the two tigers are paired together so as not to leave the other alone.


Section 3: Mangko/Human Head – The most profound symbol in the median band is the mangko or human trophy. Its place on the median is eligible only to those who have taken enemy heads and is illustrated in a figurative form always facing the front and wearing a neckpiece. With the insertion of this emblematic representation, the categorization of the mantle thus far while determining characteristics deemed worthy to those meriting its entitlements on the tsungko tep , transforms by this one illustrative portrayal to the mangko tep - the head takers’ shawl.

How the symbolic entitlement originated on the shawl is enshrined in a song traced to an ancient past when the Ao living in Chungliyimti the ancestral village, were surrounded by enemies whom they fought with day after day without much success. The women folk took it upon themselves to encourage and motivate the men thereby declaring that whomsoever returned with an enemy head, he would be awarded with painted heads on his mangko tep , head taker’s painted cloth.

Ao Folksong:

Longtrok nung poker menang ali tetenzüker

Shari tesaksoba, Shotoker, Anar, Lisuru, Oronger, sarirden

Zuni shika tongtep-okone, O Chungleyi-mti lari

Ayu lemtetzüba sari tongpang kok-a-ru

Arer ngangyiner nem Mangko tep

Atatsudi ta lemtetsuko ne

Having originated from Longterok (Six Stones) at the early start of the settlement

Daily we fought battles with ferocious enemies of the Shotoker, Anar, Lisuru, Oronger

O the women of Chungliyimti have thus decreed

To those who vanquish the enemy and drive them away

To them shall be awarded

A mangko tep (head painted shawl)

Nüllet  Spear/Nok Dao (machete) are quintessential weapons in a man’s armory and are also signatures of male identity on the shawl that are indicative to the warrior status of the wearer. There are various types of spears and machetes used for different purposes. The spear depicted on the median is a decorative one carried by a rich man who has performed the feast of merit.

Muluzungzü/Lion – The pair of lions on the band are represented as the partner animals of the tiger and inserted in artistic consideration.

Anü Sun/Petinu Star – The symbols of the sun and stars painted on the median is indicative to the brightness of the sun and the luminance of stars. It suggests the wearer of the shawl to equally shine with the same aura and brilliance in his deeds and actions.


Section 4: /Mithun – In this collage we have both representations of the mithun in full side profile and in its abstract form. The pair of mithuns naturally signifies the wealth of the wearer and therefore, clearly enunciates that the wearer is a rich man of status who has given the feast of merit. In the present Naga milieu, the mithun continues to be held in prestige as an animal of value, wealth, and status. The other emblems henceforth are arranged in repetition.

Various shawls of the Ao Naga.

Today the attachment and reverence to the tsungko tep is ever present in the physical, social and cultural milieu of the Ao. In its new interpretation the shawl modified to the jacket/waist coat together with the shawl continues to embody the male identity in the dress code of the Ao Naga.