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Naga Log Drums and The Stories They Tell

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Head of a log drum

Music is an inherent part of a tribal community and constitutes the essence of their society. The role of didactic performances and folk music are not limited to producing melodious sounds, but are also a way to communicate with their ancestors, and surroundings, and to transmit knowledge to future generations. It is not just the musical instruments themselves, but everything they incorporate that makes it an indispensable part of our tangible and intangible cultural heritage. One such instrument is the Naga log drum.

A Naga log drum can be categorised as an idiophone, an instrument that creates sound primarily by vibrations. It is called by different names depending on the tribe and region it belongs to. Though its primary function is that of a drum, it is also venerated like an idol. This tradition of making a log drum is practised in Naga tribes like the Konyak, Ao, Yimchunger, Sangtam, Phom, Khiamniungan and Chang of Nagaland and Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh. Traditionally, a log drum may be installed in the Morung (youth dormitory) or at a vantage point. Villages of these tribes could have one or two log drums, with the size of the village reflected in the size of the drums. The larger the village, the larger the drums.

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A Konyak woman performing during Hornbill Festival

Myths and beliefs associated

Each tribe has certain beliefs and myths associated with the making and beating of the log drum. The log drum of the Konyaks, Kham, is associated with the tribe’s origin myth. Konyaks of Nagaland regard it a chief duty to serve their elders and to keep the memory of their ancestors alive. They believe that their ancestors used canoes carved out of single tree trunks to cross a mystical river and reach their present settlement. Hence, in memory of this journey they carve the log drum to be of similar shape to the fateful canoe used by their ancestors. In a Konyak village, a new log drum may be carved every few decades depending on the village’s needs.

A log drum cannot be made for individual purposes and must be for and by the community. This custom of carving log drums also created an environment that birthed Naga wood craftsmen and blacksmiths, further aiding in the preservation and development of their heritage.

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A Sikkimese boy painting a mask

A log drum is considered to be a female entity and given a name by the village elder, believed to have been revealed to him in a dream. The whole process of making and installing a log drum could take three weeks or a month, and is all the while accompanied by rituals, prayers and feasts. This community feast is primarily prepared by the women folk and is an important part of the process. It is considered to be a bad omen if any community member were to miss out on this feast, as it is believed that they would have missed out on blessings.

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Interior of a Naga Morung

Preparation and carving of the log drum

An extraordinary skill is required to make a log drum. A typical log drum consists of the head, chest, wing, neck, body, tail and drum sticks or beaters. Some may also have steps carved on the sides, which help in climbing the drum. Before the process of making a log drum starts, all disputes within the community members are settled. Compromises and negotiations are made, and debts and interests paid to ensure that a strong spirit of harmony and community prevails.

The dense rainforests of Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh make it ideal for sourcing the raw materials required in making a log drum. Once the tree is selected, it is struck with precision keeping in mind the direction the trunk would land. It is felled amidst loud cries and prayers are offered. The log drum is ceremonial and must be protected at all costs. Tribesmen cover it with twigs, branches and leaves so that no wild animal vandalises it or worse, defecates on it. If any such unfortunate events were to occur then the log is abandoned. To ensure it is always supervised and protected, every night a camp is set up by members of the Morung wherever the log drum is.

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Rope of vines to be used in pulling the log drum, Nagaland

Once the face and head of the trunk is decided, precise measurements and markings are made and the carving begins. The carvings on the drum could vary from each tribe and each village.

The whole carving is done in the forest by using traditional swords, knives and other indigenous tools. Only male members are allowed to participate in the making of the log drum. If a male is too young to help in the carving, he is required to contribute by setting up the camp and bringing food and water. Young boys are to watch and learn as one day they are expected to take over the roles of their elders.

Sturdy ropes are made out of vines to be used in pulling the drum, and wooden dowels are placed underneath to make transportation easier. This task is usually assigned to the junior males who also gather the wood for the baton-shaped beaters, or Laphu and Lamphu as it is called in Konyak.

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Drumsticks or beaters used to beat the log drums

Shaping of the log drum usually starts on the 8th-10th day. A long slit runs across the length of the drum and through this the drum is made hollow. The Konyaks believe that if the right side of the drum is slightly raised, then the village will be influenced by males, and if the left side is raised then it will be more influenced by females. The head of the log drum could be simple and blank, or be carved to represent auspicious animals like the mithun or tiger with their features painted in black, white and red.

On the day when the final shaping is done, the tree trunk is formally recognised as a Kham/Khum or log drum. Men return to the Morung while singing songs that invoke the spirit of the mighty tree out of which the drum was carved. The log drum is then named as a female entity and thenceforth, her name is invoked all the while that the drum is being pulled to the village.

Journey to the village

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The log drum is pulled from the forest to the village, Nagaland

The Konyaks believe that the log drum is a female entity with wills and wishes of her own. This entity decides the number of days she would take to reach the village, and would not move an inch if she didn't want to. She could create obstacles that would render her immovable, or she could create a smooth pathway leading to the village. The tree owner’s consent is equally vital in deciding the movement of the log drum. Members of the Morung make a clear pathway, and any person who owns property in the line of the pathway is duly compensated with cooked rice, meat, and blessings. Using the ropes, rollers and dowels, it is then pulled by employing the combined force and strength of the community members, all the while accompanied by loud cries.

To be the first man to climb the felled tree was an honour given to an experienced warrior, who was usually the one with the highest headcount. An honest man, he was also one of the few chosen men allowed to ride the drum into the village. This man must not have any in-laws residing in the village as it was considered to be a bad omen. Today, with the onset of Christianity the role of this chosen man is replaced by a pastor or church elder.

Traditionally, women did not join the men in pulling, but their contribution is noted in the preparation of feasts, and singing of songs to the spirits and their ancestors. One such Konyak song goes,

“Oh, mighty tree do not be upset
Oh, mighty tree do not be upset
Protect all men and women from any harm
Oh, come mighty tree
Oh, come mighty tree”.

This song is sung to venerate the tree from which the log drum is carved. It shows respect and gratitude for the tree’s role in bringing blessings to the village. Such practices are common in tribal settlements as the forest and all that it encompasses are considered sacred and ceremonial.

The log drum reaches its destination

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A Konyak woman welcomes the arrival of the Log Drum, Pessao, Nagaland

Finally, on an auspicious day pre-decided by the female entity, the log drum arrives in the village. A sumptuous feast is organised on her behalf, with contributions made by the whole village. Each family’s contribution is decided based on their wealth and prosperity. In preparation for this, small sticks are used to accurately count the number of people ensuring that no one is left out.

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Small sticks are used to count the number of people

The final carvings are done once the drum reaches the village and it is welcomed with merry songs and dances. It is then formally installed in the Morung, where men grab the beaters and beat the drum in rhythmic successions. In olden days, sacrifices were also made in honour of the log drum. The arrival of the log drum would be accompanied by hoisting of the heads of enemies up on a flag post. Blood of the enemies would also be smeared on it, and in Ao villages the log drum was not beaten until it was coloured with the blood of the enemy.

Purposes and uses of the Log Drum

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Chang men beating a log drum

A log drum serves numerous purposes. It was used to announce the return of the warriors after a successful raid, to call for a public meeting, to mourn the death of a community member, to sound an alarm on being attacked or when there was a fire, when a wild animal was killed, and was also beaten post harvest in praise of a good crop. Sounding of the log drum could bring a multitude of blessings or signify a bad omen. Each occasion has a unique beating pattern known to members of the community. It was a quick and efficient way of communicating as the hills echoed with the beat of the drum. In olden days, it acted like a messenger, as during an attack the drum was beaten at a fast pace to signify urgency and danger. Long slow beats would mean that all villagers were requested to gather as others were waiting for a meeting to begin. And a slow and continuous beating is usually sounded during festivals, which could be accompanied by dances.

In the past, the face of the log drum also decided which direction to go for head hunting. Once successful, the hunted heads of the enemy would be placed on the neck of the log drum. One Ao recital goes, “Grandpa will put a necklace on your neck...”, as adornment for the Songkong (log drum in Ao) meant adornment for the village. It was also beaten during solar and lunar eclipses.

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Wancho men beating the Kham (log drum) during Oriah festival, Arunachal Pradesh

Although the Naga society is rapidly modernising and changing, indigenous traditions are still practised by the tribesmen living in interior villages. Their role in safeguarding heritage is truly commendable. Today, the log drum is still used by each tribe, especially, to accompany festival performances, highlighted during the famous annual Hornbill Festival. The Naga log drum is a representation and manifestation of the beliefs the age old Naga tribesmen stood for. It is a symbol of the past kept alive and incorporated into the way of the present.