Tigermen in Nagaland: Collective imagination or intimate knowledge of other worlds?

Rebekka Sutter, University of Zürich

Labelled as “lycanthropy”, the phenomenon of tiger transformation has been extensively discussed in the colonial monographs. Despite the radical Christianisation of the Naga, it continues to be vividly present even today: Tigermen are a collective “fact” among all Naga tribes – not only as a subject of folktales but also in accounts of personal experiences as or with tigermen and their related “soul tigers”. In remote areas of Nagaland (Sangtam-, Yimchungrü-, Chang- and Khiamniungan-area) tigermen even nowadays act as local diviners, spirit mediums, and healers.

Inspired by Ingold (“The Perception of the Environment”, 2000), I approach the topic in my M.A. thesis by looking not only at the widespread vague and wild stories about tiger-spirited humans and human tigers but at all aspects of Naga culture. The thesis examins the relationship between human beings and tigers on various levels: origin myths which trace a common origin of men and tiger, general notions of the forest, tiger hunting, traditional political structures and means of conflict resolution. Moreover, this holistic approach shall show that Naga hunters have (or: used to have) extensive zoological knowledge of the “most devilish beast”, the “real” tiger of the jungle. Based on my findings, I present an emic worldview that considers the “worlds” of humans, animals and spirits as equally real. This approach will also allow me to address the following two core questions which focus on the social function of the Naga tigermen: To what extent can the tigermen be called religious specialists? How do they manage to “survive” in the present context of the Christian religion? The soul conception(s) of the Naga are a pivotal point and shall be of special interest in the present context of religious syncretism in Nagaland.

This paper is an extract of my M.A. thesis (draft version, written in German), which is based on data collected during several field trips to Nagaland between 2006 and 2011.