In ancient times people made jewellery out of natural materials like seeds, feathers, leaves, berries, fruits, flowers, animal bones, claws and teeth. A glimpse of this tradition can still be seen in the tribal societies. In India, the ornaments are made practically for every part of the body. The early people made jewellery not only for humans but also for the gods and decorating animals like elephants and horses, on special occasions. Tribal Jewellery concentrates on the gold jewellery of the Indian subcontinent, which is worn by preference by everyone who can afford it. Only where there is a religious prohibition against the wearing of gold ornaments, notably on the feet, is silver substituted instead of the gold.
Passing fashion seems not to have altered the pre-eminence of gold over the centuries; gold ornaments may be more heavily jeweled or less, but the use of gold, apart from the short-lived vogue for platinum in the 1920`s, has been constant. However, there are, of course, millions who cannot afford gold. Yet, wearing jewellery in any form, be it in gold or otherwise, clearly indicates the importance of the same. Lack of precious materials has never inhibited the wearing of jewellery and even poverty and lack of technical skill has not prevented the creation of innovative and striking forms.
A small group of tribal jewellery from the Naga Hills, which is the area of Eastern Assam bordering Burma, has, for an unknown period of time, given a lot of importance to their personal jewellery. Despite having scanty clothing, they are seen adoring themselves, from warrior headdresses to flower jewellery. The materials used for their jewellery are necessarily simple, since they cannot afford gold and hence they use carnelian, rock crystal, shells, beads, flowers, blue jay feathers and animal hair dyed red. Some ornaments are made from heavily cast brass and may serve a dual function; if need be they can be slipped off the arm to become formidable weapons.
In terms of colour, perhaps the most beautiful piece of `jewellery` is the beetle necklace, which was worn by a young man of the Zemi Naga tribe. The brass armlets, which were worn by women of different tribes are roughly cast and crudely incised but are strikingly imaginative both in their abstraction and in the way in which they would have been worn, with the recurring ends pointing backwards.
However, certain ornaments are worn only by particular sections of a given tribe. Among the Eastern Rengami Nagas, for instance, only the men wear flowers in their ears, red being the favourite colour. The Angami Naga men wear green fern or other foliage in their hair knots. The Nagas were headhunters, and both the ritual of a particular group and the ornaments worn by men who had taken heads are intimately connected with this. Only a headhunter, for instance, would have worn the necklet and the swirling, incised motifs on some of the brass armlets are also those permitted only on head- hunters` jewellery.
The Muslim fakir comes from a tradition in which he uses ornaments again of the poorest type but in a way, which is not concerned with beauty of effect. All his possessions include the coins and cowrie shells worn in his hair, to the metal crutch on which he leans in meditation. The heavy, cast metal bangles are the identifying mark of his sect.