Made of logs of a tree that irritates the skin, these cages are prescribed by customary laws for shaming law-breakers
Some villages in Nagaland are trying to revive a traditional form of punishment that seeks to check crime with an itch in time.
Social offenders or violators of Naga customary laws have over the ages dreaded a cramped, triangular cage made from the logs of an indigenous tree that irritates the skin.
The dread is more of humiliation or loss of face within the community or clan than of spending at least a day scratching furiously without any space to move.
Such itchy cages are referred to as khujli ghar in Nagamese — a pidgin lingua franca — but each Naga community has its own name. The Aos, one of the major tribes of Nagaland, call it Shi-ki that means flesh-house.
“A few villages where traditional practices are very strong still prescribe this form of punishment, a deterrent for offenders of various shades, including robbers and drug addicts. Many villages are trying to revive it,” Sanen Pongen, the chairman of Chuchuyimlang village council in Mokokchung district told The Hindu.
The cage is usually placed at a central spot in the village, usually in front of the morung or bachelor’s dormitory, for the inmate to be in full public view.
“The cage is made of the logs of Masang-fung, a local tree that people avoid because of the irritation it causes. It does not affect the palm but people who make the cages have to be careful,” Mr. Pongen said.
A prickly cage usually accommodates one offender —invariably a male — who barely has space to sit for 24 hours or more than a week, depending on the gravity of the offence. He can be fed by relatives periodically and let out to answer nature’s call during the punishment term.
“Some local modifications aside, customary laws of all the Naga tribes are similar. The khujli ghar too used to be common until lock-ups came up in police stations to house the offenders and some forms of punishment began clashing with those prescribed by Constitutional laws,” said Hesheto Chishi, a customary law and Naga folklore researcher based in Dimapur town.
As the founder of Indigenous Cultural Society, the only such in the northeast affiliated to the UNESCO, he has been working on codifying the customary laws and has co-authored Oral Narrative, a book on Sumi Naga laws published by the Ministry of Human Resources Development.
“It is not proper to view the itchy cages from the prism of modern laws. They have served a purpose for ages and have often proved to reform offenders, as identity and family or clan reputation is very important to a Naga,” Mr. Chishi, also a community chieftain, said.
Article 371(A) of the Constitution guarantees the preservation of the Naga customary laws. The State also funds the customary courts in villages and towns where cases — mostly dealing with land litigation, money-lending and marital disputes — have a high rate of prompt disposal.
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