Ptolemy’s Nangalogai

The quotations cited retain full fidelity to the sources.

The Naga historian Asoso Yonuo wrote in 1974:

Writing in the second century A.D. … Ptolemy, the celebrated Greek scholar gives the word, ‘Nangolong’ meaning the realm of the naked people almost exactly, where the Nagas are now.

The Rising Nagas, p. 35.

His reference? “Geographia VII, ii, 150 A.D., p. 18”.

Kaka D. Iralu, another popularly read “historian” — or more precisely a chronicler of the brutalities committed by the Indian armed forces in the state of Nagaland since the 1950s — asserts the same:

In historical records, the first mention of the Nagas as a people inhabiting their present lands was made by Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek geographer and historian in AD 150. In his records, Ptolemy mentions the Nagas as Nagaloi. (Claudius Ptolemy, Geographia, vol V11, (ii) p. 18).

Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears, p. 4.

My reference is the fourth revised edition of 2017. But Kaka’s extremely controversial book was first published in 2000. (He passed earlier this year [2020]. May he rest in peace!)

A 2010 book by a Kuki scholar S. R. Tohring claims:

The first mention of the Nagas as a people inhabiting their present land was made by Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek philosopher and historian in 150 A. D. Claudius Ptolemy mentioned in his book Geographia, the Nagas as Nagalagoi (the realm of the naked, Claudius Ptolemy, Geographia, Vol. II (II), page 18)

Violence and Identity in North-East India: Naga–Kuki Conflict, p. 6.

His reference is the 2002 White Paper on Naga Integration prepared by the Naga Hoho. Given the wording, I suspect that the White Paper’s source is Kaka. I do not unfortunately have access to the White Paper.

In a 2015 PhD thesis from Nagaland University submitted by Francis Sebastian, we find the following:

The earliest specific reference to the Nagas was made by Claudius Ptolemy in 150 AD, in his Geographia where he referred to the Naga country as ‘The realm of the Naked. The original text of Geographia is in Greek.

Governing System of the Yimchunger Nagas (Chapter 2).

Our scholar refers us to Visier Sanyu’s 1996 tract A History of Nagas and Nagaland who refers us to “Geographia VII, ii, p. 18”. Sebastian reproduces Sanyu’s exact wording, even the comment about the original text of the Geographia being in Greek (of course it was in Greek!) which is from Sanyu’s footnote.

In a GK text on Nagaland (2018), widely read by civil service aspirants, we find that:

As early as 150 AD, Claudius Ptolemy, the Greek scholar had referred in his writings as NAGALOGOI which means THE REALM OF THE NAKED.

A. M. Toshi Jamir, A Handbook of General Knowledge on Nagaland, p. 8.

In a very recent work, published in 2019, the well-known — to author Easterine Kire writes:

One of the earliest reference to the Naga areas was made by Ptolemy in 150 CE in his Geographia where the Naga-inhabited areas were referred to as Nagalogoi — the realm of the naked.

Walking the Roadless Road, p. 6.

There are a host of problems with all these assertions. Some of them are of substantive — one might even say theoretical. For instance, Kaka’s claim that that Ptolemy’s was referring to Nagas “as a people inhabiting their present lands” requires sustained argument not to mention the substantial evidence before it can be taken seriously. He doesn’t give any.

My concern however is more with, shall we say, technical issues: 150 AD, the use of the phrase “realm of the naked”, the incompatible transliterations (Nangolong, Nagalogoi, Nagaloi, Nagalagoi), and the reference to a certain page (page 18).

The source of all these assertions is John Henry Hutton, the British Administrator and Anthropologist who served in the Naga Hills in the first half of the 20th century. He served as the Sub Divisional Officer of Mokokchung from 1914 to 1918 and then as Deputy Commissioner of the Naga Hills till 1935. During this time in the Naga Hills, he published two absolutely seminal monographs The Angami Nagas and The Sema Nagas. The manuscript of The Angami Nagas was intended for publication in 1915, but because of the First World War, it could only be published in 1921 along with The Sema Nagas. These two monographs earned him a Doctor of Science degree — equivalent to a PhD — at Oxford. In 1937, he was appointed to the chair of Anthropology at Cambridge. Elsewhere, he is well-known for his 1946 work Caste in India: Its Nature, Purpose, and Function.

In a 1965 article called titled “The Mixed Culture of the Naga Tribes” written for the The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, he states the following.

Ptolemy, locating what the Hindus spoke of as Nangalôg or naked people in approximately the area which they still occupy, writes of them (or rather perhaps of the area) Ναγγαλόγαι, ὄ σημαίνει γυμνών κόσμος — ‘Nangalôg, which means the realm of the naked’ (Geographia, VII, ii, 18). That was about A.D. 150.

p. 17.
Geographia, 7.2.18.

In his Preface to the 1973 second edition of James Philip Mills The Ao Nagas (originally published in 1926), he further adds:

Apart from possible obscure references in Sanskrit or Pali literature the earliest specific reference to the Naga tribes is in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaius written in the second century A.D. If we allow for the error he made in telescoping the Bay of Bengal, Ptolemy depicts Nagaland accurately enough in its present position; he describes it as “the realm of the naked”, and survivals down to my time suggest very strongly that a culture little different from that of the Konyak Naga tribes once extended from the north-east corner of what is now the Assam Valley to as far south as at least the North Cachar Hills if not, as seems likely, to the Bay of Bengal.

pp. ix–x.

It is Hutton then who provides the phrase “realm of the naked”. Same with the date 150 CE. Also with the transliteration Nangalog (getting rid of the suffix ai, see below). This transliteration gets carelessly miscopied, probably first by Yonuo, and then again and again. And now we have a confusion of transliterations that we could do away with.

Indeed, the same is the case the reference to the Geographia. It is interesting that at least four of the sources cited above (Yonuo, Kaka, Tohring, Sanyu) refer to “page 18” of Ptolemy’s Geographia. This is incorrect. Unless there is a special reason to do so, classical texts are not cited using page numbers. They care cited by using a standardised numbering system corresponding to the first (usually, anyway) critical edition of the original text. Hutton correctly refers to “Geographia, VII, ii, 18” which means Book 7, Chapter 2, Section/Paragraph 18 of the Geographia. It is clear what has happened. Yonuo mistakenly, but understandably I guess, assumes “18” in Hutton’s essay (which finds mention in Yonuo’s Bibliography) to be a page number. Had he consulted the original or even a translation, that error would not have occured. Had any of the other scholars done so, such a silly error would not have proliferated. But they haven’t, even as they insincerely refer us directly to the Geographia. As it stands, that error stains numberless (but I exaggerate) books and theses.

Two things to note. The first is that Ptolemy’s is not talking so much about people (contra Kaka or Hutton) as about places or regions. He is a geographer not an anthropologist. And to the extent that he is talking about a geographical region, he is pretty accurate. His original work would have been accompanied by maps. Those maps do not survive. Indeed the earliest manuscripts of the Geographia are from the medieval period and maps from the this period do survive. They portray the “realm of the naked” very roughly in the region which can be identified as North-East India. See the following 1513 rendering of Ptolemy’s eleventh (undecima) map of Asia made by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller.

Left highlight: Ganges River; Right highlight: Nanga; the “Sinus Gangeticus” is today’s Bay of Bengal.

Now this — that Ptolemy is referring to a place rather than to a people — means that regardless of the accuracy of Ptolemy’s maps (which are astonishing for their time), claims about “the earliest specific reference to the Naga tribes” (Hutton) or “the first mention of the Nagas as a people inhabiting their present lands” (Kaka) or “the earliest specific reference to the Nagas” (Sanyu, whose reference probably is Hutton’s 1973 Preface) are without any foundation. If the reference to “the realm of the naked” proves anything, it is simply that there were naked people, or more precisely that there were people who were described by others as naked (see below), in that general region. Who those people were, or indeed if they were a people, is an open question. Those naked people might indeed be the ancestors of the Nagas of today, but as Kire points out, they might equally be the ancestors of “another group” or indeed, I might add, groups. This because, as Yonuo sensibly guesses, there were “many naked people in parts of India at his time”.

The second point is that Ptolemy is reporting a description of the region he would have come across in his sources (they do not survive). Let’s look at the full reference.

Greek: Ναγγαλόγαι, ὃ σημαίνει γυμνῶν κόσμος.
Transliteration: Nangalogai, o sēmainei gumnōn kosmos.

To start with, the correct and full transliteration of Ναγγαλόγαι is Nangalogai. Attentive readers will no doubt have noticed that “γγ” is rendered as “ng”. It’s a standard principle of transliterating Greek to Roman adopted for the following reason:

There was one special circumstance where the Greek consonant gamma (γ) was represented not by Roman g, but by Roman n — a surprising change, one might suppose. Again, however, the Romans were simply using phonetic spelling. In classical Greek, whenever gamma occurred before another palatal consonant (γ, κ, χ, or ξ), it was nasalized, changing in sound from [g] to [ŋ].

Transliteration and Latinization

Now, Nangalogai is a Greek transliteration of what must have been a Sanskrit compound comprising नग्न (nagna, whose popular/modern Hindi form is नंगा [nangā]) and लोक (loka). The former means, as everyone knows, naked, and the latter in classical Sanskrit meant world. A famous term (the theme of a whole book in fact) using loka in this sense is लोकपक्ति (lokapakti) from the Śatapatha Brāhmaṇa which literally means cooking (as in pāka) the world (loka). Of course loka has come to mean people in modern Hindi (as in Lok Sabha meaning the Sabha or council of the people). Certainly this appellation which Ptolemy relied on would have come from the Sanskrit speaking region of India.

This then is what Ptolemy’s is getting at with his Greek rendering of the compound: o sēmainei gumnōn kosmos. Sēmainei comes from σημεῖον (sēmeion) which means sign (as in semiotics which is the study of signs). Κόσμος (kosmos, as in cosmos) means order (its opposite is chaos [χάος, khaos]) and was used, especially by the Stoics, to refer to the world or the universe in so far as it was understood to be an ordered whole. Gumnon is the genitive (i.e. possessive) form of γυμνος (gumnos) which meant naked. This is the source for words like gymnasium and gymnastic. The γυμνάσιον (gumnasion) was a public facility for where men exercised and trained for competitive games, the Olympics for instance. It was called so because such training was done while naked. Ptolemy’s rendering thus means, to slightly modify Hutton, “Nangalogai, which signifies or refers to the world of the naked”.

The reason why there is this fascination with old things, this temptation to reach as far back as possible into the “mists of time”, to talk of practices as having been observed since “time immemorial”, these obsessions, especially as they concern nationalist projects, have been the object of much analysis. Arguments about primordial practices and origins seem persuasive, appear to grant importance and legitimacy, and thus are ideologically or politically useful. Whether or not such arguments have a basis in fact is another matter. Often they do not have such a basis. But a still further matter is whether the fact that they have a basis in fact or not is relevant to the issue at hand.

Short of such matters which will have yet to be confronted, and must be confronted, what is clear from the foregoing, I hope, is that many scholars (especially from Nagaland) have been guilty of carelessness amounting to dishonesty in their (non-)references to Ptolemy and to fellow scholars.



A. M. Toshi Jamir, A Handbook of General Knowledge on Nagaland, 15th ed. (Dimapur: Author, 2018).

Asoso Yonuo, The Rising Nagas: A Historical and Political Study (Delhi: Manas Publications, 1971).

Carolus Friedericus Augustus Nobbe, ed., Claudii Ptolemaei Geographia, 3 vols (Leipzig, 1843).

Easterine Kire, Walking the Roadless Road: Exploring the Tribes of Nagaland (New Delhi: Aleph, 2019).

Francis Sebastian, ‘Governing System of the Yimchunger Nagas’ (PhD Thesis, Lumami, Nagaland University, 2015).

A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, revised
and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance
of Roderick McKenzie, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).

J. H. Hutton, ‘The Mixed Culture of the Naga Tribes’, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 95, no. 1 (January 1965): 16–43,

J. H. Hutton, Preface to The Ao Nagas, ix–xiv, by J. P. Mills, with a foreword by Henry Balfour and supplementary notes and bibliography by J. H. Hutton, 2nd ed. (Bombay: Bombay University Press, 1973).

Kaka D. Iralu, Nagaland and India: The Blood and the Tears, 4th ed. (Kohima: Author, 2017).

S. R. Tohring, Violence and Identity in North-East India: Naga–Kuki Conflict (Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2010).

A Sanskrit-English Dictionary [1899], by Sir Monier Monier-Williams (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960).

Visier Sanyu, A History of Nagas and Nagaland: Dynamics of Oral Tradition in Village Formation (New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers, 1996).

One thought on “Ptolemy’s Nangalogai

  1. Congrats for your critical analysis. The whole discussion at the end points the origin of the word. Nagalogoi in geographia of Greek geographer , ptolomy , 150 A.D; naked country or naked tribes of the vast tract that did not belong to India nor to Burma till their illegal annexation after few years of their independence from Great Britain in 1947 by force, a decease which they inherited from Britain. On contrary we have vivid folklore and folksong which tells us that thousand years prior to 150 A.D., our ancestors were named Nakas; i.e. ear perforated people by the southern aborigins of Burma . Infact we are Nakas, meaning we are ear perforated people which was recorded as Nagas wrongly by the Britishers maybe because of their nasal phonetic usage . With due respect to your esteem entity , I, solemnly aver that I am the best person who knows about my father and so we are the best person who knows the history of our ancestors .
    From Samuel Ahungsa Shingtara, pioneer and advisor , Haomi Research Guild, Nagalim.


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