To the Naga Hills

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#1 May 4th, 2013, 13:12
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#1
Part I, meeting the Konyak Anghs at the Aoeling Monyu Festival 2013

Many days after we had returned to Kolkata, I was musing on when I first became obsessed with the idea of visiting Nagaland. Basically I think it was back in 2007 to 2008 when I was researching our trip to Sikkim on IndiaMike. I must have read about Nagaland in Lonely Planet as well as here on the forum. The forbidding prose must have just whetted my appetite. If it is written in Lonely Planet "difficult to visit", it's like a red rag to a bull as far as I am concerned. Much later, I started advising other IndiaMikers to visit the Hornbill Festival, without really knowing very much about it. Around that time I started reading about Nagaland (along with Arunachal Pradesh) and always kept it in a corner of my mind. There were stories of the Stillwell Road and of Burma.

In Darjeeling (West Bengal) as well as in Rinchenpong (Sikkim) in spring 2008 we met two elderly couples who had just returned from Kohima to visit the World War II cemetery. They were absolutely exhausted. Now I know why ! The roads are pretty atrocious after all. However, in all honesty I'd expected them to be even worse.

Other trips intervened, but there was always the idea of the Naga Hills. We thought about Hornbill Festival too late last year to plan it adequately, since accommodation gets booked up really early. Our thoughts turned to alternative festivals, such as the Sekrenyi Festival in February. For family reasons, that did not materialize either. Eventually we settled our hearts on the Aoeling Monyu festival in Mon, Northern Nagaland, which is held every April, to celebrate the spring.

Information was scarce. I combed the internet looking at blogs and official government sites and accosted total strangers with requests for any relevant snippets of advice. Bit by bit the picture was getting clearer.

Nagaland is a patchwork of different tribes and tongues. There are sixteen main tribes and many more sub-tribes. Each has their own dialect. Due to the fact that they are mutually incomprehensible, English or Nagamese are used. The latter is akin to Assamese. The Konyak Nagas form the largest tribal group in the state. They are also to be found across the state border in Arunachal Pradesh as well as in Myanmar.

Before leaving home I had twice read the book by Jonathan Glancey, "Nagaland, A Journey to India's Forgotten Frontier", which furnished some much needed background.

When we left Crete to fly to Athens, then Dubai, then Kolkata, then Dibrugarh, my anticipation had reached a crescendo. Imagine then my disappointment when we were obliged to make an unscheduled four day stopover in Dubai due to a massive nosebleed I endured in Dubai airport after landing. My account of Dubai will be in a separate thread. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it , in spite of the frightening circumstances. Our meetings with friends in Kolkata got unavoidably delayed and rescheduled but fortunately the flight to Dibrugarh with Indigo was unaffected by the inauspicious beginning to our adventures.

Flight time from Kolkata to Dibrugarh is one hour and twenty minutes. As we flew over the Sunderbans, I noticed we were the only non-Indians on the plane. The last time we had flown this way was four years previously, when we were embarking on our Arunachal Pradesh trip, in March 2009. So we were returning to familiar territory at the Little Palace Hotel, set beside the Brahmaputra. The next impediment to our trip to Nagaland was about to cause us a headache and make me once again wonder whether this trip would ever get going. The car and the driver we had reserved failed to materialize. Apparently the car was a write-off and the driver in the hospital. To cut a long story short, I telephoned instead an acquaintance who lives in Dibrugarh. Not long after, we had fixed ourselves up with a brand new Xylo jeep, a driver with some command of English, and - surprisingly - a daily rate which was around half of that we had been quoted previously! Things were starting to look better and better.

Thus on a sunny April morning we commenced the long drive from Dibrugarh to Mon.

Tea gardens of Assam
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I had awoken at 4 a.m. that morning with the call to prayer from a nearby muezzin. We set off mid-morning and reached Mon town five and a half hours later. First of all we drove due west alongside the railway and the river Brahmaputra. There was a lot of traffic and the road was quite bumpy in patches. Call this a prelude to the main concerto we would find later on. As we turned due south and entered the district of Sibsagar, the first sizeable town we encountered was Moran. We later entered the district of Sonari and drove through Kakotibari until Sonari town. We entered Nagaland at Tizit checkpoint after three hours of driving in Assam. The police chief was thrilled to meet us and invited us to take tea with him. We also admired his rifle, a blackpowder muzzle-loader. He was happy that we were able to provide him with photocopies of our passports and Indian visas, having come armed with fistfuls of Xerox copies. We drove through shades of green for the next two and a half hours in order to reach the misty heights of Mon.





The green of the Naga Hills is like all the shades of green which an artist's palette can invent and then add some more without name. Emerald. Olive. Khaki. Yellow-green. Green-yellow. The scenery of bamboo, banana and abundant palm trees create shade. The endless rolling hills enveloped in mist are like a Japanese miniature painting. Words cannot do justice to the beauty of this place. As we left the plains behind we could not help thinking that the Konyak Nagas had chosen their abode very carefully and it was not a coincidence that their way of life had remained unchanged until very recently. The combination of geographical isolation and economic penury combined with lack of written history meant that this area is seldom visited and to all intents and purposes it is unmapped. I purposely wrote down the names of all the places we traversed in order to one day find them on a map. Anecdotes recount that the history of Nagaland was "eaten by a dog" after having been inscribed in parchment. What I do know is that very few people I have encountered around the world have any idea where Nagaland is. From England to Dubai to Kolkata, quizzical looks met my declaration "I am going to Nagaland". "Where is that?" they all asked. We were about to find out.
#2 May 4th, 2013, 13:45
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#2
Before continuing with the travellogue, I would like to thank the following IndiaMikers for their help in trip planning over the past year: KSBluechip, DCamrass, Vaibhav Arora, PiranE, sbballer33 (Micah), Mahseer and others too numerous to mention. I would like to cite here the great help extended to me from Vaivhav Todi of Greener Pastures, who stepped in at the eleventh hour to provide us with a car. Many thanks are due to Bapu, whose skillful driving took us up to Mon and Mokokchung and back safely to the plains of Assam.

We are about to meet the Nagas.
Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 4th, 2013 at 15:22..
#3 May 4th, 2013, 14:03
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#4 May 4th, 2013, 14:06
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#4
"Safety on the Road,
Safe Tea at Home"


Our destination at Mon town was "Auntie's", otherwise known as the Paramount Guest House. Auntie's real name is Tainla Konyak, but we would not find that out until much later! When we entered the dining room to drink a much needed cup of tea, we immediately met a friendly couple called Harry and Tiala. He is American and she is an Ao Naga. They have been married for a long time, but only recently have been able to visit Nagaland due to the abolishment of the need for Restricted Area Permits. Over the next ten days we would be meeting many of their family members who, like us, had come to Mon to witness the spring festival of Aoeling Monyu, which was to reach its climax on Saturday. Unlike some of the other tourists who had packed Auntie's to full capacity, we were travelling solo, just Mr TD and myself, without any guide. So we quizzed all the people we met for help. Auntie seemed to take an instant fancy to us, and she introduced us to her "best guide", called Anyang. He was going to show us the celebrations around the various nearby villages over the next couple of days. It turned out he is a gem. By a strange quirk of fate or serendipity he later introduced us to some family members of his who were neighbours of family members of a lady called Phejin, whom I had been attempting to contact for months. To cut a long story short, by the end of our stay we had been introduced to practically all of Phejin's family, except for the lady herself. Everyone is aware of their clan and one acquaintance leads to another and another and then before you know it you have been adopted by the Konyaks!

I had been reading stories online for months about how Indian tourists are afraid to go to Northern Nagaland, for fear of the food, for fear of the roads, for fear of headhunters, and so on and so forth. Balderdash! We were served delicious vegetables and even more scrumptious sticky rice. It is true that some of the favoured dishes such as Blood Sausage (made, like the English Black Pudding or the French boudin, with pigs' blood) are not to my taste. But in spite of extreme poverty the Nagas of Mon manage to appear elegant, slim, well dressed, and smiling as well as athletic. They needed all their energy for the forthcoming dancing and drumming…. Bit by bit the ancestral costumes and jewellery were being dusted off and the jeans cast aside in favour of more colourful attire. Red, black, yellow, turquoise, orange, green. Rows of multicoloured beads. Hornbill feathers. It would not be an exaggeration to say that some of the most beautiful people in India are to be found in these hills. They look after their own folk. There is not a single beggar to be found on the streets. There are no touts either. This is a proud people. They have every reason to feel proud of their difference and to want to maintain it.
#5 May 4th, 2013, 14:39
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#5
Beautiful write up, waiting for more.
#6 May 4th, 2013, 14:53
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#6
Thank you Dave, Julia, Vaibhav, Gametotravel and jyotida for your appreciation!


Misty view



A typical road in Mon district



Roadside companions
#7 May 4th, 2013, 15:46
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#7
Green canopy


Traditional hairdo of a Konyak elder, seen on the way to Lungwa village


Lungwa
Our first Konyak village visit was to the one atop the Myanmar border, where the house of the Angh (chieftain) sits astride the border between India and Myanmar. Although I had read reports of demands for bribes from tourists, due to its recent popularity with tour operators, I really wanted to go there. I had seen the Angh on television being interviewed by Michael Palin in his documentary "Himalaya". So we were keen to retrace Palin's footsteps. We had the cameras out to snap silly photographs of ourselves with one foot in India and one foot in Burma, just as Michael Palin had done. Our guide Anyang tried to dissuade us saying he had more interesting ideas for us. But we insisted. He would be given full scope the next day for taking us to unknown villages.

When we arrived in Lungwa, after a very uncomfortable ride eastwards, on potholed roads filled with the recent rain, the Angh was asleep. He and his chums had been indulging in opium smoking. They roused themselves eventually to greet us. Ngowang is the Angh of Lungwa. He is fifty five years old. We met his son, Tonnyei. The grandfather of Tonnyei died thirty years ago. Headhunting took place here until the late 1950s. Nowadays none of the living chieftains have any personal experience of it. Previously the faces of elders were tattooed when they had taken their first skull. Nowadays even youngsters are indulging in facial tattoos but they are no longer headhunters. An array of stones in the garden represents the number of skulls taken back in the day when it was commonplace. Note that the turquoise ornaments just below the kneecaps denote an Angh. Only he has the right to wear these.

Nowadays the main scourge is opium addiction. Apparently it is available extremely cheaply in Myanmar.

We met a mithun who had been delivered on foot across the border and was about to be butchered for the ceremony. In a couple of days hence there would be a huge party and various VVIPS were expected from Burma.

Ready for the Feast of Merit



Preparing a traditional bamboo gateway







Anticipation
Last edited by theyyamdancer; May 9th, 2013 at 19:44.. Reason: mix up in names
#8 May 4th, 2013, 16:35
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#8
It is not every day that you get to talk to the relatives of former headhunters!







#9 May 4th, 2013, 16:42
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#9
TD, I was eagerly waiting for this one, having been there, and having known that you are planning something of this sort. Feels good to see that you have actually done this. COngratulations to you and Mr TD.
#10 May 4th, 2013, 16:45
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#10
Hi Karan,

Thank you!

It was one of our best trips so far.
#11 May 4th, 2013, 16:57
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#11
It's like raising curtains (of mist, as well as ignorance) one after another ..... step by step ......

Even we, Indians too, know so less of Nagaland.

Brilliant write up TD
aamar payer tolai sorshe...(I have wheels under my feet)
#12 May 4th, 2013, 16:58
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#12
Thank you so much for your kind words, DJ.

Inside the Morung, the traditional dwelling (longhouse)


Food is hung from the rafters.

The morung or community house is the focal point of the family and the social centre of the village. They also house log drums, intricately carved, which would provide the percussion in the ensuing celebrations.
#13 May 4th, 2013, 17:13
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#13
One of my favourites




The gaiety is infectious !


Wild Cat totem




At Lungwa there were quite a few tourists actually. We had to pay the village for the privilege of visiting. (A thousand Rs per group to the Angh is the asking price for a chance to chat and photograph the village.)

The Konyaks in Lungwa are very accustomed to seeing a steady flow of tourists, and have set up a (fake) jewellery market outside the morung. Not too many people were buying anything.

In discussions with the elders, I quizzed them on the future of their village, asking if they foresee more trade with Myanmar. They answered in the affirmative.

(In the Indian press later that month I saw that direct flights have just been inauguarated between Chiang Mai and Imphal.)


Our excellent guide, Anyang



A throng of happy faces




Mithun skulls


#14 May 4th, 2013, 18:17
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#14
Thanks TD, I had been planning to go to Nagaland since ages, and your post has compelled me to curse myself again. Wonderful thread!

PS: So that is why you had been missing in action
If you find my posts confrontationist, please bear, I am an old frustrated guy who has nothing better to do than sit on rocking chair and curse the world whole day
#15 May 4th, 2013, 18:17
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#15
Here is an interesting article which describes the unique position of Lungwa:

Lungwa: One Village, Two States


and this is the Youtube of Michael Palin's visit to the same guys!

Last edited by theyyamdancer; Jun 9th, 2013 at 10:37..
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