Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Nagaland - Part 1

"We have never doubted and we never worried about the question of our unity, which is an internal affairs of Nagaland alone. This was never a problem and India has no business to interfere us. But the menace of India is there because she wanted to grab our country saying one thing or another like the well known story of the “Tiger and the Lamb” in the Aesop Fables who had painted the worst type of cannibalistic humanity." - Angami Zapu Phizo

A gust the speed of a hurricane whipped my hair about as I heaved open the heavily rusted door. My youthful spirit urged for a bit of adrenaline as the train pummeled eastwards, lurching back and forth sporadically as I fumbled to firmly place my feet at the edges of the doorway. I'd always dreamed of standing in the open doorway of a train flying full speed, something I'd potentially get arrested for at home. Here in India, I was the enforcer and the judge. With the dangers fully realized, I accepted the risk for a better view and grasped the safety handles on either side. My knuckles turned white as I inched my face past the threshold of the doorway into a new world passing by at a hundred miles an hour. India was changing quickly before me; brown soil began to orange; palms overwhelmed the cozy lower altitudes, halting the presence of pines from the nearby Himalaya; mosquitoes splattered against my face. I was entering the northeastern region. Completely unknown to some and feared by many tourists, this small portion of the subcontinent lies on the eastern side of Bangladesh. The entire region's morbid history of violent uprisings from political extremist parties was intimidating, yet I knew more was there than death and deprivation. I stood steadfast in the open doorway, absent of breath to the sight of a landscape exploding with glowing green as golden light scattered across the lush jungle hills and rice paddies. There's nothing like the painting of a place right in front of your eyes when you had no idea what would be there in the first place. It is the purest form of adventure, perfectly preceded by the slightest notion of fear for the unknown. Many secrets await those that travel where few have tread, and the northeast was my frontier. As dusk approached, mosquitoes began to slap me out of my captivation. I slammed the door, returned to my bunk, and waited.

Besides the more conflicting province of Arunchal Pradesh, Nagaland is the farthest east one can go within India. Encompassing an area only slightly larger than Delaware, it was once home to 30 different tribes. There are now 15 remaining, and even though the province may call its national language "Nagamese," a local translator would highly disagree as all tribes are vastly different in language, rich in ethnic diversity, and tainted with a history of violence.

Photographer - Walter Callet
Long before the days of the British Raj, the Nagas were notoriously known for their deep and savage warrior roots. Ursula Graham Bower, one of the first anthropologists to visit the area, called it a "paradise of headhunters." Headhunting was the path to manhood for any member of a tribe, and a contribution to the tribe's skull house was expected ... lest the young adult wish to be called a cow or woman for the rest of their life. It was once the most glorious feat to make with a dao, a sword of machete length but much more hideous in appearance. Upon the successful contribution of a severed head, the warrior would be tattooed upon his chest in traditional fashion, officially marked a natural born killer.

See that blade? Look intimidating enough yet? Photographer - Irena Fridensteina

Yeah... you get the point now, don't ya.
Though the practice was abandoned over 60 years ago under Nagaland's legal system, several struggles have ended with the sever of a head over the years. It is very difficult to pin point the cause of this change, yet the conversion of religious faith has surely brought a stronger idea of unity to a place once so conflicting. The wide-scale acceptance of Baptism, Catholicism, and Christianity in the early 1900s brought a greater energy of peace between tribes, and though the practice of cultural killings continued, the ancient tradition slowly subsided as Christ appeared in their souls. Today, over 90% of Nagaland is either Baptist, Catholic, or Cristian.


The lush and breathtaking Naga hills

By the time I arrived in the Dimapur train station I totaled 28 hours of train riding and 2282 km (1417 mi) of railroad. It was 4am. Like all other train stations, several taxi drivers bombarded me with the best price to Kohima, a small village in the Naga hills. I took a step back and decided to make a choice off of aesthetics. One younger man caught my eye immediately. He was dressed exactly the same as a skater from California: red and black plaid shirt, beige dickies, and all black Vans. My driver of choice, and also the driver for two small children and their grandfather. We set off immediately, and within 20 minutes we left the capital for the infinite darkness of the Naga jungle highway.

The ride would be an informative one, along with many, many stops for two children in the back seat. I soon learned that neither had ever been in a car. The road never stopped winding back and forth, and their stomachs surrendered to the motion. After pulling over 4 times in 2 miles, the grandfather next to them gave into the constant sound of regurgitation. I need a distraction, now. I gave my full attention to the young driver, discussing the political uprisings of Nagaland. To my surprise, he was a fluent English speaker and, in the long 3 hour drive, taught me the long and horrid history of Nagaland's political feuds.

A public painting of the rights of Naga citizens under the Government of India

The departure of the British brought anything but independence for the Nagas. The new Government of India was left with a stronghold of military presence in the northeast, leaving the citizens of Nagaland in a vice. As education significantly increased from the late 1800s up until the 1940s, so did provincial-wide awareness of Naga cultural identity. In 1947, the Naga National Council (NNC) claimed their independence from India and commenced what became several decades of conflict. Within 5 years the Government of India took quick measures to buckle down on the NNC, upping their military presence even more. The NNC followed suit  in 1956, creating the Naga Federal Army (NFA) and Naga Federal Government (NFG). Less than a decade later, the Government of India created the State of Nagaland, a decision that enraged certain groups the NNC and spawned militant movements. In an attempt to bring peace and disband such forces as the NFG and NFA, the NNC and the Government of India signed the Shillong Accord. Though signatures were provided, concerns from the NNC and other underground military groups were supposed to be addressed by the Indian government. Typical to the lazy and inconsiderate behavior of the Indian government, none of this came. The result was the creation of a new branch of the NNC, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). The NSCN was short lived, as disagreeing tribes disbanded to create insurgency groups. These groups were adamant in founding "Nagalim" (greater Nagaland) with portions of land inhabited by Nagas in all neighboring provinces (Manipur, Assam, Arunchal Pradesh) and even a portion of Burma (Myanmar). From then until now, thousands of fatalities have been recorded from clashes between insurgent groups and the Indian military across Nagaland and its neighbor provinces. Even though the number of deaths has decreased today, conflict is still fresh and present across the northeast due to these insurgent groups.

It was then in that taxi that I understood the advisory in my Lonely Planet about staying indoors between 5pm-6am. I also realized why it was a "self-enforced curfew." Naga insurgent groups would make either movements or attacks on Indian military at night, and getting caught in the crossfire was something no one wanted. As I arrived in Kohima at 7am, I realized how fortunate I was. Even though Dimapur and Kohima were covered in military bases, I was thankful to have my driver and a story to enlighten my naive mind to the true dangers of Nagaland.


I didn't spend much time in Kohima, but the short time I was there brought immense surprise and relief. I walked all through town, getting a first glimpse of architecture and preoccupied citizens. As I wandered, I wondered: how the hell am I going to contact Nick? My housemate had arrived in the northeast by plane only a few days before. He had decided to travel through Imphal, the province just south of Nagaland, on his way to meet me in Kohima. But by the time I arrived in Kohima, I hadn't purchased a new SIM card for my cell phone. the entire northeast was on a completely different network, and one that I was unable to reach without an open phone store. At the early hour of 8, I'd have to wait at least 2 hours for that. So I sat, pondering my trip up until now and other things. Eventually, my wander brought me to the main bus station. All of the sudden, I see a white guy tromping by across the street. He was wearing a green hat, and immediately classified in my head as I saw the big headphones around his ears. I could see it in his face before trying to get his attention; Nick was just as lost and stranded as I was. As he entered the bus station from the opposite side, I stepped out from behind a wall just a few feet in front of his walking path.

No other reunion between a housemate and I in India would match this one. Of all the places we could have found each other, of all the times we could have crossed paths, it all happened to be when we were the most stranded we had ever felt and the farthest away from home we had ever been. Nicks facial transformation was classic; surprise, immediately followed by relief, happiness, and hilarity. We exchanged stories from the last 3 weeks of our time away from Delhi (mostly Nick talking of his time in Imphal, where all of the Naga extremist parties now reside after being forced out by the Indian military), we contacted Avi, a local connected with my Anthropology professor back in Delhi. He met us at the bus station within the hour and we took a short visit to his home. Avi was a wealth of knowledge and leads to my research, and after learning about his occupations as a Naga bird watcher and tour guide, he organized the transport to Khonoma. Nick and I had discussed this village at the station, as he had just returned from doing research there on musical culture. For me, this was the the roots of modern Naga agricultural practice. As we parted ways from Avi, he thanked me for what I was doing. It was a surprise, as I thought very little would ever come out of my research. Clouds leaked through crevices between the steep hills, menacing an oncoming storm, and the fresh air beckoned me farther east into the realm of the unknown again.

Khonoma - Home of the Angami

I stared up at a church. Its foundation was deteriorating from wear and tear of weather; windows were broken; rust showed on the frames. Its location preserved its magnificence, placed on a hill over a majority of the village. Nick directed me across the road towards a large staircase, leading up to a small fort perched on the edge above all of Khonoma. My first taste of ancient Naga culture began there, and even though the walkway had been built hundreds of years ago, the village had maintained it to look as if it had been built yesterday. I would soon learn that this was the case for any stonework in Khonoma. If something was falling apart or needing repair, someone would fix it either as a contribution to the well being of their society.

Our home stay was a sight in itself, a cabin out of Little House on the Prarie with a zest of exotic flora and fauna. Lilies and orchids grew comfortably and in abundance in the family's garden, and just behind this runway of natural beauty was a 2 acre herb and tea garden. I knew then that everything I would eat in this home was going to be local, and possibly organic. This in itself was enough to make me happy, and after seeing the town and its surrounding greenery, I felt like I was absorbing a little slice of heaven. This place was beautiful AND clean, a combination that was very hard to find on the subcontinent.

A small, ancient sewing machine found in the bedroom

Add caption

We even had cloth lines across the bedroom!
A kitchen fully stocked to cook a feast

This is just to the left of the previous picture. All food was prepared here and cooked on the wood fire

The living room

(from front to back) scrumptious salad, dal, potatoes, spinach, and rice. (on the left) and the totally unexpected beef dish. SO, GOOD.

Dinner that night ended everything as best as it could. I learned that everything was local and organic, and with this kind of home to enjoy such a delicious meal, things couldn't have been better. It was going to be an amazing three days stay.

We awoke the next day to meet Kevi, a young man finishing his university degree in Kohima. He would become the single most important person in Khonoma as my translator. As we walked the streets and farm fields, I asked numerous questions that would become my primary research material. By the end of the day, Kevi had taught me almost everything I needed to know about the history of his home.

Up until the 1980s, Khonoma had been a village of hunters. Now, don't confuse this with the hunting of their neighboring tribesmen. The area had been known for its bountiful amounts of wildlife by neighboring Kohima, who became thoroughly addicted to the flavorful taste of wild game meat. This was what brought the demise of Khonoma's hunting ways as hunters began to drain their supply at a dangerous pace as the demand from Kohima consistently rose. Thankfully, tribal elders were quick to recognize where this path would take the area's biodiversity. Hunting was promptly banned only a few years later, and is only allowed today for specific festivals wherein hunting ceremonies have been practiced since the birth of Khonoma. But the elders went one step further. They transformed Khonoma into a "Green Village," a place where only enough resources are used to sustain what is already there.

A clash of ancient and modern belief are seen here. The monolith with "For Christ His Kingdom" was once a blank piece of stone. These large, blank slabs were once dedicated to families who would make massive donations to the village. These donations were massive feasts that lasted multiple days and filled the stomach of every citizen in Khonoma.
The meeting hall of Khonoma, once used as a feasting location for the village, is now used simply for community dinners hosted by the local church youth and for youth gatherings to discuss political and personal issues.
A legend is told behind this rock. The land was once an empty space until one day this rock appeared out of nowhere. The villagers thought it to be the source of an evil spirit, and therefore painted it as such. Since then, no one has dared to attempt and move it.

More beautiful stonework of the Angami
Farmers hard at work in the potato fields
The Alder tree is the single most important plant in the village of Khonoma. Its roots hold beneficial agricultural qualities towards soil, preserving structure and certain nutrient levels consistently for the tree's entire life span. The alder tree has also been sustainably used for firewood for hundreds of years in Khonoma.
A fallen rock, potentially used as a monolith?
Nick socializing with a mithun

Mithun are the most valuable item in Khonoma's society. Both used for meat and milk, these animals are allowed to roam freely in the upper regions of Khonoma in an alder tree forest. This particular area will never be harvested for firewood again, as the Khonoma elders value the area's importance to biodiversity. Somewhat of a symbiotic relationship is made between both the mithun and the alder tree and have provided nutrients to each other for hundreds of years as well.

A young boy stands among the waste and recycling baskets that are found by every other house in Khonoma
The village began its green policy, appointed by elders and self-initiated by citizens, only 10 years before my arrival. In only 10 years, the village had transformed from a hunting community to an organic, biodiverse, sustainable paradise.

Terraced rice paddy fields run all the way through the lower end of the province

The climate of Khonoma is incredibly unique for my own experience. I saw a pine tree growing right next to this banana tree (shown above)!


The village blacksmith pounds away

The next day was more of a touch up on Angami history during the occupation of India by the British. It turns out that Khonoma is such a strong image today for Nagaland because of its unwavering strength against the invasion of imperialist influence. The Brits attempted to occupy the areas of the Angami tribes time and time again, yet Khonoma and surroudning settlements continued to suffer severe bloodshed of their people and complete destruction of their villages to preserve their separation from British colonization. 115 years of conflict encompassed the invasion of imperialism in Nagaland, yet only 30% of the province would ever become securely occupied by the British. It took 48 years to finally defeat the Angami in the Battle of Khonoma in 1880, which would become recognized as the fiercest rebellion ever witnessed by the highest of British miliary officials. Charles U Aitchison, the Foreign Secretary for the Central Secretariat, recorded in Treaties, Engagements, and Sannands that "No written treaties or agreements have been made with any of the Naga tribes" in 1931, and this would continue all the way to the end of the British occupation of India in 1947. All this occurred because of the passionate patriotism of the Angami refusing to surrender their pride to the violent pressure of imperialism. Even today, one can still see the indominable spirit of these brave warriors. Every man, woman, and child has used their own two hands to create a village far more beautiful and well kept than any other I would see in India.

By the end of our second day, Nick and I had talked to children, farmers, and even a village elder. Every one of them was just as friendly and hospitable as the last, and every interaction was filled with happiness, laughter, and intellectual conversation (through the valuable translation of Kevi, of course). I had only been there 2 days and Khonoma was already feeling like home. I originally planned to stay for a week, and though the opportunity was available from such a hospitable host family, Nick had intrigued my adventurous spirit to travel deeper into the jungle hills. Tomorrow was a very special day for a different tribe that was north of Khonoma. The Konyak tribe was celebrating Aoling, wherein every villager decorated themselves in traditional tribal wear for the weekend and revealed their ancient roots. We bounded over the Naga hills for 8 hours to reach Mon Town, the main village of the Konyak, and our arrival was met with some crazy surprises.