Nagaland. A place of poetry and folklore, of warriors and heroism. A place of contrast. Militarised, Christian, Tribal, modern and ancient. To the east Burma, to the west and beyond Assam; the 22 km Siliguri Corridor or the ‘chicken’s neck’, a narrow strip of land that connects North East India with the rest of the sub- continent. This is a place where no caste system exists yet the ‘tribal’ grouping attached to the people of this region churns paradoxically in the belly of the chicken. An India that desperately aims to control a region that refuses to succumb.
Here in the village of Kohnoma, tucked away high in the Naga Hills the vast sheets of cloud that colonise salubrious virgin forest appear fictive as they swirl-twirl their way deeper in to the imagination. My sense on waking to the sound of a 4.30 am cockerel is to immediately jump out of bed and walk outside in to the soft mist and inhale giddily the entire breath of the valley. I gaze down from our hillside perch at the stairwell of rice terraces bathed in luminosity and stretching as far as the eye can see from east to west. On their eastern sloped verge a thick Alder forest allows the monsoon rains, now rich in the trees nutrients, to run down in to myriad irrigation channels and soak the fields in a natural fertiliser that allows for over 40 varieties of rice to be planted.
Later the four of us reach the intricate fields by a steep downward incline populated by stone slab steps. Women, either barefoot or in socks pass us, baskets of corn which are straddled to their arched backs are fastened to their bodies at their foreheads by rope. All offer greetings, and some launch in to conversation with us in the angamese language; they are being playful with our silent tongues and wide eyed gazes. We smile and reply with the two words we know in the language, yes you’ve guessed it ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ and support our nascent lexicon with a smattering of signing and gesticulation. The only thing clear from the encounter is that these seem to be people content in their work, happy to stop and chat, happy enough to smile and sing as their bodies and baskets are taken up mountain side by athletic limbs and bulging muscles.
We cross the paddy fields, dazzling in their mandala like orderliness and trek in to the forest. At a point of navigating moist stepping stone and scree gradient an elderly woman, bent low with a huge basket of corn skips past us in her socks! I would later learn that socks were very much a necessity given the ubiquity of leeches. Although many of the women (I saw only one man in the fields and he may have, indeed, being a figment of my imagination given his attire consisted of a loincloth and a staff) discarded socks and climbed the steep steps to the village barefoot, leeches left hungry in the saturated fields below.
A banyan tree sitting on a plump mound at the foot of the climb to the village acted as a meeting point and resting place for the workers, gazing out from this spot towards the meandering west I could see tens of wooden huts indicating a different plot of rice paddy. Companion planting and inter cropping were in evidence and fruit trees as well as a plethora of wild herbs grow freely. Cloud swiveled overhead and spiraled up towards the sky in to playful invisibility. It is the forest that captivates all the while. I find my gaze locked in to it as if under hypnosis. It’s sheer size is only matched by its deep and elusive beauty as it gives luster to both mountain peak and fold. I am moved and a sense of being truly alive surges through me. It is invigorating and intoxicating all at the same time. This exuberance rubs off on M and G and the spring in my step allows my more playful side to motivate/distract both in to further hiking.
We had arrived at the village of Kohnoma having being advised that we could just simply show up and the locals would be able to point us in the direction of a homestay. A one hour bus journey from Kohima, Nagaland’s capital city, covering the 18 kilometres of mountain ‘road’ landed us in the square of this mountain hamlet. We dropped our rucksacks outside the imposing Methodist church. Since the Burmese/Indian border I had been fascinated by the amount of Christian churches in every town and village. This was quite the contrast from the experience to date as Laos, Thailand and Burma were predominantly Buddhist. In Nagaland Christianity is claimed as the religion of 90 per cent of the population. Some of the churches dotted on picturesque hilltop are as imposing and resplendent as some of the Buddhist temples of south-east Asia. The missionaries who had come to this beautiful and hard to reach part of the world had achieved huge success in numbers through their conversion of tribal people who had up that point being steeped in animist traditions. Today a minority still practice traditional religion but in the towns and cities of this part of north east India it is clear from a Sunday stroll that Christianity dominates.
A man in his mid sixties, who I had earlier noticed on the bus, walks down the steps and greets us.He asks us where we are staying and comes across as a little annoyed with us when we explain to him that we haven’t arranged anywhere to stay. He explains in perfect English that people who provide homestay accommodation require time to prepare to receive guests. My heart sinks in agreement with him. The man introduces himself as Roko and he enquires as to our motivation of visiting his village. I explain history, culture, agriculture and trekking spark our interests. He mulls over the answers and leaves us for the plaque in the centre of the village where there are some people sitting and reading newspapers. Below us a group of men, a dozen at least, are chipping away at rock slabs. The noise of the chisel being hammered against the stone echoes throughout the valley. Roko returns and says that we will be collected in a few minutes by a man named Kose and Kose will put us up. We thank Roko profusely, he writes down his number and indicated to us where he lives. He encourages us to find him if we would like to know more about the village.
Kose, a well built, handsome and smiling man duly arrives and drives us a short distance to almost the point we are at but he has circumambulated the mountain. His home a two story house with sheds and outhouses is picture perfect, potted flowers are everywhere, the ground floor of the house is tucked in to the hillside and reached by a series of stone steps whilst the second floor is accessible at road side.
We spend 4 days in Kohnoma. The children use the time to catch up on much needed play, they enjoy the food on offer at the homestay, they play with the 3 family cats and come on little hikes with us. For our part we catch up on some reading, we use the meal times to connect with our lovely hosts and Niko, a woman who helps with the family with homestay guests. We understand more about this place, there exists no caste system. It is only perceived when tourists from Delhi or Kolkata visit and expect subservience from the local ‘tribal’, a category of person that lays at the bottom of the caste pecking order.
We drink tea and write, we gaze out the window in sporadic bursts of day dreaming. We walk the village streets and drop in to see Roko; he is painting his new house with his son. Roko is moving back to Kohnoma from Kohima where he has worked as a civil servant for the Nagaland Government. Now retired he has built a house on the land where his family home once stood. The former house is wooden and in disrepair; a headstone like plaque in the front wall of the house remembers Roko’s father who died in 2007. Similar plaques are to be found throughout the village on the walls of houses. Roko talks us through some of the 600 year history of the village, he rubbishes the British propaganda regarding their use of the term ‘Naga Head Hunters’ and explains that the motivation was never to chop off heads merely for the sake of it; Roko acknowledges battles took place and why wouldn’t the locals defend themselves, their ways of life, the land they lived on and yes when battles took place proof of conquests were often retrieved afterwards.
He tells us about a Canadian researcher who lived here for years studying the Alder trees. Later he would meet him in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he gave him an Anagamese shawl. He speaks glowingly of Angamese culture and language but warns of an erosion setting in with young people being more attracted to the cities. (This is a theme we encounter again and again on our travels). Roko seems to enjoy the conversation we have and I am glad we have visited him. These are the promised visits I have, at times, let slip in the past. Before we say our farewells he brings us to one of the four village gates, a huge slab of hardwood with tribal designs depicting a warrior with hornbill feathers, spears, the sacred Mitun (a type of mountain cow) and blow horns. The gate signifies where the village ends and the jungle begins.
We trek through the rice fields and to the edges of the ‘jungle’ and later attempt with a local guide to hike up over the mountain and on to the mystical Dzouka Valley only for the incessant rain and limited visibility to drive us back down. We visit our guides old school and now drenched to the bone we pop in to our guides 97 year old Grandmother’s house for tea, we huddle by the fire and take little leeches off our clothes after I find one on my neck. En route home we come across a seasonal market. We buy four heads of the most glowing cabbage for 20 rupees; we are told that cabbage holds a special importance to the western Angamese.
Kohnoma is a town that attempts to maintain culture and heritage and does so in a way where it seems sharply aware of what the fanfare of tourism can bring. A village council meet quarterly. Here decisions that will affect the entire community are made ultimately by the elders. A young man or woman will always call an unrelated senior ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle’. A respect for elders is deep rooted here so when issues are debated it is the elders who will have the final say. In Kohnoma one cannot purchase cigarettes or alcohol as decreed by the village council some years ago nor can one own a dog that is not adequately leashed and kennelled. Whatever one may think of such rules they seem to be generally accepted. In the case of the former I have seen both men and women smoke a hand rolled cigarette and cannabis also grows freely as a weed. We have also been made aware of the availability of the local rice beer. In the case of dogs I have not heard nor seen a single pup. Rules seem to have flexibility but overall the villagers seem to both accept and appreciate the common good that is garnished from such rules.
We get on the bus that takes us back down the descending coil of road. Outside the window Indian soldiers patrol the roadsides and we are reminded that although our heads have frolicked in the clouds these past few days, another reality of this area presents itself. This is contested space. There are great resources above and below these hills and therefore the Delhi Government has interest in quashing any independence movements aimed at self determination, maybe they will do so by painting a picture that the colonialists once did. The ‘Head Hunters’ will be waiting.