Part 6 – The Naga Conversations

Two thoughts come to mind when we think Nagaland.

  1. Dog meat
  2. Head hunters

It’s very sad that these are the only things we can think of. Nagas are said to be the one of the bravest of the Indian army. The current chief minister of Nagaland, Neiphiu Rio had been the CM 3 times before. A 13 year old girl started an armed resistance against the British rule in 1929; Rani
Gaidinliu was arrested in 1932 at the age of 16 and was only released in 1947 after the independence of India. There are many Naga football stars including Talimeren Ao in who’s honour the government has released a postal stamp. But do we know any of this? Noooo.. we can only think of dog meat and “violent” head hunting.

Sadly both of these topics are highly misunderstood, misinterpreted and misconstrued. Stereotype dog meat jokes on the Nagas are one thing, but alleging that they feed dog meat to tourists or to anyone without consent is rubbish.

Finding Dogmeat in the famous Shah house of Hyderabad or some hyped restaurant on Indiranagar of Bangalore might be bad. Bad because they sell Dogmeat in the name of mutton. But this doesn’t happen in Nagaland.

In our visit to Kohima, one of our expectation was to see dog meat and other exotic animals for sale in the markets – we missed it. In Kisama, we did see black boards outside Morungs with menus selling dog meat.

The board clearly read:

Local Dog Meat – ₹150

Local Pork – ₹180

Local Beaf – ₹200

So it’s just like ordering salad or juice, just another item of the menu. You order it, you get it – simple.

For dinner we tried a variety of food from a line of eateries – who were all hoteliers from across the state and had set up stalls to serve food at the Hornbill Festival. They were also part of a contest for the best food stall. Choices were abundant, both for veg and non veg. They served grasshoppers; crispy, roasted grasshoppers. I didn’t eat but they asked everyone explicitly for prawn allergies before serving. Of course we also had rice beer in bamboo shoots. I asked our friend from the TV channel if they used the bamboo shoots as a drinking glass at their homes also or was it just for the tourists in restaurants. He wasn’t surprised, he said in the towns we use normal steel, or plastic or coffee mugs – just like everyone, but in villages some traditional people do use the bamboo shoots.

This was followed by some karaoke, the head chef came out and sang too, it seemed like he was very popular. A group if pretty girls – they could be older – got excited and had animated conversations with him. The ladies of Nagaland were by far the prettiest in the north east.

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Back at the house, it was biting cold. Avin had started a fire outside and there was a group having dinner around it. We said our goodbyes to our friends and went up to the room – which is where Nikie came to enquire about our stay.

Upon seeing us, she realised we had run into her a couple of times in the carnival. After pleasantries, we started talking of the different stalls and activities at the fest. I said I was surprised to see the Indian army put up stalls too. To which she said Nagaland provides a sixth if all soldiers to the Assam rifles. The hornbill festival was a major showcasing platform for the army. Infact there was also a stall from the BSF and another war memorial stall that showed us about the war of Kohima – A world war 2 battle that lasted for nearly 4 months.

Speaking to her was easy, she had done her graduation and post grad at St. Aloysius in Mangalore. She was now doing her PhD in history at Guwahati University. She enlightened us about the myth of head hunting.

The world outside the Naga society thinks it’s a way of living that the Naga tribes go on beheading and collecting heads of their rivals. While it’s true that tribes get into conflicts and the Nagas have beheaded each other, they don’t collect heads and it’s definitely not a tradition to behead one another. The Nagas too are victims of the British misconstrue. When the British and other exploiters came to Nagaland through Myanmar, like any natives the Nagas resisted, and to de-legitimise their claims the Nagas were made to look evil, violent and dangerous.

The girl had seemed like a carefree “girl from the north east” who ran to the beaches. She looked so different now. We were left with a sudden realisation of our ignorance as she made her way back to her room.

The fire was still burning and the other group – who were a bunch of consultants looking to get students to their colleges from the North east – had gone, so we went down to sit by the fire. Avin, who we thought was the caretaker was there sat with us. We were to find that he was an artist, a sculpture, he worked different jobs and had come to Delhi in 2017 to work with the media for a sporting event. He was now taking care of this property for the winter and had plans of going up to Guwahati or Delhi in the summer.

We had heard him stum on his guitar, so we asked if he could play for us, he wasn’t shy, he played the guitar and RJ – my other travel companion sang. It was a nice soothing end to the night. Realisation of our ignorance on one side, and understanding of the Naga way by these casual conversations on the other. Both had left us yearning for Nagaland.

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We left the next morning, took a rather bad and lengthy drive to Mao Gate in Manipur, switched cabs and passed through some towns that ended with -oan, except for Senapati. We ATM-ed at Senapati, bought some water and headed to Imphal. That’s where we saw hoardings about something called Sangai Fest in Manipur. Its an annual festival in of Manipur – just like the Hornbill of Nagaland. It happens in the last week of November – so you could go-to Manipur in the last week of November, experience the Sangai feat and then come to Nagaland in December for the Hornbill. Make it happen!

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Also read: Part 5 – Nagaland

Part 5 – Nagaland

Nagaland is one of the few states in India where the biggest city is not the capital by default. Kohima is the capital city of Nagaland, it is located in the south-south central region of the state. Kohima also serves as the seat of the Legislative and Executive arms of the state government of Nagaland. The state doesn’t have a High court – but has a Kohima Bench in the Gauhati High Court.

The largest city of Nagaland is Dimapur, located about 75 Km from Kohima in the south west corner of the state bordering the neighboring state of Assam. Dimapur is the last accessible place by Air and Train in Nagaland. It is not unnatural as Nagaland is mostly covered in hills – about 90% of the landscape is covered in hills and hilly terrain.  

There are numerous trains on the route and 10 of them are daily trains. So we pushed our departure and decided to take a late night train that would a. Give us time to meet the players of Bengaluru FC in the day, and b. save us the hotel cost for the night. We’d booked a non-AC – sleeper coach – which cost us a little more than 200 rupees. The train was on time at Guwahati – but was filthy. Since mine was an upper berth and it was a late-night train I didn’t bother if the floor was clean or not – I hopped in and slept. I was told that the train was duly cleaned before it left the station.

The train pulled into Dimapur a little after 6 AM. I was exhausted and visibly dehydrated. Luckily the train station has enough food joints and to our pleasant surprise, there was a south Indian stand that served Dosas – which we had with much gratitude.

We had run into the tourist police – female – with whom we spoke about the ILP. The ILP – Inner Line Permit is what tourists and other non-native expats need to visit Nagaland. It is made essential because of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act that is in force in the area. The Act itself might be enforced in different regions up to different extents, but the ILP is required in only a few regions of India – and we didn’t have it. Our friend and host – who worked at a Kohima based TV station had said don’t worry about it, you’re only in Nagaland for 2 days. So we didn’t worry about it and fat mouthed the cops who detained us at the railway station for our troubles. Eventually we were let off on our own cognizance and on assurance that we would obtain the ILP from the commissioner’s office in Dimapur town. I would suggest – you get the ILP before hand and not try to pull stunts like these – its available online or in bigger cities like New Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati and Shillong.

Upon our “release” from the Railway station, we were hounded by cabbies – normal of any city in India. We found a cab that had 1 passenger ready to leave and with the 3 of us joining, we were ready to go – except – now we had to find a driver. The cabs may not always be privately owned – hence there are 3 moving parts – the passengers, the vehicle, and the driver. It was only on the road to Kohima did we find out that every part in the car is a moving part and it’s a miracle the chassis still holds, and engine still runs. The road is terrible, most of it is attributed to the new highway project, but the construction has been going on for years and likely to go on for years more. The distance of 75 Km took us nearly 6 hours. Bikers and landslides were a common site. Armored vehicles too. I couldn’t enjoy the mountainous scenery much – but the mountains and valleys can make an enjoyable sight.

The terrain gradient of the city of Kohima was constantly varying. The city itself wasn’t any cleaner than majority of India, but there was a lot of construction going on, houses, shopping complexes, bigger housing buildings – which suggested a sort of progress. There were also numerous schools and coaching centers – coaching centers that taught computers, and other professional certifications. Good signs! Since it was Christmas season, the whole city had Christmas decorations – not a lot of lights – as electricity is a commodity, but decorations, sky lights, and a lot of red and green everywhere. The homogeneity of the decorations made me as our friendly -stranger co passenger if it was handed by the government – which was the case. We took another cab from downtown Kohima towards our homestay in Kigwema.

We were welcomed warmly by the owner/keeper of the house. As a welcome drink, we were offered rice tea. Rice is a big part in Naga society, rice with meat, rice tea, and rice beer are every Naga’s daily routine. The homestay was a minimalist stay with minimal furniture – just beds and bedding, a small table with a bible and a calendar. There were candles and matches reminding us we were in rural India – albeit a tourist destination. The facility had community bath and toilet – toilet being the squat toilet.  We freshened ourselves up and waited for our friend to pick us up to go to the Hornbill festival.

 Kisama is an artificial village created just for the sake of the festival. It gets the name from the two nearby places of Ki-gwema and phe-Sama. The village is basically a big carnival area with parking, outdoor stage area, restaurants, a chapel, ATMs, medics, outdoor flea markets and everything else you find in a carnival. The main attraction however are the Morungs. A Morung literally means a habitat – a place of residence for a family or a group of families of a Naga Tribe.

Nagaland is home to 17 indigenous tribes, some are as big as 200 thousand people while some endangered ones at less than 20 thousand inhabitants. All these tribes are incredibly interesting with their own unique culture, language, scripts and art forms. The Hornbill Festival is an event that showcases and celebrates all the different cultures of these tribes. Each of the 17 tribes are depicted in their Morung, which they get to design and decorate themselves, cook food, set up stalls, brew beer and hold all of these for sales. Photos are encouraged and everyone is friendly.

The festival not only runs in Kisama but after nightfall, concerts from famous and upcoming native bands are held in the city concert ground in Kohima – which is just 15 Km from Kisama,

The people we met, our friends who we had seen in a different light and the new friends we made opened our minds to a whole new world. The conversations with the Nagas will be last of the 6 part travelogue of the incredible North East of India.

Also Read : Part 4 – Dawki and Jaintia

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