A very long note on a very short visit to Nagaland

When Zuchamo Yanthan, a young Professor from IGNOU invited me to chair a session at a Seminar in St Joseph College in Nagaland, I agreed immediately. I had never been to Nagaland and accepting the invitation would mean that I could visit the state. The North-east is a bit queer for us, associated with armed militancy, fierce tribes, and hostile anti-Indian people. If one has ever thought of visiting the area it has usually begun and ended with a few game sanctuaries in Assam and a government guided tour of Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland, the land of the cruel head hunting warring tribes, seemed as dangerous as the Jarawas of Andamans from the plains of the river valleys of mainland India. So, the pull of adventure rather than knowledge or interest in the topic of the seminar made me agree readily to Zuchamo’s invitation.

The seminar was supposed to be in climate change and how it affected Nagaland adversely. Climate Change seems to be the new currency and academia irrespective of which discipline they hail from seem to jump into the bandwagon, identifying affairs of the climate as the track that leads the fastest to recognition, money and fame. Anyway, that hardly mattered because I had a distinct purpose or visiting Nagaland, to know its people, from whosoever I could meet in the college and intelligentsia. There was a new development among the Naga youth, an increased attraction towards South Korea, in the form of their movies, their music and their fashion trends. Arerang, a Korean channel was very popular in Nagaland and because of it the young persons in the state were learning the Korean language and even later I found was tracing their ethnic descent to Korea !! Such developments interested me and I decided to at least test waters as to why, Nagaland, an integral part of the Indian Territory should show such proclivity towards Korea, leaving the universally popular Bollywood untouched and ignored.
Our flight from Kolkata to Dimapur was rough and Dr Dolly, Zuchamo’s colleague had a bad attack of vertigo. But I decided not to let her travel sickness occupy my mind as I quickly reached for my camera to capture the breathtaking beauty of lush green fields bordered by indigo mountains and lunging rain clouds against a deep blue sky all along the horizon. Zuchamo was very excited to be in Nagaland, savouring every bit of the nature, pointing out to us the sheer beauty of his homeland. He asked me to take as many pictures as I could of the scenic beauty of the airport telling me that there were many more surprises for me in the high mountains of Jakhama, the venue of St Joseph’s College, our host. I realized that he was very fond of his home, a true patriot. Later as I got to know more people I was convinced that the mountains and its flora and fauna were as crucial to the Naga existence as their families were and together with the climate and clan formed the proud individualistic culture of the people.
Father Abraham with who Zuchamo co-coordinated the Seminar had arranged for lunch at his Dimapur home. Father Abraham’s home is also a museum with arts and artifacts collected from all over Nagaland that cover many tribes. This, in itself is a major achievement because the Naga people consist of many tribes who are so fiercely independent even of one another that only a mutual distance and non interaction can ensure peace among the Nagas. Artefacts, ornaments, weapons and other mementoes are essential to a Naga identity and separation from them means the giving up a part of oneself to a stranger. This is why, despite outstanding works of creation, Nagas rarely ever sell their crafts to the market, because even non living things here are infused with soul and bear symbolic meaning for life. Hence, Father Abraham has done a commendable job in convincing the Naga people to give up parts of their living in the form of the collection in his museum. The women of his family served us ethnic food and as we tried to adjust to the sharp taste of Naga food, I thought that Father Abraham was trying to introduce us to the Naga culture without us becoming aware of the same. I rapidly clicked some photographs of the museum as Dolly felt even more sick at the sight of the severed heads of animals, birds and humans, the last being only wooden carvings and burnt earth impressions. I wondered why the Nagas continue to hold their militant tradition and why posit them forth as the most defining feature of their identity.

With a brief introduction to the Naga culture at Father Abraham’s residence at Dimpaur we started our long winding roads over the mountains towards Kohima where we were to rest at night. Evening shadows lengthened over dark and deep woods, the bundle of clouds across the sky stretched out as a splash of mauve over the purple mountains as we moved into the sunset. Zuchamo admired the sunset, asking me to take photos of the grandeur of the closing day like the grand closing of some mega event while he looked around for a tea stall to have his evening quota of the beverage. I was stunned by the variety of plant species, exotic for me and native to the geography, plants with strange colours and strange foliage and I am sure that no botanist upon earth can fully list out of the sheer diversity of flora found on each square metre of the north eastern Himalayas. Dolly was feeling unwell due to her vertigo and said that she regretted coming to Nagaland and wished that she remembered her school geography that the north eastern states were also mountainous and hilly.

The road to Kohima is also the highway to Manipur from Assam and the rest of Indian plains. A recent blockade had just been lifted and the trucks carrying provisions to Manipur had started to roll out again and together with the military patrols they made quite a crowd on the streets. We were thus late in reaching Kohima and Father Abraham kept calling on Zuchamo’s cellphone quite a number of times. I later realized that no one stays out too late in the evenings in Nagaland just as a matter of habit from the curfew days in the 1980’s. Twenty years and a whole generation have passed since the curfew nights but Naga society has not got back its mental assurance to take on nights with ease. Dolly fretted at this because shops closed by afternoon leaving visitors hungry for shopping. Fast food is absent in Kohima and the cafes that are at all there are basically music cafes that also serve tea.
Hotel Jafpu was a comfortable place that served Indian food. Jafpu is a mountain near Kohima from which the hotel derived its name. The people were very obliging and since the sponsors of the Seminar were paying every bit of our expenses, we too were very relaxed. The students of St Joseph’s College were very obliging and as we worried that they were getting late in reaching their homes, they insisted that they would leave for the day only when we have settled down fully in our rooms. There was another reason for this attentiveness; outsiders are not safe in Kohima unless accompanied by a local person; Naga militants on the one hand and the Indian army on the other pose equal threat to personal safety.

My hopes of taking photographs of sunrise were dashed because the rain that started in the night continued in the morning and mist covered every bit of the atmosphere. After a hearty English breakfast, we trudged towards the bus that St Joseph runs way up to the college campus at Jakhama encountering on the way vendors selling snails, frogs and other crusty animal flesh. Zuchamo quickly opened his umbrella to shield Dolly’s vision from these creatures in the fear that she might throw up again. The city was waking up as streets filled with smartly dressed bright looking young women. The young men were smart too but appeared more self conscious than self certain. After the militancy the women started taking up more upon themselves as the young men lived forever in the fear of being picked up by the military and tortured to death on suspicions of being a militant. The proud head hunting Naga man has been so humiliated by the military that either he has taken to more insurgency or withdrawn completely from India and life. There was a small traffic jam on the road on the Kohima side and as soon as some army convoys came from the opposite side the students started commenting on how India was ripping apart the everyday life in the town.

A young lecturer of the college sat next to me eagerly pointing out to me various things those were worth seeing and interestingly these were not the usual sight seeing points that the tourist is meant to see. On the way I saw jhum cultivation, piles of logwood from trees that were cut while forests were cleared for jhum, Naga homes that were built from such wood, women wearing the Angami costumes, and the numerous boys and girls’ hostels, or morungs. She excitedly pointed out to a place where the annual hornbill festival is held. The hornbill festival is a seven day congregation of all the tribes of the Nagas that include not only those that inhabit Nagaland, Manipur, Assam and Arunachal but also people from Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. The Nagas are a distinct set of people, each tribe with its distinct culture and language that is understood only within its own tribe. The hornbill festival must therefore be an important one to congregate peoples who are so distinct from one another. The hornbill festival showcases the diverse cultures of each tribe, organizes sports and competitions and becomes a venue for both unity and assertion of uniqueness of cultures in that diversity. In everyway, the hornbill festival is a genuine Naga nationalism or Naga globalism depending on the way Nagas see themselves as people. The students told me that skies were golden blue and the air clear and light in that early winter of the festival time but to me rains in the mountains was the most salubrious for my mind and body.

My young guide was called Medonou and when I asked her name she said that she was from the Angami tribe. She said that Jakhama and Kohima belonged to the Angami tribe while the Lotha, Zuchamo’s tribe, occupied the area of Wokha. It seems that each tribe has a distinctly marked territory that others are not supposed to trespass. If they do, then warfare ensues in the starkest possible cruelty of chopping off of the enemies’ heads and then bringing back that severed head as a trophy. This practice is known as headhunting. Women’s heads are very valuable because it means that the warrior has been able to breakthrough the cordon of men and reach for the women in the inner chambers, a sure sign of bravery. Today head hunting is legally banned in India though the last head hunting was as late as 1972 in the Mon district of the Konyan tribes whose territories run into Myanmar. Since Naga tribes were attached to land and practiced shifting cultivation, it was important for them to have territories clearly marked out and violation of the land mass associated with the tribes territory assumed terrifying jealousy. Hence the tribes clearly kept out of one another’s way and this is also why they do not care to understand the others’ languages. Naga disunity is a way to peace and calls for Naga unity is not only an anomaly in the Naga culture but would upset the fragile balance of power that each tribe maintains vis-à-vis the other people in the Nagas. When Nagas converse among themselves, they speak a language called Nagamese, a mixture of Bengali, Assamese, Bhojpuri, Oriya and Hindi. This is an Indo-Aryan language while the Naga languages belong to the Sino Tibetan family.

Medonou means many things all at once. It means the self willed and the autonomous, the spontaneous, self referential, self respected and self guided. It also means the self confident, self reliant and independent minded and the free spirited. I realized that this was the beauty of the Sino Tibetan family of languages; many ideas are communicated cryptically through a single word. This is also the bane of such languages because it can communicate far less than the Indo-Aryan languages and since the latter dominates the world’s discourses, it becomes difficult for those who speak in the Sino Tibetan languages to convey their feelings. Medonou said that she felt difficult in writing down her papers because of a poor command in writing. I felt that this was perhaps why the Nagas despite being a superior civilization continued to be trashed because they could not communicate well. The dress codes, the ornaments, weapons, the tattooes and the fine body language of the Nagas seemed to tell me that these people communicate more through gestures, posturings, signs, symbols and icons rather than through words. The Naga art is more like a language, closely associated with a particular tribes’ affairs. Hence, in the world of language, Nagas have never done well for themselves.

I asked Medonou about the Korean cinema and she said that the television channel, Arerang was very popular. The young people want to learn the Korean language. She also said that like everyone else in the world, the Nagas too loved watching movies but had no option. The Nagas do not like Bollywood films, no matter how much the context of Nagaland is similar to that of India’s. They do not identify with India at all; they do not resemble the Indians, nor have neither their kind of families, nor their ways of society and have different stories of their cosmos. In all of these they are close to the Koreans. Medonou said that the Nagas believe that they descended from the same ancestors as the Koreans. I found this to be strange because the weapons, costumes, artifacts and jewellery and the internecine feud among the tribes made me connect the Nagas to the Mongols rather than to the island people of Korea and indeed so because later Father Abraham said that in the origin myths Mongolia, Manchuria and Seszwan were the areas through which the Nagas have lived and passed in the time of migration before they reached the Himalayas. Korea, then is an invented ancestor for the Nagas, made available through the Arerang television channel as the larger civilization to which the Nagas would want to belong and move on.

All through the bus ride Medonou and I talked of her research on the Naga family structure and how it is changing. She said that after the militancy and curfew in Nagaland, the persons from her locality watch a lot of Star Plus soaps. This was interesting because while they did not go to Bollywood movies because they could not identify with them, they watched a lot of soap drama. The soap, said Medonou was so much of a self-contained world that one need not really be a part of the culture as characters fought among themselves like skettles in a game world. This was a unique observation that she made and I think that this could be the reason why television can out do cinema in its mass base. As the bus climbed higher and higher into the mountains, Medonou praised the clean and cool air of Jakhama and told me about its magnificent water which leaves hair after shampoo silken smooth. She did not hesitate to mention that this was her tribe’s land, the very best in all Nagaland, the territory of her tribe, the Angamis.

The Nagas may have been head hunters who believe in non communication for peace but they are excellent hosts. The Seminar started off with the Governor Mr Nikhil Kumar who was also the Police Commissioner of Delhi flagging it off. He seemed to be genuinely interested in the subject and spoke earnestly though naively about the climate change. The governor, like most of us believes in simple technical solutions and imagines those solutions to be final without consequences of further climate change. Mr Probir Bose made an excellent presentation in which he showed that climate change manifests in rising oceans, melting snow caps, breaking of ice shelves, dry rivers, parched lands, famines, epidemics, pestilence and finally death of all things living on the earth and all this will take less than a century to happen. The governor was very pleased with the presentation and made it sure that a CD copy of the same reached him.

The rest of the papers revolved around three themes, what caused climate change, whether it can be mitigated and what would be the consequences if the process was allowed to g on unabated. It was universally agreed that manufacturing, mining, agriculture and transportation, in short, the anthropogenic factors caused the catastrophe. As far as the third theme was concerned as to what would happen if we do not halt the process of climate change, the presenters predicted social conflict, famines, epidemics, pestilence and death to which one of the boys from the audience asked whether those who were poor so far and did not contribute to the climate pollution will now hold back without tasting what development feels like. This presented a lot of criticism from his colleagues during the coffee break who all felt that development as is defined today through the single story of high consumerism should be shunned and the Nagas, as people close to nature should show the world what development should really be like. This sounded so much like that of the adivasis of Chhotanagpur that I felt that the tribals of India should unite en masse against global capital and the policy makers and make alternative development a reality. As for the second theme was concerned, presenters clearly showed that large scale production, specialized retailing, and long distance transportation of goods were culprits of climate change and the way forward is to shorten the loops of production and consumption. Dolly was suggesting that we plant crops that with reduced carbon emissions and those which can also serve as biofuels. Mhonlumo opposed her thesis and said that such technical solutions were not to be taken as grand solutions and that things were far complex than planting jethroba as substitutes for fossil fuels. Dolly took this badly and she argued with Mhonlumo and became rude. Zuchamo felt very embarrassed and I asked him to brush the matter aside but he continued to be seriously affected by it. It was not until much later that I understood why.

The debates in the Seminar centred on jhum cultivation. Jhum is practiced by tribals also in the Chhotanagpur area and it seems to be a pre-settled agriculture practice. Jhum is integral to the tribal culture and the rituals, songs, stories, festivals are usually centred around the jhum. It is the jhum that has come under the flak from environmentalists who often accuse it of felling trees and emitting carbon by burning of the residue after slashing them. But jhum has many points in its favour; firstly very old trees become net emitters of carbon dioxide and secondary forests have more potential to sequester carbons, the felled trees are used for making houses to live in that are more climate favourable than those made of steel and cement. Some interjectors asked from the floor that building roads felled more trees and there was no use blaming the jhum; he was supported by the rest in the audience indicating clearly that the Nagas are fonder of preserving their climate than the conventional mode of development through fast cars and posh hotels. No wonder then that the Nagas are not keen to develop tourism; the Nagas are not too fond of strangers and they are fonder of preserving the climate than in commerce.

As I boarded the bus back to Kohima rains started again. In the rain, the green forests looked lush, water falls were gushing out of nowhere, shabby and shoddy wooden huts lined with pots of coloured flowers looked style statements and the road winded down through small villages with strange names welcoming us with wooden gates to reach Kohima in an hour. Zuchamo was determined to show us around Kohima and he called up his cousin Mhatang who drove down all the way leaving a party in his home given in honour of his younger brother who just joined the Nagaland police. We met Mhatang’s parents and they all spoke Nagamese at home because the mother and the daughter-in-law were women from the Aos and Rengma tribes respectively. In the headhunting days these tribes were sworn enemies but now they inter-marry. But despite this the women do not learn their in-law’s language as a measure of distance, though the children are taught the language of their father’s family. The women among the Nagas are liberated but that’s only in appearance because beneath a people who are as conservative as the Nagas, patriarchy is strong. Culture is very good for mitigating climate change but it brings with it conservatism that goes against the women. Some more reflection must go into this gender aspect too.

Mhatang drove us all the way to new Kohima, a posh state of art town that looks straight out of New Zealand. But when I had asked the young students what part of the town I should see all of them said that it should be Barabasti, the largest village in Asia, now a continuous part of Kohima. There is a clear case of divide of how the administrators perceive Kohima as a sprawling stretch of posh bunglows and wide roads and what the people value, a village with a huge population. The people of Kohima value demography and Father John explained that the name of Kohima is actually Kahama, a term in Naga language which means census. It seems that there was a head count of all Naga people in Kahama and the conclusion was that they were too many to count. Kahama also suggests the infinite size of the Naga population. I sensed that Kahama, being located in the Angami land may imply that the Angamis were the most powerful tribes among the Nagas; Father John and Zuchamo said that it was indeed true.

The following night Zuchamo took us to his brothers’ place for dinner. The brother is a bureaucrat in the Nagaland Bee Mission and is very committed to his work. He served us most excellent wine and his wife cooked some amazing Naga dishes. The Naga diet consists of lentil, vegetables and meat and fish dishes. The Nagas only eat rice, the stick variety of rice found in Philippines. Since the Nagaland has hardly any oil or salt, they cook food without oil or salt. The overwhelming use of fish is because fish is the source of oil and meat which is mainly pork acts as a source of oil. The Nagas use chillies, turmeric and bamboo shoot juice to cook their food and along with some salt to taste these days, they either use garlic or ginger, never the two together. The herbs are nameless and with amazing aroma. There is no standard recipe for the herbs and it varies from individual to individual and who is the smart one to recognize the most aromatic ones. Medonou said that there is no shared knowledge of herbs and it is up to the individual to recognize them. The desert in a Naga platter is invariably fresh fruit and for those who are better off, freshly baked cakes.

As we reached the hotel I went out to buy a notebook and a pen for myself. Zuchamo accompanied me to the shop because of the problem of people walking around the town. The shop was a small and dull one and the stocks were limited. I looked through the notebooks to select one out of them and mush to my surprise they all had themes of climate change imprinted on the covers and climate change quizzes on the back flap ! The community in Nagaland is more knowledgeable than the expert on climate change and I made it a point to mention this discovery in the valedictory session of the seminar.

I was slowly getting to understand the Nagas as a race fiercely independent and individualistic. The Naga children’s names are stories of their parents’ biographies that the children are required to fulfill. The children must look after parents as their prime duty and this perhaps also explain the large size of families that the Nagas have, the better off they are the more number of children they have. My conversations with the intelligentsia and my casual reading of the newspapers revealed that there was nothing as insulting to the Nagas as the claim of its territory by India as the latter’s inalienable part. It seems that the Nagas have never called themselves as the Nagas, this is a name that the others have given them. Some feel that Nagas means the naked people, a preposterous claim because the Nagas are far more heavily clothed than most adivasis. A more probable explanation is that the area was the kingdom of the Snake king where Arjuna met Ulupi, the snake princess, as he went there to gather superior arms. The Nagas invest heavily in weapons, display them, hold them close to their bodies and use them as their tribal identities. It is not surprising that the people who are so conscious of their boundaries with others should have a bit excess in weapons. But somewhere even the Mahabharata associated weapons with the land of the Snakes. Since the Naga myths have no historical date, it is difficult to assign a date to the Nagas whether they are indeed as ancient as the Aryans themselves. In any case, given the Naga pride over their territories and territoriality, one can easily see what impact the presence of the Indian Army has on the Nagas; every day the Nagas must eagerly wanting to hunt the heads of the uniformed men. The streets are agog with stories of the misbehaviour of the military and every scrap of opinion in the newspaper warns the Nagas never to integrate with India.

The Nagas are a whole civilization unto themselves, part of the fearless Mongols in the line of none other than Chengiz Khan and India would do better to become a host to this civilization rather than to homogenize it as Indic. India does not realize that its strength does not lie in presenting a common Indic face to the world but as a territory that hosts different nations and even different civilizations that may not all fall in the same time zone. As conversations rolled inside the Yanthan household among the Lothas and the few of us from India, one realized that the Naga intellectuals are shy to say out aloud that the Nagas never were and never are going to be a part of India. As the Lotha family were articulating more and more of how they are a distinct civilization totally different from India, sharing no history and far less of a future, Father John analyzed the properties of the honey from the combs of the stingless bees as being excellent shampoo. The Nagas are obsessed with hair, shampoos and dyes and this makes them very concerned with the quality of water and alert to its contamination.

At the dinner we also talked of Arerang channel once again and the seniors fell from the sky when they heard that the youth imagine that they are from Korea !! The only time the Nagas were at all close to the sea were during their stint in south east Asia, otherwise the Nagas are mountain people, integrated and intertwined with its valleys and peaks, gorges and plateaus as the clouds in monsoon. Then what of Korea, we all wondered. Someone among us, Ajay, I think asked Father Abraham how old Christianity was in Nagaland and he set my mind to thinking that if the Nagas are so hung on their culture and its signs and symbols, how was it that they embraced Christianity that contained none of their everyday lives and was an implant from above. I realized that the idea of the Nagas being too close to their customs was straight jacketing them. The Nagas have been and still are a global people. They have migrated thousands of miles and in their minds they still do. Every young Naga wants to go abroad, ambitious young women want to join the UN and a basic motive behind autonomy and nationhood for Nagaland is its opportunity to send its representative in the UN council, at least the newspapers were full of such desires. The Naga spirituality was divided into two spaces; one the earth that was inhabited by spirits and the other was the larger world of forces that helped them to transcend the contingent of spirits. The Nagas worshipped that sublime and transcendental entity. Christianity helped them find this global sublime and now Korea too has played that role. Unfortunately, India with its military has become the swarm of bad spirits.

Zuchamo and his cousin talked to us of the corrupt politicians who are buying up land around Kohima. I wondered if every Naga owned land and the common land of the territory belonged to the tribe and was important for them then how it was possible for private individuals to buy up land. I guessed that around the Kohima area where the Angamis graduated from jhum to settled cultivation, private ownership of land had become possible and which created opportunities for corruption. I became even less uncertain over asking the Nagas to give up jhum cultivation. I remembered how Medonou was telling me that she hated farming. It seems that as the nature of families change with women refusing to do the cultivation, Nagas, especially the Angamis, the most progressive among them is taking to settled terrace cultivation, which has its disadvantages in infusing economic and social inequalities in the communities.

We all felt sad to leave the wonderland of the Blue Mountains and the swirling rain clouds on them, the orchids and strange deep forests swinging in the incessant rains and cool breeze. We packed our bags and cameras and prayed that the journey back to the plains would be better for Dolly’s vertigo. Zuchamo was busy saying his goodbyes to his people and we were all silently catching al that we could of the landscape. I observed that in some places the vegetation was so thick that it became impenetrable for sunlight as a result of which grass cannot grow on the soil, just like in the Amazon rain forests. No wonder that the soil is loose except when it is held by roots of trees and rivers especially during the rains are muddy, again like the Amazon. Only the jhum fallows have grass that hold the soil and water streams that pop up around these areas have clear water!. Jhum thus has a purpose integral to the climate of the area. The only flip side of jhum is that its cycle cannot be reduced below ten years, something that tends to get shorter as population increases. Therefore, for better or for worse, if the Nagas want to centre their lives on jhum then they will have to contain their population growth.

Rains lightened and then ceased as we reached the hotter plains of Dimapur. On the way we had some tea and took some snaps of the mountains and its foliage both from near and far. Dolly bore the journey better and Zuchamo awarded her a degree in management of regurgitation related disasters !

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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