Nagaland is my main reason for finishing in the Northeast of India. And I am so excited about this experience for a very simple reason. I'm going to live with a tribe for the next few weeks. But before telling you the experience, a little about Nagaland. Nagaland is a mountainous state, just at the eastern end of the Himalayas. It is a totally tribal state, formed by 16 tribes distributed by the state. I will be living with the tribe of the Konyaks.
It all starts when we arrive at an airport where our plane is the only thing with wings. Where the terminal, is just a hut. Where the suitcases almost do not run on conveyor belts but are deposited in a room. We are in Jorhat, a province of Assam. The arrival in northeastern India disappoints me in part. I hope to find something different and find more of the same. But I know it will change.
We entered Nagaland directly from Majuli without going through Kohima, the capital, since our target was Mon, in the northern mountains. It takes us two days to arrive on buses, more buses, and taxi. Until we reach the border of this state. It is an Indian state formed by tribes, where tribal laws prevail over Indian state. On the border of this state we have to take another taxi of Nagaland. Rather it is a jeep, which takes us through mountains for two hours to reach Shiyong.
Our first stop was Mokokchung. It was one of those technical highs to sleep and continue the next day. It eventually lasted two days due to the excessive hospitality of its inhabitants. And we arrived at Mokokchung at night. It's 11 o'clock. I look out the window and see small lights in the distance in the mountains, they move, they are bamboo torches. There are at least 20 in different parts of the mountain. There is no electricity, and it is not expected until at least 4 days. So the candlelight illuminates this cold and windy night.
It was cold and in the only cheap accommodation we found, they asked for 400 rupees for sleeping in a room full of humidity from the sheets to the ceiling. In full search we were when a car stopped at our side. The window was turned down by a chubby, affable-faced boy who immediately offered his help to find a decent hotel. We found it, but it was too expensive. Nagaland is still safe from the effects of mass tourism with its good things and bad things. It is difficult to find a hotel that costs less than 2000 rupees a night. Our new friend, did not hesitate a second. "Come to my house," he offered, to immediately apologize. If you do not mind wait a moment. First I have to go to my aunt's house to give her these eggs that I have bought.
The display of dishes that paraded before our eyes in the aunt's house would deserve a separate chapter, but no less than the attention that, during the two days we spent in his own home, he and his family dedicated to us. It was a well-off family, no doubt, but their kindness was not limited to offering us a place to sleep or more food than our stomachs could digest.
I am on the top of a mountain, with the tribe with which I will live for the next few weeks, maybe months. They are the Konyas, the head-hunters, those of the face and body tattooed with natural pigments and bamboo sticks. I'll start from the beginning, because this story is going to be long. I hope it's interesting, and from what I've seen (it's only been hours) it's going to be a fascinating adventure.
We have a spectacular dinner, with the vegetables from the garden, rice from the plantations and tea from the countryside, all grown by themselves . I have come to the town at night, as I said, there is no light. It rains or hails at times, and the drums sound in the background (I still do not understand where, but soon I will check it), announcing the arrival of spring. And that's the main reason I've had to come here. The festive triathlon of the Konyaks, its 7-day festival, Aoling Festival. To which I have the honor to attend, and you, if you want, to continue.
We will learn from a culture of tribes of warriors, but at the same time, they are able to welcome and treat their guests as anyone. We'll talk about the last tribe that went hunting for heads. In effect, heads of enemy tribes as trophies. From a tribe of traffickers, opium and ammunition. Where everyone has weapons, and where everyone knows how to use them. A tribe of hunters. Of carnivores. It is not India anymore. Now we are in Nagaland. We're going to be with the Konyaks.
And although it will be difficult, I will try not to make it too exotic, because more than tattooed faces, warriors and hunters, they have been my "family" these last weeks.
6:00 am. I wake up with the light that enters between the bamboo branches of my hut . I go down to the kitchen and see through the window that a cow is breaking up. They went ahead at the scheduled time. It is the first holiday and the main activity is the sacrifice of animals, to welcome the spring, and to have a great party. They tell me not to worry, that they go for the next cow they will kill once the first one is boned and cleaned.
And in effect, once finished the first cow, that have taken hardly an hour, they approach the second to the tree, they tie it, and with the part of wood of a machete they drive two stakes that the cow falls collapsed, immediately afterwards the they decapitate, with their machetes previously sharpened on rocks, until they separate the head from the body. Faster than I expected, less ritualistic than I expected. And the process begins again. Remove the skin, separate the organs, clean the pieces and children playing only meters, with cars and robots, the naturalness of the scene is overwhelming.
Once the cleaning of the second cow is finished, scrub the soil quickly so as not to bind the flies! Practically the whole day is dedicated to sacrifice. Small packages are made in banana leaves to send to families and neighbors, packages are received from other houses. The intestines, liver, stomach are boiled at the time and are offered to workers and relatives. The good pieces are impaled in small pieces and put on the fire to be smoked, previously smeared in abundant salt. In just three days over the fire they will be ready and can be kept for months. And the leftovers.
One day has been enough to make those two cows disappear, to feed hundreds of people and to create a good "stock" for the holidays. But there is no problem if these provisions are over. In the block awaits the "wild card", a pig bought in the market just in case the appetite of the diners exceeds what is expected in the coming days. I have not eaten meat this month and a half in India, I'm willing to sink my teeth into the meat, which probably never comes back to eat in such a fresh state.
The parties begin and the rain and hail disappears. Clear skies appear where impressive sunsets are seen, and where without having to strain the view you see mountains that belong to Burma. At night the stars overwhelm, until the moon rises, which when filled, illuminates the silhouettes of the mountains, and allows you to walk at night without the need for a flashlight.
Tomorrow the celebration continues. Tomorrow I believe without sacrifices.
Since we are going to spend a few weeks with them, with the Konyaks, that less than a few notes on some of their customs , their origin and their characteristics. Many of them we will see more in depth but to go by making a general idea. The tribes of Nagaland are quite similar in general features, but the Konyaks are the only ones who tattoo their faces and that makes them special.
The origin of this tribe is not very clear; In part, they could come from Yunnan, a province in southern China, if we look only at its constitution. But if we go to the customs and way of life, there are studies that say they come from Indonesia because there are also tribes that tattoo their faces once they reach maturity. As a good tribe of warriors the people of the Konyaks are always on top of the mountains, to protect themselves and to be able to spot the enemy if they approach! The people on the cover is Shiyong and as I say, on top of the mountain is!
But not only men get tattooed, women, even if they do not tattoo their faces, raise their tattooed legs, at the height of the twins and thighs. In addition they also tattooed the torso and breasts. Because this I have not said, not anymore, but before the Konyaks like most of the Nagas were naked, and hence its name since Naga (or something similar) in Hindi means naked, so for the Nagaland Indians it was the land of the nudes.
But these practices are ending, because since the missionaries arrived in these lands in the 30s and 40s, they converted the population to Christianity (in Shiyong they are Baptists). And with the conversion, the tradition of tattoos, of shamanistic rituals, and of showing heads cut off from enemies in battles is over. Even so the tribal way of life continues to be carried out.
In the form of notes saying that they are extremely clean, I have not seen so much soap used throughout India, all day scouring, sweeping and washing clothes. Their machetes are their distinctive, they do not have sword form but it is a long stick where in the end this blade is sharp but short. Even children of 6 years of age walk with a machete through the streets of the town. They live from the forest, from what they hunt and in addition they are big rice growers , from the humid one (the image that we all have of rice plantations) and from the dry one, a red rice very rich more dry and heavy.
Men take care of children as well as women. Something I have never seen in the rest of India, a man carrying a baby on his back is a very common image. They throw the baby on his back and with a shawl surround him and tie a knot in front. But who cares most for children, are the children themselves. Older brothers, cousins, neighbors, are the ones who bring, bring and care for the little ones. And the other thing very different from the rest of India is the power of the woman, if she speaks she is listened to, respected and ignored. Even if it is in a room full of men, if she speaks , silence and attention are made. Something new in my trip!
Finally comment that they are an extremely liberal society, perhaps the tribal being forces them to do so. There are no castes of any kind, a Konyak can be married to whoever wants, whether it is another Konyak or some other Naga tribe. The boys and girls go out at night to walk together through the town, through the tea plantations, where they cannot be seen. But it is allowed. Alcohol is drunk, homosexuality is accepted. A little long, we can get deeper into his life!
They walked us through the surrounding villages. Literally, they dressed us (they gave me a sweatshirt). We were even invited to go with them to a special celebration in the Protestant church of their tribe, the Ao, where we witnessed the extreme faith that the whole community professes.
I was receiving some first brushstrokes of the different realities of Nagaland without realizing it. In my foolishness my goal was still fixed in the mountains of the north and what I hoped to find there. The "authentic" Nagaland, tribes cutters live as they did centuries ago, conserving their customs (except for cutting heads, of course) and animist beliefs. Yes, less than five years ago I knew absolutely nothing about Nagaland. But from there the wick was lit and the more I read the greater were my desires to know this part so far from India in all aspects, to check to what extent the Nagas kept their culture alive. Now I can say that only in part.
Arriving in Mon took us twelve more hours of car, because as I said the direct roads in Nagaland do not exist. The route was diverted to Assam to suddenly enter the mountains again, surprising us with the violent changes of scenery. Our triumphal entry into Konyak land was, again, at night. So the problems were repeated to find where to sleep without leaving the budget in the attempt. The hotels in Mon were simply out of reach, and we were already on the street when a boy offered us to sleep on the floor of his house, in a space between the room as long as we hired his services as a guide.
Is it fair that the headhunters renounce their macabre rites to devote themselves to the most innocuous, but equally inhuman pastime, of spending hours and hours before that box of illusions called television? Is it fair that the intimate and warm light of the oil lamps be replaced by the flat, bluish light of the neon tubes? That the vibrant tinkling of the chimes moved by the evening breeze on top of a pagoda is stifled by the screaming of a newly opened disco on the shore of a lake, in which plastic bags and empty imported beer cans float shamelessly on a splendid cloak of lotus flowers?
The water in the spoon began to boil. The piece of cloth that contained the impregnated opium began to wilt and the water became darker. That is the most important moment. The contents of the spoon do not have to be too liquid or too dry. Nobody spoke, all were devoted to observing. When he reached the right point, he took it out of the fire and the result was a sticky substance that mixed with something that at first looked like tobacco, but looking at it closely it looked like chips. That put it in the pipe and lighting it with a branch started smoking. First he inhaled, he swallowed the smoke and, holding it in his tired lungs, he grabbed some tea, heated it in a bamboo reed, and took it. Then I blew smoke. While he repeated the process, another took out his spoon and prepared to do the same.
We were in Longwa, a small remote village in the remote state of Nagaland. Getting here wasn't easy. The trip consisted of several days of discomfort in different buses and jeeps that jumped along with the wells and skated with mud and rain. The best way to get around in India is by train, but this part of Nagaland does not arrive. But it is also a village that belongs to two countries, on one side of the street is India, on the other side is Myanmar.
The village seems stuck in the mountain and is lost with the ripples of the horizon. Rain and cold force us to be by the fire, the only source of light and heat in the longhouses. When the rain stopped a little we went for a walk. The few boys that we passed through shouted at us leaving their lungs in the breath that came out of their mouths. A little further away, they started throwing stones at us. Maybe the western visitors won that stigmatization.
Longwa is home to the Konyak tribe. Inhabitants that caught the attention of Europeans for their practice of cutting heads. They found glory when after the battle they returned to their homes with several heads of their enemies. And when a man brought a head to the king, he authorized him to tattoo his face. He who could not bring a head to the king was not considered a man. Still today you can see some old people with their faces tattooed and with horns of animals used as hoops.
But it was not until the English arrived that opium fell deep in the spirit of the Konyak. They brought it from Myanmar, the second largest opium producer in the world and they gave it to the head cutters to make them addicted, dependent and a little more peaceful. Before opium came the Christianity that forbade him his traditional clothes and his practices of cutting heads.
He was still smoking, his eyes were slightly parted, more slanted than usual. He told me that opium is brought from Myanmar, and an impregnated cloth that they use for 3 or 4 pipes comes for fifty rupees. Before modernity ended up taking root in their lives, they were a self-sufficient people. Everything they consumed was produced there. Today the rice they produce, which is of a higher quality, they sell in markets. With that they buy cheaper rice and other vegetables. But that is only for those who work the field.
Opium addicts found their grain when the National Geographic photographers arrived. Now many are engaged in posing for the photo in exchange for money. Dressed in their typical clothes, their animal horns and tattooed face. With their weapons and some head of some animal. So much so that the first question they asked us was if we were photographers. Taking a picture of someone has a price.
The other source of income are the crafts. From necklaces to wood carved in the shape of dolls. And everything that is sold goes to Myanmar in exchange for opium. It is surprising to think of all that was lost with "modernization". From being self-sufficient to being dependent on opium. To grow and raise all their food to be models of travel magazines that sell them in their tapas as part of their safaris in human zoos.