Follow Marco Ferrarese in Nagaland’s Mon district, one of the remotest corners of India, as he encounters former opium-smoking headhunters and their modern-day brethrens…
by Marco Ferrarese.
My seat shakes as the tires struggle in the hardened mud. Behind a whirlpool of dust, I can see the gap where a public bus had careened off the road a few weeks earlier. It looks as if the bus had chosen that precise cliff to fall to its death, tearing off trees in a last attempt at survival. Its rusted body juts out from the hillside, eaten slowly by jungle vines and vegetation.
If your idea of India is the Taj Mahal, camels strolling in the Rajasthani desert, or cups of sweet chai sipped in bustling streets, think again: you are entering a land of rugged hills and tribes where ancient headhunting habits have collided against the Burmese identity, leaving modernity derailed.
Welcome to Nagaland, the last stop of India. It’s a raw Northeastern state whose inhabitants look more Southeast Asian than Indian, leaving the visitor confused about his geographic position. Nagaland finally levied a Restricted Area Permit in 2012 and is now accessible to independent travelers. However, this change hasn’t made venturing outside the capital Kohima or the transport hub Dimapur an easy affair; exploring the Mon district independently has been a test of endurance. This rugged borderland is home to the Konyak people. Here, the Indian subcontinent fades into a malaria-infested jungle that has given Burmese drug lords and kingpins a safe hideout for decades.
An isolated land
Luckily, we have not taken another ill-fated public bus ride down the cliff. Nevertheless, when the shared jeep we are traveling in sputters smoke and comes to a halt in the middle of the dirt road, I can’t help but think that someone has cast over Mon district a powerful incantation that’s able to turn engines off, and drive buses down sharp hillsides.
“We’re stuck … help us push!”
The driver stops toying with the ignition, and my thoughts are interrupted by local Konyak and fellow passenger Alan, as he grips my arm firmly. We pile out of the jeep, relieved to notice the airborne dust has thinned, though only because the wheels have stopped their futile spinning. We gather at the back and push, all four of us kicking against post-monsoonal sun-baked mounds of red earth. After a long minute, the engine comes back to life, sputtering black exhaust like an old, sick man gasping for fresh air.
Mon village stretches out in front of us, dozens of flimsy wooden houses that coat the dark hills with soft shades of brown, the texture of their thatched roofs contrasting with the lines of the slopes’ curves.
Alan graciously announces that we will be his guests for the following days, and leads the way to his home. We met him in Sibsagar; he is a student and is finally returning home after 320 kilometers of third-class travel in the packed Guwahati train, as there is no closer university. His fluent English is our ticket to making some sense of this new environment. In fact, all of the 16 principal tribes of Nagaland speak different, mutually unintelligible languages.
Alan’s house is a marvel of eco-technology: built at the top of a slope, it has been woven by hand, thatch by thatch, a skill passed down in his family. “I learned from my father,” he explains, “before he died.”
When he shows us his room—a stilt hut complete with a veranda built entirely by him—I feel completely humbled by my own first-world ineptitude to provide for myself the basic things I would need to survive. Plumbing is provided by the nearby stream: each time we need more water, Alan disappears down the forested slope and returns with two buckets filled to the brim.
“I live here with my two younger sisters,“ Alan continues as he prepares some tea, “while my older brother has an electronics shop in the town center, just next to the market.”
We spend the rest of the night around the intimacy of the fireplace, with moonlight and candles keeping the darkness at bay as Alan’s sisters prepare rice and vegetables for their foreign guests. And before we all pick up a flame to light our way to the bedrooms, we have a go at cultural exchange in form of guitar riffs. Our impromptu rock show fills Mon’s star-peppered night sky with copious bouts of hearty laughter.
Hunting for the head of modernity
When missionaries arrived in Nagaland at the end of the 19th century, they used Christianity to purge the area of bloody tribal wars. Soon, piles of human skulls disappeared from the front of houses where they used to sit as trophies. For the Nagas, heads meant power and war prestige, displayed by emblazoning golden faces in traditional warriors’ necklaces, one for each important victim represented. But today, as we walk to the small city center, the poltergeist of clan conflict appears sedated: it looks back at us from the tiny eyes of old men with darkly tattooed faces, who suck up oblivion from their opium pipes. Some crouch low next to the households, hiding their skinny legs behind rugged loincloths. They seem to be waiting for a time-warped train ride that will never come.
As we reach the main thoroughfare, we see people squatting at the curbsides, rapidly exchanging goods for rupees. Women who have descended from nearby mountains pull a plethora of colorful goods from their sackcloth bags. It’s here that we meet a German woman on her way to lunch. She arrived in Mon from Kohima, and tells us that over there “it’s not real Nagaland.” According to her, Mon is the place to be if someone wants to fully understand the state’s culture.
“You have to be fast if you want to eat something. It’s Saturday afternoon, and soon they will be closing everything up for the weekend,” she explains. “They take Christianity very seriously around here.”
Stocking up on essentials, we venture around the emptying streets as we receive plenty of invitations to join passersby on their way to church, dressed in their best clothes. They walk arm in arm with women in long dresses and hats, looking like they just came out of a 1960s black and white motion picture. Their invitations, however, are interrupted when an old tribesman clad in a dirty loincloth rocks onto the road from the forested slope, looking completely lost. His vacuous eyes are chasing an invisible skull that has been forced into extinction. In this very moment, I have a clarifying vista of Nagaland’s two clashing realities: one of savage, unadulterated tribal tradition, and another that transformed by embracing the religious path of development.
One of the churchgoing men chases the old tribesman off with a chastising stare. “Don’t mind him; he’s crazy,” he explains. “He lives alone in the forest, like an animal.”
In a way, it all makes perfect sense. Because the hills that were once washed and thus made sacred with the blood of clansmen, are now slowly giving way to the changes of modernity … if we may consider extreme Catholic devotion as “innovation.”
I remain skeptical as I realize I have rarely visited a place so contradictorily stuck in a dimension all of its own. Modernity, in Nagaland, is still waiting somewhere else for the issuance of her Restricted Area Permit. But she doesn’t require one anymore.