Tucked away in the extreme north-east of India lies the small state of Nagaland. On the border with Myanmar, and not a million miles away from China, this region does not feel like India. But that is a very general and throw away comment. What does India feel like? It is a massive country with an unbelievable amount of variety – of scenery, of religion, of language, of cuisine and of architecture. Last year I was shinning up coconut trees in the deep south, the year before sipping a cocktail in a trendy Mumbai bar and the year before that, mountain biking 4000m above sea level in Ladakh.
Nagaland is even more different than I had expected. The Assamese ‘carpet road’, so called as it is smooth and pothole free, stops at the Nagaland border post and so too does the tarmac. From here, the road journey to Mon will be on dusty pot-holed roads where 100km can take eight hours. Roads that are ravaged every monsoon and destroyed by landslides. The vast tea estates of Assam thin as the road climbs. The plains give way to the densely forested Naga Hills where hornbills flit between the trees and sixteen different feared and misunderstood tribes live in wood and thatch huts. It was very exciting indeed.
We reached Mon in the late afternoon. Well 15:45, which in this part of India, is late afternoon. It gets dark at 16:30. The soft golden light did a god job of beautifying Mon, an ugly sprawl of buildings in amongst the green. Vinngoi Inn, our base for the next two days, was simple but charming. Five little cottages, a small garden, and a dining room.
Excited to be in Nagaland, we left our bags in our rooms and hit the town. Market stalls selling the fiery Naga King chilli, fire-blackened rats, grubs, and frogs are among the first things we see. Small butchers stalls with every conceivable part of a pig for sale. Long shiny black hair, broad smiles. The people more Burmese than Indian. After registering myself at the police station, as all foreigners must, we notice a slight chill in the air now that night was drawing in. A sign advertising a night bazaar provides our plans for the evening.
Nagaland, a contested area, had a nightly curfew and people tend to keep to themselves at night time. It is ingrained in them. Having said that, put on a night bazaar and it would seem that each and every inhabitant of Mon will attend. Young and old alike shrieked with glee, raced from stall to stall sampling popcorn or hornet larvae and played various games, such as hoopla, with some unique prizes. One stall in particular had a huge crowd assembled. It soon became clear why. For a mere 50 INR, one could win a chicken. A real, clucking chicken. I handed over my note in exchange for ‘lucky number seven’ and joined the swaying crowd. Kevin, my Naga guide, had 12. We grinned at each other as the wheel span and our fate was in someone else’s hands. Kevin was agonisingly close. It stopped on number one.
The night sky, as we ambled back to the cottages, was ablaze with stars. After a delicious meal of Naga chilli pork, green leaves, rice and dal, I climbed into bed exhausted and full of anticipation. The next day was one I had been looking forward to for a long time. We were to visit and spend time with the Konyak tribe – famous for their tattooed faces, elaborate headgear and jewellery, and for taking human heads.
As we drove out of Mon the next morning the clouds were below us and the sky was a brilliant blue. The road we were following would take us to a village called Longwa, in India but literally a stone’s throw from Myanmar. It took two hours to reach Longwa on a very poor road but the scenery was magnificent. Upon reaching Longwa, we entered the compound of a large thatched building and encountered a small man, face covered in blue black ink, with large holes in both ear lobes. My first encounter with a Konyak elder. The man, who was fairly affable, sported a necklace with two boars teeth. He had taken two human heads. The Konyaks believe, as do other tribes in Nagaland, that the soul of a person is contained in the head. The only way to exact revenge on an enemy is to take their head as a trophy.
He was eager to show us around his home which, although dimly lit and rather smoky, was fascinating. The Konyaks proudly display the heads of all the animals they have slaughtered and eaten – it is a sign of wealth – so his house was festooned with buffalo skulls, and the odd bear and monkey skull. Not for the faint-hearted. We saw various weapons, guns and bows, hornbill headdresses, and two baskets, which were warrior baskets used to bring back the heads of enemies from battles. I was pleased to soon be back outside in the fresh air and sunshine.
We then paid a visit to the village chief. His house, atop a hill with commanding views over to Myanmar, was huge. We met the chief in a smoke-filled room sat by a roaring fire fiddling with something in the fire’s embers. Next to him his companion was equally engrossed. I asked Kevin what they were doing and soon understood they were heating up opium, ready to smoke. I was told that visiting Naga’s from the Burmese side bring with them gifts of opium for the chief. I felt I had entered another world. Eyes red and streaming the two men proceeded to fill their bamboo pipes and drift away from us. I took my leave and we went in search of lunch.
After Longwa, we drove back to Mon and out the other side to a village called Hong Phoi. There we were met with a rare sight. Another tourist vehicle. I should mention that according to the Foreign National’s Register at Mon Police Station, I was in this region of Nagaland in the company of just two German women. Most tourists who visit Nagaland do so to attend the Hornbill Festival in early December. A few others will trickle through the region at other times of the year. Nagaland – India’s final frontier.
Hong Phoi was a village built around a football pitch. Some young Nagamese were mid-match and after enquiring who was winning, I decided to join the losing side. After a lovely curling effort from range that went just the wrong side of the post I left to shouts of ‘again’ and ‘more’. But there were head hunters to meet.
Moments later I was sitting in a wooden hut, the village chief’s drawing room, with ten or so Konyak warriors. The men all aged 70+ had tattooed faces and chests, and boars teeth necklaces. I have visited a fair number of tribes in Indochina, Myanmar, elsewhere in India, and across various parts of Africa. Always interesting encounters, but this was on a different level. I was a bit overcome to be honest. It was such a powerful experience and I tried to balance my desire to take photographs and video, with my desire to really experience this ‘in the moment’. There aren’t a huge number of these Konyak men left and they are all old men now. One of the elders in the room I was told was 100. I had travelled a long way to sit in this hut with these old warriors. They won’t be here for much longer. It was a privilege to meet them, to spend time with them.