A hunter from Nagaland was asked by his birding group what a certain bird was. He looked up, shot the bird and as it fell to the ground replied, “A dead bird.”

Such a remark has connotations of a wild west feel, which are certainly true of this frontier province in the north-east of India. History vindicates this reputation: neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh was called the North-East Frontier Agency by the British, it was effectively a no-go zone.

As I stand at the border of Nagaland at a small outpost called Tizi, the betel-red smile and pierced ears of a member of the Konyak tribe announce my arrival in the land of the headhunters. Naga is a Burmese word for a piercing in reference to the piercings of nose and ear of the people.

As we cross into Nagaland, the concrete walls of the houses in Assam have been replaced by bamboo; solid roofs have transformed into thatch. The topography has become wilder, the flat of the plains of Assam is overshadowed by the precipitous hills of Nagaland. The flora and fauna is more unkempt and the fertile, alluvial soil has given way to rocks. The road is no longer tarred but rocky, bumpy and jarring. Our speed is reduced to a standstill as we literally seem to go back in time.

An age later – it takes us some two-and-a-half hours to travel sixty kilometres – we arrive at Mon, the district capital. An unappealing town of a disconcertingly large size, 100,000, Mon is crammed onto and squeezed between the hills. It is a simple bed for the night before heading further into Nagaland.

After a cursory stop at a police station for some form-filling, we leave Mon on a single-track bumpy road that meanders tortuously through the undergrowth and hillside. The smell of burning porcine flesh wafts by as blow torches are used to prepare pigs for the celebrations over the next few days. We pass young men walking back to their villages for the festivities. We are passed by a convoy of motorbikes, one young man resplendent in his headdress and shades as his younger sister and baby brother sit behind. I remark at the beauty of his sister and then doubt the wisdom of doing so for fear of incurring the wrath of a headhunter.

We arrive at the village of Hong Phoi. My guide doesn’t know the meaning of the name due to differences of dialect – such is the nature of the terrain and the hostilities between tribes and villages over the centuries that language has evolved so differently. Thankfully, the fearsome reputation of the Konyak is no longer quite what it was. Their fighting prowess was diminished in the mid-nineteenth century with the advent of opium but sadly in the 1950s, a far more powerful drug, namely religion, put paid to the last vestiges of violence as the missionaries persuaded the Konyak to put down their machetes. The influence of the missionaries and the proliferation of Baptist churches and their size – out of all proportion to the modest huts and homes and to the wealth of the community – were a constant surprise to me.

Notwithstanding my views on the missionaries, our reception was warm and welcoming. Indeed, we were quickly ushered into the morung, a male reserve where traditionally the elders discussed war and hostilities but nowadays far more mundane topics are discussed, such as how to petition the local government to improve the roads.

The elders were preparing themselves for the Aoling Festival. Unlike the Hornbill Festival, a construct of the local government and tourist board to celebrate the 1st December 1963 when Nagaland came into being, Aoling is a Spring festival that is very much, and always has been, a festival celebrated by the villages and communities of the region that spans a number of days. The first day is about sacrificing animals, mainly pigs, a day of preparation. On the second day, the village celebrates. The third marks a family feast and the fourth is about remembering the dead and visiting cemeteries, whilst the fifth is about planting, sowing the seeds and regeneration.

Today in Hong Phoi was festival day and there was a real sense of occasion and expectation among many of the elders sitting in and entering the morung dressed in their finery. In spite of their frailty – many were octogenarians – there was an evident pride in their dress. Even if not at the height of their physical prowess, their dress looked the part.

Elephant tusk bracelets adorned their upper arms. Across their left shoulder was an ancient musket not quite 1870’s vintage when muskets were first introduced by the British replacing bow and arrows or machete, but not far off it. Slung diagonally across from their right shoulder to their left hip was a chung pak, a beautifully embroidered piece of red cloth with yellow and green diamonds, that supported a battered old cane basket on their backs. The basket would once have been used to carry heads and trailing from the basket would have been palm leaves. Heads and palm leaves have been replaced by vegetables and shredded plastic respectively.

Around their necks were brightly coloured beads traded from Burma and boar tusks hunted from the forest. On top of the beads were further necklaces of small horns and tusks and bronze trinkets, some of which were in the shape of small human skulls. Their faces were tattooed blue as once was the custom and from their long ear lobes hung boar tusks.

The pièce de résistance was the headdress. A red cane hat decorated with yellow, given drama by white horns and festooned with tufts of black bear hair. The crowning glory was a long white feather with a black band on it – the distinctive feather of the hornbill.

Some of the younger Konyak men, having not been headhunters, were clearly not in possession of the genuine article and had to use their artistic licence in their costume. Some had daubed their faces with paint, others had added foliage to their outfits and one even wore a multi-coloured punk wig.

I warmed to one elder in particular. He had an avuncular face, a welcoming smile and a twinkle in his eye. Moreover, he was touchingly affectionate with his young grandson, patiently helping him adjust his headdress so that it was just right. It was only when he raised his necklaces to reveal an array of faded blue tattoos, markings from a previous life that revealed that he had killed five men, I realised appearances can be deceptive.

We headed out to the football field. Anticipation was mounting. Young children eagerly rushing to be on time, not wanting to miss out. Women holding umbrellas sat calmly on old wooden benches. Children squatted on the grass or adorned the crazily contorted branches of an ancient ficus tree. The blast from muskets being noisily fired by mischievous teenage boys echoed from the fringes of the festival.

This was not some celebration of the past. While dramatically photogenic, the reality was more prosaic. There was a programme of dances and dancers were carefully supervised and marshalled. There was a commentator announcing proceedings over the loudspeaker.

Yet to bestow the scene with order and stage management would be going too far. At one point, the microphone was given to one of the elders as he led the dancing and singing. Unhappy that his troops were not following him as they should be, he turned round to chastise them, forgetting that he was still holding the microphone. His comments were broadcast to the ribald laughter and amusement of the assembled crowd.

Other dances included the bamboo dance in which eight women held either end of two bamboo poles forming a square. In metronomic rhythm, they would open, close and open the bamboo poles as further women, dressed in orange-red skirts, black vests and orange bead necklaces and headdresses, would dance neatly between the poles. Young boys got their opportunity to please their mothers with a short dance whilst adolescent boys got to please their beaus in showcasing their process at climbing bamboo poles. But as befitting of the occasion, it was the elders who had the final dénouement with a reenactment of a hunt ending in an ear-splitting fusillade that was not in unison.

Time has tainted their timing. These headhunters of old will not see many more Aoling festivals. With them will die an infamous epithet.

The Aoling festival rejuvenates elderly limbs, puts smiles on old faces; however, it will not keep them alive forever. What the festival does sustain is respect. Veneration for traditions and in particular the elders, who were always spoken to with reverential tones and whose say still holds sway. Aoling is about camaraderie and unity.

Thanks for reading

Justin Wateridge

Author: Justin Wateridge