Some veteran adventure travelers go where others fear to tread just
because it's fun. Any travel in India can rank high on the difficulty
scale, as those who have been to Calcutta or Delhi can attest. But
Gordon Janow has made a specialty of exploring the more remote corners
of the Indian sub-continent, often to places few Westerners have ever
been. This kind of travel is not for the faint of heart, but for the
experienced Janow, inevitable difficulties and a total lack of
facilities just guarantee he'll not be bothered by tourists.
Located in the northeast corner of India, Nagaland is bordered by Burma (the regime now calls itself Myanmar) and the Indian states of Arunchal Pradesh and Assam. It is best described as a tribal area set within dense jungle with 15 Naga tribes that remain autonomous even though they share a cultural heritage. Among these tribes, the Ao and Angamese are the better known. While little research has been done on the tribes of this area, the people here are renowned for their beautiful woven shawls and aggressive headhunting, still an active practice until about 75 years ago. For all anyone knows, headhunting may persist into modern times. The warriors of Nagaland believe that the soul of a person was held in the head and a beheading was the only way to release the soul.
The best access to Nagaland is via Kolkata, better known by its Western moniker, Calcutta. When we arrived in this bustling Indian metropolis, the first order of business was a subway ride to the ever-haunting Kali temple and after that a quick goat sacrifice, prayer, and blood sharing offer to the patron god of this city. Only then, with our spiritual obligations met, could we board an early morning flight to Dimapur. From Dimapur we sped to the capital of Nagaland, Kohima, which is a laid back, typical Asian mountain town. Kohima's main attraction is its war cemetery (still dutifully maintained by the British) on the battlefield of the Japanese army's furthest advance into India some 60 years ago, evidence that many of the neighboring villages were invaded first by Japanese troops and then later British troops fighting the Japanese. Other notable attractions in Kohima are the food market, hosting a wide array of Naga delicacies such as wasp larvae, grubs, dogs, pig brains, eels and other assorted snacks.
Once you leave Kohima, you enter a vast areas of jungle. While National Highway 39 cuts through most of Nagaland, any dirt road will likely lead to one of the Naga villages. Upon entrance to a Naga village, one passes an ornate tribal gate and then comes upon a central house with Methune (local buffalo) skulls over the doorway. Monkey skulls also make for a popular adornment. The biggest Methune is usually rests upon the house of the wealthiest person in town, as the skulls indicate the family has given a feast of merit for the village. Anyone fortunate enough to be invited would enjoy a 10 day meat-eating, grub-swallowing, rice-wine-drinking dance party).
The first village we visited was Kigwema, and apparently, we were the first Westerners to visit since the British came to oust the Japanese. We were hurried into a main "receiving room" (a typical wooden shack with benches) and chatted via translator, about life under Japanese and British rule, with the elders. Two of the gentleman recited some Japanese kids songs and we learned that the British won the battle largely for Kohima because they had better food.
Earlier that day we met the Chief of Khonama (affectionately known as Chief Litterbug), who invited us to spend a few days in his village. As the first travelers to ever stay in his town, we were offered a house t and received the grand tour of the surroundings. Like many villages around the world, Naga Villages are built on hill tops the better to spot oncoming intruders. For many years Naga tribes could not communicate with one another as there was no common language. Eventually, by the 1850s, the language of Nagamese was established, a combination of local languages, Hindi and Bengali. The chief explained how raiding villages for heads was the preferred pastime of years gone by. Nothing was more prized then the head of a baby, the chief explained, because it was the hardest to get: one would have to sneak by the whole family to get to the baby.
The village of Khonoma was wonderfully situated above thick forest, houses were typically wood framed and divided into different sections. Most Naga villages contain a meeting circle (a ring of stones with raised boulders to sit on). These formal meeting places are used for village get-togethers as the chief presides over grievances and crimes committed in the village. When we sat among the stones, we were startled by the fact the villagers still talked freely about headhunting from other villages, and a great deal about the nascent Naga Independence movement.
We were awoken early the next morning by some village boys who wanted to take us on a hike to the Dzakou valley. While our group of four was in pretty good physical condition, the hiking was extremely demanding. The trails through the thick jungle has few of the characteristics of other routes in the Indian, Nepali or Pakistani Himalaya/Karakorum. Dead vertical ascents, made more interesting by a very special species of stinging nettles, we plodded hurriedly up the "path" only to watch our shoes turn black from the high leech count. (When we lagged we were taunted with, "our women folk can make it the top in a few hours.") The story of the climb is a litany of suffering, but the views from the top were stunning. The descent, on the other hand, was an epic equal to our climb up, as most of us did multiple Maury Wills slides into the leech-ridden nettles, a unique torment in the annals of trekking. This outing proved to me, however, that there is some superb raw trekking and hiking in this area. Exploratory trips like this can often be disappointing, but this one revealed the great potential of this virtually unvisited area. It's clear the way to enjoy the country would be to come back with more time, and more serious hiking gear.
While the culture of Nagaland has common elements, each of the villages we visited and stayed in had a distinct character. The village of Touphema had huts built for travelers, and I think they felt relieved to finally have somebody actually use them. We were also entertained by traditional costume and song.
While travelers seldom visit Nagaland, some groups of old British soldiers and bird watchers have made a one or two day excursions up here. I do not expect tourism to really catch on soon, but those interested in the lives of tradition hill tribes would do well to make a visit here without delay. One reason is a burgeoning sense of independence. I met a number of people who spoke earnestly about the Naga independence movement. In short, the Nagas have no relation to the Indian people and hoped the British would grant them their own country in 1948. The political leader Nehru, considered the father of modern India, had considered the idea. But, alas, independence remained elusive for the Nagas, who nonetheless still long for it. The gathering movement has led to much infighting between political factions, even actual armed conflict with the Indian army.
Our 14-day permit came to a sudden end and we buzzed off to the Hindu temples in the neighboring state of Assam. Headhunters behind, we returned to the normalcy of India, if you can call it that, spending the afternoon with apprentice cobra handlers and local Brahmins who were chopping off goose heads as a temple offering. What a relief to be back in civilization.