Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nagaland Odyssey Pt. 3: Konyak Country

A heady cultural mix: Human skull from a head taken by the former chief of  Shengha Chingyu, a Konyak Naga village in northern Nagaland, in front of a recently constructed Baptist church. The poor owner of the skull probably lost it some time in the middle of the twentieth century.

Hi. So, this is the final installment covering my trip through Nagaland. Up until this point, my travels in the state had been interesting and memorable, and the time had certainly not been wasted. That being said, I think that I can truthfully say that my time spent in Mon District, in northern Nagaland, ranks right up there with the craziest adventures I've ever had. Of course, as with most real adventures, there was plenty of bad with the good. My time with the Konyaks was frequently characterized by rather gruesome sights and morbidly humorous incidents. The full cultural blast of staying in a Konyak Naga village as the guest of its chief (or, Angh) certainly didn't leave me with an improved vision of human nature, though fortunately I didn't have an overly positive one to begin with. 

The road north from Mokokchung. Literally pushing through bamboo.

Travelling north from Mokokchung was an adventure in and of itself. Despite the road being a fairly major artery, it was clear that over large stretches the state government had allowed it to be worn down into little more than a series of ruts in the jungle, and quite remote jungle at that. Certainly, it would have made good dacoit country.  But when something was actually being done to improve the road conditions, the effect was, if anything, even rougher: There would just be backhoe after backhoe, all of them manned by Bengalis, tearing up the hillsides in an attempt to widen the road, though in the process making a giant, shifting, unstable rocky mess. I think I saw more backhoes in those few hours than I had in my entire life up until that point.

I remember an incident, I think around 40 kilometers from Mon town (the main town in Mon district), that sort of set the tone for the next few days. The bus I was riding in had stopped next to a small stream for a break and so that one of the passengers could fill up some plastic containers he had with water. Up the road came a cow herder with about twenty animals, all of them looking thin and bony, like they hadn't been treated too well. As the herd passed the stream, one of the cows just decided, right there in the middle of the road, to give up the struggle of existing. The animal dropped to the ground, almost as though it had been shot. The herder obviously couldn't just leave his cow in the middle of the road, so he started trying to get it to stand back up and moving again. First he gave it some water, but that didn't work. Then he started lifting it up and hoisting it back onto it's feet, but that didn't work. Then he started beating it with a stick, but that didn't work. Finally, having gotten steadily more and more desperate to move his cow,  he resorted to stomping on its head, while the passengers on the bus stood around laughing as thought this was the funniest thing in the world. I remember being oddly reminded of the opening sequence in The Wild Bunch. But that cow had had enough of earthly existence, and was firmly determined to die, though the herder kept at trying to move bus left before the scene could play itself out, though I suspect the outcome for the cow was none too happy. 

Getting into Mon, I remember the town immediately striking me as very different from either Kohima or Mokokchung, the difference, at least from a cursory glace, being as great as that between, lets say, Delhi and Assam. First off, Konyak Nagas just don't look like the Nagas further south. They have darker complexions and features that make them look more like southeast Asians from the Philippines or Thailand, unlike Aos or Angamis who could easily pass for Han Chinese. Also, Mon, along much of the district that I saw, is clearly poorer than other parts of Nagaland.  But perhaps what was most different was the phenomenon of the bent old men, wandering about, usually with the aide of a cane, in a mix of ragged western clothes and what appeared to be traditional accouterments. I didn't quite know what to make of them at the time. 

I would later learn that these guys were in some ways the last living vestiges of the old Konyak Naga lifestyle. In Mon district, as I would later learn, various cultural practices that had long since gone extinct further south, lingered on well into the latter half of the twentieth century. In the 1870s, the British established Kohima district, which included the territory of the Angamis and the Aos. The administration then went about making its presence felt, forcing the Nagas in their area to curb their more warlike tendencies. For this reason, in places like Kohima and Mokokchung, headhunting is looked back upon over quite a substantial gulf of history.

But Mon, and some of the adjacent areas of the Naga hill country, didn't fall under the jurisdiction of Kohima district, but rather constituted a region of doubtful British rule on the fringes of colonial Assam. Here the degree of outside influence was much less, and the institution that makes up such an important part of modern day Naga life, the church, only came in much later.

For this reason, one can still meet people who remember the good old days of endless blood feuds, scalping, and head taking, as in Mon, those days just weren't that long ago. The last recorded instance of headhunting occurred in 1962, meaning that there were almost certainly later unrecorded instances, while the last village wars officially ended in the 1980s, though I understand that much of the bad blood from those conflicts remains.  

I had made a reservation (of sorts) in a hotel run by an old lady who simply goes by the name "Aunty." She's mentioned in Lonely Planet, where they recount her story: She arrived in Mon on her brother's back, sometime in the 1960s, when the locals still went about naked. She's been there ever since, and now runs one of the very few hotels in town.

My first twelve or so hours in Mon were something of a blurry travel nightmare. After finding that there was nobody in the hotel, I went to a restaurant downstairs, and, while I was having noodles, saw the first white person I had seen in two weeks, a certain Belgian photographer named Jeff. He had just come down from Arunachal Pradesh, and I was the first white person he had seen in three weeks. The two of us decided to make plans to travel together, that being a good way to cut costs. However, that left the problem of actually figuring out what to do.

In Mon district, the main tourist destination is a village called Longwa, which straddles the Indo-Burmese border. Since the village is so well known (by Nagaland standards) the villagers have no problem milking tourists, many of whom have come from the other side of the planet, for as much as they can (not that I blame them really..). But me and Jeff felt that going to a less touristy village might be a more interesting experience. But it took us a long, weird, night to actually decide which village to go to, and how to get there, and then how to get back. We had lots of people to give us advice, which, instead of making it easier to come to a decision, meant more confusion. Besides Aunty, there was also a group of guys staying at the hotel who were working with the state government monitoring NGOs, along with an Italian tour group led by a guy from Arunachal Pradesh. They all had opinions about how we should proceed. The Arunachali felt we should take a guide with us, wherever it was we were going, and we spent a while negotiating with him. We also had to figure out what exactly the public transportation situation would be. Then we had to determine, with what intelligence we could gather from our varied sources, which village would be best to visit. Finally we settled on riding out to a village called  Shengha Chingyu, which we had been told would be less touristy, and cheaper, than heading out to Longwa. We hired a driver who was a friend of the Arunachali, and made an arrangement with one of the guys that was working with the Government, whose name was Roko, to get picked up a certain crossroads after two days in the village. 

Getting up the next morning, I knew that I was in for something special when we were told that it would be a good idea to buy the Cheif, or Angh, of the village a present, and that what he really likes is whiskey. Nagaland, technically, is a dry state (the influence of the Baptists). However, alcohol is almost comically available. Everyone knows how to find it, and me and Jeff were soon pointed to a little illicit booze shop in somebody's basement, where we bought 200 rupees worth of Officer's Choice whiskey.

From there, we rode out into the Konyak countryside. Shengha Chingyu itself is well off the beaten path. It lies about 15 miles from the Burmese boarder, in the shadow of the Patkai Range. The road leading to it is in terrible condition, and would only be considered suitable for a 4-wheel drive vehicle in the U.S.

The Angh's house, with a cell phone tower in the background. Architecturally the traditional Konyak buildings bore no resemblance whatsoever to the other traditional Naga houses I saw.  Note the walls of cow skulls. No, this is not mainstream India. In the culture of the Konyak Nagas, the Anghs were apparently absolute rulers, and as a political institution were very much unlike anything the Angami's or Ao's, who were both almost excessively democratic, possessed. They ruled over  large swathes of territory, frequently holding other villages in subjugation, and making war with other Anghs. The rulers of  Shengha Chingyu not only fought with the rulers of other Konyak Naga villages, but also extended their area  of influence all the way down into the plains, exacting tribute from Assamese villages during the period when Ahom rule was failing. I was told that warriors from Shengha Chingyu village have taken about 30,000 heads since the place was founded. That may be an exaggeration,  then again it might not be....

Closer on the wall of cow skulls. The skulls are a way demonstrating wealth: The more skulls you have on the outside of your house, the richer you are.  There is a great emphasis on death in  Shengha Chingyu. Wherever you look, there's either dead things, or tools for making things dead. 

A wall of what I think are goat skulls, inside the Angh's house. It seems a bit excessive. This was only one of three such panels. 

Funky old tiger skin, looking rather like something out of an H.R. Giger picture, in the Angh's living room. The animal looks like it's been deceased for quite some time. I wouldn't want that in my living room.

The tiger skin in front of a row of old homemade Naga percussion cap muskets from the 19th century. Soon after being first exposed to firearms, the Konyaks started building their own, and continue to do so to this day. The weapons use percussion caps and black powder. The guns in this picture are all rusty and rotten. They would fall apart if you picked them up, much less tried to fire them. 

Sheilds, gongs, and elephant tusks, in the Angh's living room. Needless to say there have been neither elephants or tigers in the vicinity of Shengha Chingyu for quite some time, though they say there still tigers in the Patkai range, along the Burmese border. There was also line of PVC chairs here, in front of the wall, though Jeff removed them as he felt they ruined the tribal authenticity of the scene. 

The Angh of Shengha Chingyu, Aloh Ngowang, wearing a necklace made of tiger claws. Mine and Jeff's relationship with this guy was truly a weird one.I think that he was perfectly happy to have us visiting his village, but at the same time couldn't quite accept that we weren't made of money. As far as I can tell, most western tourists who come out this way are, so these villagers come to expect any visiting foreigner to part with huge sums of rupees. But me and Jeff simply couldn't afford to do so. The Angh doesn't usually go around with that necklace on, by the way. Actually, you wouldn't know that there was anything special about him if you just bumped into him on the street. Jeff was most put out at him for not wearing traditional clothes.  

A photo of a photo of the current Angh's grandfather, Ato Pah-Ang, from way back in the good old days, wearing a monkey skull. The photo was taken by the notable German Anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf, who spent a bunch of time among the Konyaks in the first third of the twentieth century.

The Angh's father, Khaopa, who died only recently. He was evidently an active headhunter, having been the head of the village through the sixties and all the way up into the early 2000s.

A bandy legged old Konyak warrior, with blue facial tattoos. The Konyaks were notable among all the tribes of the Nagas for tattooing the faces of their young men once they became warriors. The practice has been discontinued, but when this man received his tattoos, Shengha Chingyu was certainly still at war with some of its neighbors, and actively collecting enemy heads. This man, however, is not wearing the necklace that signifies that he actually took any heads (though that doesn't necessarily mean that he didn't!). You'll notice that he dresses in the fashion of a person who's not used to wearing Western clothes...he probably started only recently. He seemed like a nice enough guy...there are still quite a few of these old warriors left in Shengha Chingyu, and in Mon district in general. I think that they're totally used to the interest Indians and Westerners have in them, and are perfectly happy to make a few rupees off of it. Basically, the deal is that, if you take few snaps of them, they'll want rs. 200 or so, which is not unreasonable. Some people find the fact that they make money off of their culture terrible. Personally, I think that though it can at times verge into tastelessness, on the whole these guys might as well.

I was told this is a monkey skull (though I'm not sure that it is). This was in the Angh's niece Pomei's house. She was our local village guide. 

Monkey skull and wild bore tusk basket. A warrior with three monkey skulls on his baskett would mean that the warrior had taken three (human) heads.

Pomei with homemade musket. She was nice, though I think she was also kind of confused as to what to do with me a Jeff. Her and her friends seemed like a distance of a few thousand years separated them from the ancient headhunters still living in the village. Among other things, Pomei and her little friends would go around singing the latest top-ten Bollywood hits (such as "Subha Hone Na De" from that egregious Akshay Kumar male stripper film...though I have to admit I do kind of like that song...I must be going nuts...anyway...)  I'm not quite sure how it works, but these days Konyak homemade guns are based around modified air rifles. I guess most of the moving parts are somehow cannibalized from the air-rifles, along with the basic frame. 

Close up on the hammer, trigger, and lock-plate of the musket. I would have liked to have bought one, but I don't think I could get it back to the U.S., or even to Delhi, for that matter.

Inside a Konyak Naga style Morung. There is one Morung for each of the fifteen clans in the village, though these days, since the Morung system has collapsed, I'm guessing they only use the buildings for ceremonial purposes. 

A wall of Daos, above what appears to be a schedule of events for the Morung. Cutting implements along these lines are used all through Northeast India and the rest of southeast Asia. A Dao can also simply mean a sword (as it does in Chinese), though in this context it refers specifically to what you see above, which is used both for agriculture and for war. 
The titular Skull Shack.

Now there's something you don't see every day. A mountain of skulls, from the heads of the victims of the current Angh's dad. He sure seems to have been a hell of a headhunter. These poor people were probably murdered in the 50s and 60s, during the final major burst of headhunting that occurred during the main phase of the Naga Nationalist insurgency, when the new Indian administration was hard pressed to maintain order, and various villages that had beefs with each other received one one last opportunity to go out and vent their frustrations. 

There's nothing like a shack full of skulls to remind a person of his mortality.

Standing in that shack, one got a whiff of unspeakable barbarism. You'll notice that this person seems to have taken a hell of blow right in the head, which he or she must have lived with for quite some time, as the bone appears to have partially healed. And then the current Angh's dad came along and sliced his or her head off. 
A memorial to the former Angh. It reads: "Lt. Agang Rhonggang popularly known as Khaopa. Born 1923; died on 4.9 2001. He succeded Lt. Ato Pah-Ang as chief Ahng of Sheanghah. He was a great preserver of his traditional heritage. Survived by 4 Ahngyhas, 18 wives 19 sons, 7 daughters and 59 Grandchildren. A hero, who hunted 36 heads and ruled his territory in prosperity. Despite all his initial oppositions, in his period his followers hunted 130 heads. He ultimately accepted Christianity and was baptised on 5.9. 1992." An Ahngyha is a sort of sub-chief, one step down from the Angh himself. 

Hat warrior.

Hat warrior photographed by Jeff, while observed by small village rascals. 

A village rascal. He decided to don a traditional Konyak warriors hat, complete with bear fur and wild bore tusks, I think to make fun of us. Note the sling shot in his left hand. In truth, I get the impression that many of these villagers find the tourists who come to gawk at them quite ridiculous. I can't really hold that against them. To this day I have no idea as to the significance of that thing this kid is wearing on his face.  He and his friends also enjoyed throwing rocks at us. I can hold that against them.

Goujing Morung. It's old traditions meeting the modern world, I suppose. As you can see, human skulls are a major artistic motif in the village. 

A typical Konyak Naga Morung, in front of a typical Northeast Indian evening sky. 

Making opium. My camera wasn't quite up to the challenge, but these should at least give you the gist of it. That green stuff in the bowl is cut up opium leaves. This was one of the very weirdest nights of my life. After me and Jeff had our rather meager dinner (which consisted of plain white rice and a bit of boiled cabbage), the Angh invited us to come in and have a drink with him. I don't drink that often, and almost never have whiskey, so I had intended to go in, have just a nip, and then go to bed. However, the Angh had invited a bunch of other guys from the village, including the blacksmith. As we were watching what appeared to be an Arunachal Pradesh beauty pageant on the T.V., the Angh leaned over to me and Jeff and asked, in broken English: "You want opium?" The borderlands of India and Burma are a major drug trafficking route, and, particularly in Mon district, opium is widely consumed. It's apparently a major problem that keeps the area in worse poverty than it would be in otherwise, given that a large percentage of the mail population is addicted to the stuff, and it gives insurgent outfits something extra to fight about. We hadn't asked for opium, but I guess the Angh just assumed we would want it, the two of us being westerns in search of exotic experiences.  

You can barely see it, but the leaves are being boiled like tea. Needless to say, me and Jeff abstained from the opium...besides the fact that I don't drugs as a matter of principal, there was the more pressing fact that neither me or Jeff really trusted these guys...

Opium pipes and teapots and such. The guy with his back to us is the village blacksmith, who is also apparently a major opium addict. He was the one who actually brought the stuff in. The Angh wanted us to pay rs. 200 for a pipe. That's actually probably a really good price...but neither me nor Jeff wanted to wake up without our heads the next morning. This picture is lit the way it is because Jeff had a huge flash for his camera, that I used to take my pictures as well.You would think the Angh would object to us taking so many pictures, but instead he actively encouraged it.

Tea, opium, and crisps...

Mon district landscape, looking south. Here they practice slash and burn agriculture, which is known locally as Jhum farming. As you can see, it leaves wide swaths of the hills completely denuded of vegetation. In some places, where the ground has been recently cleared, the landscape can take on an almost volcanic appearance. 

Christian grave stone. It reads: "In memory of our loving brother Sri T. Tonrhei. K. Thoug. Race is for ever. He was born on 1962. He was shoted by Sri Noklot.k. 21.10.89 Age 29." It's notable that on the memorials in the village, the Indian honorific "Sri" has been adopted.

Jeff with the Angh. 

Another grave stone. This one reads: "Lt. Karwang. K. He born in 1935. He served Ranapio 1963.67 During the N.N.C. He was Poetry man. He died on 19.9.07." N.N.C. stands for "Naga Nationalist Council" which was the political party that formed around the Naga's nationalistic aspirations. I think, perhaps what the caption means is that this man fought during the early phase of the Naga insurgency against the Indian government, by which time groups like the NSCN, or National Socialist Council of Nagaland had already broken off from the N.N.C. (further subdivisions of the NSCN continue to fight the Indian government, and each other, to this day). 

Cricket. There's no escaping it......

One of the Anhgyas. There's a story behind this picture. This man, who is one of the Angh's brothers, just sort of popped out of nowhere and started parading around in his traditional garb while me and Jeff were having dinner. He started asking us to take pictures of him, an offer which Jeff, being an aspiring photographer, could not resist. There was a problem, however, namely that this fellow hadn't exactly explained that he was going to want a good sum of rupees from us (even though it was obvious that that was where this was going). Anyway, I only took a grand total of two pictures, but Jeff wound up taking around 50. Then, about an hour after we were done, the man asked to be paid, which I think Jeff took as an insult because the man hadn't been clear that he wanted money to begin with. In truth, in this case it was nobody's fault really. More of a communication breakdown than anything else. Regarding this man's outfit: those blue rings that he wears around his legs signify that he's an Anhgya. The fur at the bottom of the hilt of his Dao is probably bear fur. His necklace would seem to indicate that he had taken four heads in his life (though, in his case, it's only for show). His hat is made of bamboo, with two wild boar tusks and more bear fur.

Looking into Burma from Longwa village. Much of that hill across from the cleared slope is covered in opium. We went here after staying two nights in Shengha Chingyu. After getting picked up by our friends that we met back in Mon, we rode with them out this way, just so that we could take a look at Longwa, which, unlike Shengha Chingyu, is a quite well visited tourist attraction. Longwa itself straddles the border, and commands a rather more impressive view, and I think for this reason is more famous for outsiders.The boundary between the two countries was determined to cut the village right in half down the middle.

Looking south, along the border, with an Indian military outpost to the right. The roads in the left portion of the picture are Burmese. This picture was technically taken from inside Burma. As Jeff and I were wandering around, an Indian intelligence officer started following us, and soon came up to us and requested that we provide him with photocopies of out passports. The guy was dressed in sunglasses and a leather jacket, and at first I thought that he was just an Indian tourist.  I've heard that western organized crime outfits have an interest in this area, due to the opium trade. Certainly,  Anyway, we soon convinced the officer that were not up to anything nefarious. 

One mean old warrior S.O.B. This man evidently has 8 kills to his credit. I'm pretty sure I saw him in a National Geographic feature about the Nagas. Unlike most of the other old warriors I saw, this guy could probably still take a few more heads if he had a mind to, despite being in his 80s. Note the tattoos on his chest. As a joke, for the amusement of his family, he kept threatening to to take his pants off (I'm glad he didn't!). He also joked that he would break our cameras. It must be so strange having to sit still for foreigners bugging him to take pictures all the time, after having been a formidable warrior bastard early in life. Still, meeting people like this really is an amazing experience to have: it's like coming into contact with a hold-over from a much earlier phase of human history. Also, it won't be that long until all the true warriors are gone. Don't get me wrong: I do think it's a good thing that the days of head-hunting and inter-village warfare seem to be at an end, but it's still an incredible feeling to get this one final glimpse of a way of life that will soon pass irretrievably into history.

Opium pipes and human scalps for sale.  I don't what the hell a person would want with a human scalp, though I guess there's a market. 

Roko straddles the border. This is inside the Angh of Longwa's house. It's half in India, half in Burma. Roko's right is in India, his left is in Burma. Roko was a major help for me and Jeff.

So, that was Nagaland. I hope to get back there soon. 

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