Thursday, March 8, 2012

Skull Shack

Hi everybody...

Well, I had been working on this post for some time, and then it all got erased, for reasons I don't quite understand, so this is my second attempt.

So, right now I'm in Dajeeling, for the fourth time, sorting out permits to go to Sikkim, for the first time. Hopefully by tomorrow I will have made it to the town of Yuksam, if what little I know about the region is correct, was where the first Chogyal (ruler of Sikkim) was crowned, by the three founders of the Black Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

I must say, it feels pretty surreal not coming here as part of Dr. Barua, of the University of Delaware's India Study Abroad Program. It was here that I first saw a true Snow-capped Himalayan peak, back in 2009, the day after Obama's inauguration, to be exact...and having spent some much time in the Himalayas thereafter, it makes my first time coming here feel like a very long time ago indeed.

Anyway, I'll just to give a brief recap of what I've been doing over the past few weeks. And I'll post pictures once I get back to the States (which won't be long now!).

So, going back, three weeks, and a lifetime ago, to Nagaland: Contrary to the advice given by Lonely planet, which suggests that, in order to get to the town of Mon in Northern Nagaland you should bypass the center of the state and instead go through Assam, I took a Share Taxi (in this case a jeep with four wheel drive), from Mokokcheung direct to Mon. The road was, as I had been led to expect, extremely rough. Half the time it was under construction, and therefore bumpy and dusty and difficult, or just a narrow dirt track through the jungle, and therefore bumpy and dusty and difficult. In places, the bamboo on either side was so thick that it huge down into the road and the bus I was in literally had to push through it.

But, got to Mon in one piece, albeit somewhat unsure as to what I would accomplish there. Now, Mon Provence is the homeland a specific group of Nagas called the Konyaks. They have always had the reputation of being, among Nagas, unusually fierce warriors, and people you did not want to tangle with. These days the area draws many foreign tourists because it's one of the better places in Nagaland to see remnants of the way things used to be in that part of the world. Missionary activity seems to have succeeded in converting the locals here much later than it did in the rest of the state and therefore the good old headhunting days are still a comparatively fresh memory. You can still interact with people, albeit old and few in number, who took human heads in combat (if that floats your boat). You can tell if a man is of Headhunting vintage by his facial tattoos, which, among the Konyaks of yore, signified that he was a warrior. These days you can still see (and readily identify) the occasional old warrior in Mon district, though in ten years they will almost certifiable have all expired.

On arrival, I went to st at a place called Paramount Guest house, run by a woman simply known as "Auntie" who evidently arrived in Mon on her brother's back in the 1960s, when everyone there was still naked (yes, the Nagas used to go about naked...and apparently backward pockets in Burma still do). Now she's become the successful proprietor of two guesthouse in Mon, and it appeared to me as though she winds up helping out every tourist who goes through there. Shortly after landing up, as I was having chow-main in a little restaurant below the Guesthouse, I bumped into a fellow by the name of Jeff, from Belgium. He's an aspiring photographer, who had been traveling through Arunachal Pradesh photographing the Nishis, Apatanis and various tribal groups who inhabit that region (and who are quite distinct from the Nagas), and hadn't seen another white person in 20 days (my count was a mere 14). Anyway, he was dead set on seeing Konyaks, so the two of us decided to go onto into the countryside...where exactly we didn't know.

Also staying at the Guesthouse where a bunch of Italians, led by an Arunachali tour guide, a German who knew practically no English, and an organization , I think run by the Nagaland state government, which, as it was explained to me, tells NGOs what they're doing wrong. That group was composed of Nagas from all over the state (Angamis, Aos, Konyaks, ect...). Verily, strange current of fate had intersected at the Paramount Guesthouse.

Anyway, after a typically silly, confusing, annoying, and not entirely successful planning phase, we resolved to head to a village called Chirya Chunyo, taking into account the advice of a whole host of people, chief among them an Angami working for the NGO fixing organization named Roko. Yes, Roko. We came, by the most circuitous route possible, to the conclusion that in Chirya Chunyo village we had less chance of being ripped off than in nearby Longwa village which straddles the Burmese boarder.

Now, these are both Konyak villages, Longwa being positioned directly on a ridge of the historically important Patkai range, and Chirya Chunyo in the range's shadow. It was across the Patkai range that the Ahoms first marched into the Brahmaputra River valley in the 13th century, that General Stillwell crossed retreating out of Burma in 1942, and that the Japanese invaded India in 1944.

We were told that, when visiting a Naga village, it's customary to bring the King (or Ang) of that village a gift. I had suggested getting the king a large fish, but the guys driving us to the village said that he would like booze much better. Nagland is technically a dry state, but alcohol is almost comically available, so we wound up buying the king of Chirya Chunyo village (and, we would learn later, five other nearby villages), a bottle of illegal rum. Yes, much of life in Nagaland does seem to revolve around the purchase and distribution of illegal booze.

So, contraband rum in hand, we drove out into the remoter, slash and burn scarred regions of Mon district, not at all sure what to expect. On arriveing at the village, after a two hour bumpy drive on bad roads, we were asked to pay a "courtesy" fee of rs. 1000, and then were brought to the kings morbid bamboo palace. By morbid, I mean that, wherever you looked, you saw a dead somthing or other; at the front entrance you're greeted with literally a wall of Mithun (a kind of cow) skulls. Inside, in one room, is another wall of skulls of various smaller animals, which I think were deer and dogs, along with a huge log drum decorated with....skulls. And then, when you go into the other room, which is the king's audience chamber, you see....even more skulls, these ones being pigs, along with elephant tusks, spears, a row of about fifty very old, termite bitten, locally made, Naga muskets, and the ancient, barely recognizable dessicated remains of a tiger skin and a lepord skin, the long dead animals having been killed early in the 20th century. In the village, death was a sort of motif. It make's one feel very alive.

However, the best was what the king had in his front yard. As you walk up towards the King's house, you see a small, inconspicuous looking corrugated steel shed. Me and Jeff passed by it without giving it a second thought. But inside are housed the skulls of the 36 victims of the current king's father. You see, the practice of headhunting was only officially stamped out in Mon district in the 1960s. Hence, the many of the older generation were active headhunters, going out and making war on neighboring villages with the current king's was only after the Baptists started making headway in converting the Konyaks in the middle of the 20th century that the practice faded out.

But, back the mountain of skulls. The way things used to be done was that, when a head was taken (usually from a neighboring village...hence it was mostly Konyaks killing other Konyaks), the head would be hung on a tree in front of the village. Well, in the Skull Shack, the craniums (few retain the lower jaws) have been just sort of dumped on a table, often with the rope that hung the heads on the tree still in evidence. Though, many are missing their teeth...the moment we went in there, one of the village girls started trying to pry out one of the few remaining teeth with her fingers...I think people have been taking souvenirs. However, many of the skulls still have big wounds in them, obviously where the owner took a nasty blow. Where me and Jeff slept was right next to the Skull Shack, and we were glad to know that, over its history, the village had taken somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 heads, all of which were now buried beneath us.

And on that delectable note, I should break off: The internet cafe I'm in is closing, and I'm not sure if I'll have access to a computer in Sikkim. I'll post pictures some time after April 1st. Excuse my typos and awkward syntax...I wrote this in a hurry!

Wish me luck!

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