The “N” Place
There’s India where everybody has heard of and lots of people have been, India where lots of people heard of but few have been, and India where hardly anyone has heard of and almost nobody has been. The latter includes Nagaland.
Take a look at a map: in the upper right corner is a chunk of territory on the other side of Bangladesh. Most that is Assam, where the tea comes from. The hill country hard up against the border with Burma, that's Nagaland.
Inhabited by sixteen tribes collectively called “Naga,” it was not part of the Raj but an “excluded area” under the Assam governate; the tribes were considered too fierce and too primitive to bother. After the British quit, India assumed dominion and in 1953 made head-hunting illegal. Ten year later it became a state, although Indian citizens still need a permit to enter. In a bid to attract tourists, foreigners now need merely to register at the airport on arrival and with the police in each district visited. It takes me four days to get there: Day 1, departure for Amsterdam; Day 2, connecting flight and late night arrival in Delhi; Day 3, flight to Dibrigarh in Assam. From there one can take a twelve-hour train ride to Dimapur, the state capital or, as I do, wait until the next day and fly.
The layover permits me to catch up on the news from The Assam Tribune:
Dimapur’s flatland location allows an airport and a rail line, the only ones in the state. The city has government buildings, too many people, and plenty of traffic, but not much to see other than the museum, which contains a single example of trophy art.
I meet up on the plane with my buddy Lorne, who’s arrived via Bangkok and Calcutta. We have hired a car, guide, and driver for a week of Nagaland and Assam. Our trip coincides with the tail end of the annual Hornbill Festival, billed as a “color-splotched hodgepodge of dances, folk songs, handlooms, handicrafts, parades, games, sports, ethnic food fairs, and religious ceremonies uniting all of Nagaland.” Delegations from the various tribes dressed in traditional costume participate and compete in various dance and sport exhibitions for cash prizes and prestige. The extravaganza normally runs for a week at the beginning of December but, in celebration of the sesquicentennial of Nagaland statehood, has been extended this year to ten days.
The festival is held near Kohima, a hill town 45 miles from the airport. It takes three hours to drive there. Traffic is not the issue, it’s the road. This lack of infrastructure also means a dearth of accommodation. At huge effort and expense we have secured rooms at a guesthouse.
According to the event schedule, by the time we arrive the pork eating contest and the meat-kicking competitions are over. (If you are curious, you can see it on YouTube.) And it is too late to make it to the Miss Nagaland beauty pageant, sponsored by the Beauty and Aesthetic Society of Nagaland. (They are a nice-looking people, a cross between Indian and Burmese.)
Current events threaten to intrude: the opposition party has threatened a bandh (general strike) for the next day, which would halt all vehicular traffic and effectively confine us to quarters. The reason is that some Naga politician deems himself as the victim of an insult. I can’t help but wondering: did someone call him the N word?
Good news: the bandh is postponed for two weeks; it’s no longer our problem. Our trip can proceed according to plan.
The festival venue is a tourist village in Kisama, in the hills above town, constructed to showcase the Naga culture. Entry is through a ceremonial portal inscribed “Window on Nagaland.” Inside, each of the tribes has a representational hut. The village is a year-round attraction, but for the Hornbill Festival but the main action takes place in an amphitheatre.
We drive up to Kisama in the morning of day 8 of the festival. The exhibitions and events are only moderately interesting, but the whole scene is a giant photo op. Pretty good shopping too, for those who want to look the part.
Lunch is on site. There is a reason you have never seen a Naga restaurant. But I figure, when in Nagaland, one should eat like a Naga, at least once. It is greasy, gristly, nasty. I think the choice bits of the pooch were served to someone else.
Considering that the festival is meant to attract tourists, attendance is delightfully sparse. About half of the bleachers are filled with Naga groups in costume awaiting their turn. On the other side are a smattering of ordinary spectators and a handful of foreigners. The VIP gallery is empty. That, I later realize, is because on Sunday morning many people are in church (the idea of converting headhunters was irresistible to the missionaries and Nagaland is now 98% Christian).
After lunch the place is considerably more crowded. The days are short in December and India is on a single time zone, so events finish up prior to the mid-afternoon sunset.
It is quite pleasant in the sun during the day, but at night it’s cold! The traditional Naga outfits leave a lot of exposed skin, and fifty years normal clothing has left them soft: while waiting to perform, they often can be seen huddling under blankets.
There’s not much of a dining-out culture in Kohima. The few restaurants there are, we discover, close at 6:00. Finally, we find a place with a sort-of Chinese menu (no dog) and extended hours: 8:00 PM.
The next day we are at the festival site bright and early. Minor dignitaries are expected, so the various tribes have formed a double reception line to greet them. It’s all very colorful. Some of the participants have taken a cue from Obama at the Mandela funeral and are taking selfies with their smartphones.
The events are similar to the previous day: dancing, games, demonstrations of traditional practices. Once again, it is the costumes that make it interesting. The male headdresses for most of the tribes feature the giant black and white tailfeathers of the hornbill, hence the name of the festival. Unfortunately, it is a protected species so none are for sale.
Adjacent to the village is a museum commemorating the Battle of Kohima. In 1944, hoping to seize the railhead at Dimapur and expose the Indian plain, the Japanese attacked from occupied Burma. Blocking the invasion was the Kohima garrison, whose hilltop outpost was surrounded and could only be resupplied by airdrop. Fierce, hand-to-hand fighting produced high casualties on both sides. The siege lasted for months until it was broken by fresh troops from southern India. The Japanese withdrew, ending the threat to India. The battle marked the single engagement of the so-called Indian National Army – disaffected Indian nationals trained and equipped by the Japs to fight the British.
The museum does not contain a lot of stuff, but presents the story of the Battle in a clear and modern format. As is the fashion, it does not take sides, giving due to the sacrifices of the enemy in their cause.
In town an abandoned British tank (US type M-3, made in Detroit) sits on a hilltop, in situ relic of the battle. On another hilltop, the site of the garrison, is the well-tended war cemetery containing the graves of the British officers and of the Muslim and Sikh troops. The Hindu soldiers were cremated and their ashes placed beneath a collective memorial.
For some reason rock music is part of the festival. At night, the market streets of the town echo with the ear-splitting din of electric guitars. My guess is that it is a necessary inducement to get young people to travel long distances over terrible roads and dress up all day for tourists.
Tuesday is the final day of the festival. The numbers are in: 162,000 total visitors including 1347 foreigners. (As a tourism draw, I don’t know this counts as a success or a failure.) Our schedule does not permit us to stay for the bonfires that cap the closing ceremonies, so we depart Kohima early and are back in Dimapur by lunch. We are going to the northern part of Nagaland but it is faster to drive through Assam than take a more direct route.
Assam is tea country. Lining both sides of the road are tea plantations. Very pretty. It is the end of the harvest season, but some workers are still out picking.
We stop at a village for a look-see. Its inhabitants are members of some tribe, but they look and dress like ordinary people.
At dusk we arrive at Kaziranga National Park, Assam’s top tourist destination and home to 80% of the world’s population of Indian rhinos. (They come in five flavors: Black, and White (Africa); and Indian, Javan, and Sumatran (Asia)). We stay at a lodge where the rooms are individual huts with all the modcons. We are up and out before six for our morning elephant ride. When I saw this on the itinerary my reaction was “meh, no biggie, done that. The ride turns out much better than expected even though the early morning mist reduces visibility. (Ours is the "late" ride; I can't imagine that those who went on the early one saw a thing.)
The route is cross-country, through tall grass and wetlands inaccessible by vehicle or on foot. The mahout does not confine himself to a track and is free to vary the route. He sits astride the neck while we ride atop in the howdah.
There are rhinos aplenty (some 2,000 in the park). They are unfazed by our beastback approach.
In the afternoon is a jeep safari. Not so many rhino from the road but lots of birds, including wild parrots. Wild elephants, too. There are more than 80 tigers in the park, but the tall grass makes a daytime sighting unlikely.
After another night in the lodge it’s a full day’s drive back into Nagaland. The route takes us through Sibsagar, capital of the defunct Ahom kingdom that lasted for six centuries until it fell to the Burmese in 1819. (A few years later the British defeated the Burmese and added Assam to the empire.) We stop and visit the Kareng Ghar, a huge 17th century masonry fort and the Rang Ghar, a two-story platform for royal diversions.
Nagaland is a dry state. (Before boarding the flight to Dimapur, a security seal was placed on my bottle of duty-free.) At the border checkpoint inbound vehicles are searched for alcohol. Vehicles on the way out are checked for opium and firearms, commodities freely available among the tribes. We arrive in Mon and take up quarters at its finest hostelry: Auntie’s Guesthouse. It’s pretty basic, about six rooms. (For numerology fans: I am in Room 75; next to me is Room 9; across the hall is Room 175; and next to that is Room 237. Go figure.)
In the morning we are joined by a local guide. He is a nice guy but useless except in one key respect: you can’t enter a village without one.
A scenic drive on even more terrible roads (2.5 hours to travel 25 miles) up into the mountains brings us to Langwa village, straddling the India-Burma border. The largest hut belongs to the Angh (king, or hereditary district chief) and is bisected by the international border line. Inside, on the Burma side, the king and his court are sitting around a fire and smoking opium. He invites us to join them. Not ones to defy a royal command, we accede and partake.
In another hut are two guys are manufacturing guns. They fashion the barrel from a steel pipe and fabricate a musket from metal and wood. In the rest of India firearms are rare, but here they are ubiquitous. All the menfolk we pass on the road are carrying a gun; the women (and girls) are all toting a baby.
There is also Naga stuff for sale. I acquire a boar tusk hat, a monkey skull fetish, and a carved totem. (What I find out later is that they stink of wood smoke from the hut. I am still waiting for the smell to dissipate so I can bring them inside my house.)
In the afternoon we visit Hongphoi village, where they had just finished slaughtering a buffalo and distribution was under way. No bags or wrap needed: just tie your hunk of meat with a string and haul it home.
The old men in the village have face tattoos and hugely pierced ears (“Naga” is Burmese for “people with pierced ears” as well as Hindi for “snake”). They freely speak (probably fancifully) of the headhunting days of their youth. The small brass skull necklaces are symbolic of actual trophies taken.
Another night at Auntie's and then another day of driving. Along the way, we witness the industrialization of Nagaland: women and girls sitting by the side of the road breaking rocks to make gravel. Who needs Barbie dolls when you can just hand 'em a hammer and tell them to get cracking?
It takes a full day to get from Mon to Dibrigarh, back in Assam. Passing again through Sibsagar we stop to visit two more Ahom sites: the Talatal Ghar palace and the Shiva temple.
Dibrigarh, on the Brahmaputra River, doesn’t have much to recommend it except for the first decent hotel of the trip (complete with cows parked out front). It’s just an overnight stop for our flight out the next day.
In the airport terminal, instead of a lounge is a room marked “VIP.” On the door is posted is a list of those entitled to enter, including:
So it's back to Delhi in Untouchable Class and thence backwards to Florida.