Nagaland: The Tribal Warriors of North East India
Many people have asked me about Nagaland and of course I’ve been meaning to write about it for years. Over the past couple of days I have found these words to say about it. Enjoy! The complete photo gallery can be found on [here] on Flicker.
I went to Nagaland in the spring of 2009. I had been hanging around with a few people in Varanasi for a couple months, when one of them, Damian, got a phone call from Pete. Pete just got back to Guwahati after his second permit to Nagaland and he wanted to go back on a third permit, but he needed Damian and another person to make up the necessary group of four people for the permit. Special Permits always have some strange stipulation like this attached to them. Though these days I don’t even think you even need one for Nagaland anymore; you can just go.
So anyways, this is how I ended up going to Nagaland. When Damian got off the phone and popped the question to a few of us, we all asked; “Where’s Nagaland?” “What is Nagaland?” It seemed that part of the reason Pete needed more people for the permit is that another Pete had tried, on several occasions, to kill him because he thought the first Pete (Pete the Piper), who had called Damian, was trying to kill him. There was a third Pete (Beardy Pete) in this previous group but he was not part of any murder plots and he was also in the group I went with. Nagaland is in the far North East part of India, on the border of Burma. Tribal hill country, warriors, headhunters, opium, baptists, face tattoos were all enough to make my head spin. None of it made any sense so I had to go check it out. Me and Damian and Sinead and her 6 year old son, Michael went out together from Varanasi to meet with Pete and Pete; Pete the piper and Beardy Pete, murderous Pete had disappeared somewhere into India.
We made a stop in Darjeeling for a few days. Froze and then rented a fancy room with a massive cast iron bathtub, it’s own fire place, too many beds, a veranda from which you could see Everest on a clear day, though we’re still debating if that really was Everest for ten minutes early one Sunday Morning. Darjeeling is a full days ride up the mountain from the nearest train station (not counting the famous Toy Train). The day before we were to leave there was a bomb blast at the station. And we were beginning to see from the more local North easterly papers that there was a bit more tension in this part of the country. We caught our train anyways and continued to Guwahati where we were to meet Pete and Pete.
Pete the Piper was is his mid-forties and played bagpipes for some grand British Orchestra and was in love with a young Naga girl and thinking to take some medical training and going to live with the Naga’s. Beardy Pete was in his 60’s, he and his wife were the private gardeners for some estate in the Midlands. He had traveled all over the world visiting tribal groups from when he was in his 20’s.
Damian, the man in Varanasi who I had been traveling with was also from the UK. He was a sort of wandering minstrel playing a pin whistle (and now and Indian flute) and various fairs and such throughout Europe. While in Varanasi he did two things: learns classical Indian Flute and sent home ten thousand plastic parrots to sell for one euro each.
Sinead, who was with her boy had come to Varanasi to meet a guru she had met on-line. It turned out the guru was a pervert, but she had a found cheap place to stay, occasional child care, and a kind of family. Michael, her son, was a super star in India; he fed on this and was drained by it in equal measure.
It was these five and myself going up to Nagaland. I was fancying myself as a photographer and wanted to be a writer. I had no idea what I was getting into. The Assamese Times had reports daily of insurgency activity: bombs, fights with police and army, abductions, communal violence. Guwahati, the capital of Assam felt like one of the most educated orderly cities I’d ever been in in India up till then (and it still leaves that impression). Even the bus we took North was better quality than most Greyhounds I’ve been on in Canada. The state bus dropped us at a town near the Northern Border of Assam and Nagaland, we took a taxi to the next town inside Nagaland and then another Jeep to Mon, the Regional capital. Here is were we finally met with our guide and filled out the necessary paper work with the Indian Army Office. There had been several military checkpoints this far that we had to sign into, and above this we would have to deal with the insurgent check-posts. The army-post filed a claim of improper license and demanded a fee of 4000R’s which they knew would be paid by us and not him; a subtle way of getting $100 baksheesh.
The Horn Bill Festival was supposed to be taking place in Longwa, several hours by Jeep up the mountains, and situated right on the Burmese border. I call it mountains, but in reality it’s kind of the foothills of the eastern dissipation of the Himalayan Mountains, in any case, Longwa is situated on one of the highest of these hills at over 3000m. We passed thru a lot of jungle, villages and people were still everywhere, many of the older faces tattooed with the marks of successful head hunt. The villages themselves each marked by a church with a tin roof standing in contrast to the smoky thatched huts of the rest of the village. We passed a jeep in the ditch that had been lucky enough to hit the one tree that stood between the road and a cliff that disappeared into an abyss. Though it wasn’t mountains, this aspect of the roads here certainly reminded me of Nepal and what I knew of the Himalayas proper. The driver laughed, it was his jeep, he’d done that the day before when he was on his way down to get us.
The insurgent check point was easy enough. Guides in this area must have connections from all sides. Mostly they were drunk teenagers with enough sense of discipline no to rob us. Their only intent was to search the bags for liquor they could drink. Beardy Pete had been thru it before and merely insisted that the search was unnecessary and there was little the boys could think to do about that. It’s funny how often as a westerners in India, all we have to do it pull rank and get our way. I’ve used this with airport security in India, and low level police and army, and it’s as if no one really wants to deal with it so they just let you have your way. In the west of course, these sort of people, most particularly those we allow to carry guns are taught to show people who is boss. But India where the guest is god, even up in these Naga Hills were they so easily came to accept the monism of Christianity, albeit weaved into their traditional animism.
I found the Naga’s to be a very pragmatic people. Anything that seemed like it would make their lives easier was welcome. They saw clearly that the white gods had defeated the brown ones that had acted as their rivals for centuries. Until the arrival of the British, the Naga’s were essentially an iron age society. They had steel smelting, and gun powder, but they had to actually see a musket before they put the two together. Until then they used steel spears and Machete’s, for hunting and warfare. I found it interesting that although they are a warrior society, they did not have at all the sense of courage and sacrifice that I’ve come to expect from the western notion of the warrior. They followed quite the opposite dictum. Guerrilla warfare : sneaky, cunning, silent and quick. If someone sounded alarm everyone ran. Better safe than sorry.
And as for the heads. There is a kind of Highlander belief about taking heads. In many ways, I began to think of it as the Nuclear weapon of tribal warfare, perhaps like scalping, a warning to others less ruthless about causing trouble. It’s one think to have your loved one killed, it’s quite another to have their head taken and put on a stake to someones village entrance. You can imagine the power you can take from a rival village after taking several heads. The early Tantric warriors likely followed a similar belief. There was no ego in the elders here. The younger generation had plenty of ego hanging out fifties style with their rock’n’roll, slicked black hair, rolled jeans and motorbikes. The contrast with the older generation was striking to say the least. From hunter and gather to Elvis in two short generations. The middle age people were somewhere in between. And of course, seeing the girls hanging out with the guys in India is always a spectacle, but this fifties style teenagers hanging out against the tribal backdrop was unreal.
We were welcomed to Longwa with a storm, as the local ladies cooked up some of the rice and dal we had brought up with us. When we ran out of food a couple days later we discovered that they had been feeding several families with our store. Many of the men who usually toured the hills were in the village to prepare for the festival. The clan we were staying with was building a new morung, a bachelor dormitory that was fairly common up there. They had taken down the old one and saved what they could. The government had given them a permit to take a couple big trees from the jungle for carving the main beams and a new log drum. They would also sacrifice a mithun a mostly wild Jungle buffalo that is considered sacred. The intention was to give the clan and the new morung positive power. Besides the workers need to be fed some good food, since they mostly seemed to live on just rice.
The morung was constructed in just a few days. I was proud to have helped put up the main beams; everyman went to help with that. My beard and my large frame got me the nick-name Baloo (Hindi for bear).
The sacrifice of the mithun was more interesting. We were told that it was happing so we went to a small valley in the village. There was the mithun, a massive bulky animal already tied up. Some of the men were working to get one of their massive jungle made ropes around each of its feet. They worked quickly and quietly and there was an obvious intention of not getting the animal excited. Once the mithun was secure, another man came walking down the hill with a spear over his shoulder like he’s taking a walk in the park. He stopped beside the mithun and gave it one smooth stab with the spear into what I assumed to be the heart. There was some struggle and then she slowly collapsed. I noticed, as it took it’s last breath that one of the men who had come to hold it down in those last moments gently slid his foot over its eye to close its eyelids. The children were crowded around teasing each other and making disgusted faces. The men pulled out their dao (machetes) and set to work on the butchering. It probably took less than an hour, they had small stretchers mad of bamboo that they would place parts on to be hauled away. The head and many of the internal organs were carried in this manner, one man took a leg over his shoulder, several others walked away with bloody bits dripping from their arms. I had no doubt that every part of this animal would get used in some way.
Something I always found curious is that the mithun was pregnant. Judging by the size of the fetus I would have expected it to give birth soon. They obviously took the killing of this animal as a bad omen and they did not mean to kill the fetus; the entrails reading they did on mama mithun also indicated problems in the coming years. Even today it seems strange to me that no one noticed that this mithun was pregnant before the sacrifice. They obviously had not advanced into animal husbandry. I should note here as well that their agriculture consisted of very intensive slash and burn agriculture. There seemed to be more barren hills than jungly ones as their population had been expanding and resources dwindled. I remember commenting to one English speaking Naga that I was surprised to have not seen more animals in the hills. He looked at me like I was a very stupid man and said only: “we eat meat.” They had, it seems, eaten all the animals in the area. I’d heard of this similar thing in Vietnam after the war: the people were so poor that for a time you could not even find a single rat in the country.
The Naga’s are this poor. Actually can’t quite be that poor since the odd dog is kept as a pet. I asked about the rumours I had heard in mainland India about the Nagas eating dog and was told dog was strictly medicinal, and I suspect useful in case of emergency. Human they told me was not a part of their diet, they merely took heads and performed a kind of voodoo on them, rat was plentiful in the marketplaces of the larger towns, but up here in the hills not even a single jungle rat was seen. I had, up to this point, seen a great deal of poverty throughout India and Nepal, but there was something different about the poverty here. Here I saw no government agencies handing out rations of food, water and fuel like I saw in many other areas of India. The World Bank was active here trying to alleviate their poverty. Unfortunately these once proud warriors could not seem to embrace the bee keeping projects that had been set up for them. If I ever need proof of the ineffectual abilities of a global organization to understand local demographics, then Longwa certainly provided me with that proof.
Here I was in the heart land of some of the most fierce tribal warriors still living on this earth. They are famed these days for opium trafficking, trafficking in endangered species parts, as well as human trafficking. Their jewellery celebrates the headhunts and is typically made from bone and teeth of any animal including possibly man, monkey, rhinoceros, horn-bill, tiger, bat rat and rodent skulls teeth and claws. There is often fierceness to their jewellery that, when combined with the facial tattoos, strikes one immediately with fear. But of course one notices quiet quickly that despite the head-hunting and the opium addiction, the insurgency and the ineffective central government, the people are considerably gentle and happy. How they laughed when I put my power under the logs to hoist them into place for the morung, And even more laughter over the children who were afraid of me and my beard thinking that I was perhaps only half human. There was a hint of seriousness and fear behind the nickname they had given me – Baloo. And this nickname would change before my week was up.
On day when I was sleeping in the afternoon since I spent most nights shivering with cold rather than sleeping a bunch of people burst into the room. Pete the Piper was there asking if I knew how to give stitches. In my half awake state I admitted that I did. One of the men had given himself a deep cut to one of his fingers. Pete had some sutures in his first aid kit (and I’ve since added some to mine). So Pete and I worked together to sew up the mans hand. I think we put in something like 8 stitches. We didn’t use any kind of pain killer but the man never flinched once. After ward he asked us for some tablets for pain. Of course we both had some in our bags, but in an area where opium is cheaper than water, the request seemed ridiculous to us. We suggested he use opium for pain relief. The next day another man came to us with a stomach wound that was very unlikely to have been a construction accident like the finger from the day before. We fixed this fellow up as well and this is when Pete started to imagine his potential usefulness in these hills. The closest hospital was at least a full days travel and it was sure to have inadequate supplies. It was after these episodes that my nickname was changed from Balloo to something along the lines of “ghin-whan” which someone explained to me was a very high title that conferred the ability to advise even the king. Soon after, I was presented with a set of beads strung with a monkey bone that was said to belong only to the shamans of the tribe.
The community feel of the village was perhaps the strongest I have felt anywhere. India generally has tighter knit communities than those of Canada, but Nagaland, with its lack of segregation of men and women or cast, was even closer energetically. Men and women would spend their days, preparing food and singing, everyone would mix freely with each other. Inside the morung would be several small fires: some for the children, others for the adolescent men, and a couple others for the elders, women would be scattered here and there. They were not banned from the morung, and actually they were called upon to carry out a special ceremony and chant when the construction of the morung was complete, but the truth is that they often kept company among themselves in the multi-family huts.
But it wasn’t all roses up in the Naga Hills. Whenever we weren’t with our guide, children would come out on the trails and try to scare us away by waving machetes and throwing sticks and rocks and whatever else was handy. Most of them had never seen anything like us five white people who were suddenly wandering around their village and their trails. And those who had perhaps seen a white person before, had certainly never seen a white child. They simply could not fathom what we were doing there or even from where we had come. Michael, came crying to mom with a new wound daily as the European boy and the tribal boys simply could not find any common ground upon which to play. It seemed only a matter of time before the sticks and stones would break a bone and momma bear decided to leave the village before the festival. So, her and I and Michael caught the next ride down the mountain and back to the town of Mon where we would have to wait for the others to come meet us so we could use our permits to get out of the region.
While we were in Mon enjoying the comforts of having our own rooms, a kitchen that we could use and access to a market, Michael went outside to play. At some point the owners also went out to celebrate the festival and in order to keep us safe, they locked us in. This of course kept Michael locked out. But he had met a teenaged Naga who spoke good English and Sinead decided that there was no choice but to accept the teens good will to care for Michael for the day. Later in the evening when the door was finally opened for us, we found Michael at the one vaguely modern house in town. It seems he got us an in with the family of “The Father of Mon.” This was no educated political family, but rather more of a gangster family who had been passing down power for generations. They shared photo albums and stories, fire roasted chicken and Wisers Whiskey.
The teen age spoke of the generational gap in his family. How his older brother was following in his fathers gangster foot prints, and how he himself was proving to be a disappointment to the family because he wanted to continue studying science in the city and go on to University instead of learning how to fight and kill and be a gangster. We heard stories of cold blooded murders by the oldest brother; there never seemed to be valid reason for his murders (not even from a gangster perspective). He was simply and angry unpredictable drunk who had fathers power to get him out of jail and charges every time. The youngest son just wanted to be a scientist. In many ways, the father is likely correct that gangsterism will be more lucrative in Nagaland than science.
The stories of this incredible region could go on and on, but I want to conclude with a small list of facts to answer the most common questions I get.
The last headhunting war was in 1992 when over 80 heads were taken by the victors.
There are over 37 culturally and linguistically distinct tribes in the Naga hills. The Konyaks, who I was staying with, were the victors of the last headhunt and famed for being the most vicious of the Naga tribes. It’s no wonder they seemed to take a dominant role in the region. When asked if there remained any tension between the tribes, I was told by one Konyak Naga that there some Chin Nagas, against whom they fought their last war, who still lived in their towns and villages, but they didn’t cause any trouble because they knew the Konyaks would take their heads if they did. This wasn’t said in a menacing tone, just a matter-of-fact statement that I think everyone around already knew the truth of.
Part of the reason this area had avoided foreign influence, development, social and economic modernization is because they have been fighting a war for independent status against India ever since India was granted independence from England. Money, weapons and logistics was often provided by China or Pakistan or Bangladesh, all counties that stand to gain from an unstable India. These days the Naga insurgency has gone mostly quiet, but other organizations in the area have picked up where they left off. All the valuable contacts that were made with China, Pakistan, Burma and Bangladesh have been passed on to other organizations in the North East to continue the random bombings on street corners, trains and buses, to say nothing of all the illegal trade practices that go on in order to fund all of this insurgency.
Since I have been there, they have removed all restrictions to travel in the area. Longwa has been hooked up to electricity and the people now have televisions to watch. I was told by one recent traveler that when the power came on it was such a big deal that the children would fight over who got to flick the switch. And although things like refrigeration and lighting have not to been brought in to revolutionize their lives, the chief now spends most of the hours of power parked in front of the television watching animal planet and other such shows which is kind of doubly sad knowing that they have killed almost all the animals of their region for food.
People often ask me if I tried the opium while I was up there. I have to admit that I did. Many would claim that some of the purest opium in the world would pass thru this region. From the effect it had on my I’d be likely to agree. It was late in the night the first time I tried it. The effect seemed minimal until the next day that passed with me in what appeared to my friends to be a complete daze. In reality it was a day of hallucination. Every kind of demon and devil passed thru my mind that day. I was frightened for myself and frightened for those who were up there with me. I knew somehow that I had no control over my mind and no idea even that I had a body; the existential “I” had completely left this body-mind complex. For months afterward even I would have to stop whatever I was doing and try to sort out dream/hallucinatory experience from reality. In hindsight, opium has been one of the most powerful stimulants of altered consciousness I have ever taken (though admittedly I have not been overly experimental in this regard). The profound position of doubt that I would often find myself in in those months after opium were some of the most profound philosophical, existential moments of my life. Of course I had pondered existence throughout my philosophical studies and I had even had fairly profound meditations on the same up to this point, but none of this could have prepared me for the depths of the unknown that opium would take me. I smoked opium three times up there from pipes made of either bamboo or the thigh bone of a mithun. They were water pipes, a bamboo shoot filled with black tea sat in the fire and we would sip this, swallowing as we exhaled in order to ease the burning of the throat caused by opium. After the day of hallucination I never had anymore problems per-say: it was pretty mellow as one would expect. However, as we started coming down from the hills and I started to come down from the opium I came down with such fevers and chills, vomiting and shitting like I thought I might die on the 40 degree train journey from Gawahati to Kolkata. The doctors in Kolkata found nothing wrong with me and merely wrote NAGALAND diagonally across the more than half his diagnosis sheet.
Most Indians were disgusted that I had gone to such untouchable lands, that in itself seemed to be the cause of my illness according to this doctor. And perhaps he’s partly right, I partook in the rituals of the untouchables, the savages, the tribals, or Adavsis as they politely say in India, in Indian government speak they are the scheduled classes. They have government sanctioned affirmative action on their side, but like in Canada their lands and way of life are completely neglected. The outcasts of India are the same as the marginalized people in Canada. The tribals treated much as the natives here. They’re welcome into society as long as they accept societies standards and culture, but government and society will never support you in continuing to live in tribal fashion or in other ways that do not accord with government and society. Thus there are out-castes because anywhere you go there are people who either don’t want to or don’t have the skills or the knowledge or the background to be able to too fit into society.
The punishment for not fitting with society and perhaps for not accepting or being able to live up to the Rousseauian Social Contract is beatings, and sexual abuse, abductions, and being forced into all kinds of degrading slavery and addictions that are disregarded. Police and governmental disinterest, as well as being low on the list of priorities for most of society keeps much of it invisible in India the same way as in Canada. This is the life of the out-caste and marginalized everywhere. Some few out-caste find their way into at least partial acceptance by society when they fully embrace their ways. Getting thru a full course of schooling up to Bachelor level is a good way for one born of “savages” to certify that he or she is civilized. This was the dream of the teenaged younger brother of the Naga family: to study science and gain some acceptance from society. I suspect it still remains difficult to get that acceptance from society even long after your “savage” roots have been severed. In Canada we would likely start saying that they’ve become more white than native at this point, but society will always see the native even after the relatives begin to only see the whiteness. [I don’t mean this in a derogatory way to anyone, but many people will understand what I mean. White people generally have set the standard for modern civilized society, the created it and defined it and has a subtle way of keep down those who do not accept it. Natives, the red Indians of North America are said to be anthropologically related to the Naga’s, as well as tribes in The Philippines and Borneo.
I thought a lot about disappearing cultures and languages while I was up there. It was an honour to be among the first foreigners to see Longwa and Mon. Of course even at that time many of the traders had been down from the hills and seen different cultures and television. But there was still no electricity or even cell service there then. We knew it was coming. They wanted electricity so they could watch TV. All the young people wanted modern things: nice clothes, houses, machines, make up, style and individualism, education, and the pleasures of music art and love.
It seemed to me when I left Nagaland that the Nagaland I witnessed would soon be gone, the older generation as getting old and the younger generation was in a race to to meet or beat society; few are keen on living any kind of traditional communal tribal life. So, if my only duty to the Nagas is to tell people that they are there and that they exist, I hope this article completes that duty.
From a Canadian perspective we cannot imagine what a report on missing and murdered Nagas would reveal, the numbers would be mind boggling to us. I don’t ask that we write the Indian government or even protest in their name. What can we do? We have our own problems? But just by sitting thru this and reading to this point you have paid witness to the Nagas with me. And if you share even the smallest part of this story, you will be giving someone else the opportunity to witness as well. In many case, this seems to be all we can do for the marginalized and forgotten people of society even here in Canada: just see them, see them the way you yourself long to be seen, completely. The more we expand this vision of the weak and oppressed and all those who suffer from neglect, isolation, and invisibility, the more we see that to be seen is an inner longing we all have, rich and poor alike.
For more information I can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
3 thoughts on “Nagaland: A Story of North East India”
‘very interesting’. thank-you michael. i love the new format, esp the ability to expand the photos (worth a thousand words each). eric
Thanks Eric, I still have a bit of work to do with the photo albums and a few stories to write, but it’s coming along nice. Hope you noticed all those links I’ve added to the top of the page.
I’m planning also to do a little presentation and talk about the nagas in the fall…. Perhaps at a friends lounge.