From across the valley the tops of the hills looked as if they had been sprinkled with granulated sugar. This was our first glimpse of Kohima.
We drove into a dusty, dirty town, criss-crossed with electric wires and clogged with traffic. The streets were lined with small shops selling everything from paan, cushions and quilts, electronics and hardware; every second shop seemed to be a pharmacy; outside every ATM stretched a queue. The Nagaland Police Headquarters, as huge and imposing as any presidential palace, crowned one of the hilltops above the rest of the town. Mostly it was young people out and about – and the girls were wearing the international uniform of youth: skin tight jeans. There were a few long skirts, but these were mainly worn by older women; I saw only one sari the whole time we were in Nagaland. With their almond eyes, flattish noses and moon faces, the people’s facial features looked more Sino-Tibetan than anything else. India, yet not India.
It was festival time and hotel rooms were hard to come by. Ours was a small hotel near the market and with little to commend it – although there were no rats. I doubt that it had a star-rating. It didn’t even have a name, just initials: the JN Hotel. And I doubt that Trip Advisor has ever heard of it. We went in through a narrow, anonymous doorway between an electrical shop and one selling sanitary fittings, and went up several flights of concrete steps: up past La Bella beauty salon, up past the Merry Tots preschool, up past the Star Institute – whatever that was. Everything appeared to be deserted; we never met anyone else on the stairs.
Reception and the dining area were on the third floor. The cells – sorry, rooms, were a further floor above. Ours boasted a cold water shower (Indian-style with bucket and jug) and a squat loo; the bucket did double duty for showering and flushing. We were provided with one skimpy towel between the two of us, although we did somehow manage to acquire a second towel later – this, the size and texture of a largish teacloth. A wire came in through the window and plugged into a socket; it might have been the hotel’s illuminated sign for all I know – though I doubt it had one – but I unplugged it anyway so I could charge my camera battery. That night we discovered that the top sheet reached three-quarters of the way across the bed.
Five minutes after our arrival, a room boy knocked, came in and chucked a bucket of water all over the bathroom floor. That was it washed. We had not one word of a language in common, but we tried to get him to understand that the floor needed to be dried… Eventually we gave up and left it for time to do its work. He did bring us a two-bar electric fire though (which made us the envy of the rest of the group).
We were in Kohima for the Hornbill Festival – a week long celebration every December of all things Naga. Each tribe has its own morung or bachelor house in a Heritage Village just outside the town. Even before the start of the day’s programme, stomping rhythms, stomping feet and lustily singing warriors outside each morung proclaimed a very obvious pride in their culture and heritage. The Naga are skilled craftsmen and a wide variety of things are incorporated into their costumes, head-dresses and jewellery – anything from boars’ teeth and tusks, ivory, basketry, cowrie shells, buffalo horns, coins, porcupine quills and, of course, feathers – hornbill feathers. (In fact, many of the ‘feathers’ were made of stiff paper as the hornbill is now an endangered species.) The warriors carried guns, spears and swords with blades as suited to clearing a path through the jungle as chopping off an enemy’s head. But everyone was friendly and hospitable, especially now that the days of head-hunting are over. We were invited to share their rice beer – home hooch, since Nagaland is officially ‘dry’ – and it was impossible not to be caught up in an atmosphere of fun.
Our three days there passed in a whirl of colour and movement. There were courtship dances; dances showing village life and the passing of the seasons, from sowing through to harvesting; dances showing off impossibly lithe and graceful bodies. We watched childhood games – spinning top contests – in which the adult participants seemed as excited as the ten-year-olds who would usually play them. We watched fire-eaters not just put flaming brands into their mouths but eat the whole lot, glowing embers and all. A greasy pole climbing competition was open to all and this year (2011) was won by an Israeli.
Scenes of tribal warfare were re-enacted with alarming realism and enthusiasm. Spears flew through the air; burning arrows set fire to (scaled-down) huts; blades flashed. The arena was full of smoke, flames, hand-to-hand fighting, mayhem and confusion – and with an almighty swoosh one of the attackers decapitated a villager and ran off bearing the head in triumph …
Fortunately it was a dummy.
Later that day, we visited a real battlefield. During WWII, intense close-range fighting took place in the hills surrounding Kohima and in 1944 culminated in a battle at Government House, with the Allies and Japanese lobbing grenades at each other across the tennis court. It’s now a tranquil military cemetery with rows of brass plaques marking the graves of the many Indian and British dead: most by name, others simply as ‘unknown’ – and sadly, some of the plaques have been misspelled as UNKNOWN SOLIDER. The lines of the tennis court itself are preserved in concrete.
We set out one evening to investigate the night market. The whole street was in darkness – there’d been a power cut. Couldn’t tell you what there was to buy other than illuminated red horns: a sea of them bobbed around us above smiling faces. So we bought some as well – two pairs for about 50p – and joined the throngs of smiling faces.
The day market opened our eyes to things that had (fortunately) not (yet?) featured on our dinner plates: dog meat – not meat for dogs, but joints of dog complete with hair and paws; tiny frogs, alive (most of them) and fresh in plastic bags or else deep fried; big fat grubs that one of the stall holders was carefully tweezing out of giant honeycombs. There was an array of vegetables, familiar and unfamiliar, as well as dazzlingly bright peppers of different shapes and sizes that were probably fairly ‘safe’ to eat, although they might just blow your socks off – and, incongruously on the same stall, loofahs.
Leaving Kohima, we headed for the Konyak villages near Mon. We travelled in a continuum: one bend followed the last, followed the next. For mile after mile we saw no sign of human habitation on the thickly wooded slopes we drove through. We could see no further forward than the next twist in the road; looking back, we could see no trace of where we had been. Very occasionally we passed an isolated stall with pineapples or some sort of root vegetable for sale – but I can’t think where any customers would have come from. A few times we rounded a bend and were surprised to find ourselves passing through a large village of modest homes made of woven bamboo panels, wood, corrugated iron, bricks or any combination thereof – some almost hanging in mid-air, with stilts supporting the overhang as the ground dropped away beneath. Invariably there was an enormous church painted green, pink, mauve or perhaps white high on the hill, dominating the village. The influence of twentieth century Baptist missionaries persists. Christmas decorations were starting to appear outside the houses: bare twiggy branches had been sprayed white and strung with tinsel; cotton wool reindeer frolicked on cotton wool snow; coloured lights and baubles twinkled on small Christmas trees; large red stars swung from the tops of tall bamboo poles. It all seemed out of context somehow.
On the map, the route looked fairly straightforward: on the map – in other words, on paper. In practice, we were told, the road between Mokokchung and Mon is impassable to anything except heavy lorries – which have been and continue to be the main cause of the damage. Heavy lorries, heavy rain and no maintenance: not a good combination. Ironically, our fastest route was two sides of a triangle. From Mokokchung we wound our way down through the hills back into Assam. The contrast with Nagaland was striking: in Assam was activity, noise, pollution and traffic, and we sped along a good, straight road to Sivesagan where we took the opportunity buy some alcohol. For all that Nagaland is a dry state, its local kings are not averse to a tipple or two – and we’d been advised that a bottle of whisky was an appropriate gift when we visited their villages. We re-entered Nagaland and the road deteriorated once more into fractured tarmac frayed at the edges, before degenerating further into a rutted unmade-up track with potholes.
It got worse. It got dark. Needless to say, there was no street lighting. Half a moon in a cloudy sky did nothing to help. The headlights illumined a short stretch of road in front, highlighting every jolt. At the roadside we could see mounds of gravel for goodness knows what purpose – but we didn’t think it was road mending. Perhaps they were the graves of those fallen by the wayside. We bounced and ricocheted around inside the vehicle as we laboured our way ever upwards, excruciatingly slowly. Once or twice, solid rock jarred against the underside. After 2½ hours, which felt like 10, we espied the bright lights of Mon … (I exaggerate): two and a half hours to cover 34 km from the border post. We did wonder just how much worse the direct route could have been.
We arrived to find our hotel in total darkness: the hotel had a system of load shedding whereby the power was cut off for an hour every two hours. We soon learned to plan around the vagaries of the electricity supply – and always to have a torch to hand. Fortunately the power was switched back on for us to find our rooms, otherwise we might still be looking. We later realised the room number wasn’t just an arbitrary figure, but corresponded to the manufacturer’s number on the key. This meant there was no logical ‘sequence’ for which room was next to which. Room 5 could have been next to Room 47 or Room 18 – but not Room 3! Water for our showers had to be pre-heated – and the heaters could only be switched on for half an hour at a time, in strict rotation, otherwise the electrics would blow. But at least we had hot water – and a real shower.
We visited two Konyak villages: Janwoh, which was another long drive away and Chui, not far from Mon. In places, bamboos and other grasses encroached on the roadway and brushed us on our way past; in other places, the edge of the road had crumbled away and a few stones or a leafy branch had been left as some sort of hazard warning. Distant hills looked like softly crumpled velvet: some slopes thickly covered; others shorn of trees where they’d been cleared for planting crops. We passed piles of firewood stacked neatly at the roadside, far from any village. And far from any village, we might pass someone walking, walking, walking, bent under a basket of firewood or root vegetables. No matter the distance, the only means of transport for many is their own two legs and the basket on their back.
At Janwoh the king was out (and I don’t know what became of his bottle of whisky) but we had a look round his village anyway. Meanwhile our drivers availed themselves of the palace kitchens to rustle up lunch of pot noodles, boiled eggs and a banana. We returned from our sightseeing and made ourselves at home in plastic chairs … Didn’t notice an obvious throne anywhere …
Some aspects of village life continue, apparently unchanged over the years; but not all. Rice was being pounded in the traditional way; nuts and berries dried on mats outside huts. Wood carvings, trophies of animal skulls, buffalo horns and stuffed hornbills harked back to times past, but a mound showing the tally of captured enemy heads is now no longer added to. A bygone age is preserved in the facial tattoos of old men, the leg and arm tattoos of old ladies. Older members of the community – but not any of the younger ones that we saw – wore multi-stranded bead necklaces, ear decorations of dyed porcupine quills and bone discs. In Chui we met the Queen Mother whose jewellery included a button stitched to her earlobe. She looked to be about 100, but her exact age is unknown: records were not routinely kept in those days, even for royalty.
After seven weeks, we had almost become used to the idiosyncrasies of Indian plumbing, electrics and the nightmare roads. Almost. But finally, it was time for us to go and we flew home to the commercial maelstrom that Christmas has become in the West. A world away.