Of dog meat and rice beer

A frothy white brew made from rice and yeast, called Thutse, is served in thick bamboo mugs. On each mug is painted a hornbill’s tail feather, symbolic of the importance that it has in the lives of the Naga tribes. As a low fire flickers and the embers burn slow in the centre of the Morung, a young man brings two plates of meat as accompaniments to our rice beer – wild boar and some dog meat.

Beginnings

Organized by the state government as an annual tourism promotional, the Hornbill Festival is a ten-day event that began back in the year 2000 in India’s north-eastern state of Nagaland. Although it’s held across the capital Kohima, the primary festival venue is the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 12 kilometres from the capital from December 1.

Billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’, the official line is that the Hornbill Festival is a collaborative celebration of all Naga tribes and “a tribute to the great hornbill, which is the most admired and revered bird of the Nagas”. While actual hornbills are hard to come by in the state nowadays – thanks to unabated hunting over the years – the festival does bring together the 16 major tribes of the state in celebrating their rich cultural heritage.

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The only hornbills one might chance upon are these

Since its inception 15 years ago, the festival has grown exponentially and continues to attract a large inflow of domestic and foreign tourists alike. In fact, last year recorded over two lakh visitors.

The Heritage Village at Kisama (which is a portmanteau of Kigwema and Phesama villages, between which two it falls) is spread across a wide sloping hill and consists of houses built in the traditional style of tribal dormitories known as Morungs. Some of the Morungs house the traditional log drums that are beaten to mark festivities.

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A model morung

Reliving the past

The Nagas are a proud people and take a lot of joy in showcasing their rich culture marked by their colourful traditional attires and lively folk dances. While the sight of tourists shoving their cameras into the faces of the tribal men and women as they perform their dances appears invasive, the performers themselves do not seem to mind as they carry on with ease and calm. The richness and diversity of their culture is visible in the many dances that are performed by the tribes, each telling a unique tale.

On the third day of this year’s festival, the cultural performances began with the ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ of the Konyak tribe.

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In the shadows

The Konyaks call Mon district in the eastern part of the state home, and are famed for their warrior skills. In fact, when the British first made contact with the Konyaks, they were surprised to see that the Konyaks (and several other tribes in eastern Nagaland) already had knowledge of making their own guns. The Konyaks were also amongst the last of the Naga tribes to give up the ancient practice of headhunting, i.e. collecting the severed heads of defeated enemies. The ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ explains the reasons why headhunting was practiced among the Konyaks – and while the practice has been long abandoned through the passage of time, they have preserved the tales of yore to this day.

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Old, but not obsolete

A close relationship exists between the people and the land, as is evident in many of the songs and dances. For example, the Aos of Mokokchung perform the ‘Ozu Tasen Tsungsang’, a folk song depicting the habits of birds as they come together at the break of dawn and begin their day. Bare-bodied men in white shorts and headgears adorned with feathers of the hornbill mimic the flapping of wings with their arms and move in intricate but synchronized patterns while kicking up dust with their feet.

 

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The Ozu Tasen Tsungsang of the Aos

 

Of dog meat and rice beer

Much of the Northeast is a meat lover’s paradise. While vegetarian fare does exist in the cuisines of the region, for most parts they act as accompaniments to the meaty affair. And when it comes to meat, Nagaland is king. Be it the regular poultry affair or something exotic like hornets, nothing is off the plate.

Unless told otherwise, when cleaned and cooked, distinguishing dog meat from any other meat is not an easy task. The plateful of dog meat that was served to us looked almost indistinguishable from the plate of wild boar right next to it. It is only when you feel the meat with your fingers and pop one fleshy piece into your mouth that you can tell the difference: it tastes like mutton!

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Take your pick

Cooked simply with dried red chillies, ginger and garlic, the meat’s texture is similar to that of quality pork. Even the skin on the meat is reminiscent of a hog’s, but the meat itself tastes very much like that of a goat or sheep.

Now, across the world, consumption of dog meat is generally frowned upon due to the fact that dogs are often referred to as being man’s best friend. But any food item enters the cuisine of a culture for a plethora of reasons; therefore, to say that Naga tribes’ consuming dog meat is somehow wrong is, in reality, an imposition of an outsider’s view of what is proper or improper. And it is, after all, an individual’s choice.

Personally, I did feel a slight discomfort, but not in my stomach or my tongue – only in my head. If I didn’t know any better, I would have ordered a second round. And there are plenty of second rounds that do take place when it comes to the rice beer!

Nagaland happens to be a ‘dry’ state, largely due to the influence of the Church, which views drinking alcohol as sinful. However, throughout much of the state, alcohol can be acquired through bootleggers. At the main festival venue, though, the only alcohol available is Thutse, which goes down smoother than a glass of whisky.

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Frothy goodness

Another locally brewed beer found at the venue is made from millet. Called Yukhu in the language of the Yimchunger tribe that resides in Tuensang district, the millet concoction is clearer than Thutse and delivers a strong punch to the senses.

How to fire a gun

Nagaland is spread across an area of 16,579 square kilometres, and is home to 16 major tribes. The eastern part of the state is home to the Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Chang tribes, who were the last of the Naga tribes to have been converted to Christianity. However, these tribes are ingenious and had developed the technology to produce their own guns long ago.

An oft-repeated story told to tourists is that, during the colonial era, the British were not only surprised to find these gun-wielding tribes but also petrified by them. One story that was overheard at Kisama was that the British feared for their territory, and so decided to introduce opium as a means to subdue the warriors in the east. The veracity of that story aside, the guns are fascinating.

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Smokin’ gun

At the Heritage Village, the Morung of the Phom tribe allows tourists and visitors to fire their aged guns into the air for a small fee. The air at the village is filled with loud bangs each time guns are fired. Excited, I think I should give it a shot, as well.

The attendant at the Phom Morung explains that I should place the gun below the collarbone but above the armpit, and slightly towards the outside of the chest. Since there is no shooting range as such, people are told to aim to the sky (to avoid casualties) and be strong and steady when pulling the trigger.

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It’s no child’s play

With the instructions noted and memorized, I aim for the emptiness of the blue sky and pull the trigger – only to hear a whimper of a ‘pfff’ instead of a ‘bang!’. After two more failed attempts, I decide to leave the shooting to the experts.

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Crafty coordination

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Women of the Wancho tribe from eastern Arunachal Pradesh performing the lese khao (bamboo dance) during the Oriah festival here at Itanagar on Tuesday, 16 February 2016.

Mithun: Arunachal’s Holy Cow

In Arunachal Pradesh’s capital, Itanagar, a kilo of mithun meat can be purchased for 400 rupees. For the same sum, one can get more than three kilos of beef. The difference though, doesn’t end there.

Much screen time and space has been accorded to Arunachal Pradesh in the past few weeks, and surprisingly this time it has nothing to do with China’s claims over the Indian state in the far north-east!

Ever since the political crisis in the state began close to a year ago, it has snowballed into a right mess that eventually culminated in the imposition of President’s Rule; on Republic Day no less.

From TV debates to newspaper articles discussing and dissecting topics as varied as the merits and demerits of the arguments placed by the governor and the Centre for imposing President’s Rule down to the Congress high command’s failure to curb in-fighting, nothing, it seem is off the table, including the meat of bovines, beef or otherwise.

Last week when it was widely reported that governor JP Rajkhowa had cited the ‘slaughter of a cow’ in front of the Raj Bhavan gates as an example of the volatile law and order situation in the state, many chaffed at the argument. While some pointed to the fact that it was a mithun, and not a cow that was ‘sacrificed and not slaughtered’, others argued that the species of the animal in question was irrelevant and that the act itself was meant to serve as an act of defiance against the constitutional head and his handling of affairs.

As the Supreme Court continues to hear both sides of the argument leading to the imposition of President’s Rule, the cow-mithun debate rages goes on.

Anyone who has chanced upon a mithun or even an image of one can instantly tell that a mithun is a mithun and not a cow. Although the two animals may be scientifically classified as belonging to the same family, to those of whom it matters- the people of the state- they are two very distinct animals.

The mithun, a semi-domesticated animal, can be found roaming freely in most parts of the state with the same amount of impunity that cows in the streets of Delhi enjoy.

Now, it is common knowledge that shooing cows away in the busy streets of our metropolises is paramount to committing the gravest of sins. Entire streets come to a standstill when a cow decides to soak in the view of incoming traffic by parking herself on a zebra crossing.

The human-mithun interaction though, is a little different.

In Arunachal Pradesh, urbanization has not permeated to the natural world to the same extent that it has in other parts of the country. Mithuns can be seen on the lower reaches of hills that envelop most urban centres in the state but for most parts, the animal steers clear of traffic and is left to its own devices.

Traffic-related difference aside, there are other more important distinction between the two animals.

Unlike how one is treated in parts of the country as holy, the other is not. While it is milked by some communities in certain places, the mithun is accorded importance for two reasons- its meat and as an indicator of personal wealth.

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A mithun’s primary role is to serve as an animal of sacrifice and have its meat be served.

During wedding ceremonies, mithuns are the preferred choice of gift and so naturally the more mithun a man can give the more indicative it is of his personal wealth. As archaic and chauvinistic as it may sound, its a tradition dating as far back as mankind.

Mithuns are also sacrificed as part of various rituals including those performed during celebrations of festivals. Consumption of its meat has always been considered essential to conduction of certain rituals. It is in this aspect that the mithun differs from the cow; not those relating to species or appearance but with regards to how it is perceived by the people.

There is of course the matter of the governor recently claiming that he had never mentioned mithun in his report to the Supreme Court. The problem here is that that report has not been made public and in fact, it has been shielded from everyone besides the court.

If a document is permissible in court as evidence, surely it can be made available to those who are affected the most by it- the people. While the governor may have denied mentioning mithun in the report, it was his own counsel (as per media reports) who disclosed this fact. Unfortunately, the secrecy surrounding the report means that until the report is disclosed, we will have to accept that there is a contradiction between the statements given to the court and one given to the media.

The problem is not necessarily in the contradiction but in the fact that information that flows from power corridors is often shrouded in such mystery in an attempt to save face. For example, on the evening of February 2, news was trickling in that YS Dadwal had quit his role as the Centre’s advisor to the governor. By later that night it was more or less confirmed. However, sources within and close to the Raj Bhavan maintained that he was merely going on leave for health reasons and that he would be back. By the next day the story had become clear and Dadwal’s resignation hit national headlines.

Officials in the Raj Bhavan cannot be blamed; after all that is the nature of the beast. Speaking of beasts.

One of the arguments that has been doing the rounds is that the animal in question is a non-issue; that the very act of slaughtering/sacrificing any animal, cow or otherwise, is an act of blatant disregard for law and order.

Does the crime that a person commits have less of an impact on the victims by the nature of the crime? Well, yes and no.

India is home to crimes of different kinds that occur with far too much frequency then anyone would like. However, even in cases where accused persons are found guilty, they are not always convicted with death sentences. It is only on rare occasions that the court awards death penalties to criminals for the harshest of crimes while in most cases it awards life imprisonment sentences to the guilty. While life imprisonments do ‘kill’ a large part of a person’s life, they are not the same as the death penalty. In our present case, the nature of the beast really is irrelevant compared to the nature of the act. But, what is relevant is the interpretation of the act and its presentation thereof.

Until the governor’s report is made public, we will have to accept what was told to the court- that a ‘cow’ was ‘slaughtered’. The reason that the wording is so important is that it can viewed as an attempt to appeal to the sentiments of those who uphold the cow with sanctity. It is, some may argue, an attempt to pull at the strings of an emotion that may skew someone’s logical view.

There is of course, no doubt that the mithun has a special place amongst most people in Arunachal almost the same way that the cow in certain communities in parts of the country is held in high regard.

The mithun though, not only enjoys a position of high esteem here, it is also enjoyed steamed.

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Got God?

God for sale

At a time when Arunachal Pradesh finds itself the primary subject of debates and discussions on prime time television, for many people, life goes on. Here, at a busy market in the state capital, Itanagar, Papon from Silchar from the neighbouring state of Assam sells his wares- portraits of gods of different religions- as people await the fate of the state’s political future which will be decided by the Supreme Court in New Delhi. Seeing Papon sitting quietly, surrounded by pictures of Jesus and Shiva seemed both natural and strange because, well, this is India. A narrative of India that is frequently lost in the politics of hate and bigotry. On the reflection of the mirrors can be seen the sculpture of a head of a mithun, the bovine animal that finds itself the subject of an unnecessary controversy.  (Taken on January 31, 2016 at Ganga Market, Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh)