PoV: Hornbill, Nagaland

 

Held for ten days beginning on December 1 that marks Nagaland’s Statehood Day, the annual Hornbill Festival is an extravaganza that showcases the culture of the 16 tribes that call the state home. While the festival has put the state on the global map, attracting tourists from near and far, the realities of the state marred with crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption has left many local residents giving the festival a miss. (Photo locations: Kisama, Kohima and Dimapur.)

 

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A view of Kohima town.

 

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Monpa Yak Dance performers from Arunachal Pradesh alongside the Zeliang of Nagaland perform in sync at the Hornbill Festival.

 

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Young Naga men watch cultural performances at the amphitheatre in Kisama Heritage Village, the site of the annual extravaganza.

 

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A man from the Konyak tribe stands guard outside the representational Morung- dormitories traditionally meant for bachelors- at Kisama.

 

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Konyak Naga warriors.

 

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A traditional rice milling apparatus of the Kuki tribe made from wood.

 

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Women of the Pochury Naga tribe from Meluri Village weaving clothes at the Craftscape section of the Hornbill Festival. The cotton processing system is called Akükhie Ngunü Küto.

 

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A photo exhibition providing a glimpse of the contents of ‘The Konyaks- Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’, a book by Phejin Konyak and Peter Bos chronicling the last batch of Konyak Headhunters and women from the community who would tattoo their bodies in the days of yore. A practice that was abandoned after the introduction of Christianity.

 

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The Kohima War Cemetery honours the memory of over 2000 men who laid their lives in the Battle of Kohima, fending off Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Battle of Kohima is often termed as Stalingrad of the East and lasted from 4 April to 22 June 1944 and saw heavy casualties from both sides as Naga tribesmen fought alongside British-Indian forces. Had the battle fallen favourably for the Japanese forces, the global map as we know it, may have looked very different. This, along with the Battle of Imphal fought in Manipur, has been recognised as ‘Britain’s Greatest Battle’ by the British National Army Museum.

 

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Some graves at the Cemetery are unmarked and unnamed but not forgotten. Most died when they were barely into their twenties.

 

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A woman selling hens and roosters beside a street in Nagaland’s capital Kohima. As with most tribal and indigenous societies across India’s Northeast, it is the women who keep the local economy running through their hard work.

 

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While the Hornbill Festival dazzles tourists with colourful cultural displays, signs that not all is glorious with the state of affairs of Nagaland are also visible. Student bodies have been at loggerheads with the state government since last year over delays in disbursement of students’ scholarships. The state government has cited lack of funds as causing the delay and has begun rolling out stipends in instalments.

 

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A poster on a monolith in Kohima reads (written in the lingua franca- Nagamese): Directorate of Higher Education, Students are suffering. Where is our stipend? – Eastern Nagaland College Students’ Union.

 

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Road conditions in the state leave much to be desired and the annual layering work done before Hornbill Festival hasn’t impressed citizens. Many young people call it ‘applying lipstick on the road’.

 

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Apart from the condition of the road, traffic is a perennial problem in Kohima and traffic jams can sometimes last for hours and stretch for more than three kilometres.

 

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Rains had left large stretches of the Dimapur-Kohima road muddy leading to many taxi drivers hiking up rates for passengers or simply refusing to go at all. While the road was reportedly ‘repaired’ just days before the festival began, construction work meant that it was bound to be prone to slush.

 

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Along the Dimapur-Kohima highway are several basic restaurants that serve some of the best food one can find. The menus of some places even list ‘rural meat’- code for game meat that can include anything from wild boar to venison.

 

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As in other states of the Northeast, the influx of Bangladeshi immigrants (whether real or perceived) is seen as a major threat to indigenous communities in Nagaland too. Referred to as Illegal Bangladeshi Immigrants (IBIs), calls for deportation of the alleged illegal immigrants have been gaining momentum of late. However, proving the nationality of those perceived to be illegals is easier said than done and is made more complex by the large population of Bengali-speaking Muslims who work in Nagaland’s commercial hub of Dimapur where citizens from outside the state do not require inner line permits.

 

Tattooed Tales: Behind the Apatani tattoo

In the kitchen of the home-stay that she and her husband run, Narang Yamyang said that the woman who tattooed her face refused to continue if she showed any signs of experiencing pain. Left with no choice, she remained motionless through the entire process.

Until the early 1970s, it was common practice for Apatani girls of Ziro Valley to get their faces tattooed and sport nose-plugs. The process was conducted in the winter to quicken the drying process, was often long and always painful.

The tattoos, called tiipe in the Apatani language, on a woman usually run from the top of the forehead to the tip of the nose, complemented by five strips starting from the edge of the bottom lip to the end of the chin. Some also pierced their noses and over the course of time larger nose-plugs made of cane called yaping huto would be placed. The ink that was used is basically soot (called chinyu) collected from the bottom of heavily-used cooking utensils. And no fancy tattoo needles here; what was used as a ‘needle’ was made by tying together a bunch of three-headed thorns called iimo-tre. A small stick hammer called empiia yakho helped produce the necessary pressure to pierce the skin and hammer in the ink.

Once a defining character of the Apatani people, the practice was banned by a tribal youth organisation in 1972; the penalty for which was almost equivalent to the price of an adult mithun at that time.

Yamyang said she got herself tattooed sometime after that but was not fined because her father had passed away and the implementing organisation spared her the penalty.

Narang Yamyang with her husband Tam at their paddy field.

Having been socially abolished over four decades back, getting a glimpse of the tattooed women of Ziro is becoming a rare sight. Everyone who sports them is at least over 50 years old. It has completely disappeared among young Apatani women.

Tattooing has existed in different cultures throughout the world. From the Polynesians to the yantra tattoos of the Tai people, tattoos have been always part of human civilisation and have survived till the 21st century with varying degrees of prevalence. Closer home, tattooing was common among the Baiga people of Chota Nagpur Plateau. In the Northeast, among the Naga tribes, it was a matter of pride for men to sport certain tattoos as it was an indicator of their martial skills. Unlike most modern-day tattoos, in the lives of indigenous communities, tattoos usually signified a rite of passage and a coming age for young men and women. So why did the Apatani women get them done?

At the very outset, it is important to note that it is not just the women but also the men who once got facial tattoos made, although the men only drew one thick line down the middle of their chin. Regardless, both men and women only got tattooed after they had reached puberty. It is when trying to unearth the reason why the practice started is where things get interesting.

Images of smiling women with blue-hued tattoos and nose-plugs abound the internet. The most repeated (and most believed) story of why the women had them made was because the Apatani women were so beautiful that the men of the ‘neighbouring tribe’ would repeatedly raid their villages and kidnap them. While this does not explain why the men got tattoos, many people, including those of the aforementioned ‘neighbouring tribe’, still believe there is credence to the story.

Yamyang’s husband, Tam, said that the story probably began once young Apatani people began to move out of the Valley and felt “awkward” when people, especially the plainsmen of Assam, would stare at them.

In the absence of any documented evidence of mass kidnappings of Apatani women ever having had taken place, the story is apocryphal at best and what anthropologist may describe as a type of cultural cringe where people are made to feel that certain aspects of their cultural practices are inferior and must be discarded.

Tam said that earlier it was essential for an Apatani to have a tattoo as it was a mark of their identity. “People would not even get married if their faces were not tattooed in the old days,” he said.

There are other explanations offered by the older Apatanis and the women who have the tattoos.

Tilling Rilung, an agriculturalist and wife of a gaon bura (village headman), said that the tattoos were made to distinguish between the Apatani people and the neighbouring Nyishis, indicating that it acted as a marker of tribal identity.

Like most other women who spoke of their experiences, Rilung too had to be held down on the floor when she was getting her tattoo made.

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Duyu Dinsung got her tattoo at her father’s behest who told her that it was an important marker of the Apatani identity.

Duyu Dinsung is another woman who said it was a painful experience and resonated Rilung’s explanation that they were made so as to distinguish between the Apatani and Nyishi people.

Hage Tado Nanya, a progressive farmer and a pioneering face of women’s engagement in Apatani society who also happens to be the reigning Mrs Arunachal, said that she was among one of the last batches of girls who got tattooed after the ban was imposed.

As with those who actually had had their faces tattooed, she too dismissed the kidnapping story and even claimed that the practice existed among the Apatani before they migrated to present-day Ziro centuries ago. In fact, she claims that the seeds of the iimo-tre plant were brought during the migration period.

The story behind the Apatani tattoo may have gotten lost in recent years and replaced with another. While there is no consensus over the origins of the practice, what everyone- tattooed or not- does agree on is that it is good that the practice has stopped.

Burning grass and breaking down walls

Sitting by the hearth of her home in Hari village at Ziro Valley in the north-eastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Hage Tado Nanya animatedly narrates how she along with around 30 women burnt large heaps of marijuana that was being illegally harvested a few years ago.

“Some of us even got high from the smoke,” she says.

Being one of the last generations of Apatani women to have tattooed her face as was customary, Nanya has crossed many milestones in her life. Last year, she shot into the limelight when she was crowned Mrs Arunachal- Mother of Substance.

Speaking of her time at the pageant, she explains that she was under the impression that it would be a one-day event, unaware of the grooming and continuous judging process.

“They would ask us to sing and we would. They did not tell us but they were judging us during that period too,” she says.

While her win thrust her into the public imagination, Nanya has been in the forefront of breaking barriers for the past four decades.

A loquacious woman, Nanya takes pride in her work and doesn’t shy away from speaking about them.

Back in 1976, her father had given her a handful of fish to clean and cook. But when time came, she was overwhelmed to see the fishes trying to breathe.

“I saw the fish trying to breathe through their ears (gills),” she says, motioning her hands in the fashion of how fish breathe.

“When I saw that, I could not bring myself to killing them,” she says, adding, “alag se feeling aya (I felt a deep empathy for the fish)”.

Unable to kill the fishes, she released them in the family’s wet-rice paddy field. She says that she was the first person in Ziro Valley to do so. Apparently, the now famous practice of farming fish in the same field where rice and millet is grown was started by her.

Nanya says that once the fish grew, she put some of them in a basket and took them to the bazaar to sell. The rush for the fish, she says, was so much that she had a difficult time keeping track of the customers.

She informs that she first began selling the golden carp and later moved on to selling the common carp from 1990 after buying a few fishlings at subsidised rates from the state government’s fisheries department a few years earlier. By then, harvesting fish simultaneously in the paddy fields had become a common practice in the valley.

Her entrepreneurial skills provided her with a steady living and helped educate her three sons and four daughters. Though not formally educated, Nanya learnt to read with her children as they were growing up. Her children in turn, would accompany her to the bazaar on some days.

“Now all my children are outside so I don’t spend too much time selling fish,” she says.

Nanya of course, engages in a variety of other activities to both sustain her income and work for the well-being of her community.

Having been betrothed to her husband, Hage Tado, when she was three years old and married at around the age of 13, she dons many hats from being a progressive farmer to yoga teacher. And she isn’t done yet.

Alcoholism and drug abuse among the young in Ziro, she says is a major cause of concern.

A few years ago, she led a large contingent of women affiliated to the Ziro branch of the Arunachal Pradesh Women Welfare Society (of which she is the adviser) to a hilltop where marijuana was allegedly being grown. What they saw made them gasp in horror.

“The plants had been cut and left to dry on a large mat. We were so shocked to see such large quantities of ganja,” she says.

The women then set fire to the marijuana, the smoke from which seemed to have left some of them intoxicated.

Currently, she and a group of her friends are seeking to close liquor stores in the valley and have been successful in banning non-indigenous alcohol during Apatani festivals like Myoko and Murung.

She also says that polygamy needs to be abolished and traditional property rights wherein daughters do not inherit ancestral land need reforms.

In her campaigns, she says she’s been fortunate to have the support of her husband.

“Even though it was a child marriage, I’m happy my husband is a good man,” she says.

Growing pains: How the growth of a music fest is fuelling economy and angst

Tam and Yamyang Narang come off as a couple that has been in love since the first time they laid their eyes on each other decades ago. There are no overt displays of affection (as is usually the case with tribal marriages) or any grand verbal declarations of love. But as you sit with them in their kitchen sipping on the rice brew, O, from bamboo mugs as the fire from the hearth burns slowly, warming the cool summer night at their home-stay in Hong village at Ziro in India’s north-eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, one feels the same kind of love emanating from the wooden walls with which it must have been erected.

Bespectacled and sporting a ‘semi-French beard’, Mr Narang says that he doesn’t remember when exactly they had opened their homes to let strangers in and live with them.

“It was in November 2002,” interjects Mrs Narang as she sits on a moora by the fire preparing rice in a large steel pot for fermentation that would be used to make some more beer.

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My hosts, Tam and Yamyang Narang.

Mr Narang says that the couple hadn’t initially intended to turn their home into a home-stay and that their intention was to spread awareness about cleanliness in the area and promote their Apatani culture.

He says that for the first five years they did not even charge their “clients” and served three meals a day. That has now been reduced to two to allow tourists to take in the sights and they now charge Rs 1000 per night per person.

Mrs Narang says that the first batch of foreigners slept by the fire and that their tour guide was the one who bought quilts for them. The Tam Yamyang Home Stay now has quilts, beds and two rooms to house four people with the additional option of sleeping by the fire in the main house.

She tells me that she’s seen a rise in the number of Indian tourists visiting the valley after the Ziro Festival of Music began a few years back.

Indeed, ever since the festival began, Ziro has shot into most travellers’ checklist globally. At least over three thousand people make the annual pilgrimage to watch independent acts perform even if they have never heard of them ever before and most likely won’t after. But that doesn’t stop the festival faithful from flocking (this writer included), come rain or shine. And while the festival organisers appear to be doing well each year, the most obvious beneficiaries have been those in the hospitality sector.

The hearty hearth

The hearty hearth. There’s a cat there.

Every hotel in the valley has almost full occupancy during the festival week and the increased visibility of Ziro has encouraged entrepreneurs to invest in the sector. New hotels are being built all across the valley, each promising patrons the best view Ziro has to offer.

Over the years, home-stays too have increased significantly as more and more tourists seek out the Apatani way of life wishing to live with, and as, the locals.

There are currently 24 home-stays registered in the valley and more are likely to come up. Each of them offers their own unique experiences but the Narangs’ are probably the most authentic.

Hum loka local style home-stay hain,” Mrs Narang had told me unapologetically when I had arrived in a form of pidgin Hindi used as a language of communication in the state.

The humble home

The humble home.

Unlike many of the newer home-stays that resemble fancy lodges, the Narang home-stay is more rustic, authentic even. But that is not to say that the others are any less good. Some visitors will invariably want certain luxuries like running water and comfortable couches to watch TV from and will prefer the newer options. And those options have grown exponentially over the years, much thanks to the Festival. However, as much as a success Ziro Festival of Music has been, it still has its critics in the Valley.

I was to meet one of those critics who runs one of the newer homes-stay but had to skip as I had to rush back. We did cross paths on the road and exchanged pleasantries but I did not get the opportunity to see his place. I was also told that he is one of the most vocal critics of the Festival and the apparent culture it promotes.

The common (mis)conception surrounding the Festival is that patrons indulge in all nature of nefarious activities ranging from debauchery to narcotics in all forms.

Having visited the festival for the past three editions, that isn’t exactly a misconception. However, anyone familiar with the festival circuit knows that such things do happen. (Not that it makes it right in any manner.)

Even Mr Narang (who has never visited the festival because he is “against these rock acts that have no discipline”) holds the view that there is perhaps too much happening at the festival.

“Arunachal and our youth are in transition and we do have a problem of alcohol and bhaang (opium, but I suspect he meant marijuana),” he says, looking genuinely concerned.

In recent years the organisers have tried to address these issues by putting up signs and making announcements asking patrons to refrain from indulging in drugs. (In all honesty, though, anyone who has ever attended a festival knows that such signs are really a mere formality.) But to maintain a constant vigil in a large open field is no mean task. If drug consumption during the festival is an issue, it will need the co-operation from local residents.

Until then, of course, many more doors of the people are likely to open up once the Festival fever kicks in.

The Ziro Festival of Music will be held this year from September 28 to October 1. Check the official website for information relating to the Fest. ZFM Facebook page.

Remember that even Indian citizens from other states require special permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. Permits can be applied for online here.

Disclosure: A version of this article was first published in the 2017 Souvenir published on the occasion of Golden Jubilee Dree Festival. The trip was paid for by the Dree Festival Committee.

12 years a wait

A colourfully dressed man wearing an intricate mask is brought near a large flaming altar. Two men guide him with a tightly-wound cloth around his neck. He kicks his legs up in the air, jumps about and quickly collapses to the ground before the cloth around his neck is loosened and he is quickly rushed inside the monastery.

At around a height of 100 feet, the Chorten is an intimidating structure to say the least.

Every twelve years, the gates of the Gorsem Chorten, a large stupa in Gorsem village near Zemithang, around 90 km from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, are opened to the public who can pay their respects to the scriptures and statues kept inside the centuries-old structure. While pilgrims and followers make rounds (kora) of the stupa on a regular basis, it is only every twelve years that the people are actually allowed inside it. This year a special four-day mela was held from March 25 to 28 to mark the event.

Considered a major religious site, no written records about its origins exist now. Legend has it that the stupa or chorten was built at around the 12th century by a monk from the area called Lama Pradhar. Monks and locals said that the stupa was built after Lama Pradhar visited Nepal and saw the Swayambhu stupa. Realising that for most people from the Mon region of the state it would be an immensely difficult task to walk across to Kathmandu Valley to make the pilgrimage, Lama Pradhar decided that a replica should be built at its present site. Here is where the story becomes somewhat apocryphal.

According to monks and people from Tawang to Zemithang, and indeed the popular version of how things unfolded, is that the monk made a scaled model of the stupa in Nepal by carving out a radish. Unfortunately, that radish became somewhat shrivelled on its journey and hence the slight variations in the size of the replica from that of the original!

The stupa in Gorsem also makes up the trinity of similar stupas in Nepal and Bhutan.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

The oracle draws the excitement of the people as much as he draws their curiosity.

Legends and stories aside, the stupa is definitely an impressive and imposing structure. With a large white base, topped off with a golden top, the chorten stands around 100 feet tall.

An important event, made evident by the sea of believers that had gathered to gain a glimpse of the inside of the structure, the reason why it opens only once every twelve years depends on who you ask.

While some said that it was in the Year of the Rooster as per the Tibetan calendar (which has twelve cycles) that the chorten was completed and hence it’s opened on the same astrological year (such as 2017), there was another reason that was offered.

Apparently, the chorten gates (at the top of the structure) were earlier opened regularly. However, frequent thefts of the relics and valuable statues led to their closure and formulation of the twelve-year rule. For the faithful though, the reasons matter little. Thousands upon thousands converged in the small village just kilometres from the Chinese border to climb the top of the chorten to get a 20-second glimpse of the statues and scriptures.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

The event also presents a business opportunity.

Reportedly, Monpa pilgrims belonging to the same tribe as their Indian cousins turned up from neighbouring Bhutan too, although technically the area is off-limits to foreigners.

While pilgrims come to conduct the kora (circling of the structure) and see the inside of the chorten, an important part of the last day is the forecast ceremony that is held towards the end and before the sermon and blessings given by Thegtse Rinpoche of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

A young monk explained to us that the colourfully-dressed masked man happens to be a government official from Bomdila in West Kameng district who acts as an oracle and is able to see the future. People believe that once the oracle is possessed by the spirit of Nyari Gachen (sic), he is able to speak and write in the Tibetan language, thereby able to make predictions about the area and/or reveal important information for the prosperity of the people. The prediction however, is revealed only to the Rinpoche.

Zemithang is a small administrative circle at an elevation of over 7,000 feet. Much like throughout Tawang district, it is home to the Buddhist Monpa people. Its religious importance aside, Zemithang is also one of the only two remaining wintering sites of the vulnerable black-necked crane in the state. The birds are safe for now after the National Green Tribunal last year suspended the Union environment ministry’s clearance granted to the 780 Nyamjang Chhu project in 2012.

During such present times when much of the region is trying to balance the demand for modern development with that of the need to preserve the environment, one can only hope that the oracle had good news to share.

Shillong Sojourn

Unlike so many of my friends and acquaintances, I have no deep-rooted connection with Shillong. I didn’t study here for my school nor did I spend any time in my college years. Yet somehow, the city beckons me and I feel a sense of homeliness whenever I am here.

Legend has it that when the British first arrived here, its hills reminded them of Scotland and so it became to be that it was (and is still) called ‘Scotland of the East’. Regardless of how the moniker came to be, Shillong is a beautiful place.

The present day capital of the state of Meghalaya, Shillong served as the capital of undivided Assam under the Raj and continued to be so until 21 January 1972, when Assam moved its capital to Dispur.

Up until the early 2000s, Shillong was the educational hub of the Northeast of India. While newer schools across the region have eaten into this reputation, with schools and colleges like St Anthony’s, St Edmund’s and Assam Rifles Public School, Shillong continues to be a hot favourite among many parents and guardians.

I, myself have a number of friends who finished their formal education in the hallowed halls of some of the aforementioned institutes. And although I have no personal connection to Shillong, the city with its narrow lanes, black and yellow Maruti 800 taxis and kwai ladies, feels like home.

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Don Bosco Square in Laitmukhrah.

Located at an altitude of 1,520 metres, Shillong enjoys a pleasant weather throughout much of the year but gets quite chilly during the winter months. Home to the Khasi people, the lingua franca of the Meghalaya capital is the Khasi language but English and Hindi are understood and spoken as well, aside from Garo, Jaintia and Assamese.

A popular destination amongst tourists from West Bengal, Assam and other north-eastern states, Shillong offers many options to visitors wishing to stick to the typical tourist trail. From Ward Lake to the Shillong Peak and the numerous waterfalls that pepper the city, there certainly isn’t any shortage of ‘tourist spots’ to visit. And while one must take in these places, the soul of Shillong really lies in its streets.

Walking around its narrow streets, it becomes evident that Shillong has major traffic issues. Small roads and too many cars mean that the streets are often packed to the hilt. Driving in Shillong itself is an art; one that the local taxi drivers have mastered well.

The main city is spread around an area of 10 square kilometres so obviously walking all the time is not an easy task. Taxis, either Maruti 800s or Altos, are a useful mode of travel within the city.

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The black and yellow taxis of Shillong.

Driving on half-clutch is pretty much standard fare and do not be surprised or scared if in the middle of your commute the taxi driver turns off the engine. Driving in neutral when going downhill to save fuel is practice as old as the city itself.

All over, whether in busy market places or the narrow back alleys of the city, one can see Khasi women wearing the traditional jainsem or dhara selling kwai– areca nut.

The Khasis, like the Garos and Jaintias of Meghalaya, are a matrilineal society and hence trace their lineage through the mother’s side of the family. Little surprise then that the women play an active role in the daily lives of the people.

Peeling away the skin of the kwai with their small and handy knives, the women (called kong which is Khasi for elder sister) may not appear to have all the worldly desires that engulf our lives but seem happier and content than most of us caught up in the web of ours.

Of course, where there is kwai there’s also chuna or slake lime which marks its presence all over the city’s walls.

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A chuna smeared pillar.

Kwai is eaten pretty much the same way that paan is in that the nut is chunkier than the supari and does not contain any tobacco or other flavourings. The way to eat kwai is to simply wrap it in a betel leaf that has been smeared with chuna. What one will notice however, is that not all of the chuna is contained on the leaf alone as any excess slake lime is smeared on the closest wall. Therefore, the walls that line the streets often have white markings on them. They are not by design.

Kongs and kwai aside, Shillong is quite a busy city with the main shopping centres located in Police Bazaar, Bara Bazaar and Laitumukhrah. Shops in these markets sell everything from branded apparel to ‘Bangkok goods’ to everything in between. And while new cafes and restaurants offer a wide variety of cuisine, no trip to Shillong can ever be complete without tasting the local Khasi dishes.

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A kong selling kwai is taken by surprise.

Small eateries, colloquially referred to as jadoh stalls, are dotted all over the city. Jadoh is a rice and meat dish that can most closely be compared to the pulao. However, make no mistake, jadoh is very clearly an authentic Khasi dish often paired with dohjem (pork belly cooked with sesame seeds). If you are lucky you can also sample the dohshine, a blood sausage that is guaranteed to make a convert out of any apprehensive traveller.

Of course, while food is an integral part of any city and its culture, Shillong is much more than that. It takes a visit for its magic to charm you. Twenty years since I first started to visit the city, Shillong continues to charm me.

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2016 issue of The Himalayan Pulse.

 

Ziro to 22 kilometres: A trek to Talle Valley

Close your eyes and picture yourself in a place surrounded by lush green forests with the rays of the sun breaking free from the branches of the trees, miles away from civilization and the only sounds you can hear are the chirping of birds and the gurgling of the stream that flows gently below. That’s Talle Valley for you.

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Talle Valley offers a certain serenity, one that needs to be experienced.

Located at an altitude of 2,400 metres, around 30km from the town of Ziro in Arunachal Pradesh in India’s remote north-east, Talle Valley offers the perfect escape from the everyday hustle of the urban life. Far from the maddening crowd, it is perhaps one of the last few places that offers a truly secluded experience to those willing to make the 22km uphill trek (starting from Monipolyang), gaining more than a thousand metres in altitude along the way. And while there are many places in the state and indeed the Northeast where one can cut off from the trappings of modern life, Talle Valley is unique in the sense that it is well and truly cut-off from a life that we have become used to. The trade-off? It’s not an easy trek.

 

Bobby Hano, one of the people behind the annual Ziro Festival of Music, organised a hike to Talle Valley in May as a launch-pad for his new travel company, Tour de Himalaya. Having never done the trek himself, Hano brought with him his friends, most of who either run their own travel companies or work as tour guides… and me.

Having heard a lot about the rich biodiversity of the valley for years, I jumped at the opportunity when the offer was made.

The first day of the trek would be spent on the trail from Monipolyang town in Ziro valley to Pange, 7km away. A steady climb, this section of the trek is not a difficult one. What does compound the issue is the unpredictable weather.

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This happened on more than one occasion.

It had been raining for the past few days and as a result, trees had broken off of the face of the hills and blocked the path on several locations. Fortunately, we were equipped with daos to chop off the smaller branches and clear the path. Even so, riding the one motorcycle carrying our food supplies proved to be a bigger ask than anticipated. Again, we were lucky to have in our team Mobing, the loud gregarious one (isn’t there always one?) who was more than apt with the dao.

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Mobing doing his thing.

Another problem that we faced was the motorcycle kept getting stuck in the mud on the trail. Overall though, it is an easy trek and didn’t throw up many challenges along the way. After about five hours of slow trek, we reached Pange where the state forest department has an office, a guesthouse, and accommodation for the staff. There is also a traditional house of the Apatani tribe made from bamboo which serves as the kitchen, where we settled in after freshening up.

The view from the camp at Pange

The ‘Pange view’.

Having gobbled up a simple but tasty dinner, we retreated for the night to collect our energy for the 15km trek to Talle Valley the next day.

Unlike the first day’s trek, the walk to Talle Valley was much more arduous. Not only is the distance doubled, the surface of the path is often muddy and almost completely uphill.

The first section of the trek is when we had to be extra careful, watching each step carefully to not step into the leech-infested mud. We had to constantly scrape away the slimy devils that were out for our blood. It is only after crossing the first four km does the true wealth of the valley begin to unfold.

Enemies of the trek- leeches

Enemies of the trek- leeches.

Our destination is actually part of the Talle Valley Wildlife Sanctuary which is spread across an area of 337 square km and lies roughly between the Subansiri, Sipu and Pange rivers. The sanctuary itself is again part of the Talle Reserved Forest (515.875 square km).

The path

The path.

Although the state government has declared these forests as protected areas, as in other tribal areas, they are actually community-owned forests. All along the trek to Talle, boards declaring the ownership of the forests were clearly visible. And while we did not meet any other people on the way, we did encounter mithuns (the semi-domesticated bovine that is highly valued by most tribes in the state) which indicated that people did occasionally visit the place. We were told that villagers from Ziro Valley do in fact trek up to gather their mithuns during the Myoko festival that is held annually in March.

Its a scary thing suddenly seeing one of these

Mithun, a gentle animal but it is scary suddenly seeing one of them.

The path to Talle certainly isn’t an easy one. A steady climb combined with the distance and the change in temperature begins to slowly creep in on you. Adding to the difficulty is the many ‘shortcuts’ that are marked along the way. These ‘shortcuts’ however, are not easy to tackle and the sheer steepness of some will leave many gasping for air. What is encouraging is the chance to catch a glimpse of the many birds that call the place home.

Binoculars help and having a good camera at hand is certainly handy to capture the beautiful birds. Even so, just the sounds of chirps and hoots can be an exhilarating experience.

Along the way, the rains had shown effect again with large fallen trees blocking the path. Since we had ditched the motorcycle in Pange, we did not need to clear much of the path this time around.

Benches that have been built with locally available products along the way allowed us to grab some rest as we rose higher in elevation. It is at the higher reaches that the true richness of the forests begins to unfold as various species of rhododendron flowers coyly show themselves and the birds begin to sound closer. While records about the exact number of species of birds and animals and rhododendron flowers found in the area remain unclear, it’s not difficult to guess the ecological importance of the place. But not all may be well with the valley.

Bengia Mrinal aka Bully, a travel agent and birding enthusiast who was with us, was coming to the valley after two years. Having visited the valley before on many occasions, he noted that the birds had “become shy”.

“Earlier it was easier to snap a picture of the birds since they used to be out in the open branches,” he told me and speculated that perhaps logging activities on the edges of the forest had led to a change in their behaviour.

Bully doing his thing

Bully doing his thing.

There could also be greater changes taking place in the valley due to human interference that could adversely affect the sensitive ecology of the place.

Logging aside, illegal extraction of various medicinal plants such as the Paris polyphylla, used extensively in traditional Chinese medicines, is said to be taking place in the valley.

Before heading out to Talle Valley, at our camp in Pange, we met three young researchers from the Bangalore-based National Centre for Biodiversity who had been there for three months. They told us that they were collecting data on how climate change is affecting the vegetation of the area which in turn is affecting the population of prey animals on which small wild cats are dependent for their food.

Currently, there are four species of wild cats found in the valley including the clouded leopard that is listed as ‘vulnerable’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. If human interference of nature does not stop, these animals may not have a place to call home soon. Now is when one should visit Talle Valley before time runs out.

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The view from top.

For trekking queries, contact Bobby Hano at +91-89740-52594

 

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!

Hornbill 2015

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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The many joys of Ziro

An idea is born

Five years ago, an idea was born from a chance visit to the Ziro Valley in Arunachal Pradesh’s Lower Subansiri district when Delhi-based musicians Menwhopause had their show delayed after a students’ union had called a bandh on the day of their performance in the state capital, Itanagar. With nothing to do to kill time, concert organiser Bobby Hano decided to take the band members to his hometown.

Taken in by the view, Bobby and Anup Kutty, the band’s bassist, began to flirt with the idea of organising an outdoor music festival at Ziro.

One year later, with the help of the state tourism department and the Itanagar-based Living Dreams Trust, the Ziro Festival of Music was born. Since that chance visit and a few bumps along the way, the festival has become a must-attend event for music lovers and folk artists and independent bands from across the country and has propelled its way to India’s ever-expanding festival scene.

This is the story of why.

 

Journey of your life

It had rained the night before the festival began and the venue was bound to be squishy and muddy just like it had been in the years past. Traversing through the ‘highway’ to reach Ziro can be an arduous task for even the most skilled of drivers.

It is important to mention that there are two main arteries through which travellers can visit Ziro.

After having made your way to Guwahati from Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Kolkata or wherever, one can either take the route from Kimin or enter Naharlagun via road or through the daily train from Guwahati. Now comes the part about the road to Ziro.

This is the ‘highway’ that we had to drive on.

Road

This is the ‘highway’ we had to drive on.

 

Conventional wisdom says that travelling from Kimin will lead to better road conditions than taking the road from Naharlagun, the state’s twin capital town. However, it is also longer by at least an hour and a half. That shorter ‘road’ however, is one that comes with conditions applied; conditions such as landslides, rock-filled, mud-slid and the likes. So unless you are really confident in your skills as a driver, leave it to the experts.

In fact, a landslide the night before had brought considerable damage to a section of the road and falling rocks had squashed the front end of a car.

Along the way is a stopgap place called Potin where there are some small eateries where travellers can have some chai and parathas. For those looking for a hearty meal, the establishments here offer something called ‘pressure cooker rice’.

What that means is that the rice cooked in pressure cookers is not burnt at the bottom and tastier as opposed to rice cooked in large saucepans where the quality can be sacrificed for quantity.

Pressure cooker

These are just some of the joys one can encounter on the way to Ziro.

The road to Ziro has, in fact, become the buzz amongst festival regulars and virgins alike. While anywhere else the decrepit conditions of the roads would have played spoilsport, the organisers of Ziro fest have given it a positive spin by calling the trip to Ziro the ‘Journey of your life’. And indeed it is because after we checked into our hotel and headed over to the venue ground, the view of yellow-green hued paddy fields overwhelms you every time you see it.

 

View

A view to kill for.

On ground Ziro

Although overnight showers had left the venue ground pretty messy, not one person present appeared to have had their spirits dampened the least bit. First-time visitors were busy making rounds of the many food stalls that were also selling the now famous varieties of rice beer called apong, while returning festival goers were busy hugging other returnees and ‘spreading the love’, so to speak. The crew were mostly pacing back and forth getting ready for the show to begin, constantly talking between the crackle of their walkie-talkies.

Like last year, this time around too there were two stages- Danyii and Piilo. The names of the stages corresponded to words for the sun and the moon in the language of the Apatani tribal folk who call Ziro Valley home. With 28 acts, the performances were divided between the two stages with the folk and (mostly) acoustic acts playing at the daytime Danyii stage while the heavier acts followed in the Piilo stage during the night. Kicking off at around four, the first day skipped the daytime performances and jumped to night’s acts after the mandatory ‘Welcome to Ziro’ speech by the local legislator.

Only three acts performed the first night beginning with an acoustic performance by Assam artist Dayglocrazie. Followed next were festival regulars and crowd favourites from Arunachal, alt-punk rockers Yesterdrive and Omak Komut Collective.

Yesterdrive had made their gig debut at the festival’s second edition in 2013 and returned last year to launch their self-titled debut album. Based out of Delhi, they returned this year for what lead guitarist Haggai Rongmei said is a “homecoming”.

Since their debut, the band has performed across the country and are a regular feature in the Delhi live gig scene. Their success continues to grow as MTV Indies, one of the sponsors of the festival, recently released a video of their song called ‘Sleep Song’.

After lighting the crowd on fire, up next were the Omak Komut Collective- a fusion band juxtaposing the sounds of the Blues with the rhapsodies of the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh.

The band has been performing in Ziro ever since it began in 2012 and has been a mainstay. Their songs have become sing-alongs for local audiences and each year their legion of fans keeps growing. This year too was no different as they ended the night leaving many high on their music.

The next day the skies had cleared and people had turned up in large numbers and seated themselves lazily waiting for crowd favourites and crowd pullers Tetseo Sisters from Nagaland.

Most people were swooning even before the sisters began performing as both men and women were falling in love with the two sisters who had come, Mercy and Kuvelu aka Kuku.

Before the start of each song, people who had travelled far and wide from across the globe listened intently to Mercy (the eldest among five siblings) as she explained the meaning and context of each song before performing them in the Chokri dialect of Nagaland’s Chakesang tribe to which they belong.

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The infectious sounds and smiles of the Tetseo Sisters.

Perhaps governments can only hope to bring about the kind of cultural exchanges the way musicians are able to through such festivals. For example, in the far corner of not just the country but even of the region, who would have ever thought one would get the chance to experience the musical stylings of Rajasthani folk musicians Barmer Boys?

Dressed in their traditional attire, complete with the colourful turban, these talented artists had the crowd go absolutely ape over their music.

Playing the morchang (a type of jaw harp) and the khartal (a wooden percussion instrument), front-man Rais Khan had everyone believe that a horse was running amok in the lush green meadows.

Khan would later also go on to perform with Manipur-based singer Guru Rewben Mashangva on the last day.

Mashangva has been performing and fine tuning his craft for over thirty years and now deep into his fifties, is considered a true legend and is rightfully known as the King of Naga Folk Blues.

Mixing his love for blues music with the Tangkhul tribal beats, Mashangva is more than just a musician. Always jovial and almost always up for that one final shot of whisky (or apong), the 54-year old is never low or down in spirits. Through his music, he is keeping the Hao form of music alive and constantly creating new interesting music all the while.

With Khan

Rais Khan (left) and Guru Rewben Mashangva bridging the cross-cultural and generational gap.

Having performed across the country and winning numerous honours, Mashangva has collaborated with the Raghu Dixit Project for The Dewarist and is always up for impromptu collaborations. This year, as part of his performance at the Danyii stage, the Guru performed with Rais Khan and told the audience that the two had first met each other some years ago at an event in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan when he was with his son and Khan was with his father. Many amongst us felt it was something special to witness two generations of musicians from different parts of the country coming together to make something beautiful.

 

Visitors galore

Aside from music, the festival has done wonders for the local economy with an ever-increasing number in tourists inflow over the past few years.

Festival director Bobby said that in one year the number of foreign visitors and domestic tourists (aside from those from the state) has doubled.

He said that forty foreign visitors came to the festival this year while the domestic visitors from other states numbered around 1,800. Contrast that to the official figures from the tourism department that says that 19 foreign tourists visited Ziro last year in the entire month of September while the number of domestic visitors for the entire month last year was 1,416.

While Ziro and its beauty has always been a favourite for many people, the festival has helped enhance its visibility.

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Yesterdrive ‘pose’ for the camera.

Hage Kano, the general secretary of the Apatani Students Union feels that the festival has made Ziro an international destination.

The Pechi Putu ground where the festival is hosted each year was once a burial ground. Naturally it wasn’t a place that people were too eager to visit but ever since the festival began, the venue has become a favourite of sorts of youngsters.

Social sciences teacher and a member of a local NGO called Ngunu Ziro, Punyu Chada, helps home-stay owners of the area connect with tourists throughout the year. He too said that the festival has certainly helped with the tourist inflow and collaterally helped the economy.

 

Making it work

Stray incidents of booze-induced temper flaring activities aside, the Ziro Festival of Music just…works.

Mashangva says that the combination of “people, place and culture is what makes Ziro so great”. Being his third straight year at the festival, the Guru clearly loves the place. But even a first-timer like Rais Khan says that the place is “badiya (wonderful)” and “kya jegah hain (what a place)” when describing Ziro.

Such is the enchantment of the place that Darko C and Tser Htoo of Myanmar’s post-punk band Side Effect had only words of praise despite having had to travel for 54 hours through six airports and one railway station.

Performing in India for the first time, the band were almost at a loss of words when describing their experience of being in Ziro, managing to only mumble words like “beautiful”, “amazing” and “great to be here”.

Daniel from Digital Suicide, who is never short of words during his performances keeps it short and says, “the only reason Ziro works is because of Ziro”.

Bobby attributes the festival’s ‘organic growth’ over the years which has led to its success.

Standing next to the bamboo-made merchandise stall, he said that it is because of this ‘organic growth’ is why so many people are willing to repeatedly endure the long and painful journey.

Strangers striking up conversations, musicians collaborating on stage, smiling faces everywhere, the festival truly does live up to its motto of ‘Eat. Drink. Merry.’

Perhaps it was only apt that the festival came to a close with the oldest performer of the event, Mashangva, bringing down the house with his rendition of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young.

 

A version of this story first appeared in the recently-launched December issue of the travel magazine, The Himalayan Pulse.