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.

 

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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Hornbill Festival: Beyond the exotica

The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland is promoted as an annual cultural extravaganza to promote Naga culture that tourists seem to love. But in a changing time and era, there are those who are doing their bit to save Naga culture without putting up a show. 

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Reverend Dr Phuveyi Dozo stands behind a bulletproof glass on the lectern and offers prayers for the success of the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland. Soon after he is done, Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village invokes the old gods to bless the annual cultural extravaganza.

The Hornbill Festival began 15 years ago to bring together 16 of the biggest tribes of the state in a cultural extravaganza that has been billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’ by the state government. The idea was to bring some semblance of peace in the state affected by insurgency and usher economic benefits through the promotion of the state’s largely unspoilt natural landscape. The state happens to be the birthplace of the world’s longest continuing separatist movement since when in August 14, 1947, the Naga National Council declared independence from the British, a day before India’s. More than six decades since then, the Naga ‘freedom’ movement continues to this day and recently made a major leap forward when one of the oldest separatist groups, a faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland led by Isak Chishi Swu and Thungelang Muivah, struck by a ‘peace deal’ with the Indian government.

While the details of the deal remain shrouded in mystery, what is evidently clear is that the Nagas, and specifically the state of Nagaland and its people, stand at a crossroad today between the new and the old; between treading on a continuously changing new path of life and preserving an older way of living. At the Hornbill Festival, it appears, the two aren’t exclusive of each other.

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Y Phonlong, the Angh (chief) of Longcheng village prays to the old gods.

 

Christianity arrived in Nagaland over 125 years ago with Baptist missionaries who wanted to offer the headhunting tribal people deliverance. Along the way, several of the old tribal animistic practices such as severing the head of an enemy and getting their bodies and faces tattooed have been lost, discarded and/or discouraged entirely.

India’s latest Census figure puts over 87 percent of the state’s population as following one of the several denominations of Christianity. While only a handful of people, mostly those in villages with very little connectivity, refuse to convert to Christianity, there is a growing sense of wanting to reclaim the past amongst some people in the state.

A few metres away from the main cultural ground at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 10km from the state capital Kohima, are tents where men and women are hard at work sculpting statues and weaving traditional shawls and wraparounds. It is part of ‘Craftscape’ exhibition organised the NGO Tribal Weave.

A brochure for the exhibition reads ‘Meet Naga Artisans at Work- In celebration of the timeless traditions that value the humanity of the handmade’.

The artisans keep themselves occupied with wood, metal, cane, cotton and even salt. A signboard explains how the Zeliangs of Peletkie village extract mineral salt, called Lekie Cai,  from the ‘sanctified’ mineral salt spring through a process involving ‘customary adherence to rituals and offerings’.

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Extracting the ‘Lekie Cai’ is hard work.

 

I catch hold of Tribal Weave founder Sentila Yanger while she does the rounds of the exhibition explaining to people the details of what’s being done. She goes into considerable details about how in the old days the only way to extract dye was to pluck leaves and branches from certain plants before treating them through an arduous process involving boiling, drying and re-boiling to get the right hue.

She says that she is trying to revive that which has been lost over the years with the advent of time. For instance, cotton was once extensively grown to weave fabric before mill spun cloth and yarn were introduced. Making the entire process easier and less time-consuming, the women in villages and towns alike took to the new commercially available threads like fish to water.

Yanger, who founded the NGO in 1989, says that a lot of the old practices have been discarded with the advent of time. And not all of them are confined to heirloom-making or salt processing alone.

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Hoping to salvage knowledge of the old ways, Sentila Yanger takes notes.

 

I bring up the topic of the Angh blessing the event just after the Christian pastor did on the opening day of the Hornbill Festival and tell her I found the juxtaposition interesting, especially since I am also a tribal from Arunachal Pradesh where our society is going through a similar process of transition.

“As an onlooker, I feel sad that we have lost these things”, she says, her voice conveying a lot more than what is said.

Nearby, music emanates from the ‘Artists’ Corner’. Amidst paintings and sculptures created by Naga artists, smack at the centre of the makeshift exhibition stall sits a collection of customised motorbikes. A few steps away, Phejin Konyak engages with visitors who are curious about her yet-to-be-released book ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters’.

“Who defines what being civilised means?” she rhetorically asks Steve, an American tourist visiting the festival for the first time. Steve begins to steer the conversation towards the Zomia theory when I interject and ask him if he is talking about James C. Scott’s ‘The Art of Not Being Governed’ which appears to excite him. “How did you like the book?” he asks. I confess I haven’t read it but that I am familiar with the theory of how and why people would choose to live in difficult mountainous terrain away from the comfort that the lowlands have to offer.

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Phejin’s book is an attempt to document what she says has already been lost.

 

Phejin’s book, which is set to release in March, is an attempt to explore and explain why men and women of her tribe- the Konyaks of Mon district- got their bodies and faces tattooed and how that practice has also been discarded now.

She explains that the tattoos symbolised rites of passage and accomplishments (including the practice of collecting severed heads of enemies).

The promotional pamphlet for her book says that the “traditional hand-tapped craft of tattooing is vanishing along with the culture of old ways” and that the book is an attempt to capture this practice “before all is lost forever”. However, she isn’t exactly looking to revive the old practices.

“My father always says that we should change with the changing times.”

In the stall next to her, there is someone trying to revive the old tattooing practice- or at least the old tattooing patterns.

Moranngam Khaling, an ethnic Uipo Naga from the neighbouring state of Manipur has been leaving his indelible mark on people as a tattoo artist for the past 11 years. Having worked in New Delhi and Guwahati, he moved to Dimapur, Nagaland’s commercial hub to promote Naga-patterned tattoos amongst a generation of youngsters who seem more inclined to have dragons or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies.

Mo Naga, the name he goes by, says that western tattoo designs are completely foreign to Naga culture and that he is attempting to bring back the tattoo patterns of yore. Things are not easy though and he explains that his move to Dimapur has not been very successful because youngsters are not enthused to get Naga pattern tattoos.

“In two days, seven people have got tattoos made and none of them were Nagas”, he says with visible discontentment.

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Mo Naga leaves his mark.

 

But he is more than happy to give Naga-pattern tattoos to non-Nagas and doesn’t see it as diminishing the symbolic value of why men and women got tattooed in the old days.

“We have no problems selling people from outside our Naga shawls, do we?” he says.

Just then, the roar of the revving from one of the customised bikes fills the exhibit stall when Phejin walks towards us with an expression of curiosity and annoyance and signals with her thumb to ask what’s going on. Mo’s words almost disappear over the sound of the loud engine and I lean in to hear what he has to say.

“I don’t know what this has to do with Naga culture?”