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.

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?”