Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Opium with the Konyak King (Nagaland)

Discover the less visited state of Nagaland in the North East corner of India, where tribal kings still rule and environmental damage is taking its toll.

Nagaland men at roadside (India). Photo by Chris Raven
Photography by Chris Raven

Tribal Nagaland is the last point before the Indian subcontinent merges into South East Asia. Pressed against the border with Myanmar, the rolling hills, heavily deforested on the Nagaland side, stand in stark contrast to the virgin forest of the Burmese wilderness. This is one of the newest frontiers to open up in the much traveled destination of "Incredible India". With tourist permits to the state being relaxed Nagaland is set to be the new tribal adventure destination.

Crossing into Nagaland by local bus from Sibsagar in north eastern Assam, a reminder of the troubles here exists in the form of a rusty sign that states there is a ceasefire in place in the region. We’re approached by the border police, and without much protest we’re quickly waved through and allowed to enter a state that until fairly recently was off limits to the curious tourist. Chatting to a local man on the bus, he kindly points out a large plywood factory, with a chimney spewing thick black smoke into the air, as we weave on an unpaved road between small towns and villages in the Naga hills. He speaks perfect English and explains that this region is home to the Konyak, and that Mon had become the capital of the region as a central location for the coronation of Anghs, the Chiefs of the many tribes in the region. We pass a large cliff, approximately thirty feet high, as we approach Mon, and he informs us that this was once the site of the ritual killings of outcasts and people who had committed a crime against the community. After convicting the individual for a particular crime, they would be brought here and thrown to their death from the top of the cliff by the Konyak tribal Chief.

Heavy deforestation marks the border between Nagaland and Myanmar. Photo by Chris Raven
 Arriving in the hill town of Mon in the late afternoon, we’re kindly escorted by jeep to the only accommodation in town, the Helsa Cottage, run by a Konyak woman in her sixties who everyone calls Aunty. An expanding rural-urban town, the palm leaves and bamboo walled houses we’d seen in the villages disappear and are replaced by large concrete and brick houses, with rooftops that look out over the rolling forested hills beyond the town. With roads looping around the hilly settlement we pass a large Baptist church on the hill and a group of shops at its centre. Though the people of Nagaland were animist by tradition, almost 98% of the population have embraced Christianity here under the influence of English missionaries during the past century. Welcomed by Aunty, we’re offered a room and diner, at a mid-range price, and eat a substantial meal of rice, vegetables, pork and fish in candle light as the power cuts out minutes after the sun goes down. Aunty joins the table after the meal, and explains that power and water in Mon can be an unpredictable supply. The infrastructure put in place by the British in India, hadn’t quite reached Nagaland, and consequently the road network, electricity supply and water distribution could cause a town of rapidly expanding size problems at times. I ask her if Mon has changed a lot over the years, and she relates a story about the time she came to Mon in the late 1960’s when there were no roads and she was carried up from the plains, aged seven, on the back of a porter to be greeted by a population who wore no clothes. Arranging a jeep and guide for the following day to make the journey to Longawa, a tribal village on the border with Myanmar, I collect a bucket of hot water from Aunty’s room and head to bed. Looking out over Mon from the balcony, I see candles flickering sporadically from rooftops across the town. It’s blissfully quiet, and the sound of children singing can be heard faintly in the distance.

Village girl, Nagaland. By Chris Raven
Leaving Mon early, we head deeper into the Naga hills and pass dozens of rural communities along the 42km stretch of road to the border with Myanmar. Simple villages with houses constructed of bamboo line the road surrounded by rice fields. Purple flowers carpet the floor where there isn’t any betel nut growing, and Konyak women, wearing orange and red beads, walk along the roadside with long sticks and baskets on their heads as they make their way to the fields or into the forest to collect firewood. Anyang is 36 years old and works as a guide for Jungle Travels, an adventure tour company based in Guwahati, the capital of the neighbouring India state of Assam. He first brought tour groups to Nagaland in 2001, and he warns us that in the village we’re visiting the local men smoke large quantities of opium, a tradition that has become an important part of Konyak culture since it was introduced by the British during colonial times.

As we climb steadily in altitude, the villages begin to disappear, and we pull over at the roadside and look out over the baron landscape below. The trees have been heavily logged for miles around, with the odd charred stump existing as a reminder that there was once a forest covering this entire region. We begin to see tribal Konyak men walking along the roadside as we draw closer to the Myanmar border, with black tattooed faces and muzzle-loading guns slung over their shoulders. Anyang informs us that the Konyak manufacture the guns themselves, and use them to hunt wild cat and small mammals for food and fur. We pass a teenage boy wearing jeans and a pullover, he looks up as we pass and smiles. He’s carrying the fearsome looking dao, a crude machete the Konyak used for headhunting right up until the mid-20th century.

Village of Lungwa, Myanmar border. By Chris Raven
Passing beneath a brand new road sign, which points to Mon in one direction and Myanmar in the other, we find ourselves entering the village of Lungwa. Anyang points out a military outpost marking the border between India and Myanmar on the brow of a hill. He explains that despite the Angh (tribal Chief) and the village Council Chairman administering the whole village, many young people serve in the Myanmarese army, and the country runs schools in the village portion that lies under its jurisdiction. Climbing out of the 4x4 we’re greeted by a gang of grubby faced kids, who jump around energetically and taunt us before scrambling away. 

Konyak King. Photo by Simon Raven
Anyang invites us to follow him up to the longhouse, and explains that this is where the tribal Chief lives. We’re met outside the long bamboo structure with attractive palm leave roofing by the Angh and the village Council Chairman. The Chief is wearing a cowboy hat covered in wild cat fur, and a khaki shirt that looks like it may have been given to him by a National Geographic photographer. He has a large necklace hanging around his neck with five identical heads cast in bronze. Entering the dimly lit longhouse, we join three additional Konyak men around a fireplace in the middle of the room, an old woman works in the shadows close to some shelving that contains a collection of rusty old tin cans and a mix match of crockery. One man pokes the fire, while another older man with a tattoo on his face and white hair prepares an opium pipe. The Chief mutters something to Anyang, and we’re introduced to a young guy in his mid twenties who we’re informed is the Angh son and heir. We shake hands with the proud looking boy, and watch as Anyang presents the Chief with a bottle of rum. He immediately cracks it open and pours the contents into two mugs, one for the Council Chairman and the other for himself. The Angh avoids eye contact with us, as he sips the strong alcohol from a white mug with red hearts on it. We’re offered black tea, and encouraged to watch as the men maintaining the fire prepare the opium pipe. Above the fire a metal rack hangs from the roof that’s used for smoking meat and hanging cooking pots over the fire. Wild cat tails hang over the side and a collection of small mammal skulls fill a metal tray. The ceiling of the longhouse is covered in thick black tar that has accumulated over years of cooking on an open fire. Preparing a dry organic fibre used for smoking, the white haired man smears brown opium into a metal spoon and holds it over the fire. It quickly turns to liquid and begins to bubble in the spoon. He takes the fibre and soaks it in the liquid opium. Poking it into the neck of a carved wooden pipe, a middle aged guy with swollen eyes and short cropped hair holds a piece of red hot charcoal to the opium in the neck and the Chairman takes a deep lungful of smoke. The pipe is refilled and passed around the room, and the longhouse fills with a cloud of thick smoke. Anyang explains that the totem pillar that juts out above the roof divides the house into two countries and the Angh takes his meals in India and sleeps in Myanmar. The Chief begins to relax and smiles.

Tribal man with tattooed face. By Chris Raven
Invited to walk around the longhouse, we’re led over to a blanket that has been laid out on the floor close to the entrance and squat down and study beautiful hand crated jewellery that has been made by the villagers. Konyak are adept artisans and skilled craftsmen. They create beautiful wood carvings, daos, headbrushes, headgears, necklaces and more practical items such as guns and gunpowder. A couple of women watch us from the doorway, and Anyang informs us that the former Angh of the village had 60 wives/ concubines and his jurisdiction extended up to Myanmar and Arunachal Pradesh. The world of the Angh had changed a great deal over the years, but much of the tradition of a hereditary Chief and tribal rule still continues strong. Led by the Council Chairman to the back of the longhouse, we’re shown a display of large bronze gongs on the wall and a display of deer and buffalo skulls. A wonderful wooden monument carved out of wood stands around a pillar depicting three men, one standing in the background with a spear and two men crouching down smoking an opium pipe. A large tiger is beautifully carved into the wood below. Anyang informs us there is a wonderful wooden monument like this in the village of Shangnyu measuring 8 feet in height and 12 feet in breadth, that is believed by the Konyak to be constructed by heavenly angels. The legend tells of an outcast who the Angh threw down a cliff to kill him after he had committed a crime against the community, but the fall had failed to kill him. He had started cutting down trees and carving objects out of them. The villagers could hear the sounds of many people working together, but when they approached the site where he was working, they found him alone. So it is believed that he was helped in his work by heavenly angels.

Exciting the longhouse, we look down over a Baptist church on one side, and over the thick forested hills of Myanmar on the other. We take a stroll around the tranquil settlement of Lungwa, and meet families and young children living in the village. The elder children carry their infant baby brothers and sisters in slings on their backs as they help with the daily chores of drying corn and collecting fire wood.

Logging truck (Nagaland). Photo by Chris Raven
Bidding farewell to the Angh and the Konyak of Lungwa, we head back across the Naga hills. During the journey we’re brought to a sudden halt, and watch two large trucks, heavily loaded with enormous felled trees, reverse in the road. We pass more local villagers further down the mountain carrying baskets filled with firewood, and pass a proud looking man in his senior years dressed in full tribal clothing. He’s carrying a tall spear and is wearing an elaborate head dress of exotic Hornbill feathers. We stop by Mon for tea at Aunty’s new place, and walk around the yard as she explains how tourism had been on the increase in Mon for the past few years. Many Indian Government workers used her accommodation, and she had been presented with the opportunity to expand. Looking around her newly built premises she explains the accommodation was aimed at catering to a more up market customer base, and provided rooms with en suite bathrooms. Tasting the Naga red chilli, allegedly the hottest in the world and drinking more fire quenching Naga black tea, I contemplate Nagaland and the lives of the wonderfully colourful Konyak people we’d had the pleasure of meeting during our time in tribal Nagaland. It seemed pretty clear things here were on the up. India’s boom was reaching the far corners of its frontiers, creating a lucrative industry for some with the sale of its natural resources. But what price would the Naga people pay for the environmental destruction of their tribal homeland, and how would this affect the lives of the ordinary farming communities in the region living simple self sufficient lives? In order to protect their best interests, the people of Nagaland who had earned a reputation for being fiercely independent, would need to debate the future of their fragile territory carefully, and move intelligently, unselfishly and with caution towards the promise of a more economically prosperous future.

Footnote: If you’re planning on making a trip to Nagaland be sure to pay a visit to the Angh’s (tribal Chief’s) house at Lungwa, Chui, Mon, Shangnyu, Sheangha, Chinyu, Wakching and Japoka. Konyaks are ruled by hereditary Chiefs known as Anghs. Aoling monyu is observed during the first week of April (1-3) and is a spectacle worth watching. Contact Jungle Travels in Guwahati for more information: jungletravelsindia.com

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