The Headhunters of Nagaland II

It’s not something many travellers expect to be able to say but this next stage of our journey was my second visit to Nagaland. Our organisers at Jungle Travels had decided that we just couldn’t go of into the eastern part of Arunachal without a little side trip to the city of Mon at the other end of Nagaland from Kohima, the capital. The district of Mon is known to anthropologists, advanced armchair travellers and the topmost echelon of Lonely Planeteers as the last place on earth where one can meet bone fide headhunters in the flesh. So to speak.

Turning off of the main Assam highway after Sivasagar, we entered Nagaland from the north and noticed at once how much poorer were the inhabitants and their dwellings. Gone were the colourful villages and traditional Indian clothing of Assam to be replaced by crumbling shacks and grimy t-shirts. The ethnic difference was immediate too; with the distinctive, angular features and taller, leaner physiques of the Naga people everywhere to be seen. We stopped to photograph a spectacular four stage waterfall and the rock-breaking boys, who apparently worked as part of a road building gang, were keen to stop work for selfies. I clambered up the man-madeĀ  scree to sit beside them on an outcrop and realised (almost too late) that most of the mountainside was one giant quarry and a none too stable one at that. I gave them a packet of biscuits to have with their chai but I’m not so sure that tea breaks are much of a thing here, some of them looked as if they hadn’t seen a decent meal in weeks.

The only place to stay in Mon is at Aunty’s, or at least so we had been told on our previous visit to the North East and this is where some advanced planning by our experienced guide, Imram, had placed us. When we finally reached this raggedy little hilltop town after a number of hours of uncomfortable driving, we could see the army outposts indicating how near to the Burmese border it is and the tuberculosis posters indicating what a long way public health has yet to come. But I’m sure that every traveller to the region describes the smiling grandmother and her large, open fired kitchen, where a multitude of female descendants bustle to keep the occupants of her guest house (human, canine and feline) fed around the clock. There’s little to add except what she proudly told be about how both daughters and granddaughters have pursued educational opportunities to the full and are now advancing upon careers of their own.

Mon itself, although friendly enough, does not have much to recommend itself to the visitor, tea stalls being apparently unheard of and the markets full of cheap Chinese goods but it is really just a stopping off point for the most traditional of the isolated Naga villages. So the next morning another long, bone-juddering drive took us to Longwa where we ascended to the longhouse and presented ourselves to the Chief who, despite an impressive necklace of tiger teeth, large ivory bangles and turquoise beaded sock-suspenders, looked completely disinterested. The village, which nobody seems to care is half in India and half in Myanmar was mainly occupied by the very old or the very young, everyone else being either at school or out in the forest.

A local guide took us to see a couple of workshops where tools and household implements were being made using extremely primitive techniques and a great deal of skill. These being Naga people, a lot of the implements were guns and knives and I felt a new-found respect for any artisan who can produce a functioning, long barrelled muzzle-loader from a piece of wood, a length of steel piping and a few homemade components. No-one showed much interest in having visitors and one woman, probably fearing uncouth behaviour, shooed us away when we lingered too long outside her house. Nonetheless we were careful to ask permission before photographing anyone and duly purchased a few souvenirs from a display hastily put out for us. Since Naga warriors traditionally attire themselves in animal parts such as bear skin, boar tusk and goat horn and then hang these items above the fire to smoke to a uniform shade of mahogany, I doubt that many of the items on show would have been safe to export. We played it safe with a few strings of beads.

Lunch was a roadside picnic on our precipitous journey to the next village, Hongphui. Here, the strangest group of elderly gentlemen I have ever met, or am ever likely to meet, was waiting to greet us. Well, “greet” if by that you mean sitting around a fire chewing (or more accurately sucking) betel leaves and expecting to be paid for a photograph. About twelve of these superannuated warriors had assembled in their characteristic boar tusk helmets, over-large animal horn earrings and ragged khaki shorts. Lean and leathery, smoked to almost the same colour as the animal skulls hung above the fire, they all looked remarkably similar and so it was not immediately apparent which of them bore the faded bluish tattoos of the bone fide headhunter.

Hearing that the chief was eighty eight and the oldest in the room over a hundred I, thought it best to steer away from the subject of ritual murder and tried a few questions on the secret of their longevity. Hard work, lots of exercise, very little alcohol and a simple diet: no surprises there but a quick calculation based on the fact that initiation did not begin before the age of 18 and headhunting was finally stamped out in the 1950’s meant that they really must be the very last of their kind. Realising that we weren’t going to come up with any money several of them struggled to their feet and shuffled away through the village to their homes. We were told that they had “accepted Christianity” but didn’t attend church. Unsurprisingly, they do enjoy a bit of football on a communal TV and one wonders what deep, dark memories the two teams of men kicking around a spherical object of roughly 25cm diameter bring flooding back.

We bumped into one of the more spry gentleman later and noticed that he had donned a buttercup yellow polo shirt. All smiles, he gestured to his faint blue-grey face markings but there was just no way to bridge the gulf between his experiences and our ability to understand the world of his youth. Besides, I think he may just have been reluctant to let his tip disappear without another try.

This morning we said our goodbyes to Aunty and left Nagaland for Dibrughar, back down in the tea producing plains of Assam. I’ve spent the evening here catching up with my travel notes as best I can because tomorrow we head off into Arunachal Pradesh where internet coverage may be decidedly limited.

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