Hanging with Headhunters in Nagaland - San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
San Francisco Chronicle Magazine
THE JEEP BELCHED to a stop in a courtyard flooded with noonday sun. Dominating the space was a thatch-roofed building adorned with bulls-head carvings and decorated with flowers for tomorrow’s purification festival. Our guide, Sanjay Thakur, disappeared down a walkway to check us in to our bungalows. We cracked our tired joints and stepped into the cooling breeze. Across a ravine, sod and metal huts cluttered the hillside. Just as I’d read in anthropology books back home, they stood cock-eyed to each other so evil spirits couldn't move easily among doors. Behind them loomed a three-story Baptist church.
Our American tour leader, Bob Phillips, a retired Sacramento State University professor who now runs a small, word-of-mouth travel company, Mekong Tours, had already jumped down the hillside into a nearby yard. "Laura, take a look at this. Have you ever watched a pig being butchered?" Bob grew up on an Oregon farm. For him, pig butchering is nostalgic.
I shuddered. "Never have, Bob." My stomach was already gurgling with an unfortunate mélange of coconut cookies I’d bought earlier at police checkpoint.
But Bob was insistent: "Grab your camera."
I slung my Nikon around my neck and scuffed down the worn path after him. A sudden blinding flash of sunlight off a metal roof briefly forced me keep feel my way on the irregular terrain by foot. After I blinked, I was looking at a chopped off head of a flame-singed pig displayed on a firewood pile.
We were visiting the Angami Tribe of Nagaland, in their village of Touphema deep in the folding mountains of northeast India. Nagaland is named for its hill tribes, the Nagas, or "fierce people”. It encompasses the last wrinkles of the eastern Himalayan foothills, north of the Bay of Bengal. It also divides the sultry plains of Assam to the west from the country of Myanmar, (formerly called Burma), to the east. The Nagas had stopped chopping off heads in 1963 but had warred violently with each other over issues of independence from India until a ceasefire in 1997. Because of the state's remote location and the notoriety of its people, it had been closed to foreigners until 2002.
I was here to observe and photograph the mid-February Angami Sekrenyi Festival, a fertility ceremony of dance and song related to the planting season and recalling the headhunting activities that once scored their animist beliefs. I had known I’d see feast-making as part of the event, but had imagined a sauté, not a slaughter.
As we approached the butchering site, the hacking sounds intensified until they seemed to split my own bones. A satellite dish the size of a Volkswagen Bug screened out the Baptist church. Next to it, on a cement slab, five men crouched around a mess of meat and guts. Their muscled arms, shiny with effort, arced through the air, driving hand-forged blades through sinew and bone. As I moved in close with my wide-angled lens, the zinc-like scent of blood filled my nostrils and lungs.
“What an ironic introduction,” I murmured.
Before the Nagas converted to Christianity, they believed heads contained a life-force to be gathered in raids and hoarded. Cherished like gold, cleaned skulls were stockpiled in the eaves of houses or in underground burial spots. They influenced many aspects of village life: a boy was not able to marry until he secured his first severed head; a man who boldly "took" many heads was able to wear prestigious clothing and ornaments; and head-related symbols ornamented village gates and public buildings.
But all of that changed after the 1870s when Baptist missionaries thrashed through the jungles into the Naga Hills and delivered their convictions, along with their medicine and education, to the tribes. Disenfranchised tribes throughout the hill regions of northern India were attracted to the Christian promise of equality. In Nagaland, 98 percent of the population ties their fate to the will a single Christian God.
The Nagas are using tourism as a way to boost their economy as well as preserve their culture, artifacts and rituals. The best way to see the state is by visiting its many villages scattered throughout the jungly hills. But overnight facilities in those are rare. Only two villages have developed western-style lodging big enough for the groups. The Touphema bungalows and dining hall resembled traditional buildings, built of thatch and cement by local Angamis, and decorated with typical symbols. Lodge managers were skilled in English and often shared village stories. The food is a mixture of local and central Indian cuisine, usually delicious, occasionally surprising.
That night in the dining room, sautéed pork rested before me in a bowl on the buffet. I spooned the richly seasoned chunks onto my plate next to piles of white rice, nan, and steamed chard, then nudged Bob's elbow. "They've stewed the pork with potatoes."
"That's not potatoes; it's fat."
I quickly shoveled the flabby white chunks back into the bowl.
One engaging manager I met was Khrienno Kense, who three months ago had married a Welsh man and made an unlikely move to Wales. She was now home to help with the festival. After dinner, Khrienno pulled me aside. "If you like, I will lend you one of my meklahs to wear tomorrow during the ceremony."
I said I would be honored to wear the traditional ankle-length wrap skirt, and arranged to pick it up tomorrow.
The next morning, after feast of eggs and fruit outdoors, I looked for Khrienno in the dining room. From the kitchen, rumbling laughter indicated lunch-prep was starting. The giggles were no surprise: The Angami people were considered some of the most warm and friendly in all of Nagaland. Soon Khrienno emerged from the kitchen door, her skin glowing cool as porcelain, and handed me a folded skirt. I was amazed to see it was not the traditional black color bordered in pencil-thin pink and green stripes, but a ripe hue of tangerine.
"It is my favorite skirt, woven on a back loom by a friend," she said. "The locals will appreciate seeing you wear this."
I grinned. "I certainly won't disappear in the crowd."
I couldn't get the ends to tuck firmly at the waist, so Khrienno showed me how to hitch a corner into the top fold and let the tightly-woven cloth fall smoothly to just above my hiking boots. Wrinkles are a sign of the novice wearer, Khrienno said. There were no pins or buttons, so I added extra security by cinching my hip-belt camera bag over the waist folds.
"Promise me you won't remove the camera bag without checking that the skirt will stay up," Khrienno said. We laughed together and I left, feeling wrapped in spun gold and trying hopelessly to conceal my skirt-bound waddle.
Nagas look different from the east Indians we Americans are used to seeing on TV or in travel literature. Their skin is lighter, cheekbones wider, foreheads broader. According to anthropologists, they are related, instead, to the Mongolians, and speak dialects of the Tibeto-Burmese language. I objected to one early recorder's assertion that the men were handsome, the women plain. The women were exceedingly handsome -- gorgeous even, their beauty amplified by broad, natural smiles.
The men's athletic beauty was enhanced by their Sekrenyi uniforms. When I strolled into the festival courtyard, where the dancing was to take place shortly, I spotted performers helping each other into outfits. A couple of men were practicing harmonies. Preparing my camera, I moved close to the group. The whisper of my shutter mingled with the baritones. They welcomed me with smiles. I hopped behind a log where they'd placed their arm bracelets and hair pins. A girl pointed toward my feet. Oh, horror! I'd brushed against a sticker bush and the base of my orange skirt was covered in thorns. I reached down to see if I could pull them off without ripping threads and found they peeled off easily. The dressers continued their work, but one of the men helped me to clean off the horns.
With an hour to kill, I wandered into a building overlooked a plunging canyon. A man crouched barefoot, measuring strands of cane against a 6-inch square he'd drawn on the cement floor with a pencil. He was apparently preparing to make a basket, one of the primary tools of the village. During the drive to Touphema, I'd seen plenty of them filled with wood or green stalks, balanced on women's backs by straps to the forehead.
The entrance to the oldest part of Touphema was marked by a wooden arch decorated with carvings of a warrior holding a blood-drenched severed head – a reminder lest I forget the original natures of my hosts. Roosters crowed, women hung out the wash, and, at a neighborhood faucet, a girl washed her hair. I found an overlook encircled with stone benches and sat down. I had read that this kind of platform was a meeting place for elders and leaders. The view stretched over rooftops into a blue, leafy canyon. At home, this view would be worth a million.
Three men and a toddler joined me, and conversation quickly turned serious.
"Are you Christian?"
"Yes, but not everyone from our country is Christian. We have many religions."
"We have many others, including Buddhism and Muslim."
"Muslim?" They seemed astounded.
"In our culture, we try to be tolerant. It is one of the best aspects of American life." They nodded, uncertainly. I open my arms wide. "We embrace -- we TRY to embrace all religions. But we are not all successful at this. Some people can't tolerate others who are different. But we are one big stew pot -- being stirred over the fire." I laugh and they join me heartily. I gesture toward the tourist bungalows, their thatch roofs just visible over the hill. "Why do you want tourists here?"
The man with the toddler lifted the boy onto his lap. "We learn about your ways of doing things."
"What do you want to learn?"
"You are advanced.” He seemed to search for words. “Your homes are not built close together like ours."
"But that doesn't mean we have a better life."
"Your houses are not like this?"
"Not usually. They are in grids with sidewalks and paved streets. People spend most time inside their houses and when they come out, they get in their cars and drive somewhere. They all have cars, generally. But, look. Please keep in mind that just because a society is advanced doesn't mean the people are happier. Maybe we can learn from you. We pass each other in our cars behind metal and glass; you pass each other on foot and wave hello. We talk over the phone, without seeing each other's faces. You sit here on these stone benches. We settle things in court. You settle things in your neighborhood meetings, face to face. We don't have much time to gather together."
Another man says: "We have many opportunities to meet together."
"What does that do for your community?"
"We know each other very well. We share our different ideas. We understand each other."
"Do you have less conflict because of it?"
They give half-hearted nods, and then I remember they have big conflicts -- disagreements that have sparked terrorism against each other for forty years, and before that, clashes relating to chopping off each other's heads.
Time was up. I thanked them deeply for the conversation.
Back at the festival courtyard, the dancing started with chanting and the entrance of 30 Angami dancers wearing heavy bamboo headdresses representing the sun. They danced homage to nature to low, throaty chanting. Next entered a troupe in stunning criss-crossed vests in red, black, and white replicating garb used in headhunting raids. A piercing howl launched their wild circular dance. Some wore horns, and all of them carried small baskets at their waists mimicking those used during headhunting raids to carry sharp sticks that were placed in the ground to thwart pursuers.
Afterward, as I wandered again into the village, a gush of rapid-fire English erupted behind me. "My name is Medo Rio-- would you like me to show you around?"
She had two friends with her, but she did all the talking – at high speed. "It is a very beautiful skirt you are wearing and won't you come to my house I would like you to meet my aunt she will give you some tea." We followed a jeep trail past a kiosk selling soda and batteries, past a pen containing three black mithun, the Naga's favorite water buffalo, and up a short hill. Medo never stopped talking. "I go to school in Kohima (the Nagaland capital) and when I am here in Touphema I stay with my aunt and uncle." As we entered the smoky darkness of her hut, I cinched my meklah under my camera belt, hoping to smooth out un-presentable wrinkles. The interior was illuminated only by the glowing hearth. Dark corners dissolved into nothingness.
Medo's aunt unfolded from a stool where she was cooking by the fire and shook my hand. Her meklah was the rich color of eggplant. A strand of cornelian beads hung against her violet shirt. She had pinned her black hair loosely in a bun.
I bowed. "I am honored to be in your home."
"Oooh, ooh, oooh." She said, grinning and bowing.
"It means yes, yes." Medo answered my querying look. "She doesn’t speak English. Her name is Vila Rio."
Vila bent over the hearth and blew the embers to life with a hollow stick of bamboo. Naga houses don't have roof holes for the fire. Smoke filters into clothing and drifts out the door. Soot piles up on all the things stored in the room, including baskets, wooden plates, and vegetables hung to dry near the roof. The flaring fire lit up shelves stacked with a dozen plates, cups and plastic containers. Clean, bulbous aluminum water jugs gleamed from wall hooks.
As Medo chatted, Vila heated water and made me some tea with sugar and milk. Soon my brain felt tingly with the caffeine. "I love the color of Vila's meklah," I said. Medo fetched a folded purple bundle from one of the dark corners.
“Vila wants you to have this meklah," Medo said. "It is almost the same color."
I leaned away in surprise. "Oh, no, no, no. I am honored, but I cannot possibly take such a fine gift." It was not good manners to refuse a gift, but this one was too much for me to accept. However, I also did not want to imply I did not like it. I was socially stuck. "I would like to pay something for it. There is too much work involved in that for you to give it to me." Later I realized a gift exchange is far more meaningful to the Angamis than an economic exchange, but in the moment, I felt embarrassed, and wanted to give them the first thing I could think of – money.
The light outside soon faded. "I will guide you back with a flashlight," Medo said.
She put a match into a shiny soup can, and a candle mounted in wax inside flared. The can hung sideways from a wire handle attached to two holes bored into the curved topside. The flickering light was just enough to guide us. In the moments before my eyes adjusted, I had to feel my way by foot, relying kinesthetically on the uneven sensations of the ground against my boot soles. Through doorways and windows, I glimpsed shapes of people seated around the hearth, their soft voices and "ooh, ooh, oohs" now seeming especially soothing to me in the darkness. After saying goodnight to Medo and closing my bungalow door, I could not bring myself to flip on the electric bedroom light. The shroud of darkness nurtured me somehow. I lay on my bed, my tangerine meklah now wrapped lightly around my legs like a heavy sheet. My mind recalled the aromas of the day. The zinc tang of chopped pig and the nutty smoke of Angami hearths mingled with the real sharpness of my own end-of-day sweat. I drifted to sleep to the hum of voices outside – people rehearsing for the next songs of purification and good fortune, maybe, or else preparing for the next slaughter.
All Photos Copyright Laura Read