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Into the Land of the Nagas

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Sunday Herald on March 12, 2017

For us ‘mainland Indians’, as the Nagalanders term us, the state of Nagaland is obviously ‘the land of the Nagas’. Right? Well, not quite. Nagas are not just confined to the boundaries of Nagaland, for Nagaland contains just about 16 of the 64 Naga tribes (and sub-tribes). The rest are spread over Manipur (quite a few), Arunachal Pradesh (in large numbers), a few in Assam and some spill over into the neighbouring country of Myanmar (erstwhile Burma), with the tribal chiefs calling the shots from there.

Nagaland’s history of its struggle for freedom and identity, with reason and without, has been long and enduring... But more about that later. Suffice it to say that this state, put away in the remote North East, placed in and around Naga Hills of the Arakan, Patkai of the Purvanchal, the Satoi range of the Zunheboto and the Pfutsero in Phek district, is both by its topography and ethnicity been isolated from the rest of the country for centuries. It has been an uphill struggle for both its people and the Government of India to integrate it with the rest of the country.

Occupied by varied Naga tribes speaking their own particular dialect which no other Naga tribe can follow, following their own customs and festivals, wearing their tribe-specific attire, each Naga village is a cluster by itself having its own forests and farmlands. Nagamese, a creole, is the common language that facilitates communication between them.

Back in time

The first Naga village of the Chakesang tribe (the name derived from the first syllables of Chokri, Keza and Sangtam tribes that we visit is Phusachodu. The village of Phusachodu, occupied by the Chokri tribe and steeped in Naga culture of a century back, presents a stark contrast to Khonoma. It is as if we have journeyed back in time into surroundings that are primitive to the extreme, quaint albeit and functioning in a what seems to be an entirely self-supporting economy. Juxtaposed with the realities of the world outside, it is a photo frame of time gone redundant. It takes a while for the sensibilities to adjust to the changed scenario.

Ancient customs and rituals hold sway over simple people who know no other reality, but what their cocooned lives have placed before them. We walk through the village dotted with ‘horn homes’ (chekace) among the scanty dwellings of the abjectly poor…and yet strangely, it is more about the ancient lifestyle than the actual lack of resources. The horn homes belong to the fortunate few of the village who have gained a certain ‘status’ by hosting the whole village for community feasts, often multiple times.

These homes with sloping roofs are decorated at the top with a symbol of the Mithun horns criss-crossing each other. Hence the name. Our guide Ehuveyi (meaning ‘better to be a Christian’), whose father’s name is Nuhuri, translating to ‘happy living’, is a teacher in the local Baptist school and teaches Social Studies to children.

As we walk through the village, we are struck by the barebone surroundings and dry environs, which we find later is at sharp contrast with the rest of our journey across Nagaland.

We are taken to the horn home of Cefuhu and his wife Veparilu. Cefuhu is the proud owner of a chekace, in recognition of his having given two ‘feasts of merit’ to the whole village. This is a matter of great honour indeed. Cefuhu dons his richly-embroidered shawl with symbols of Mithun and other auspicious signs for our benefit while Veparilu wraps herself in a soberer version in pure white.

The facade of the home is majestic, of sturdy, lofty wooden panels, decorated with symbols of Mithun and pig heads. Also, hung on the side wall are several skulls of Mithuns, boars, pigs as well as tragopan consumed during feasts over the years. They are a symbol of pride to the owner. The dwelling itself consists of one large room (all in wood), in the centre of which is the hearth above which is slung a trough of chillies left to dry, with lofts above that act as storage space. Here, finely woven baskets, husking trays of bamboo, and large mats (for drying paddy) are housed with clusters of beans and onions, local garlic and chunks of dried pig fat, hanging from wooden beams. At the entrance are some deadly looking daohs (the Naga all-purpose blade) hung on the mud wall behind.

On wooden nails hang several skulls and jaw bones of Mithuns consumed during feasts and festivals. On one side of the large central room stand silos of woven bamboo strips, up to seven feet in height and five feet in diameter for storage of paddy, which can see the family through years of feeding and years of crop failure. Alongside are huge wooden platforms with ‘pounding holes’ where paddy is husked.

Culinary elements

Rice is the staple and is had with meat (of the Mithun, pig, cat, dog, snake et al) and vegetables such as bamboo shoots, squash, and its leaves, local brinjal, pumpkin, potatoes and tomatoes. Chillies are used for seasoning. Oil is absent in the diet. Fermented soya, of which we are forewarned about the strong, not-too-pleasant smell, is a common accompaniment to food. Rice beer, zutho (rice boiled, diluted and fermented over a week or longer, which makes it more potent) that is frothy and light, is consumed in large quantities and is considered nutritious.

We are plied with quantities of rice beer and rice kanji (starchy water drained from boiling rice) accompanied by boiled, salted Naga beans. And a piece of ginger to bite into with quaffing beer to aid the digestive process.

Naga food is steamed or boiled with minimal spices with more of the fermented (divine for the gut) elements. Fish, meat, bamboo shoots are also dried and used over time.

For our fancy Indian palate, it can be very basic, as we are so used to heavy doses of masala and seasoning. Dals are considered gourmet and are served under special request, with minimal salt and a hint of turmeric. Homes are entirely self-sufficient; their wants are few and they provide for themselves by way of meat, rice and vegetables.

The daughter in each home is taught weaving on loin looms early and sons basketry. These are mandatory skills. There are various designs of the most intricately crafted variety that vary from tribe to tribe. When a marriage is solemnised, the girl presents her beau with the best shawl she can weave, and the boy, the best basket he can make, to the girl he is to marry. Each tribe has its own pattern of shawl and their own pattern in basketry by which they can be identified.

The Chakesang celebrate several festivals, following the agricultural cycle of which sekrenyei of the ‘male purification’ is the foremost. We find a small group of boys playing in the open ground right outside…one of them with ‘7 David’ written on the back of his grubby T shirt. This, I think to myself, is perhaps the most ardent fan from the remotest of lands that Beckham could possibly have!
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