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Our Place, Ourselves

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

Published in Articulations, Deccan Herald on January 15, 2017

Some 20 km away from Kohima is this serene Naga village of Khonoma, inhabited mainly by the Angami Naga tribe.

You enter the village through a traditional heavy wooden door (now replaced by a concrete one of the same pattern) that has auspicious symbols of the mithun (a species of wild buffalo endemic to certain Northeastern states) head with wide horns (throughout Nagaland, the importance of the mithun head and horns is to be seen). On top of that is the head of the traditional Angami warrior with his crown of Tragopan feathers, above which are two upturned mithun horns that signify all things good, crowned by two full moons. Essentially, all pagan symbols.

Megovisa Michael Sophi, our Angami Naga guide, has had a long history as a sharp shooter adept at hunting monkeys, barking deer, porcupines and if lucky, (not for the bear) bears. He says he used to disappear into the surrounding forests for weeks together. He hunted for a living, until one fateful day he killed a monkey — a mother with a tiny baby clutching on to her. Filled with remorse, he had a change of heart, and has now turned into a dedicated conservationist. However, most wildlife in the surrounding forests has dwindled to almost nothing, as has the state bird, the Blyth’s Tragopan, he says. He writes and has published a book on his beloved Khonoma. Khonoma has 130 sq km of protected alder forests now, with no hunting, logging or shooting allowed.

Land of resources

Khonoma, called ‘Khwünoria’ by its residents, is said to be about 500 years old, its name derived from the earlier abundant presence of the oil-bearing aromatic plant called Khwüno (Gaultheria fragrantissima, the leaves of which produce a cracking sound when burnt) and ‘Khünomia’, the people of Khwünoria, ‘mia’ meaning people, which was corrupted by the British to its present name. Khonoma is also known as the ‘shy’ village, apparently because you can’t see the whole village from any angle.

However, what we do see from where we stand at the crest of a handcrafted 100 steps is a mesmerising stretch of dark green, forested, majestic mountainsides surrounding serene, emerald green, terraced fields of paddy, and the majestic mountains upon which drift clouds of the enviably ethereal variety in the most languid manner possible. We’re here at the right time of the year alright. Khonoma is perched atop a hill plumb in the middle at an altitude of 1,200 metres.

Rich in bio-diversity and a naturally fertile land, Khonoma is a farmer’s delight. Very little effort is needed, Michael says — no weeding, no manure either, organic or otherwise. Just put the seeds in and you are rewarded with an abundant harvest. The farming is entirely organic, with minimal interference. Mulching provides nutrients, and intercropping is the rule.

We espy spontaneous and random growth of vegetables like cherry tomatoes, squash and chillies on the mountainsides. Homes have their kitchen gardens trailing over low walls, apparently the village folk pluck their needs as they pass by. It is community garden in all its glory.

In the whole of Khonoma, we see no marketplace! You have your rice, your cattle for meat, and vegetables growing all over. “We do buy salt every now and then from outside,” says Michael comfortingly. Nothing but the call of birds breaks the silence every now and then.

The village of Khonoma is the flag-bearer of conservation in Nagaland of both flora and fauna, and the state bird of tragopan. Named the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS), the people have marked 96 sq km of their forests for conserving the Blyth’s Tragopan. The realisation came to them, Michael says, after they had reached a stage of bringing them almost to the brink of extinction. However, they are committed to the cause now, and have seen great improvement in the numbers of barking deer, wild goats and monkeys, and the forests around boast of over 300 tragopan!

We espy a mithun standing serenely on the hillside. It’s a magnificent animal that’s perfectly made and immensely strong. It’s a pity that they are slaughtered for their meat. The Angami (Khonoma and the surrounding villages are predominantly Angami) do not rear animals or domesticate them, but let them roam wild although each family owns its cattle that carry their identification marks.

The village of Khonoma has the distinction of never having bowed to the British. Known for its gallantry, it put up fierce resistance against them. The Battle of Khonoma saw an organised resistance to British invasion in 1879-1880. As we trace our way up and down the village, there are relics of this historic battle. It also bears the honour of being the birthplace of A Z Phizo, the founder of the Naga National Movement, and having the first woman MP.

Honouring heroes

We spot circular stone platforms (khwehou) with a central monolith and find out that these are memorials to the greats of the village who had fed the whole village through what were known as ‘feasts of merit’. The greater the number of such feasts, the greater the honour they held among their folk. There is this particularly huge one erected in honour of a man who had given seven feasts of merit in multiples of seven! These circular podiums are also used for discussions, imparting of wisdom by elders to the youth, singing folk songs and reminiscing about tales of heroism. Such again are the morungs, or rudimentary clubs for the young, if you will, overseen and conducted by the elders on subjects like laudable conduct, socially acceptable behaviour, respect for traditions and customs, and the value of community life. Primary and secondary schools are run by Angami Baptist Church Council. For higher education, there are colleges in Kohima and Dimapur.

Khonoma celebrates no fewer than seven Angami festivals, the foremost being the 10-day-long Sekrenyi or the ‘festival of (male) purification’, which falls after the harvest in February. Then there is the Thekrenyi marking the plantation season in the month of May, Ngonyi in March, Liekhwenyi, Tiedi, the Angami version of Thanksgiving, and Süliede, upon the harvest of jhum crop.

Every Naga woman weaves shawls and every Naga man is adept at basketry. Though the village is self-sufficient and elementary in its immediate requirements, these are small clusters of tribal community conducting their lives on age-old customs and beliefs. Global perceptions are a far cry, and in a fast-changing world, somewhere this ancient system has to be adapted to the needs of globalisation. But then, as I travel on to the villages of Phusachodu, Chizami, Zhavame, and finally Mon, the last bastion of the ‘head-hunters’, the experience of centuries-old Naga culture that is still alive, albeit on its last legs, has me not the least stunned.

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