From the Nepal border I’d cycled across the state of Assam to the largest city in the north-east of India, Guwahati on the the Brahmaputra river. My route was being more or less decided on a day to day basis – of course heading in a generally easterly direction – influenced by the topography (I wouldn’t be going out of my way to find the hilly option!) and likely towns for accommodation. I was really keen to include the state of Nagaland in my route. Even though I could see from the map it was difficult terrain of mountains and river valleys covered in forest with few roads, its lure was strong. Something about its remoteness and inaccessibility made it intriguing.
Leaving Guwahati, the distinctive throb of a single cylinder 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet approached from behind. It’s a recognisable but increasingly unusual sound: most bikes in India were the cheaper, small-engined Chinese ones. Royal Enfield is one of the oldest motorcycle businesses in the world, originally of course from England. The Indian army and police were using the Enfield in huge numbers and began assembling and manufacturing parts under licence. Eventually like many European marques, Royal Enfield found it too difficult to survive in the face of Japanese competition and closed down in 1971. Enfield India however continued, and are now essentially producing the same machine, with some modifications to make it more efficient and less maintenance heavy. It’s a beautifully designed bike, a classic, with the straightforward technology of a single cylinder. When I grow up I want one.
Poney-tailed Jitu pulled up next to me with a grin and asked was I on my way to Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival, which was news to me. “Oh man, you have to see it. The Naga tribes come down from the hills, dressed in their traditional gear. Its awesome. No way you can miss it man.” After a bit of a chat I thanked Jitu and pondered my options. The problem was – by the time I got to Nagaland, the festival would be over! Right, if there’s a railway in that direction I’ll take it. It sounded far too interesting an opportunity to pass up.
The town of Jagiroad is so named as it’s on the road to Jagi. I was having a problem finding a bed. The flashy hotel was too dear, and the other option, ‘Bungalow DPW’ – a tidy lodging for Department of Public Works staff – had no rooms free. The warden there directed me to the police station, and cycling into the compound, parking my loaded bike and mounting the steps to the entrance porch I wondered a) what the local constables were making of this odd arrival, and b) if the police stations also acted as tourist offices. In India I felt no need to avoid the police, whereas in some other countries you certainly didn’t get the sense they were there for the public’s protection. But what would it be like inside their demesne? I stepped into the public waiting room. It was like stepping back a few decades. The faded beige coloured walls were lined with steel filing cabinets and shelves of paper folders, and a fan was slowly turning from the ceiling. An overall smell of mustiness from old papers and documents hung in the air. Behind the grill an officer on duty listened to my situation without comment then went off to consult someone in another room before asking me to wait a while, the station inspector would be back soon.
I strolled outside and rested against the compound wall in the warm evening air, content to leave my night’s accommodation in fate’s hands. It was apparent some of the constabulary lived in a low building to the side. Next to a water pump an off duty policeman was lathering his hair with a thick bar of red soap. A few others lounged about smoking, and two wandered over to look at my bike and exchange a few words with me. It all had a relaxing end-of-the-working-day feel. About an hour later what appeared to be a senior officer, a large man, arrived on the back of an 80cc motorbike and disappeared inside as the rider parked. Shortly after, I was sent for and shown into his office. The inspector had a double chin, moustache and greying hair and unsmilingly but politely offered me a seat. I was keen to play down my presence (he could have just returned from investigating a serious crime, or a murder scene!), there was no problem, I had been sent here by the warden of the Bungalow DPW. Initially a little aloof, he loosened up when he heard about my journey. It did seem his questions were more out of curiosity, rather than interrogation. But where, I was wondering to myself while recounting tales from deserts and mountains, would I be sleeping that night? Eventually we got to the matter at hand and he told me the Hindustan Pepper Mills, the biggest in India, had a staff guesthouse where I could stay. Happy days. I was to follow a policeman’s motorbike to the place “about a mile” outside town. In fact I misheard – it was Paper Mill, apparently the second largest in Asia, making high quality paper from bamboo. That would be the source of the plume of thick white smoke over the town, lazily rising in a column in the still air.
The motorcycle rider took off with me behind. Mile after mile passed as I pedalled strongly to keep up with the rear red light of the motorbike ahead, well past the outskirts. In the darkness we turned onto a dirt track parallel to the dug up main road. This was too far out of town, was there some mistake here? But of course I couldn’t check, I just had to continue cycling. This wasn’t what I needed after a day in the saddle. After about twenty minutes, lights from the cantonment appeared out of the darkness and got nearer until to my relief we entered a fenced residential area of a few square kilometres. Could this finally be the end of my day? Greeted at the guesthouse by two young attendants I was shown to a tastefully furnished, large en-suite room, with a desk and a fine armchair. I guessed this would be above my budget. Regrettably it was, and I was led by torchlight around the corner to the annex, to a basic, untidy concrete cell. Presumably this was for the more junior lackeys, perhaps the drivers. Without remark my guide scuffed the dead body of a rat from the doorway with his shoe. A glance at the heavily stained, thin mattress on the sagging steel frame made my heart sink lower.
Back at the brightly lit reception area where I’d left my bike and gear, the others had obviously had a bit of a confab, now insisting I take the comfortable quarters. The room was “courtesy of the police”. Would this be ok, and what time would I like breakfast? Not only that, my motorbike escort brought me back into town on his bike to get my dinner – there were no options out here – before returning me. Relaxing in the room I reflected on my good fortune – what luxury, what hospitality.
The next morning I cycled back into town and bought a train ticket for Dimapur. There was no baggage car so I stuffed my bike, panniers and myself into the passageway by the door. And the toilet, which gave off a sharp tang of urine the five hours I stood there as the train chugged slowly east. The train stopped regularly at every small station on the way, sometimes just a platform in the middle of nowhere. It was not a totally comfortable sensation passing through this countryside that I’d like to be cycling through, but what the hell, I’d made the decision to get to the festival in Nagaland.
My introduction to Nagaland was a tap on my shoulder by a policeman as I wheeled my bike off the train in Dimapur, who asked me to follow him to an office at the end of the busy platform. This caught me by surprise, what had I done? My question as to what was the problem went unanswered. After a careful inspection of my passport and a number of questions – where had I been, where was I going, where was I planning to stay, among others – the officer behind the desk put a stamp in my passport before returning it to me. Ah yes, security. Until recently accounts of headhunting, tribal conflict and most significantly a hidden but ongoing war for independence meant it was considered too dangerous by the authorities to allow foreigners, or Indians, to enter the state of Nagaland. (And report on the reputed abuse of human rights and atrocities committed by the Indian army.) While in Delhi I had discovered the requirement for a permit to enter Nagaland – and its equally restive sister state Manipur – had been temporarily lifted for foreigners for a year (though not for Pakistani and Chinese nationals according to the website), although I had to “register on arrival with the local Foreigners Registration Office”. Domestic tourists still needed a permit.
Though just over the border with Assam and in the state of Nagaland, Dimapur, still on the plains of India, is not Nagaland. Nagaland was in the mist shrouded mountains rising above the town. The state capital Kohima, where I was heading, was just sixty kilometres away up there. I read of a British army officer Ursula Graham Bower, a “Roedean-educated debutante, rally driver, traveller and anthropologist” according to Time magazine who featured her on their cover, who became a captain leading a troop of Naga tribesmen in the fight against the Japanese in the Second World War. In her book Naga Path (1950) she describes her first encounter with Naga people as she was driven up from Dimapur to Kohima.
“A group of hillmen scattered before us and stood on the roadside, staring. They were not the slim-built Assamese of the low ground. The sight of them was a shock. Here were the Philippines and Indonesia. Bead necklaces drooped on their bare, brown chests, black kilts with three lines of cowries wrapped their hips, plaids edged with vivid colours hung on their coppery shoulders. Tall, solid, muscular, Mongolian they stood, a little startled, as we shot by.”
Historically, geographically, culturally and appearance-wise, the Naga people have very little in common with their official countrymen from the plains of India. There are a number of theories about their origin. Similar methods of headhunting – practiced until quite recently – lead some to believe there is a connection between the tribes that migrated to the Naga hills and some which ended up on islands in the South China Sea. Yunnan in China, which borders Burma, is where some south-east Asian ethnic groups originate. As great value is given to cowrie and conch shells (Nagaland is nowhere near the sea) in decoration, one theory is the people who became the Nagas today made their way down through Burma to the coast before migrating to the security of the Naga Hills. Interestingly there are both cultural and physical similarities with hill tribes in Indonesia, as well as house building techniques. The hornbill – the bird-god of war – is sought after for its large, bright and colourful feathers by both the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia and the Nagas. The Iban were well known for their Hornbill Festival, and I was looking forward to visiting the Nagas major cultural gathering, also called the Hornbill Festival.
I strapped my bike on top of a minivan and squashed in with the dozen fellow passengers for the drive up the narrow winding road – glad I wasn’t cycling as there was little room for a bicycle and traffic on the road – the two and a half hour journey up to Kohima. I’d had an omelette for breakfast with a packet of Marietta biscuits keeping me going on the train journey.
It was Friday evening and as we arrived into the city, built along the tops of ridges 0ver 4,000 feet in altitude, the streets were throbbing. After trying every hotel I could find and following suggestions for others I accepted there wasn’t a bed to be had because of the annual festival. I tried Jitu who had given me his number insisting I call when I got into town, but the friend’s house he was staying at was full. “I’m sorry man, not even floor space.” Hmm, this was tricky. Though feeling uncomfortably vulnerable, I wasn’t overly rattled. I should have been – my options didn’t look too healthy. No tent, and no hotel beds in a partying Kohima. Why don’t I ask the police station for help someone suggested. Well, it had worked already for me… The station was at the top end of town and the Duty officer eventually saw me. I felt slightly easier, as if my predicament was now his problem. Surely he’d have a better chance than me of sorting something. In my notes I’d jotted, “Must be learning. Sitting in a police station, 6pm already dark an hour, no bed. Still, not worried. Something’ll turn up.”
After half an hour of phone calls it wasn’t looking good. “If you’re really stuck you can sleep in one of the cells here,” the officer offered, paused then added, “There is a Baptist church nearby, I could give the pastor a call.” Bingo. What a great idea. Half an hour later I was being interviewed by the pastor who appeared a little reluctant at first, bordering on suspicious. Being accustomed to the tradition of hospitality in Catholic and Buddhist monasteries I was taken aback slightly. He was just being careful. (I remembered on a journey down the west side of Africa a few years before, being very grateful for the welcome of the local deacon or priest in a small town, before arriving into the big city of Luanda at night feeling like Joseph with no room at the inn, being turned away from a few parish priests’ houses.) After a few questions the pastor asked, “Are you a good Christian?” “I try to be”, I replied unable to keep a smile off my face. He relented and showed me to a clean, tidy and comfortable dorm room.
I was starving and after a quick shower wandered into the centre to eat at the street food stalls. It was fascinating to be here in Kohima in this festival atmosphere among these modern, Naga people out on the town. First impressions were that they were very different than their Indian compatriots – most obviously in appearance and behaviour. I couldn’t get over how good looking a race they are, many women were strikingly attractive. And open and friendly. Conversation was easy as English is widely understood. Nagaland is the only one of 28 states in India where the official language is English. This was principally due to the widespread influence of the Baptists according to Magnus and Miriam, a Norwegian-Naga couple who joined me at an outdoor table. Ninety percent of Nagas are Baptists, making it the most Baptist state in the world and another factor which brings them together and separates them from greater India and its dominant Hindu culture. The author Jonathan Glancey describes the adoption of Christianity as “the spiritual wedge driven between the north-east and mainland India”.
Magnus and Miriam were with an international NGO which had only recently been permitted to work in the state, and filled me in a little on the “forgotten war”. In 1947 Nagaland declared independence from India. Unsuccessfully. Although there have been various peace agreements, they’ve been fighting for independence, as well as rival factions fighting among themselves, for the last sixty years. It is estimated up to 200,000 Nagas have been killed by the Indian Army. Which includes stories of atrocities, largely by the Assam Rifles. And as journalists were not allowed in, this war went largely unnoticed in the West. As well as its rich resources including forestry and oil reserves, India needs Nagaland as a buffer to protect its north east border against the Chinese.
I couldn’t get a beer. Nagaland is a ‘dry state’. Due obviously to the Baptist influence the sale of alcohol is forbidden. But on my way back to the church dormitory some young folks on a balcony invited me up to join their party. At the top of the stairs I entered a large room where the pool tables were busy, and was guided towards a counter where they were selling cans of beer. It was an informal club. I joined Teja and Aja, the two sirens who had beckoned from the balcony, and we had a good laugh. Mindful however of my place of rest for the night I didn’t stay much longer than a couple of beers. It wouldn’t be cool rolling into the church dormitory at all hours smelling of alcohol.
I decided I liked it here.
And from my notes: Today’s lesson, again – when the situation is looking bleak… always something turns up.
The next morning I was hoping to be allowed stay another few nights to allow me visit the Hornbill Festival. Though the dormitory was empty, fair enough I understood it wasn’t tourist accommodation. After considering my request and asking for how many days, the pastor didn’t answer but invited me to his house for a cup of tea. In a concrete block next to the church building on a steep slope, the slightly unfinished apartment had a great view looking across the city sprawled over mountain ridges. I don’t know if there is a flat bit of Kohima anywhere, it is all built on hillsides. The pastor’s wife welcomed me warmly and I was introduced to their son John, in his early twenties, “our only child left at home. Work is difficult to find these days. Particularly for the young.” Like most folks on the street last night, he was dressed in modern, Western gear. His straight, long hair hung slightly obscuring his forehead. He had a respectful, gentle manner and after the initial polite conversation he made his excuses and left the room.
Pastor Samuel (name changed) was a stocky, neatly dressed man in his sixties. I got the idea he was a little suspicious of me initially, a bicycle traveller on a budget looking for a bed. Even more troublesome – raised a Catholic! But over the few days I stayed we took a liking to each other. I had him put in a particular box – conservative older man propagating an American form of fundamentalist Christianity – but he continued to confound my preconceptions. I assumed he’d generally support the prevailing political and social order. Isn’t that what conservatives stand for, the established status quo? In our discussions I’d be naturally cautious but slowly learned he was more open-minded than I gave him credit for. Even if our attitudes differed on predictable issues such as his belief in the innate superiority of Western values and way of life, the more I was in his company the more I got an idea of his pride in his identity. And support for Naga nationalism.
Pastor Samuel’s political sympathies were less of a surprise when I learned more about the Naga independence movements. The Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) is known as a Maoist-Christian revolutionary movement fighting for a socialist state and Jesus Christ against the Indian army… and also against rival revolutionary groups. This feuding appears to have been a constant issue in Nagaland, ancient tribal conflicts manifesting in fighting between themselves and splits in the movement for independence. A Naga academic Dr Paul Pimono likens the internal disputes with Fatah and Hamas in Palestine, and the experience in Ireland. “What is going on in Nagaland today between the two factions of the NSCN parallels the deadly rivalry between the supporters of the Irish Free State treaty led by Michael Collins and the anti-treaty Republican group under Eamon DeValera. The Irish are still paying for those leaders lack of vision at the momentous crossroads in their struggle for a united Irish nation”. (Pimono goes on to reference a Liam O’Flaherty short story ‘The Sniper’ where a sniper suddenly remorseful, wants to find out the identity of the Treaty soldier he’s just killed. Dodging bullets he throws himself face down beside the corpse. “The sniper turned over the dead body and looked into his brother’s face”.)
And so I caught a minibus up to the festival site for the annual Hornbill Festival about 10 kilometres out of town. This is where I expected to watch the Naga festival sports of wrestling, pole-climbing, tugs-of-war. And to see examples of their exotic finery.
“Handwoven and dyed shawls and kilts, striped, patterned or plain of many different colours, are embellished with beads, cowrie shells, precious materials and goat’s hair. There are feathers galore, and the headdresses more exotic than anything found in the bright pages of a Tintin story, fashioned from even brighter red beans. Hats, some like the busbies of British guardsmen, are enlivened with bear or dog fur, the tusks of wild boars and bright, hand wrought jewellery. Necklaces hang heavy with shells, bronze bells, tiger teeth, brass heads and beads the size of golf balls. Ears might be pierced with horns and bamboo hats pinned with the tusks of wild boars. Upper and lower arms are banded around with wooden rings. Faces might be tattooed or painted with paste.” Jonathan Glancey. Nagaland – A Journey to India’s Forgotten Frontier