Nagaland – The Place & The People

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September 7th 2011
Published: August 16th 2011
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I visited another destination in the North East of India this August. The earlier one being Sikkim. On this trip I along with my family headed out to Nagaland. The land of colorful, indigenous tribes, ever-green rain forests and intricate art and craft. As I discovered, Nagaland is a part of India yet, vastly different from the rest of India in many ways. I’m grateful that I got a chance to be a part of this great place and its history that has been full of struggles on the social, economic and cultural fronts. I am attempting to recreate a picture of this place as I experienced it. An experience that entails not just the magnificence of the place but that of the people of Nagaland too!
My journey began from Pune, where I live. We i.e. Mom, Dad, sister and I boarded our train; Pune – Kolkata Duronto Express. With the express lifestyles and the ease of zooming around in flights, I’d forgotten what it was like to spend 28 hours just sitting in a train and hence I quite looked forward to it. A very convenient non-stop train (except 7-8 short technical halts) and a full in-train service delivered with a smile by well trained coach attendants.
Enjoying the whizzing views from the window, conversations with family and long snoozes on the top berth, I arrived in Kolkata the next evening. A college friend of mom and her husband hosted us at their place for the night and fed us some amazing Bangla mithai and dinner.
The next morning we left for the Netaji Subhash Chandra International airport to board our flight to Dimapur, Nagaland. The cutest ATR flight awaited there. It was my first experience of a plane this small. A comfortable 1 hour flight brought us to Dimapur. A panorama of the green terrain from the air were inspiring and inviting.
We were received by a local businessman Mr. Seyei. He is a close friend of Uncle Niketu and Aunty Christine - our hosts in Nagaland. Riding up from Dimapur in Mr. Seyie’s SUV I noticed that most vehicles here had to be sturdy and solid as the roads are rough and hilly. The road that we were on, snaked around a mountain nick-named as ‘Pagla Pahad’ or Crazy Mountain. I soon realized why the name. Massive landslides all along the route had washed away large sections of the road and we were driving on what seemed to be slush and mud tracks. In many areas narrowing down the road to a small single lane.
Mr. Seyie informed us that these landslides were a result of cutting natural vegetation on the land on top of the mountain. He said the locals had sold this land to Teak plantations. Teak as a tree is not good to hold the soil, thus making it prone to landslides. However the locals sell them without thought and get tempted by the hefty amounts being offered for the land.
Where one side I felt angry about such thoughtless behavior towards nature, the other side, I saw very selfless acts on the road. The road, even if it was the National Highway was in an appalling state and at many a places only one vehicle could pass by at a time. Yet everyone was well mannered and disciplined. No one was impatiently honking at the vehicle in front of them while waiting to go across a difficult patch. When they saw a vehicle approaching from the opposite side, they would slow down or even stop to one side to allow them to go by first. Coming from a city like Pune where the only rule on the roads is “me first”, I was pleasantly surprised with this exception!
It took us almost 4 ½ hours to get to our destination - Sechu-Subzah. Our home for the rest of our stay in Nagaland. Our exhaustion from the bumpy ride lifted slightly when we were informed that sometimes the same journey of just 60 kms can take up to 7-8 hours due to landslides. While we were lucky enough to be picked up and dropped, one can also get taxis from Dimapur airport.
I took in the fresh mountain air and looked around at the striking house in front of me. A classic stone house with sloping roofs to tackle the heavy rains and in front beautiful valleys with lush green mountains were putting up a grand show. The house of Niketu Iralu and his wife Christine Iralu. Two wonderfully warm people who I’ve known since the age of 6 or 7. Before I left for the trip a friend of mine who is from Assam told me that the people of Nagaland are the nicest hosts and living with the Iralu’s I came to agree with it completely.
We were put up in a cozy room called ‘the Attic’ atop the bungalow. The room had lots of windows for light and ventilation, wooden flooring and tastefully done interiors. The entire house like our room was decorated by Aunty Christine with artifacts, show pieces, paintings, rugs and more from all over the world. The view outside the window revealed a luscious green forest right behind the house.
With a smile on my face, I walked down to the kitchen for a cup of tea and some cookies. I was informed that we were to go over to Kohima the capital of Nagaland to Mr. Seyie’s house for dinner. I looked at my watch and it was only 6.15pm. Dinner? Now? Anyhow, mountain life begins and ends early so I thought its better I get into the routine immediately!
The ride from Subzah to Kohima took us 45 minutes. We could not see much outside as it was dark. We rode in the Bolero and uncle Niketu and Christine aunty oriented us with the place and its stories. He told us that all of North East was basically made of mud. When the tectonic movement under earth’s surface took place many years ago, the Himalayas were formed, the deserts were formed and all different geographical parts of India came to existence. He said that after the mighty Himalayas rose from the ground the area around it was nothing but mud and that mud came to become North East India eventually. Hence he said while the soil is very fertile, it is also very loose with high content of sandstone. Hence the landslides and related problems.
At night I didn’t realize what Kohima looked like. I could only see lots of lights in a distance along the mountain slopes but the houses looked all bunched up together and quite craggy. Most of them being hut like in shape. I got a better look at Kohima later visits.
We arrived at Mr. Seyie’s home and a beaming lady who we were introduced to as Mrs. Seyei greeted us on the door and immediately comforted us by saying ‘oh you all must be so tired’, ‘traveling all day and then up the ‘pagla pahad’ and now here!’. ‘Don’t worry I have the food ready for you, so you can eat and rest soon’. And I thought wow, this is so sweet.
Mr. & Mrs. Seyie’s bungalow was quite large and not as eastern as Uncle Niketu’s house. The appropriate way to describe Mr. Seyei’s house would be - a contemporary modern home. A number of friends had been invited over to meet us and join us for dinner as well.
My first Naga meal! Honestly I was quite skeptical about the food. My experience with food in Malaysia recently wasn’t really good and I was wondering if I would like the food here. The dining table was laid out lavishly with all kinds of food. Fish curry, Chicken curry (boil as the locals call it), vegetables, fruits, salad, lentils and a mountain of rice! I soon realized that people of Nagaland don’t take the effort to make ‘roti’ or other breads. Naga people love and live on rice.
The food was amazing and the fruits were heavenly. It was pineapple season in Nagaland and they were served in abundance everywhere we went. The sweetest and juiciest pineapples I have ever had. Satiated I was thoroughly! Getting back from Kohima to the house and getting into bed seemed like an effort that night. The fatigue had taken over completely by then. I crashed into bed and was asleep before I knew.
The next day I woke up fully recovered and rested. The sounds of cicadas in the forest create a constant rhythm. It was not until uncle Niketu’s phone rang that I realized I could really not hear too many bird sounds there. Uncle’s ring tone was the sounds of birds. The answer to this query was that most of the birds in the region and in the forest had been hunted and eaten.
What?? Eaten? Wow! I quickly ate up my humble toast - butter and asked what the plan for the day was? We were to visit a village called Mezoma where we were to meet a freedom fighter called Mr. Zapvisie. We all packed into 2 jeeps and left for Mezoma. En-route we saw some sites of lush green valleys, forest-laden mountains with the clouds greeting them at the tips, long winding mountain roads that were surprisingly in better condition than the national highway itself.
On the way I saw a small field with huge triangular rocks standing upright. Uncle Niketu educated us that these were Monoliths or ‘menhirs’ similar to the types that the famous animated character Obelix carried around. Uncle further explained that these were not tombstones but in memory of some important people of Nagaland who had done good work for their community. What a noble idea I thought as drove along a narrow path that brought us to Mezoma village.
A frail, unassuming old man stood below the stairs that led up to the village. Slightly hunched, wearing a sleeveless sweater over a plain shirt and pant. As we got out of the vehicles he came eagerly to greet each one of us. Shaking our hand and welcoming us to his village in a tribal dialect and leading us up the stairs to his own house. He was most amused and pleasantly surprised that we had decided to visit his humble abode in a village.
The house was more like a small hut made mostly from bamboo, wood and mud. As I entered I squinted down at the shadowy passageway that went on in to the back of the house. Very basic living conditions with the bare minimum. Mr. Zapvisie informed us that while he dedicated his life for the freedom fight, he forgot all about his own comforts and provisions for old age. Hence the house was so small and so basic.
He said he could not speak English very well so he would speak in his own language and that uncle Niketu would translate his words for us. He spoke about his struggle that began over 50 years ago when he was all of 23 years old. He joined the movement for the fight of freedom. Freedom for Nagaland to be an independent country. A movement that was initiated and led by a follower of Gandhian philosophy - Angami Zapu Phizo. During the fight, a lot of people went under-ground so as to not be caught, exiled or killed by the army. Mr. Zapvisie was also underground for a large part of his life.
He like many others, dreams of an independent Nagaland. Even today, at the age of 73 years only the lack of physical strength stops him from taking the forefront. He shows us his room where a typewriter sits on his bed, and a large desk is strewn with books and papers. Writing articles for the press, freedom struggle stories for the youth to read, pamphlets – anything to carry the message to the concerned authorities. He hands over a booklet with the story of A Phizo that he has put together and published.
While he is talking in a whirr, I see that twinkle in his eye. His dedication for a cause and his dream for freedom. “Even if I am no longer here in person, I know that one day we will get what we have all been waiting for. It has to happen”, he says finally.
Feeling totally inspired we walked around the village and bid goodbye and good luck to Mr. Zapvisie and his family and returned to Subzah for lunch! The weather was perfect for an afternoon siesta. Raining gently for a bit and then a downpour followed by the sun coming up to clear out the clouds for a bit.
That evening, we went to Kohima to Dr. Nitho’s home. Some more people to meet and some more stories to hear. The more people I met, the more I realized that they were faced with so many struggles. Big struggles like getting freedom for their land and individual struggles like surviving in a place affected by inter-tribe fights, corruption, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Parents here are constantly worried about the safety of their children from these vices and children are confused about their future and do not like the parents being over-disciplined or over-protective and hence the rebellion of leaving their homes and all this behind to find something more secure and amiable in other parts of the country.
While it all sounds quite depressing, the sunny side is not too far! Listening to Robert Solo’s story of how he got out of drug addiction to reform his own life was very uplifting. Robert Solo is a little over 40 years and always has a warm smile on his face. Once a drug-addict, but after having undergone a personal change, he turned over a new leaf and today he works with other drug addicts in Nagaland and helps them reform. Robert is not proud of this transformation but humble about it. He says “what I have done in the past under the influence of drugs can never be forgiven but if he can help others in the coming future it will be some sort of squaring off for my actions”. His story touched my heart and made me realize of the hardships that people here have to face.
Where there are drug addicts, we also have 100% safety and respect for women here. Something that is not easily found in other parts of India. This I say from an unusual experience I had the next day when I went out with 2 local friends Peno and Avino. I will come to the 100% safety episode a little later. For now, we five girls met up in the bustling town of Kohima to do a bit sightseeing, shopping and basically to have some fun.
Thus we began on our goals of the day by entering a small cafe that was run by the church. We ordered a lot of food and wolfed it down immediately. Now we were ready to walk into town. We first went to a vegetable market. The vegetables here were slightly different from where I come from. These ‘vegetables’ were alive! Frogs, eels, worms, silk worms, snails etc. Between gasps, ooh’s and aah’s, we saw the delicacies of Nagaland all ready for sale! Peno informed us that these delicacies were quite high priced, hence if we were served these by a Naga family it would be considered that the host thinks very highly of us and therefore has laid out the best food.
After eating at a number of homes in the past few days I was thankful that were not served any of these! Of course that didn’t mean our hosts didn’t think highly of us just that they knew where we come from these creatures are seen in their natural habitats and not on our plates!
We also came across the famous King Chilly or Raja Mirchi. This is a huge red chilly which has been declared by the Guinness book of world record as the hottest chilly in the world! It looked more terrifying than the eels swimming in the seller’s pot. However with a little courage I tried very small piece. The bite I took was really really small but the fire it set in my mouth was really really BIG! Wow this is potent stuff I thought! Uncle Niketu told us later that these chilies were being used to make Chilly Sprays used for self defence and also the powder from these chillies was being used to make chilly bombs that were used for clearing mobs!
The wonders of nature are amazing, I thought as I saw all sorts of leafy vegetables, roots, fruits there. The kinds that I have never seen back home in Pune. From here we went to some stores that sold traditional Nagaland art products. You can bargain at these shops but for that you need to have some local help. So for us Peno did the bargaining as we picked up gifts. I wanted to pick the famed Naga shawls. The word Naga shawls apparently I discovered was incorrect. These shawls are each personalized by different tribes. So you can get an Angami Shawl or a Chaksang Shawl. Each tribe depicting their tribe culture through the designs on these shawls. Naga people also have a custom of gifting a shawl from your tribe to guests and visitors to show your respect and love.
After the shopping was done, we went to see the Kohima War Cemetery located centrally in Kohima town. This used to be the Deputy Commissioners house during the British days. Later turned into a cemetery after the Battle of Kohima was fought between the Japanese and the British army during the II World War. The Japs entered Kohima with the intention of capturing all of North East and then India. However a fierce battle took place at Kohima and the Japanese returned defeated from here itself. Many young soldiers died in this battle and in dedication to their sacrifice this cemetery was built. Beneath each tomb stone lays some part of the demised soldier’s body. On top their names, regiment and age. I saw that most of these soldiers were really young. All between the age of 20 to 30 years.
At a place in the cemetery lies a tennis court. The story goes that when the Japanese entered the DC’s bungalow, they reached up to this tennis court from where they were shooting down at the approaching British army. A particular sniper had climbed up a cherry tree located on the side of the tennis court. He kept shooting at the soldiers from his vantage-point. Only after the British soldiers were able to bring down this sniper, were they able to advance and defeat the Japanese. Hence the tennis court and cherry tree have made their place in this cemetery forever.
And now finally the astonishing story I spoke about earlier. We were to go up to a high point from where you a get a beautiful view of Kohima city. Peno flagged down a cab. Now we were 5 girls and a driver. So Peno climbed into the front next to the driver and put one leg on either side of the gear stick. I asked her if she would be comfortable. She said absolutely and that many a times she travels like that all the way down to Dimapur. I didn’t tell her then but my worry wasn’t really the comfort of her sitting like that but more about sitting so close to the driver and him changing the gears in such an awkward place. You will agree that no girl will dare to do something like this in any other part of India.
Forget about sitting next to someone, simply walking on the streets you’d feel like somebody is staring at you with bad intentions, or you’ll get touched by some sleaze ball in a crowded bus, or stared at in the rear view mirror of a cab. Thus for me this was a whole new level of trust, respect and safety displayed by both Peno and the cab driver who was taking utmost care not to touch Peno while driving us to our destination and making nice friendly conversation. Peno told me later that she never feels that sort of a threat from anybody in Nagaland. I realized then that even while walking all around Kohima never did I once feel that someone was staring at us or looking us up and down.
The struggles for the youth there are not these trivial issues but problems of disunity between different tribes. Where the youth are now influenced by western culture and want to move on to more open thinking, their parent’s generation are still caught up in keeping their tribe separate from others and following church culture. ‘Secular activities’ as they refer to are things like music concerts, football matches, other gatherings where the division between tribes gets lost, are looked down upon by the church. This is a struggle as well as the advent of a new way of thinking that the youth of Nagaland want to bring in with their generation.
Education plays a vital role in Nagaland and most people are well-educated, looking to make careers in medicine, teaching jobs, engineering etc. These educated youth I’m sure are the beacon of hope for Nagaland and neighboring North eastern states that face similar issues.
My visit was nearing the end and I had met a whole variety of people and seen various sides of Nagaland in the past few days. I was left with a lot of inspiration from the way people here are fighting each day to have a better, happier and peaceful life. My prayers goes out to them and for Nagaland that may God help them preserve what is natural to them and their earth whilst their quest for freedom and peace meets a favorable end.
With this thought and a lot of love and care from everyone, my heavy heart and I were ready to leave Nagaland. Our journey back to Dimapur airport was lovely as I caught last glimpses of the green mountains, the locals vendors selling piles and piles of Pineapple along the way and of course the ‘Pagla Pahad’ with its landslides. I thanked God for giving me an opportunity to visit this place and even more for it being so much more than just another holiday.


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