Nagaland: Song of the Log Drum

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY walk the heritage trail in Nagaland through the Angami villages of Kohima, Khonoma and Tuophema

It was the most outrageous gun we had ever seen. Daylight was fading at Khonoma as Villazosie Punyü narrated its fascinating history, while an old Angami beside him smoked his tobacco pipe with typical Naga ferocity. The embers flew perilously close and we feared it would ignite some residual gunpowder and blow us all up in a freak accident. Luckily, the old man was summoned away and we lived to tell the peculiar tale. The gun weighed 8 kg, used 7 times the normal gunpowder and took 3 people to fire it. Punyü, former secretary of the Village Council, patted the muzzle with pride and elaborated. Tired of repeated British incursions into Naga territory since the 1830s, his great grandfather Pfüshüu Punyü decided to silence the gun-toting invaders by handcrafting the mother of all guns. It seemed symbolic of the iron will of the Nagas, a fiercely independent warrior race that had always resisted subjugation. 

The heritage walk through the 700-year-old village of Khonoma was a series of such epiphanies. Gigantic vats of fermenting rice beer, outsized troughs and ladles, hunters’ houses displaying half the IUCN Red List of endangered animals, khwe hou (stone tablets) constructed in honour of forefathers who offered genna (grand feasts of merit), folktales of brave warriors and fables of herders who single-handedly tended 500 mithun (semi-wild bison) in the jungles, lured them by sounding a horn and hand-fed them salt. 

Surrounded by terraced rice fields and the 9000 ft high Barail range, Khonoma roosts on a ridge, a feature typical of Angami settlements. The crooked, bumpy paths coursed along the hillside like gnarled veins on a wrinkled hand. It was tough keeping up with our energetic guide Michael as he led us to Semoma Fort, described by Captain John Butler as ‘the strongest in the North East’. Each time the fort was destroyed; it rose phoenix-like, defiantly rebuilt to endure the next attack. In 1879, the killing of British political agent GH Damant resulted in the Battle of Khonoma, the last organized Naga resistance against the British. As we caught our breath at the memorial, Michael sagely pointed to some thin air, ‘That was where the villagers escaped to after they booby-trapped the mountain.’ We squinted, as if decoding a stereogram or optical illusion. When we finally located the column on a faraway hill, the distance was humbling. No wonder the British settled for a peace treaty, ending half a century of fighting. The Nagas earned profound respect from the British and their evolution from a ‘primitive race of head-hunters’ to the ‘cradle of civilization’ was swift. 

By 1890, long-held animist beliefs gave way to Christianity. After the British enlisted 2000 Nagas for a Labour Corps in France during the First World War, the tribes dropped their differences in favor of a unified Naga identity. The 16 tribes were so diverse that despite being located in adjoining regions, they didn’t speak or understand each other’s tongue. Thus a creole was born – Nagamese, a fusion of Naga dialects and Assamese. Having witnessed the Naga Council Meet at the 10th century Kachari capital Dimapur, known for its mystifying phallic totems, we knew that each tribe remained culturally distinct. Their attire, songs, dances and crafts were unique and the coloured patterns of their textiles had deep relevance.

We walked past a kharu (ornamental wooden gate), another Angami signature. The village was divided into khels (residential territories), comprising various clans. Each khel had a kuda (fort) or place of defense, surrounded by morungs (residential institutions), intrinsic to the communal fabric of the Nagas. In olden days, boys huddled around a fireplace as elders of the host family sipped thutse (rice beer) and shared stories on culture and folklore. Today’s boys’ hostels seem like a throwback to the morung, where lads shared a massive dorm bed, carved from a single tree trunk. By nurturing a rich oral tradition, morungs helped piece together much of Nagaland’s history, since there were no written records until the Burmese invasion of Assam in 1816 and subsequent British control.

It was pitch dark by the time we hauled ourselves to Meru Homestay for a taste of Angami hospitality. Our fears about the ‘unconventional diet’ and ‘bland taste’ of Naga food were unfounded. Megongui’s spread of smoked pork, steamed squash gourd, chicken curry, rice and dal hit us with a burst of fresh flavours, while her husband Khrieni passionately educated us about Khonoma’s jhoom cultivation of alder. Through strict bans on hunting, tobacco and littering, the village committee was working towards ‘Green Khonoma’, a model eco-village. The Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan sanctuary (KNCTS) had been set up to protect the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan. Michael regaled us with Angami folklore and bewildering proverbs about how ‘consuming chili leaf is taboo’ and ‘hornet nests can predict the weather’. He explained, ‘The chili leaf is tasty; but if you pluck too many, less fruit will grow. And if hornets have made their nests at low places, it will be windy that year’. Khonoma was a storehouse of traditional wisdom founded on scientific principles. Though we were tempted to stay longer and trek to the scenic highlands of Dzükou and Dzulekei, we had to catch the morning bus to Kohima. 

A whirlwind tour of the bustling capital took us to the old village of Bara Basti, around which Kohima was built. Not all the seven lakes and gates have survived, but the impressive entrance to T Khel still stands tall. The State Museum offers a perfect introduction to Naga culture. Yet, nothing prepares you for the fabled Keeda Bazaar. Grocery shopping at the Supermarket is not for the faint-hearted. There’s lots of live action on the menu – freshwater eels swirling in tubs, frogs zorbing in plastic bags, wasps and hornets hatching in hives, wriggling garlands of woodworms and women casually flicking errant silkworm larvae back on their leaf plates. The still serenity of the Catholic Cathedral on Aradura Hill was a sharp contrast. Divine light streaming in through the stained glass windows shone over tall mosaic panels adorning the walls. Touted as the largest in Asia, the 25,000 sq feet cathedral accommodates 20,000 people. 

Of all the sights in town, the Kohima War Cemetery leaves a lasting impact. A resting place for 1420 Allied war heroes, the terraced cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Landscaped with military precision, the tombstones bear poignant inscriptions highlighting the glory and grief of war. Set on the erstwhile Deputy Commissioner’s tennis court on Garrison Hill, the site witnessed one of the fiercest battles of World War II. The hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima in 1944 was pivotal in halting Japan’s foray into India. The immortal words “When you go home, tell them of us and say; for your tomorrow, we gave our today”, on the memorial of the 2nd British Division gained world renown as the Kohima Epitaph. 

At noon, we boarded a bus for the 2 hr ride to Botsa, from where our guide KV drove us 4 km uphill to the tourist village of Tuophema. Interestingly, the 12 ethnic wood cottages were built by various khels and maintained by the village community. Neat orchid-lined pathways led to viewpoints, a cosy restaurant and a typical Naga kitchen with strips of meat left smoking above the hearth. We set out after a quick snack. The tour commenced at the village gate dominated by a large tree called Terhütsiibo (War head tree), once festooned by enemy heads. Graphic details were illustrated on a carved panel, in case you missed the point. Years ago, the secret entrance to the village was a cavity in a banyan tree called Podzie Kharu. Before we moved further, KV challenged us to touch the top of an obelisk nearby. Chuckling at our disastrous attempts, he remarked “That’s Ke Me Hie Tsie (Clutching Stone). Only those who could reach it without jumping or stretching were eligible to marry.” Balking at the thought of further tests of our agility or virility, we followed him sheepishly. 

KV knew a lot about stones. Ke Shii Di Tsie (Demon Stone), Tsi Khre Tsie (Thunderstorm Stone), Kipu Tsie (Husband and Wife Stone) were remnants of animist beliefs and served as omens for weather or war and even inspired shawl designs. Rectangular gravestones were for commoners while circular ones represented the elite. We paid our homage to Touphema’s founder at Kense House. The original home has been replaced by a lavish structure with a façade embellished by Naga symbols – mithun horn (vigour), cup (prosperity), an encircled dot (full moon/good harvest) and curved ends of a roof’s apex (man of repute). The house was built entirely from wood, including the gigantic lock and key on the door!

Nagas are exceptional craftsmen. They can fashion wood, metal, fabric, beads, shells and bone into works of art, from intricate jewellery to 35 ft long Sei Badi (log drums). Long before telecommunication, log drums announced important events like festivals, death, war, hunt, fires or eclipses, which could be heard for miles. We marveled at the otter-shaped head of Tuophema’s log drum as KV pounded it with wooden dumb-bells shaped like hornbills. Ah, we got the message! It was time for us to say goodbye. As the community bus trundled down the road, it lurched to a stop at the village gate. The bus went silent. Dreading a flat tire, we looked around to see heads solemnly bowed as the frail voice of Solhicha, the wizened pastor, tinkled like a bell. It was a long, sincere prayer for the well being of the passengers, wishing them success in their endeavours and a safe return…

Fact File

Getting there

By Air: Nagaland’s only airport is at Dimapur, which is connected to Guwahati and Kolkata by direct Jet Airways flights

By Rail: Dimapur has a railway station on the main line of the Northeast Frontier Railway. It is well connected to Guwahati.

By Road: NH 39, the main highway for entering Nagaland from Assam, connects Dimapur to Kohima, 74 km away. (Shared Taxi Rs.130/person). Khonoma is further 20 km south west of Kohima but the road is patchy. Tuophema is 41 km north of Kohima NH 61 via Botsa (Bus Rs. 35/person). There’s a village community bus from Tuophema to Dimapur (5:30 am, Rs.90) and Kohima (6 am, Rs. 40)

When to Visit

The Hornbill Festival (1-7 Dec) is a good time to visit but it’s advisable to book your hotel months in advance. Held at Kisama, 12 km from Kohima, this Window to Nagaland showcases cuisine, arts & crafts, song & dance and indigenous games like archery and Naga wrestling. Morungs of each tribe are built in their unique architectural designs to recreate a hybrid Naga Heritage Village. The Tourism Department also organizes the Angami Sekrenyi festival (25-27 Feb) at Tuophema.

Accommodation

Kohima

The Heritage, Officer’s Hill (Teja Meru) Rs.1800-2500 Ph: 0370-224 1864 

Razhu Pru, Mission Compound (Jasmina) Rs.1800 Ph: 0370-229 0291

Aradura Inn, Aradura Hill (Tonito Swu) Rs. 1000-2800 Ph: 0370-2243203 

Hotel Japfu, Ph: 0370-2240211-3

Khonoma

Baby’s Homestay (Angulie Meyase) Ph: 94360 71046

Meru’s Homestay (Khrieni & Megongui Meru) Ph: 0370-234 0061

Local co-ordinator/guide: Michael Megorrisa Ph: 98561 25553 

Tuophema

Tuophema Tourist Village, Local co-ordinator/guide: KV Ph: 94360 05002

Permits

Indian Tourists visiting Nagaland require an Inner Line Permit are issued by Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi (Tel: 011-23012296) and Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, Kolkata (Tel: 033-22823247). These can also be obtained from Deputy Commissioner of Dimapur, Kohima and Mokokchung. Foreign tourists require a Restricted Area Permit / Protected Area Permit from all Indian Missions abroad; Home Ministry, Govt. of India; FRRO – New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai; Commissioner, Home Affairs, Govt. of Nagaland; Commissioner & Secretary, Tourism, Govt. of Nagaland and The Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of JetWings. 

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