Travelling through the Northeast: At Khonoma, the oldest Naga village

Khonoma has an eventful history and enjoys a special place in the written and the oral traditions of the Nagas. Having embracing Christianity over the past century or so, most of the residents of Khonoma are now literate  

Through mountains and villages I

(Adivasis inhabit the northeastern states of India. This region stands neglected and deprived in Indian politics and system of governance. To make the Phule-Ambedkarite movement more inclusive, it is essential that we understand the communities/societies that are victims of different kinds of deprivations and try to bring them on a common platform. Forward Press is trying to do just that. We are serializing the travelogues of well-known Hindi writer Jitendra Bhatia. He began travelling through the Northeast in 2014 and his travels continue. He presents the peculiarities, problems and the ironies of this region. – Managing Editor)


Demand for Greater Nagaland still alive

  • Jitendra Bhatia

Travelling west from Myanmar to northeast India, it feels like you are looking at the same painting from a different angle. The people are the same, their problems and concerns are the same, so is the decades-old disconnect with the rest of the nation and the issues arising from polarization of society and the resultant vote-bank politics.

It is said that barring the Aryans and the Muslims, all the residents of northeastern India came from China via Burma. It is a deprived, unequal and discontented society, which offers unlimited potential for a bumper vote harvest if exploited. In the British era, Christian missionaries reined in the violent sections of society through education and conversion to Christianity. After Independence, the equations changed and in many areas, the subterranean lava began erupting.

After the departure of the last flight, the Dimapur airport wears a desolate look. As there was some time before some friends will pick me up, I decide to rest awhile in the arrival lounge after collecting my baggage. However, I am taken aback when an airport security officer asks me to leave. But after I step out, I realize that he is in a hurry to go home after locking the lounge.

Dimapur, which sits at the edge of a plateau, is the gateway to the hilly state of Nagaland. Beyond this town are forests and hills, where the clock seems to have stopped some time in the past. The 60 km ride from here to the state’s capital Kohima is bumpy, but when compared with other roads in the state, it seems to measure up to its status as a national highway. Come evening and darkness begins descending on the circuitous road. On the way, shops selling mobile phones, shacks selling vegetables and “rice house” dhabas with off-colour sweets inside glass-door cupboards are the only signs of urban influence. Some women are sitting on the roadside, displaying their catch of fish from ponds. We have to travel about 20 km ahead of Kohima, to a small village called Khonoma.

A welcome arch just outside Dimapur

Kohima, which has come up on a series of hillocks, reminds one of Almora. But compared to Almora, Kohima is dirty, and haphazardly settled. Without any warning, we get stuck in a mega traffic jam – so much so that we feel we may have to spend the night in the vehicle. Night has fallen and then there is a power-cut. It is pitch dark. It is only when the driver of one of the waiting vehicles turns on its lights that we realize that we are amid a sea of vehicles at the centre of a city – and not at a desolate location. After a very long wait, the traffic begin crawling. We are soon breathing in clean air, taking in the fresh smell of forests and treated to the piercing sound of cicadas. Our omniscient friend Rajneesh, who seems to have quite a few titbits up his sleeve, tells us that in the times gone by, this sound was considered synonymous with immortality and now, fried cicadas are considered a delicacy in the Shandong province of China!

As we drive on the kutcha road, the headlights of our vehicle illuminate a beautiful welcome arch. We are at our destination – the village of Khonoma. The amazing culture of this place and the possibility of sighting Nagaland’s state bird, Blyth’s Tragopan, which is on the verge of extinction, has brought us here. Though we cannot find a single Tragopan despite strenuous efforts over the next two days, we are not disappointed. As late poet Shahryar had said:

‘Justju jiski thee, usko to na paya hamnein;

Is bahane se magar dekh li duniya hamnein’

(I could not find what I had set out to. But the quest enabled me to see the world)

Known as “India’s first green village”, Khonoma is probably the oldest among Nagaland’s villages – said to been settled about 600 years ago. Most of the 3,000 members of the 600 Angami Naga families of the village have turned Baptist Christians over the last 100 years. There is no hotel here but many locals run homestays. Our temporary abode is the wooden house of an old resident of the village. It houses ageing fathers and mothers and young aunts and sisters. We are put up in two well-appointed rooms, lit by solar lamps. The dishes laid out on the table include meats, fish, vegetables and rice. Forks and knives are placed next to the plates. Nagas relish dog meat but our hosts have heeded our request and kept it off the menu. (We saw meat of frogs and of wild birds caught from the forests on sale at numerous shops in Kohima and Dimapur.) Last year, the Nagaland government had set the process of banning dog meat in motion but it will be some time before it is fully implemented.

A captivating view of Khonoma village

Khonoma, surrounded by dense woods boasting of a wide range of flora and fauna, hills, waterfalls and lush green fields, is famous for its innovative agricultural techniques and its crops. More than 20 varieties of paddy are grown in the village using step (terrace) farming. Rainwater is harvested in small ponds called “jaabo” at the top of the hills and it is used to irrigate the paddy plants growing on terraces (steps) on the slope of the hill. Water is made to pass through cattle sheds so that the urine and excreta of the animals gets added to it, thus providing nourishment to the plants. Jhoom farming is practised in flat plots of land. Ootis (alder in English, rupo in Angami language) trees are planted. The roots of this tree make the land more fertile. The branches are pruned and the trunk is left intact so that it continues to nourish the soil. Many varieties of bamboo grow in the jungles around the village. Instead of metal pipes, hollowed bamboos are used for irrigation. These innovations in farming here are a hundred years old. Agriculture is the backbone of the village.

Children playing at Khonoma

Killing wild animals and birds for food is an old tradition in Nagaland and that has done incalculable harm to the state’s environment. It is said that in the year 1993 alone, 300 rare tragopans were killed for meat. Some residents of Khonoma realized the catastrophic consequences of such wanton killing of these birds and animals and launched a campaign against hunting in the village and the surrounding areas. Initially, the campaign faced opposition from traditionalists but ultimately, in 1998, Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary came into existence in a 20 sq km area. Now, hunting is prohibited and is a punishable offence not only inside the sanctuary but also in Khonoma. In this respect, the village is a shining example for others to emulate. If the environment-related laws are followed strictly by the people, the credit must partially go to the Khonoma Students’ Council, which has ensured that from the first standard itself, children are taught to be friends with the nature.

Khonoma has an eventful history and enjoys a special place in the written and the oral traditions of the Nagas. Embracing Christianity has ensured that most of the residents of Khonoma are now literate.

After the morning breakfast, Pimono Angami, an elderly member of the house first asks each of us about our background and once convinced that none of us has anything to do with the government, he takes out a book from the almirah. It is Abraham Lotha’s History of Naga Anthropology (1832-1947).

Residents of Khonoma perform at a cultural event (Photo Courtesy: Nagaland Tourism)

Farming and animal husbandry have been the mainstay of Angami Nagas from time immemorial. The residents of the village once included warriors who were notorious for mounting savage attacks on the villages of their opponents and coming back with the heads of the vanquished as trophies. Those who came back with heads of the enemies won the special privilege of painting their faces fearsome. Society is free from gender discrimination and the property of the parents is distributed equally among the sons and daughters. The youngest male member of the family, called “Kithoki”, inherits the ancestral house and has to provide for the entire family in return.

After the defeat of the Burmese kings at the hands of the British (see the last article in this series), the Treaty of Yandabo was signed, which brought the entire landmass of Nagaland under British control. A long-drawn bitter battle between the Nagas and the British followed. The British soon realized that it would be very difficult for them to defeat the “uncivilized, barbarian and extremely cruel” Nagas, inhabiting the inaccessible mountains. For 40 years, from 1826 to 1865, the British launched attacks on the territory. They used every tactic known to them but every time they were vanquished by a handful of Angami warriors. The village elders, who were known for returning from wars with heads of enemies, were symbolic of the valour of the Nagas. (Our official history considers the battles between the British and the Nagas as part of India’s glorious freedom movement, but Uncle Pimono will have none of it. He believes that the Nagas fought the British for their own freedom.) In 1866, the British decided to adopt a new policy. It gave the area the status of a district and launched a programme for spreading education and bringing about social development there. Alongside the government, Christian missionaries began working among the Nagas to persuade them to embrace Christianity. The Nagas used to worship their ancestors, whose memories were preserved in the oral tradition. They did not worship any god or animal but were mortally afraid of evil spirits and performed all kinds of rituals to keep them at bay. The missionaries accomplished the remarkable feat of developing a script based on Tenyidie, the oral language of the Nagas, and teaching the people to read, write and understand it. According to Uncle Pimono, education helped turn people away from practices like beheading their enemies and performing animal sacrifices. But the missionaries ensured that the cultural identity of the people remained intact and introduced an easily acceptable version of Christianity among them. Tenyidie script included the local names of places and things, besides the words from the old oral language. We can see how grateful Uncle Pimono was to the missionaries while talking about them, unlike when he is relating the stories of the valour of the Nagas.

Among the things which Nagas have imbibed from Christianity is the practice of installing headstones with epitaphs on the graves. The streets of Khonoma are lined with hundreds of huge headstones, inscribed with short messages from the near and dear ones of the deceased. Interestingly, when a person is buried, space is left by the side of his grave for the epitaphs of his members of the family (wife, brother, sons and daughters) when they die.

Epitaphs lining a walkway in Khonoma

Till late into the night, Uncle Pimono tells us many stories about the spread of Christianity. But when he begins talking about the end of the British Raj and India’s independence, it becomes obvious that he is not very happy with how things panned out. While playing a genial host to visitors to Khonoma from other parts of India, Pimono believes that India has no moral right over Nagaland. He says that Nagaland was never a part of India. Prior to 1826, it was a part of Burma and after that the British accorded it the status of a scheduled area. In 1929, when the Simon Commission visited Nagaland, representatives of the Nagas had submitted a memorandum demanding that after the British left, Nagaland should not be made a part of India.

That is not all. On 14 August 1947, a day before India became independent, Naga leader Phizo declared Nagaland’s independence. This was a followed by a long and bitter conflict between the Government of India and Naga leaders. Despite numerous peace accords, the National Socialist Nagaland Council (NSNC) still persists with its demand for an independent Greater Nagaland, comprising, besides the present Nagaland state, many parts of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Myanmar.

This is an impractical demand and is unlikely to be fulfilled because Manipur, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh have, in the vein of Mahabharata, made it clear that they would not accede even “as much land as can be pierced by a needle” to the Nagas. Meanwhile, accords and counter-accords, talks and stand-offs between the government and the local representatives continue, with all political parties trying to fish in the troubled waters.

Uncle Pimono, perhaps, realizes that we are rather sceptical about his arguments. So, he ends the discussion and invites us to join him and his youngest daughter on a tour of Khonoma’s famous forest of wild apples. All around the place are apple trees, growing haphazardly. At a small shop in the village, apple slices can be seen being dried in the sun. The forest produces sweet apples in abundance. Uncle Pinomo looks at us with a proud smile on his face. On our return, he carefully puts the book on Naga history back in the almirah.

(Translation: Amrish Herdenia; copy-editing: Anil)


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The Case for Bahujan Literature

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Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

The Case for Bahujan Literature

Mahishasur: A people’s hero

Dalit Panthers: An Authoritative History

Mahishasur: Mithak wa Paramparayen

The Common Man Speaks Out

Jati ke Prashn Par Kabir

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