Memoirs of my Travels: Into Nagaland Part 2 – Headhunters of yore
A few km from Zakhama is a lovely village that has its history in the headhunting days of the land. The Nagas were essentially a collection of many tribes who share a lot of their cultures and tradition. Each village has its own dialect and identity. The first thing
you notice while entering a traditional village is the totem like structure at the entrance. It is a rectangular stone slab with carvings and tribal paintings on it. The paintings and carvings are unique for each village and the slab is essentially a marking that tells you which village you are enetering.
Till recently the Nagas hardly had any contact with the outside world with the exception being the Kingdom of Assam. Only when Assam was annexed by the British that the Nagas were reunited with the rest of the world.
Like all traditional villages agriculture and animal keeping is an essential part of the daily life. Inside the village a guy was knee deep in cow dung, shovelling it. It rains a lot in those parts and the day was no exception. While trying to negotiate over a moss covered path, I lost my footing and landed my bum in the dump. I spent the rest
of the day smelling of fresh animal poop.
We were lucky enough to get an invitation to the house of the Gaon Buddha or the Village Chief. It was a huge house and looked very similar to the house of Vitalstatistix (from Asterix and
Obelix comics). From the door of the house heads of slain enemies and beasts used to hang. On some houses, heads are still used as decorations. The Nagas had a tradition of headhunting. They are all a fierce tribe of warriors and glory in battle is something every man wishes to achieve.
The warrior used to cut the head of the enemy from near the chin use the hair as grip to hold on to the head, and then hang it in front of the house. The greater the number of heads outside the house, the more prestige and glory the man had. Sometimes instead of individual collection, a collective place was made where the warriors deposited their prized scalps. Those who failed to add to it were labelled cows and looked down upon.
During more fierce battles where a tribe invaded another village, the warrior who bought the heads of women and children was
considered to be the bravest. The reason was simple. Women and children were in the middle surrounded by the men who were all ready for battle. If a warrior could bring the heads of women and children then it meant he went through all the male warriors defending them first.
But the people we met had no resemblance to the fierce stories that one hears about them and to the accounts left by the English. They were once fierce warriors, but with time and with contact with the outside world, they have changed. Though, many traditions still exist.
The Nagas are a casteless society and women and men are treated as equals. Premarital sex was accepted once but with the arrival of Christian missionaries it has become a taboo.
Inside the house of the chief, the chief’s daughter and niece showed us the traditional ways of doing things. Huge inverted funnels are used to store rice and make rice beer. Meat as I have mentioned is a must in their diet. Pork is a favourite animal there and the usually smoke it over a wood/charcoal stove. Smoking preserves the meet for use when game is scarce.
The Nagas use the gifts from nature to create things that are used daily. They hollow out the fruits and
dry the external covering to create bowls, jars, cups etc. They weave the shawls they wear themselves. Red is the predominant colour in most of the shawls, with markings and designs usually in black and white. Another thing I noticed was that they were expert marksmen. Little kids hunted birds using small slings in a single shot with exceptional accuracy.
The way the ancient Nagas dealt with the aged is also a thing to be noted. In ancient African tribes, the old used to be left near the river as crocodile feed. The Nagas didn’t kill their aged but they kept them in a basement. There the aged were fed all types of rotten fruits, vegetable and meat and eggs. The reason was simple. They believed that the aged can’t smell, hear and see properly. And moreover they are not going o live very long. So why waste good things on them.
The people are proud of their culture, but with modernisation it has diluted a bit. A fact that the old Chief pointed out not once but many times. A festival called “The hornbill Festival” which happens in December is an important celebration of the ancient Naga culture.
One may read about the Nagas as “Headhunting savages” in the accounts of the Victorian era gentlemen who visited this place a century ago. But I found them quite charming, friendly and hospitable people. We were shown the entire village and were the guests of honour for that day. When we were ready to leave, the Chief gifted us 2 traditional spears and a Naga shawl. The people have a big heart and they welcome you warmly if you accept them the way they are.
The chief’s niece went with us as her house was a little away from the village. She invited us inside and treated us to homemade rice beer. Her house was modern looking and had many modern comforts.
I was amazed at the hospitality of the people who were once called savages. Compared to them it seems we are savages. A day before our last day in Zakhama, the Chief’s daughter, his niece and a couple other people from the village came to visit us in Zakhama and bid us farewell. They had bought us the utensils made of dried fruit, a few clothes and a couple other things. We were told that they had prepared the items specially for us and had worked hard on them for the last 4 days. It was a beautiful gift from the beautiful people of the place.
Our final day in Zakhama was also quite eventful. We had to board a plane from Dimapur and there was no convoy. An Officer in the Intelligence department of the Army was also on his way to Dimapur and he offered to take us there. I won’t forget that ride ever because he was driving his Gypsy, on the rough mountain (prone to slipping) roads of Nagaland at speed of over 60 km. He wasn’t even slowing on bends. It doesn’t seem much, but on a mountain this speed is suicidal. We covered the 3 hrs journey with almost an hr to spare.
From Dimapur we boarded our flight which took us back to Delhi via Calcutta.