Once I was settled in my seat by the window of the Bell 412 helicopter at 15,000 feet in the air along with eight people from Nagaland who had been “evacuated” in the last flight back to Dimapur, my thoughts started to run.
Some ten days ago, I had arrived in Mon (a district in Nagaland) at 6 am, dazed and groggy from the 19-hour long bumpy bus journey from Kohima. The roads in Nagaland are (in)famous for their unsound conditions and the highways have been “under construction since 2014”, my host in Kohima had told me.
The bus had stopped somewhere in Assam for dinner and the owner of the dhaba was telling me about riots that were taking place in the state and how an indefinite curfew had been imposed by the government.
But what was truly happening, nobody knew. Later that night I was woken up by a group of men who had stopped and entered our bus to speak to passengers about how the government was “taking away our right to citizenship” and how it was in the hands of commoners to “save the constitution and this democracy”.
I did not pay much attention to it back then but little did I know, it would all make sense and change the course of my travel plans in Nagaland.
From Mon, I managed to grab the last vacant seat in a shared taxi headed to Longwa. The three-hour long ride to the village bordering Myanmar known for its last remaining headhunters of the Konyak tribe started with curious stares from fellow passengers at the young, unaccompanied, visibly non-Naga girl that sat with them.
Once the ice was broken, the driver and the man sitting next to me took it upon them to guide me through the journey. “Those hills on your right are Arunachal Pradesh”, I was told, and, “There on your left in the distance, that’s Myanmar”. Amidst other things, I was also invited to marry a Naga boy several times, so I could live there permanently.
At my host’s house in Longwa, I became comfortable very quickly. After a tour of the house, the kitchen, and what works how, I was introduced to the family and exchanged greetings in broken English and gestures. Over the course of the next few days, I became more and more accustomed to the Konyak way of living. I used to have two meals a day with the family – one at sunrise, the other at sunset.
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Between meals, I would accompany anyu (grandmother) to the farm and tend to the paddy and pumpkin or help appa (grandfather) with basket weaving. On some days Phohi, the eldest daughter-in-law, would teach me how to cook mithun (gayal) meat or roast a rat over the open fire, and on other days I would join the kids in their dance choreography to popular Bollywood songs.
The days would end with a cup of khalap, the traditional Konyak black tea brewed in a bamboo cup that adds to its bitterness.
Strolling through the village market or lounging on a chair outside the house, I often stumbled upon old men with unique face tattoos buried in the folds of their wrinkles. Their necklaces with dangling brass faces shone like gold in the sunlight, just as my eyes sparkled with curiosity.
Traditionally, all 17 Naga tribes were headhunters until the advent of Christianity and law reformations which eventually meant this practice was banned, and what was once a way of life was tossed aside. But the Konyak tribe was the last one to accept Christianity – and ultimately the last one to stop hunting heads, making Mon district the only one in Nagaland to still have a few men from the pre-Christianity era alive to tell the tales of village raids and hunted heads and stick-and-poke tattooed faces and chests.
The curfew in Assam meant that fuel, potatoes and onions would all stop coming into Nagaland. “Tsk, these Assam people,” Phohi tutted one evening while preparing dinner. “They always do these protests and we have to face problems. Do you know why they are doing it?” she asked me.
Over the next few hours, sitting by the fire and eating dinner, I explained the little I knew about the Citizenship Amendment Act to the family in English, while Phohi and Nokao, the younger son, took turns translating it for the benefit of the others. The next day I accompanied Nokao to the market to stock up on potatoes and onions.
“It is cities like Kohima and towns like Mon that will face a shortage of supplies. We eat what we grow. So, for us, it is not a big challenge,” he explained. For an outsider like me, things were not as simple.
The roads back to Kohima or Dimapur all went through Assam and a fuel shortage in Nagaland was a possibility if the curfew was not lifted soon. But I was far from worried. With a simple village life to experience, an ancient dying tradition to learn about and a loving family that treated me like their own, I was in no hurry to go back home.
Avantika Chaturvedi is a travel blogger and writer based in New Delhi. She focused on slow, solo and sustainable travel with a special inclination towards the lesser explored regions in India, which are usually off the typical tourist’s radar. She has previously worked in collaboration with state tourism boards such as Madhya Pradesh Tourism and Jammu and Kashmir. You can feel free to check out her work on her website www.waywardwayfarer.com
All photos provided by author.