Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Riding on opium smoke and searching ghosts of headhunters

Another day, another search for a story forced me to leave my temporary life of security and conformity, and led me to an absolute unknown destination. I had planned this journey for long, as I was listening to these short abstract and mythical stories of headhunters in the state of Nagaland, India, infusing me with various adventurous possibilities crisscrossed my mind.

Modernization is indispensable; for people like to have the liberty and try to find the meaning within a self-regulating community. The village life in Nagaland has experienced the same conundrum. Too much influx of outside civilization transforms men and women into automata, suffocates their own cultural and social spirit and abolishes the very possibility of freedom. Travel to Mon is not exactly a fancy leisure activity. Mon is the northernmost district of Nagaland. It is not a big district, mostly small villages and a small town with basic facilities. From many decades intrepid explorers came to this small remote region of India for the search for headhunters’ legacy. In the recent time, the region has got recognition through a few photographers’ eyes, daring travelers and a few tourists who accidentally reached this place.

The district town also borders with Burma, which makes it easy to for opium pouring into villages without much difficulty. After a long, arduous and definitely a dangerous journey in terms of security, I had reached Mon in the evening. The journey was not smooth, especially in terms of security checks and umpteen questions by Indian Army at different check posts made an entirely different impression in my mind.

While I was passing through villages, I saw a different life. A strange feeling engulfed me during my journey as I doubted why I came here so far alone and without any strong knowledge about the place. The more I saw those tiny village huts, Nagas with guns and weapons to hunt in the forest, women wearing bizarre necklaces, tattooed all over their hands and necks, the more I was into a strange feeling of excitement and fear.

Opium smoking in the village

I met a Konyak guy while I was roaming around the street in the morning. I asked him a direction and instantly he befriended me. I was a bit suspicious, but I learnt during my travels that the attitude mattered, and when you were in doubt, you were vulnerable. I asked him about Longwa village and headhunters, but he seemed reluctant to tell me. He said Longwa village was a tourist attraction and there was no headhunter left in the village. He asked me to go with him to another nearby village to see their lives. I was a bit hesitant in mind, but then I agreed and walked to the nearby village.

We went to a small hut, a small fire was in the middle, a man was engaged in something I thought he was preparing heroin. Before entering the hut Longsha (name changed) winked at me and asked me to remove my shoes. We entered this small smoked filled thatched room where total four people were smoking opium in big strange pipes.

It was nine O’clock in the morning, and I was a bit surprised to see these four young men were almost stoned when normally people used to rush to work at that time. There was an old man sitting idly in the corner, probably in 80s, and all men called him ‘Buzum’. He was playing with some old playing cards, and oblivious of the happenings around him.

I noticed his whole upper body was beautifully tattooed, which made me curious and I asked Longsha if I could talk to him about headhunters. It was a really small hut and my eyes and nose hurt with the smoke, but after a while my eyes became accustomed to the smoke. A young man advanced toward him and offered him a spoon supposedly stained with fresh opium. He took the spoon and cleaned with some fine leaves and then put it into his thick bamboo pipe. He then offered me the pipe. At first I was shaken by the possibility of smoking pure opium; I felt a tremendous apprehension. I had not realized until then that I was perhaps very scared. My mouth had dried, I looked at my companion, and he was smoking and maintained a steady position. He looked at me and said not to worry. A young guy, probably in his early 20s was sitting to my right, looked inattentive. I looked at another man who was busying around burning opium in a spoon. My tension increased, I began to whine involuntary as my respiration became more accelerated. Longsha again told me not worry and it would be highly disrespectful if I refused the offered.

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Last Legacy of Headhunters in Mon

I smoked the whole opium. It was a quick affair. I didn’t feel anything as such except a mild lethargy and a slight sense of euphoria. My fear went away and directly asked Longsha whether he could act an interpreter to talk with this old man. I talked that old man for almost an hour and noted many things in my notebook. Longsha asked me not to take any photographs, but I requested him to take a photo of that old man. He agreed and asked me not to mention the real identity of the village and what I witnessed in the hut.

Opium is a big problem in Nagaland, especially in Mon because the region borders with Burma. Nagas cross the village and enter into the Burmese jungle. Burma is the second largest producer of opium after Afghanistan, and most of these raw, pure drugs are pouring into the state through Nagas unemployed youth. Later on, I saw in another instant where people smoked the whole day without doing anything. They process the opium and make it like small thin pads. They cut a small portion of the pad and burn it in the spoon. The opium melts down and turns into dark reddish sticky liquid. Then they use a special plant leaves to smoke with the drug.

History of Headhunters

I talked at length about the headhunter legacy and the current situation. I had learnt that these old men spoke Tibeto-Burmese dialect, which was not very popular in these villages. Most of the Konyaks speak Nagamese, a mixture of Assamese and Naga. Buzoom as people called him, was a trained headhunter but never hunted any head. You could recognize a hunter with non-hunter by tattoos. A head hunter has facial tattoos while a man trained in headhunting has tattoos on his chest.

The old man was not happy with the village chief whom they called Angh. Angh is sort of a dictator who rules over 75 villages in the region. His house is situated half in India, half in Burma and it is believed some of the villages in Burma are also ruled by Angh. He lives like a king in the village named Longwa, which is now quite open to visitors.

I got lots of information about Angh, how he killed people without any strong motive. How he picked any woman if he liked to marry her. I was told the king had more than 60 wives and his influence spread to Burma, where his men moved freely without any visa.

Till 1930, this remote northern region of Nagaland was in oblivion from the outside world, even not mentioned in Indian maps. As I was told all Nagas are from headhunter lineage, but Konyaks are special one who hunted heads as a part of their culture. It was believed that the success of crop depended on blood hunted by headhunters. These Nagas were excellent hunters, staying remotely in the mountains and forest with natural barricades of forests and fast rivers. Headhunting was more of a cultural practice than the result of rivalry between the villages. Chest tattoos denoted that a man trained in headhunting, whereas face tattoos testified the man hunted a head. It was a great pride and Naga women felt proud and ridiculed men who didn’t hunt heads.

Time had taken a momentous leap when the British first stepped in this region. When the Nagas first saw cars, ammunition and white people, there was a significant change in the psyche of these people when they touched urban civilization. Nevertheless, headhunting remained an integral part of their culture until government of India officially ordered to stop headhunting in 1970. Unofficially, the cultural phenomenon continued till late 80s, but completely demolished when Indian Army posted their camps in different places in Nagaland.

Many people don’t believe it, but headhunting was a cultural stuff amongst Konyaks. Young men were taught how to cut the heads and brought to the villages. After that an elaborate ritual had been celebrated by hunters and villagers. These heads were priced possessions and skulls were beings used to decorate their houses. These skulls were also fed with rice beer as they believed the spirit of those hunted people came to visit their houses and bestowed vitality and strength.

Accommodation and food

There are three hotels in Mon, and all of them are expensive. You will get a basic facility, and ordinary food, but you really don’t have any choice in Mon. You can go straight to Longwa and stay in Angh place who is quite open to genuine travelers.
There are a few food joints where you can eat. Remember if you order meat or any non-vegetarian food, prepare for a bamboo shoot smell.

General warning

The town is virtually halt after 5 pm, and it is not sensible to walk around the streets. Although Mon is heavily guarded with Indian Army, there are local young ruffians who always find a way to harm strangers.

Visit to Longwa

The primary attraction of Mon is Longwa village because of Angh house. The house is located half in India and half in Burma. As of now there are a few headhunters left, but you can witness the relics of the past in the village. There you can find lots of houses decorated with animals’ heads, heads of humans. You can also find traditional ornaments, signifying the extent of tribal culture.
You can find shared taxis, one in morning and another one in the afternoon (2 pm), but if you miss these transportation, you can always hire a taxi. Personal hiring of taxi is expensive, anything between Rs. 3000- Rs. 5000.

You can stay in Longwa as there are a few homestays in home. To enter into the village, you have to pay a tax to the Angh.

Insurgency in Mon

Problem of insurgency in Nagaland is not new, though in a recent time there are less reports on insurgency. Mostly in Mon insurgents are the members of ENPO (Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organisation). They have raised the demand of separate state but government of India doesn’t pay heed on their demands.

For extra curious traveler

There is a Christian woman named Yahoi practicing a strange cult in the region. The woman is known for her prophecies and naked worshiping in the Church. She supposedly stays in a village named Wangti. The village is quite far from Mon, but a few intrepid travelers cover the distance to find her.
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