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East of Bengalla

East of Bengalla
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First Published: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 08 48 PM IST

Hill town:(top) Mokokchung town; and an Ao Naga family in traditional. Photographs by Anita Tao Kashi
Hill town:(top) Mokokchung town; and an Ao Naga family in traditional. Photographs by Anita Tao Kashi
Updated: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 08 48 PM IST
The thump, thump, thump seems to seep into my body and percolate through my bones before replacing my heartbeat. Some corner of my mind connects the sensation to the shudders one suffers at the traffic lights when the next car blasts electropop, but I consciously push away the thought and revel in the thrill of the sound affecting not just my ears but my entire being. Soon, it feels like every tiny bit of my body is pulsating to the rhythm of the beat. In a sudden flash of clarity, I think—no, I know—that this was the way the tom-tom communicated the message of The Ghost Who Walks.
Hill town:(top) Mokokchung town; and an Ao Naga family in traditional. Photographs by Anita Tao Kashi
The beats gradually reach a crescendo, and then stop suddenly to scattered giggles. There are no pygmies at work here, I see when I open my eyes, only a bunch of five-year-olds. They may be no taller than the original residents of Denkali (as Bengalla was rechristened for Indian readers), but their instrument is an ancient village log drum and, instead of the wild forests of the comic strip, they are in their school premises in Chuchuyimlang, a tiny village in the Mokokchung district of North Nagaland.
Also See Trip Planner/Mokokchung (Map)
The Ao Naga tribe-dominated Mokokchung, about 6 hours from the capital Kohima, is a pretty, sleepy town located almost entirely on a hill—not surprising, really, since around 90% of the state is hilly. It is not a place that pops up frequently on the tourist trail. And when it does, it is rarely for what it contains in itself, but for the many little frozen-in-time villages that lie just outside its urban periphery. Like Chuchuyimlang, 30km from the town.
As the faint echoes of the drumbeats die away, Nyurhetho Phoji, my Naga guide—he has replaced Guran in my imagination—explains matter-of-factly, “Log drums go back to the Nagas’ headhunting days. Almost every village had one or more. It was beaten during festivals and special occasions, to call meetings, to alert the village about attacks or fires. Now they are just ceremonial.”
To me, however, the log drum continues to hold a strange fascination, long after the boys have sauntered off in search of more mischief. In the Naga scheme of things, age-old customs and traditions are undeniably front and centre, even though nearly the entire population follows Christianity, introduced in the hills around the mid-19th century. Consider the morung that stands just outside the school. It represents a common tribal practice dating back to before the days of written history, as part of which boys in their early teens were pledged to the village by their families in the belief that they belonged not to their parents, but to the community as a whole. The boys were required to live, eat and sleep in dormitories till their marriage, learning, hunting, cooking, eating, sleeping and safeguarding the village together.
The tradition died out as Christian missionaries began to prevail in the hills, but the physical structure of the morung still dominates villages in Nagaland. In Chuchuyimlang, the large, oddly shaped bamboo edifice with a sloping roof broods over the village, its tenacity echoed by the horns of the mithun (a bovine species) that are its only embellishment. Inside, it’s just one big hall, dark and a bit smoky. It seems to match my mental picture of the Phantom’s skull cave!
But the imagination, I think, is expected to work overtime in this part of the world. Even though it’s been more than two centuries since the Nagas last headhunted and slaughtered enemies in cold blood, the “head hanging tree”—a stark, many-limbed tree on which victorious Naga tribes hung their trophies, the decapitated heads of their foes—continues to occupy a prominent place next to the village entrance, right across from the school.
Atmosphere is in generous supply in the Naga hills and it takes some effort to turn away from the gloom I can sense lurking in the air. So I follow, instead, a clackety-clack sound up a steep path, away from the school. Halfway up, an old woman sits in front of her modest home, serenely weaving a shawl in the typical Ao Naga colours on a mobile loom perched on her stretched legs. Her hands move deftly in and out as the bright blue garment grows in length. Weaving a full shawl can take up to a week, and can fetch anything from Rs600-1,000, which is significant money. “This is not the peak agriculture season so only the men go to tend the fields, while women usually do other things,” Phoji tells me.
“Other things” include revenue-generating activities such as shawl-weaving and basket-weaving, as well as stocking up on supplies for the rainy season. Such as the wild berries that grow in abundance and are dried in the sun to be used later. As I look at them curiously, the old woman offers me some, and I accept her generosity. Only to realize that my palate is just not equipped to handle the berry’s intense sourness. My screwed-up face is a source of amusement for her, of course.
As I continue my walk through the village, I see many more women weaving away on their looms using bright blue, red and jet-black yarn. At the end of the village, an elderly man is briskly weaving a basket. He shows off his creations proudly. “Where are you from?” he asks me through my guide. “Bangalore,” I reply, but there is no flicker of recognition. “Mokokchung,” Phoji adds hurriedly, but in the remote village, where buses come just a few times a day, even that is far away.
“Stay,” the man says. Moatsu, the energetically celebrated harvest festival, is just days away, and Chuchuyimlang is the only Ao Naga village that allows outsiders to watch it. If it were only that simple.
I could go back, of course. I do have a standing invitation from the old man.
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First Published: Fri, Apr 30 2010. 08 48 PM IST