Hanging out with the Headhunters / by David Johnstone

Mon, Nagaland

TUESDAY 17TH TO SUNDAY 22ND APRIL 2018

All The King’s Men  

All The King’s Men 

The Assamese morning was boiling hot and thoughts of hiking the 20 minutes to Sibsagar station to catch a bus to Sonari - my point of departure to Mon in Nagaland - where quickly dispelled as I opted for an overpriced car to take me there instead. Arriving at Sonari, all butcher’s shops, churned-up roads and gobbling locals, I enquired about a sumo to Mon. There’d be one leaving in three hours, 400 rupee. Instead, with the help of a local, I jumped in an ambulance, heading to my destination within the next 30 minutes. At least if we crashed I’d be in the right place.

The driver may as well have been mute as we barely passed a word between ourselves for the three arduous hours we spent together. As soon as we left Assam, and I mean literally through the main state gate, the road turned atrocious. There was definite air of impoverishment as we passed through small villages, the distinctiveness of the Naga physiognomy - South East Asian in heritage and appearance - replacing the Indian-looking Assamese. The topography took on a vast transformation too - gone were the lowland plains and up came steep hills and mountains, some forested, some barren and most farmed.

The ambulance man tore up the rutted road and was soon dropping me off right outside the guesthouse, the Teipha Cottage, recommended by Jyoti from Majuli (I think it’s actually the only place to stay in Mon). I paid him 200rp and was shown my basic but adequate room (1500rp). The owner, Aunty (as older women are referred to throughout the North East), was friendly and accommodating though I’m sure formidable in her time. We were soon discussing guides and trips to the tribal villages around Mon for the following days ahead, the reason for being here in the first place. The town itself had a spectacular setting, buildings and shacks perched precariously on jagged, forested hills. It’s said that when God was creating Nagaland, a giant cockroach appeared telling him that there was an invading army approaching so he basically dumped everything. 

I’m not sure I believe that. 

The gently fierce Aunty of Mon  

The gently fierce Aunty of Mon 

Next morning I took a motorbike with Apu, my 25 years old guide-cum-pastor, to the village of Honmpoi, some 11km away and, whilst it didn’t appear far, the track was winding, muddy and hazardous, made worse by overnight downpours. It was exhilarating though and I find there’s so much more purchase on the back of a bike than in a car. We stopped numerous times to look over the dramatic, undulating landscape shrouded in a gloomy mist. There was a complete absence of birdsong.

”The Naga eat everything” remarked Apu adding “do you like dog?”

”Er, never tried them. Any good?” 

“I like them. I mean I like them but not to eat.”

”Are there any animals left then? I mean the forests look like they’ve all been chopped down.” 

“Nothing left” he said blissfully.

I shook my head. If it’s wildlife and wilderness you’re looking for, you’ve come to the wrong place. In the space of 20-30 years it’s all gone - ate, jhummed, sold off, shipped out and still the Naga have shit roads and sanitation, poor educational facilities, poverty, appalling healthcare and a host of preventable diseases. Add to that gangsterism, cronyism and unabounded corruption. At the very edge of India, it feels forgotten, a frontier, the Wild East.

 

TEA & KONYAK

It was a wholly different kind of wildlife I was in search of though.

Famed for their aggression, tribal customs and headhunting, the Konyak of Mon State have a justifiably fearsome reputation. One of 16 tribes in Nagaland, they would fight each other for control of land, taking the heads of the vanquished as a symbol of their strength and power. Even the British left them alone instead choosing to pacify them with Christian missionaries and therefore ending the practise of headhunting - the last head was apparently chopped in the mid 60s - and their animist ways. Though some customs still remain strong, others are dying out, quite literally. The dwindling numbers of ex-headhunters - sporting extraordinary tattooed faces, super-sized earlobes and striking headgear - have become a parody of themselves and, like the Hornbill whose feathers they adorn, they too are destined to vanish.

Not only is the environment and it’s wildlife altered beyond the unimaginable but the intricacies and uniqueness of human culture are being homogenised too. 

We headed up the hilly dirt track through the fairly large, well-kept village of Honmpoi - a population of 700 apparently - and towards a recently erected morung, a village hall of sorts where children would’ve beeen educated in the art of hunting and fighting, tradition and folklore before ‘civilisation’ arrived in the 1960s. Sitting around a small fire were a variety of old men in various states of decrepitness and all with tattooed faces. Like something out a George E. Romero film, several others descended out of the mist and perched their arses around the fire.

It’s difficult to describe how it all felt. Caught between an episode of ‘Disappearing World’ and some primitive Nagamese soap opera, the whole thing was just plain bizarre. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t the ethnological discovery of the century - these guys know when they’ve got it good and wheel themselves out to any passing foreigner to photograph for coinage - they might look crazed but they ain’t stupid. However it felt like a version of Kaziranga, instead of animals we had a human zoo.

 

Cutting off someone’s head doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person

 

Suspending my disbelief, I sat with them for a couple of hours and, over tea and biscuits - yes, tea and biscuits with headhunters - I found out their respective ages (one said he was 110) and when they received their facial adornments. Apparently it’s a painful, one-day process conducted by the Queen of the village with a very large thorn. They appeared a nice bunch too, friendly and as amused by me as I was with them. Cutting off someone’s head doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person.

A load of old Wang: Wang Nao, Wang Ai, Nao Wang, Wang Hu, Wang Pin

With the requisite shots in the bag, I gave out 120rp to each of them with another 150 for some tea and snacks, more than the going rate. It had been well worth it. As we got back on the bike and with the sound of petty arguments breaking out over who got what, I reflected on a rare moment, the remarkable passing of human anthropology in real time.

And having had tea with the last of the headhunters.

We stopped off at another village, Lengha, which was altogether more ordinary though there were a couple of tattooed men skulking about. Amid torrential rain and shrouding mist, I had (more) tea, this time at the local pastor’s house. The Baptist Church plays a central role in people’s lives throughout Nagaland though animistic traditions still remain at it’s heart in the form of morungs, totems, idols and the like.

THE KING AND I

Next day, it was time to abandon the motorbike for four-wheeled transport heading 45kms east towards the Myanmar border to the town of Longwa. The vehicle I’d paid for was hardly top of the range and Putul my driver was much like his car - simple, toothless but did the job. I’d been told the night before by two friendly Australian lads what to expect from the trip they’d did that day. Barren hills with barely a tree in sight, rough roads and opium.

And a bloke they called the King.

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What should have been a beautiful journey through forested hills and spartan countryside was indeed a remorseless episode in how not to treat the natural environment. It was sad to see. The damage that even a small population can do to the landscape and the wildlife that once existed there is depressing. The more I travel, the more I see the horror of it all and the consequences will be brutal for people either unconcerned or unaware of their actions. 

I felt naturally flat by the time we eventually reached Longwa, a large village - more a small town - with some 750 households making it their home. Straddling the border of both India and Myanmar it’s situated atop a breathtaking set of deep valleys either side. I was waylaid by a border guard asking for my passport - which I’d forgot but assuaged him - soon realising that this is an international no-mans-land and a route through for gold, diamond, drug and gun smuggling. Slap bang in the middle of the international border - and I mean right in the middle - was the Baptist church and a newly built morung

This is where the King lived.

The view across to Myanmar from Longwa  

The view across to Myanmar from Longwa 

There were armed soldiers dotted around too and I got chatting to one of them, off-duty, who told me about the place. Apparently, the first King died in 2015 and had reigned over some 42 villages on either side of the border. He was feted by the locals though I was perplexed that he’d let all the natural resources get shipped out with no apparent gain for his subjects. That’s royalty for you. The Naga straddled both India and Myanmar and I could see their small villages as I peered down. 

“The King’s in church at the moment.” 

”Oh, when’s he back?” 

A brand new 4x4 pulled up outside the morung. 

“There he is, that’s the King!” the soldier panted excitedly. 

All five foot of him, in his mid-thirties with a bad wedge cut and small black shiny shoes. My first thought was ‘what a lazy bastard’ the church being only a hundred yards away. He stepped out with his entourage and headed inside.

”Let’s go see the King.” 

The morung was big, impressively so. And dark too, made worse by a thick storm that had set in. There was a large wooden dining table to the right and on the wall in front a variety of now locally extinct wildlife skulls - deer, elephant, water buffalo. There were old bleached photos of the dead King too taking his rightful place beside the animals he slaughtered. Dust to dust and all that. 

Moving through into the second section were a set of small chambers though mainly closed bedrooms. The King had two wives (but only one Queen), not quite to the level of his father who had 60. The last room was a huge kitchen with an open fire crackling away. Very atmospheric, like the Knights of the Round Table without the table. I was being largely ignored and hadn’t even felt the palm of royalty as yet so it all felt underwhelming.

The King - Chief Angh

The King - Chief Angh

”Shall we go for lunch now? It’s being prepared for us in an hour” Apu squeaked. 

”I want to meet the King. And where’s this Opium Room?”

I headed back to one of the chambers where a small fire was lit, smoke casting eerie shadows of the actors inside. No King but there was booze. I plonked myself down and was handed some Burmese rum. 

“Would you like some of this?” a barely indistinguishable squat man with a bowl cut said handing me a large wooden pipe.

”Not yet, I’ll wait until the first rum has gone down” 

I got a forlorn look from Pastor Apu. 

”What about your lunch? They’ve made it especially for us? I’m hungry too.” 

”You go” I said “you eat and I’ll stay here.” 

Six hours later, having purchased booze for the entire room, including the King, I’d had the most odd, ethereal and otherworldly experience. I was eventually ushered out by Apu into the remains of the day, blissful and dreamy as I headed back towards Mon, the clouds bubbling up like gigantic marshmallows.

And I’d shaken hands with the King.