On the border with Burma (Myanmar), south of Arunachal Pradesh and east of Assam, Nagaland is physically and conceptually at the very extremity of the subcontinent. Many of its hills and valleys, home to the fiercely independent Nagas, were uncharted until recently, and the eastern regions, remain far beyond the reach of the skeletal road system, despite the fact that the forested mountains rarely exceed 3000m in height. Today this remains the most politically sensitive of the so-called north eastern hill states, and is all but closed to foreigners.
The traditional art prevalent in Nagaland for many centuries is weaving. Colurful Naga Shawls, table mats, wooden carvings and banboo works can be bought as souvenirs. Tribal dances are another added attraction that the stae of Nagaland has to offer. These dances are performed during festivals, marriages, harvests or just for enjoyment.
Although the capital of Nagaland, Kohima, 74km east of Dimapur bordering the Assam Valley, was built by the British in the nineteenth century. It was never a hill station, and lacks Victorian promenades, villas and public gardens. It was founded here – alongside the large Angami village known as Kohima Village, or in the adopted Hindusthani as Bara Basti (the large village) – strictly for the purposes of administration, and continues in much the same vein under a new regime. A more intimate glimpse of traditional Naga life is offered by the walk up to Bara Basti, or the short trip to Khonoma, 20km beyond Kohima, the Nagas’ once impregnable stronghold, sacked by the British in 1879 and again by the Indian army in 1956.
The Japfu peak, Dzakou Valley, Khonoma village and Mokokchung are the places around Kohima which should be visited. Jhum or shifting cultivation on terraced fields can be seen everywhere in the state. Rice is the most important foodgrain of Nagaland.
From villages perched high on the mountain ridges to either side of the valleys of Nagaland, Naga tribes people survey their separate domains. Headhunters until not so long ago, the Nagas have long been feared and respected throughout the northeast, although in truth they are a warm and welcoming people. They seem originally to have lived in northeast Tibet, then moved through southwest China into Burma, Malaya and Indonesia, as well as eastern Assam. In Nagaland, they can be divided into sixteen main groups, including the Angamis around Kohima, the Konyaks, Ao, Lothas, Semas and Wanchus. Despite their fierce reputation, all are essentially farmers who cultivate terraced fields and tend cattle.
Traditionally, Nagas differentiated between the soul, a celestial body, and the spirit, a supernatural being, believing that the human soul resided in the nape of the neck and could only be set free by beheading, while the spiritual being, in the head, brought good fortune. Heads of enemies and fallen comrades were collected to add to those of the community’s own ancestors. Some tribes decorated their faces with tattoos of swirling horns to mark success in headhunting. Trophies were hoarded in each village in the men’s meeting house, or morung, which also served as the boys’ dormitory. This large open hall was decorated with fantastic carvings of animals, elephant heads and tusks. Constructed of wood and bamboo, morungs were frequently destroyed by fire, along with the precious collection of heads; however, the benevolent spirits were retained by the re-creation of the lost collection in carved wood. In addition, the Naga still construct megalithic monuments, which line the approaches to villages, and come to personify those who erect them after death. Menhirs stand in pairs or in long double rows, to honour fame and generosity or enhance the fertility of a field. The Angamis were never ruled by chiefs; the closest equivalent is the Tevo, a descendant of the founder of the village and mediator between the community and the supernatural world. Each village is sub-divided into khel, which in the past often had independent inter-tribal policies, and who settled their own disputes by bloody fights. Relations between the sexes traditionally were conducted with great openness and equality. Few first marriages led to a permanent union, and in spite of the Christian influence divorce remains common.
Although each tribe has its own dialect, a pidgin drawn from various Naga languages, Assamese and even Nepalese, has developed into the common Nagamese tongue. As the Nagas have been integrated into the modern world, their traditions are under threat. In an effort to realign society along so-called civilized lines, boys are encouraged to live at home with their parents, and morungs are discouraged and left to fall into ruin.