Storytellers contest 2013
Tribes of the Northeast
It’s a lovely day. Would you like to watch us sacrifice a pig?” I was in Arunachal Pradesh, in a village 300 km from China and being cordially invited to witness a very graphic part of human history, ceremonial animal slaughter. It wasn’t on my itinerary. Neither was the temperature of 5 degrees C, since places in the northeast are not as easily researched on the internet.
Would I like to watch a pig sacrifice? A mind-boggling question. I was torn between mounting horror and brazen curiosity and the latter triumphed. But that wasn’t surprising because I’d already been in practice for the past week; practising putting aside all my limited ideas of India and its rugged right arm and the sometimes foreign, sometimes familiar people who live here.
For an Indian, that’s what a trip to the northeast really is about. Bombing the myth of “Indianness” and wondering what the hell keeps these hills and forests and tribes together under the same flag as yours. Because language, cuisine, customs and patriotism certainly aren’t it.
For an Indian, that’s what a trip to the northeast really is about. Bombing the myth of “Indianness”.
I had been in the northeast for some time, rising before sunrise (a habit dropped like a hot spoon the instant I got home) and driving on choppy roads towards wildlife sanctuaries, tribal villages, war cemeteries and still-asleep tea estates. I’d head back to my lodgings by 4 pm every day when the ridiculously prematurely dipping sun reminded me that I’m out east.
I quickly learned that tribes are the key to a real north-eastern experience. They are the oldest and most authentic raconteurs of north-eastern lore, since this region was basically one huge network of independent chiefdoms before the alien concept of capital cities took hold. And if there is a master key, it must be the Nagas.
Tribal woman weaving scarf in Mon village.
Girl students dressed for dance fest in Mon Town.
Boy students dressed for dance fest in Mon Town.
As I said, the northeast shatters your definition of Indian. Nowhere was this truer than in Nagaland. I went to Mon, a district so remote it’s impossible to get to from within the state itself – you have to drive through Assam instead. This place is big on the international “offbeat” trail. Featured in Michael Palin’s BBC series Himalaya and filmed during Gordon Ramsay’s food odyssey through the subcontinent, Mon offered the exotic tribal deal – fierce, outlandishly dressed warriors with a penchant for macabre home décor and freshly hunted meat.
Land of the head-hunting Konyaks.
The morung of male dormitory of Mon village lay empty. I was privileged to be here. In the old days, a woman would never be allowed in for fear of overhearing risqué “guy talk”. Young boys were taken in and assigned progressively more important duties as they grew up – from carrying firewood to participating in ferocious territory wars.
Killing an enemy or being an exceptional shot earned you facial tattoos, a tradition on the wane since the Christian missionaries arrived to build churches and schools and replace pagan beliefs with their own. Fifty-odd years passed, and the last generation of the traditional Konyaks is now fading away.
I mulled this over in the home of the village chief’s (angh’s) brother. “They are from India” introduced my guide Achem with a geopolitically significant choice of words. Our host and his companion were mixing hairy-looking leaves with strips of black opium to prepare their preferred poison. Each drag was washed down with a swig of black tea. Smoke curled up as if from a couple of dragons in the darkening hut.
These were silent, tired, middle-aged men who wanted to dream away the day’s labour without wasting breath on idle chatter. I watched for a while and walked out into the yard. A bunch of shrieking kids was zooming down the road on improvised wooden wagons.
Bison and buffalo skull trophies on Shianghachingnyu Angh's house.
The road to neighbouring Shianghachingnyu village wound past thickets of beheaded trees, victims of slash-and-burn cultivation. Atop its hill stood an imposing house hung with hundreds of animal skulls on its exterior walls. Home of the angh.
Angh's trophies in Shianghachingnyu village
A smaller pile of human skulls was carelessly heaped outside, just lying there and grinning up at me with a handful of tenacious teeth. These were the remains of the angh’s decapitated enemies; boiled, stripped of flesh and preserved as battle “trophies”. Konyak land, in fact, was once teeming with human skull trophies which the horrified missionaries promptly ordered buried. But the former angh of this village was a bit of a rebel. He refused to surrender his trophies to the missionaries, cunningly hiding them in a hole under his bed until they left. I tried to imagine sleeping on top of my slain foes’ skulls night after night. It’s so… freaky.
His college-going, English-speaking grandson Khaopa leaned in the doorway with the nonchalance of a boy who knows his pedigree. I asked how many wives he will take. “As many as I like,” he laughed, holding out a sweet lime the size of a baby’s head.
Another opium party was going on at the blacksmith’s. A hunting rifle waited unfinished on the floor. Every house in the village had at least two or three because every boy wants one. Licenses, of course, are superfluous. How long does it take to make one gun? “Well, normally a week,” said the smith, “but when we are smoking…” and the room erupted into guffaws.
Majuli ferry on the Brahmaputra
I left for Jorhat the next morning. Looking out of the car window I was momentarily surprised to see a lake. It was a thick layer of fog between the mountains.
This visual magnificence was rudely interrupted by the rickety wooden ferry that took me from Jorhat in Assam, to Ziro in Arunachal, via Majuli Island in the middle of the Brahmaputra. I felt like Vitalstatistix sitting belowdecks, as every footstep on the overloaded planks above threatened to send it all crashing down. My ferry-fellows included slimy sacks of fish and cows that jumped comically onto the boat. This unexpected proximity to farm animals was but a tame prelude to Arunachal.
My guide Koj in pine forest in Ziro
Ziro was a gem of a place. It’s a place made for strolling through unfairly spectacular pine groves, breaching the tourist barrier with tribesfolk, and learning new words like extispicy.
As a road lined with thin spring-fed waterfalls and bright red poinsettia bushes brought me to this hill station, my heart was pierced by proverbial sunrays only to have it rain all night and freeze my bones in bed. But the morning was crisp and clear and perfect for a hike.
Paddy fish farm in Ziro
I followed my guide Koj up a trail overlooking a carpet of purple and ochre ferns merging into bluish-green pine forest. The trees nearest to me had water droplets clinging to their pine needles like crystals. And the tiny fish breeding in paddy nurseries below were blanketed with salmon-pink and pistachio-green moss. Have you ever felt saturated with beauty?
Apatani woman waiting in line for NREGA card
We visited Hong, a go-to village for meeting the elder Apatani women, who stand out in a crowd with their large nose-plugs. Many say the famously beautiful girls of this tribe began disfiguring themselves this way to avoid being abducted by enemy men. The Apatani are some of the kindliest, most hospitable people you will find in the northeast. I was glad they responded to my Hindi and eliminated the need for a translator, which had somehow diluted and distanced my conversations with the Nagas.
Like in Nagaland, Christianity also found its way here but most families stayed true to their animist beliefs. Little did I know I was about to be given proof. I was taking pictures of a few kids playing in an unfinished bamboo house when their parents beckoned me. Somewhere in the yard, two pigs moaned in distress.
Pig being brought to slaughter
Children watching the pig sacrifice
First pig's heart steaming on a skewer
The first started screaming even before they touched it. I stood transfixed as the piteous beast was subdued, tied and brought over to the porch to be ritually bathed. I assumed they would just cut its throat but they reminded me that it’s a sacrifice. And there is a method.
The pigs were disturbingly quiet as one of the men made neat incisions and prised out their hearts. The kids had stopped playing and were watching with interest. Two hearts on a skewer, still pumping and steaming lustily in the wintry air. The priest would eat these and the other body parts would be distributed according to seniority in the family. The blood would be had with rice like some special kind of dal. But feasting could commence only after the priest divined the family’s fortune from the slain beasts’ entrails. Like the ancient Romans did.
Koj's house in Ziro
Koj took me to his house afterwards. I sat by the fire and munched on delicious buns while we toasted each other with “O”, the local rice beer. Christmas was knocking at the door, big red paper-stars had been put up on roofs and “O” would soon be flowing liberally around many a hearth in Ziro. Processions of young girls and boys were already floating down the road. Their faces glowed in the candlelight and they sang carols in Apatani.
(This story was first published in Lonely Planet Magazine India)