On the Myanmar border, south of Arunachal Pradesh and east of Assam , NAGALAND is physically and conceptually at the very edge of the Subcontinent. Home to the fiercely independent Nagas, its hills and valleys were only opened up to tourism in 2000. One of India ‘s most beautiful states, it was once renowned for its head-hunters but is now ninety percent Christian.
When the British arrived in neighbouring Assam in the mid-nineteenth century, they initially left the Naga warrior tribes alone. But after continued Naga raids on Assamese villages, the British sought to push them back into the hills. The Angami warriors (a Naga tribe) defeated the British twice, but were finally overcome in 1879, and a truce was declared. The British later came to hold a certain authority here; the Nagas remained loyal during World War II and fought valiantly against the Japanese invaders. At the time of Independence , the Nagas found their land divided into two, with the larger area falling to Burma . Gandhi asked them to remain within India for ten years, promising them choice of destiny thereafter. His promise was never fulfilled, and more than sixty years on, the Nagas are still fighting for a homeland. Though a ceasefire is officially in place, violence continues – a bomb in 2004 killed seventy people in Dimapur, the largest attack in recent years.
A visit to a Naga village provides a fascinating insight into a rapidly disappearing way of life. Most tour operators will arrange trips here, but some Nagas are tired of having their homes on show. If you do visit, bring a gift and ensure your guide speaks the relevant dialect. You should also offer money for the village to the chief (or angh).
Traditional Angami villages surround the capital of Kohima, including Khonoma. From Mon you can see various Konyak villages such as Shangnyu. The Ao tribe inhabits Mokokchung, while Tuensang is home to six different tribes. The state’s terrain is also ideal for trekking and mountain biking – Gurudongma Tours & Treks arranges trips. A good time to visit the state is during the Hornbill Festival, held in the first week in December, which showcases Naga art, dance, music and sport. You’ll need a permit to enter Nagaland.
KOHIMA, Nagaland’s capital, was built alongside the large Angami village of Kohima by the British in the nineteenth century. Traditional Naga villages – including Khonoma, 20km beyond Kohima, Jakhema and Kigwema – are just a short drive away.
Spread loosely over the saddle of two large hills, Kohima forms a pass that played a strategic role during World War II. The Imphal–Dimapur highway – the route along which the Japanese hoped to reach the plains of India – crosses the saddle at the foot of the World War II Cemetery, designed by Edwin Lutyens, in a peaceful location overlooking the town. It stands tribute to the Allies who died during the three-month Battle of Kohima, which ended in June 1944 with a death toll of over ten thousand soldiers.
The Cathedral, on the way out of town towards the State Museum , contains India ‘s largest wooden crucifix, while the fascinating State Museum in Bayavu Hill Colony, a twenty-minute walk from the centre, has an excellent collection of Naga jewellery, costumes, spears, corsets and crafts.
The large Angami settlement of Kohima village is set on a high hill overlooking modern Kohima. Only a few of the buildings still have the traditional pitched roofs and crossed “house-horns” on the gables, but its tightly knit labyrinth of lanes gives the village a definite Naga feel. Carved heads to signify family status, grain baskets in front of the houses, and troughs used to make rice beer are among the distinctive features.
Naga warriors have long been feared and respected, and head-hunting was practised within living memory. They are also skilful farmers, growing twenty different species of rice. They differentiate between the soul and the spirit, believing the soul resides in the nape of the neck, while the spirit, in the head, holds great power and brings good fortune. Heads of enemies and fallen comrades were once collected to add to those of the community’s own ancestors. Some tribes tattooed their faces with swirling horns to mark success in head-hunting. The heads themselves were kept in the men’s meeting house (morung) in each village, which was decorated with fantastic carvings of animals, elephant heads and tusks – you can still see examples in many villages. Although each tribe has its own dialect, a hybrid language drawn from various local languages and Assamese has developed into the common Naga tongue.