Sunday, January 6, 2013

Will Nagas Maintain their Indigenous Traditions? A Tour of the Khonoma Village

Yesterday, Mike and I traveled about one hour outside of Kohima on a very rough dirt road to the Angami village of Khonoma. Khonoma sits on the ridge of the mountains and is blessed with ample water supply for its abundant rice paddy and vegetable harvests. 
Traditional circle where men would congregate, share stories,
and drink rice beer. In the distance, you can see the rice fields
where the women would work.

The village became well known for their successful defense against the British who invaded and eventually took over in 1876. 

Woman weaving male shawl. This particular design
commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Baptist
church in Khonoma

Today, Khonoma is quiet, beautifully kept, and villagers maintain many of the traditional Naga ways. The women weave and wear traditional shawls. Men hold all-male town meetings to manage the town affairs. People live in wooden houses with ornately carved doors and statues. Women continue to tend to the rice paddy fields. 

A picture of me in 2009 doing a similar style weaving done
 by women in Guatemala who trace their roots to the Maya.

Though the population appeared to be aging, there were still kids in the village and it does appear that these Nagas will continue many of their traditional ways. One always wonders how long that will last? Within Kohima, just one hour away, it feels like a different world. In Khonoma, few villagers speak English and instead are speaking their traditional Angami language, as well as Naga Mis -- which is the lingua franca of Nagaland, a tonal language that allows the Naga people to communicate across tribes.

We enjoyed a traditional Naga meal, prepared in a wood-fired kitchen. I am not a meat-lover, so it was not my favorite food. But the Nagas have always eaten lots of chiles and their cuisine is complex, consisting of smoked and fermented meats, bamboo shoots, and lots and lots of fatty pork.

Our lunch in Khonoma

Naga kitchen. Nagas will eat their meal around the fire (and stove)
while perched on stools.

Nagas hang their meats for up to 4-5 years to dry naturally,
without any additives.  

Nagas broil their pork and mix it with hot chiles.
The pork is very fatty.

Nagas keep their pigs right outside of their houses in
little houses and feed them daily. 
These greens are a type of cabbage that grown on a stalk.
Mike and I saw this same plant in abundance in Croatia.

After lunch, Mike and I went on a tour of our host's kitchen garden. He was growing all kinds of traditional herbs, including ginko, that had cures for malaria, kidney stones, high blood pressure, stomach aches, and diabetes. 
Our host was also keeping honey bees!

Throughout the village, Mike and I saw remnants of the tigers and elephants that used to live in the Naga hills. The hunting Nagas have killed off many animals, and recently their are efforts to ban hunting except at certain times of the year.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

India's Untold Genocide of the Nagas

Since I am about to leave Nagaland, it's time to write about the largely untold war and genocide that has defined this region since the British arrived in 1832. While Mike and I are staying in the most peaceful region of Nagaland at perhaps the most peaceful moment in its history, the past is present. Underneath the surface of a proud and forward-thinking people are wounds that will take generations to heal.

Timelines help me to make sense of the various waves of British colonizers, missionaries, Indian Government advances and attacks, and various Naga independence movements that have fought over this remote area in Eastern India. Since there is so little information out there on the Naga people, I felt it was important to get this out there—and I hope it may serve as a launching pad for those who study or travel to this area in the future.

Thought battered, these signs are hidden around Kohima.

Timeline of the Naga People
Please note that this is a rudimentary timeline constructed from two major sources—A Pilgrimage to the Nagas by Milada Ganguli and Between David and Goliath by Frans Welman. Both books are excellent sources on the Naga history and the more recent politics of the Naga fight for independence from India.

Traditional all male village meeting in Khonoma,
an hour drive from Kohima
Pre- 1832 –             Naga warriors from the Angami, Ao, Rengma, Konyak, Zeliang, Lotha, Chakhesang, Yimchungru, Chang, Dimasa, Garo, Phom, Sema, Khiamniungan, Kuki, Lotha, Pochury, Sangtam, and Sumi tribes live in their traditional ways, mostly isolated from outside influence. (Note: the Ao’s who were more accessible via the plains of Assam traded more regularly with the Hindu kingdoms of Assam.)  The Naga's world was small, but also rich with customs. They held gennas, festivals to promote the growing season and celebrate their warrior prowess. They carved ornate wood sculptures, wove shawls and clothing (that slightly resemble some of the works of the indigenous communities I have come to know in Peru, Mexico and Guatemala). They hollowed out larger tree trunks to make large drums that they used to communicate from far distances. They domesticated a native bison called the Mithun. They made rice beer, smoked tobacco and sometimes opium. They sang and danced. And of course, they head hunted.   

Nagas "smoked" their meats by hanging them in their wood-fired kitchens. They would cut off small pieces to add to spicy shutneys.

1832 –             First British Military officers attempt to raid Angami villages in the southern part of today’s Nagaland (near where Mike and I have been staying.) This begins 50 years of warfare between British soldiers and Naga villages. During this time, thousands of Nagas died defending their lands and their ways of life.

1839 –             US Baptist Missionary Reverend Miles Bronson attempts to convert the Nagas in the northern part of Nagaland.

1876  -             US Baptist Missionary Rev. Clark from Boston establishes first Christian town among the Ao tribe in a place called Molungyimsen in northwestern Nagaland.

Memorial in Khonoma to High ranking
British officer killed in battle.
1878 –             British forces take city of Kohima in southern Nagaland. This British India victory was significant and marked the first solid takeover of about 1/3 of what is today’s Nagaland. As a result of the fierce defense by Naga warriors, the British Indian soldiers left the other 2/3 of Nagaland as a free Naga frontier territory. Even within the 1/3 that British India controlled, Naga’s maintained separate village councils, which still function today. Also at this time, the British penalized acts of Naga head hunters by burning down the perpetrators' villages and tendering extreme fines.

One of very few memorial to the Nagas who died fighting the British. Note, that
I have seen no memorials for the Naga who have died in battle with India.

1929 –             The Naga Club (one of the first unified organizations across Naga tribes) sent a formal memorandum to the British Commission stating that they would not join India when the British departed. (This request was later ignored.) 

1929 -              A famous female Naga freedom fighter, Rani Gaidinliu, emerges from the Rengma tribe in Zelialong area of what is today the hills of Manipur. She went on to be jailed by the British for 14 years before returning to her village, where she continued small-scale efforts to maintain the traditions of her people and maintain independence from the British. 

1944 -      The famous Battle of Kohima in WWII is fought beween the British and Japanese. British win while Japanese claim Burma.

1946-                         The Naga National Council (NNC), first formal political organization of the Naga people, was set up to negotiate their secession from British India and India.

1947 –             Indian National Independence

1947 –             The Naga National Council (NNC) declares independence from India.

1948 –             The new Indian government begins raids of Naga villages in what is now Manipur, south of present day Nagaland. These raids continue for the next decade. NNC elders are hunted down and killed. The Indian government attempts to legitimize their genocide of the Nagas by identifying them as dangerous insurgents.

1958 –             The Indian government passes the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which gives them the right to “shoot to kill” on mere suspicion of “insurgency.”  The Indian army, Assam Rifles, goes on to kill over 100,000 Nagas, rounding them up into 59 concentration camps.

1964 –             Ceasefire and peace talks begin between the Indian Government and the NNC.

1964 -  The Indian government grants the area that is now Nagaland statehood. This leaves out Naga tribes that are in today’s Burma, Manipur and Assam. Although statehood brought the beginning of peace to some Naga villages, it also formalized a system of divide and conquer that the Indian government has used to maintain control over the Naga people up until today. The Indian government would fund and arm different Naga insurgency groups to promote infighting. Today, many Naga people can trace the murder of family members to Naga insurgency groups that were funded by the Indian government. This internal conflict makes efforts to unite the Naga people and secede from India difficult.

1966 -             Through peace talk negotiations, Mrs. Indira Ghandi offers a Bhutan-like independence for the Naga people, but the NNC rejects the offer. Peace talks break off. The Indian government begins an active campaign to eliminate Christianity and force the Naga people to accept Hinduism. Christian Nagas are denied education and armed occupancy by the Indian army returns to Nagaland.

1972 -                        International boundary between Myanmar and India is formed. The border goes directly through some Naga villages (including one family’s home.) The killing of the Naga people by the Indian government and among the various Naga insurgency groups continues.

1975 -                        India imposes the Shillong Accord – which forces the NNC and other Naga leaders to accept the Indian Constitution and hand over their arms. Some leaders, battered by years of mass killings, surrender and accept the Indian government terms. Others formed splinter groups. The infighting among Naga groups continues.

1980            -             The National Socialist Council of Nagalim (NSCN) is Formed in resistance to the NNC. Infighting continues among the Naga political groups as does the presence of the Indian military.

1988            -            NSCN Splinters into two groups: NSCN led by Khaplang and NSCN – led by Isak and Muivah. The Indian government maintains its divide and conquer approach to keep the Naga people from uniting against the Indian government.

1997 -    Peace talks begin again. The Indian government realizes that armed occupancy will not solve their problem with the Naga people. Peace talks take place over the coming years in Amsterdam and in New York.

2000 -                Nagaland state hosts the first annual Hornbill Festival in Kohima in an effort to highlight the traditional festivals, traditions, dress and art forms of the 16 major Naga tribes. The festival is held in early December and continues today. 

2002 -                        The Indian government, through the peace talks, acknowledges that Nagaland has a separate history. This acknowledgment is taken as a victory by some Naga people.

Present-            Infighting and active combat by the Indian army (Assam Rifles) continues, particularly in areas of northern Manipur, outside of Nagaland. Naga political groups continue to push for independence and a continuation of recently stalled peace talks. Here's a recent article that sheds light on the constant conflict in Manipur.  Honestly, it would take months and months of study to write 500 solid words on the more than five Naga resistance movements currently active. 

Will the Naga people ever unite? Will they ever gain independence from the Indian Government?
In our time in Kohima, Mike and I have been in the most peaceful area of Nagaland. Here many Nagas have benefited from the ceasefire with the Indian government and have even grown wealthy off of the Indian governments significant financial investments in the state. While the Indian Government pumps millions into the state of Nagaland, Nagas do not pay taxes to the central government. Instead, we are told that it is common for Nagas to pay off various Naga insurgency groups as a way to maintain peace. 

The Indian government’s control through the purse strings and massive infrastructure investments in the development of a relatively undeveloped state seems to maintain enough peace and tranquility that a Naga fight for independence seems elusive right now. As one Naga shared with me, “the fruit is not yet ripe to pick Naga independence right now.” 

On the other hand, hundreds of thousands of Nagas have not seen the benefits of India’s financial investments in the state. Likewise, their memories of murder and mass destruction of their villages and family members are too raw, and too recent to ever imagine accepting the status quo.
For more information on the Naga struggle, check out the books I mention above, as well as this website of the Naga International Support Center.

Billy Graham in Nagaland

The amount of signs with psalms, crosses, and churches in Nagaland rivals the U.S. Bible belt. In fact, it's not possible to understand how Nagaland has developed without understanding the role of Christianity. 
Here's my basic attempt to make sense of it. (Check out my friend Heather Layton's blog for a much better description of Nagaland and the role of religion here.)

Today, Nagaland is the largest Baptist state in the world; as much as 70% of the population is Baptist and over 90% is Christian. Religion is everywhere. Sunday, the city nearly shuts down as families pack into churches. Christian colleges and schools abound, and alcohol of all kinds are officially banned. Despite the alcohol ban, most Nagas find ways to access liquor through the black market. Yet politicians have avoided challenging the alcohol ban--largely because of the power of the church.

Why is Jesus so important in Nagaland? Although the Naga people originally held strong animus spiritual beliefs, Christianity reached them in the1850s when U.S. Baptists sent missionaries to these isolated hills. Nagaland’s neighboring areas of Assam had been converted into Hinduism and Burma into Buddhism, but only the Christian missionaries were up to the challenge of venturing into the remote hills of the warring Naga headhunters. 

Imagine the journey these fervent missionaries made to reach the Naga villages?! Again, Nagaland is landlocked without any navigable rivers, and the landscape is mountainous. 

Regardless, in 1839, Reverend Miles Bronson from the U.S. Baptist Church attempted to convert the Nagas who were most accessible and closest to Assam (where Baptists were already established.) He eventually failed due to illness (and probably because the Nagas rejected him). But he is still honored here in Nagaland.

Rev. Miles Bronson attempted to convert
the Nagas in 1839.

The first real and lasting contact between missionaries and Nagas was around 1869 when Rev. Dr. E.W. Clark from Boston connected with the powerful Ao tribe. In 1876 Clark established the first Christian town among the Ao tribe in a place called Molungyimsen in north-western Nagaland. By 1911, this settlement had produced the Ao-English dictionary--bringing written language to the Naga tribe for the first time. Soon after, Ao pastors began to convert other Naga tribes. From 1920 through the 1970s, Baptist evangelicals spread their word throughout Nagaland. They brought Jesus, schools and hospitals.  

Today, many Nagas credit the church for helping to unite the different tribes and for bringing classic education, English and the written language. Even among some of the artists that Mike and I have met (more on this later), Christianity is influential. It also seems that the abundance of musicians within Nagaland may have something to do with their upbringing in the Baptist Christian church.

There is no doubt that Baptists won the Naga hearts. Still today, Nagaland is the largest Baptist state in the world. In April, 2012 Billy Graham’s daughter came to speak as the Nagaland Baptist Church Council celebrated 75 years. Hailing over 600,000 members, the Baptist church claims the vast majority of Nagas.

I pulled the following statistics from the American Baptist International Ministries Website. In 2011, the Christian Baptist Convention of Northeastern India (which also includes Nagaland’s bordering states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal) had 7,804 churches and 1,045,804 baptized members! 

What I find curious is that despite the significant role of the Christian church in everyday life here, the church seems to stay out of politics. Though the Nagas have been fighting for independence from India for decades, the Church (the heart of the Naga people) is asent from the fight. Similarly, despite an abundance of traditional Christian values in Nagaland, corruption among the political class who controls much of the state's pursestrings still abounds. 

Obviously my cursory look at Christianity in Nagaland offers few answers--but it will be fascinating to see how the church's influence changes as Nagaland continues to develop. Will it maintain its power over subsequent generations of Nagas? Will it become more political or remain quiet as the government of India and Naga liberation movements fight for a peaceful resolution?

Friday, January 4, 2013

World War II Battle of Kohima 1944

In Kohima, the capitol of Nagaland, the two largest, most beautiful public spaces have nothing to do with the Naga people. They were designed to honor British and Japanese soldiers who fought a famous WWII battle here in 1944.

If Kohima were Washington, D.C. these memorials would be like the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument--at least in terms of significance to the skyline, the city plan, and even to tourists. I find this curious since the Nagas have lost as many of 200,000 people in their decades-long war for independence from India since 1947 (more on this later). Nagas also lost many warriors who fought off British soldiers before they colonized the city of Kohima in 1878. Where is their memorial? But of course, the history of western imperialism, as well as the complex, sensitive and ongoing politics of the Naga independence movement, makes a Naga civil war memorial impossible at this time.

Instead, it is common to see Naga families taking a weekend picnic in either the British World War II memorial or the Japanese memorial. Both commemorate the Battle of Kohima, a more than 3-month battle from April-June, 1944, during which British and British Indian soldiers successfully fought back Japanese forces who had entered this easternmost point of India through Burma. I am no WWII historian, but a basic Google search suggests that had the outcome been different in this Battle of Kohima, the Japanese may have advanced, claiming India and possibly more of the west.

Today, the picturesque British World War II Memorial sits where the bloodiest part of the battle occurred on the tennis court of the then British Deputy Commissioner stationed in Nagaland.

The Japanese World War II memorial is a large Catholic Church perched high on a ridge. Although the Baptist missionaries converted the largest number of Nagas and the Baptist church continues to be the most powerful influence, the Catholic Church also has followers. 

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Nagaland: Where Poinsettias Grow Like a Weed

Thanks to my mother who is quite a gardener, I have picked up a fascination with flora and fauna, and wherever I travel, I take note of what is similar and different from my native Washington, D.C. In Nagaland--literally on the other side of the globe--it has been fascinating to observe foliage. The stark, subtropical mountains of Kohima remind me of areas of Oaxaca, Mexico, which also has a similar climate of a rainy season and a very dry season. We are up higher here than in most parts of Oaxaca--so there are differences, but there are still abundant chiles, poinsettias growing wild, and the occasional banana tree or sugar cane (just to remind you that we are near the tropics:)

Poinsettias grow EVERYWHERE.
We are here during the winter, the dry season. So less is blooming. But here are some shots of the foliage. I am also including some shots from the market to give you a sense of the local produce.

Dzukou - a valley sitting on top of 8000 ft. mountains. In the summer, it if full of wild flowers.

These mountains resemble the highlands of Oaxaca and Puebla, Mexico.

Nagas boil and eat these beautiful leaves.
Nagas eat their food HOT.





Rhodedendum - in the mountains near Kohima, sits the largest Rohdedendrum in the world.