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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

New Year of the Headhunters

While compiling photos and stories of unexplored areas of Burma to complete my book which would become titled "The Vanishing Tribes of Burma", I knew that there was still one very important area in the north-west to visit. Nagaland.
Nagaland had been off limits for 50 years, and the last comprehensive book on the Nagas, "The Naked Nagas", by Christoher Von Furer Heimendorf  had been published in 1939. The Naga, confirmed headhunters, were, and probably still are, in the remote Patkai Bum range of mountains. Naga tribes live in both India and Burma and travel back and forth as they wish. Nothing is more troublesome to central governments than groups of nomadic hill tribes who pack up and move at will. Porous borders, far away from any government control mean nothing to the Naga since they have no national identity, only that of kinship with their own tribe or clan.
I had been in contact with the Naga Cultural Committee since March 1996 through my friend the Bishop of Myitkyina, Bishop Paul Grawng, I  had received word that they were expecting me to join them for Naga New Year in January 1997.
Getting an air ticket issued in Rangoon to Singkaling Hkamti the closest airport to the Naga Hills was impossible. As time was beginning to run out, I flew to Mandalay and with a bit of help, and a new crisp $100 dollar bill, I was issued a ticket. The land route was not possible and even on modern maps Singkaling Hkamti was shown without the airstrip at which I would be landing. As far as I knew, I would be the first foreigner to ever witness the New Year event. In Mandalay, two immigration officials and one military intelligence man in dark Ray Ban's joined me and said that they would "help me to get aboard".
The flight was 1 hour and 20 minutes and we touched down in the small plane on a dirt runway raising clouds of dust behind us.
Singkaling Hkamti is on the Chindwin River just a few days hike to India. By now it became clear that the immigration guys had been assigned to me, to follow me where ever I went and to make sure I didn't just wander away in to the hills and disappear. I accepted the arrangement and told them that if they were going to follow me that they should at least carry my heavy camera bag and they did. Hell I was older than them, I'd been at this a long time.
We checked in at a guesthouse in town where I had my first glimpse of Naga girls, each with several vertical tattoos from their lower lip to their chin, and a hooked diamond shaped tattoo on their foreheads. The immigration guys were at the guesthouse napping, so I gestured to the curious girls and invited them to join me in a beer bar down the road. It was a dark place where we took a wooden booth and pulled the curtains shut. The waitress brought 3 chilled beers and pulled the red curtains closed. These Naga girls lived in town and were sweet and playful. I traced the ink in their tattoos with my fingers and we laughed and drank beers.
After frolicking with them for some time, I gave one of them my cheap watch, and stumbled back to the guesthouse.
The next morning I woke up my escorts, immigration who camped outside my door, and we walked up a hill to a Naga Morung or men's house, with totems lined with animal skulls. Only a short time before these skulls would have been human. 
As we walked higher up the path to the west, there was in the distance a low monotonous sound of grunting punctuated by high pitched screaming and rhythmic singing. As the sounds became louder we sensed that they were coming our way, so we stood frozen at the side of the trail. Over a crest of the hill came about 60 Naga warriors running with ox-leather shields and long spears covered in dyed red goat fur which they raised in unison. They wore woven-rattan hats, some with designs in red and yellow, circled with black monkey fur draped with wild boar tusks hanging over their eyebrows. Each hat was topped with long black and white hornbill feathers rising up from the center. Some warriors had their chins and jaws ringed in tiger claws. Around their necks they wore red beads and tiger teeth. These men were elegant and lithe, with the finely carved muscles of athletes. As they ran past, singing and screaming, I thought that the last time any foreingers had seen such an amazing spectacle, had their ears singed by these war chants, they were about to ceremonously lose their heads. The Naga were coming down from the hills.
All through the day and into the evening, hundreds of men and women from Kuki, Layshi, Lahe and distant mountains came in all directions.
I spent the rest of the day with the Naga Cultural Committee and photographed. The committee members told me that there were to be sacrifices beginning at 3a.m as a necessary cleansing ceremony for the ground on which the festival would be held, and that I would be the first foreigner to ever witness the event. Shortly before 3a.m, the committee leaders came to wake me and my immigration men and we all walked uphill toward the festival grounds in the cold January darkness.
At the festival ground a blazing fire was fed by whole logs. The Naga led a docile buffalo with enormous horns, several squealing pigs and many chickens. The buffalo was tied in place , and wedged his legs into a bamboo lattice with a rope over his head, and through his nostrils which were belching steam. The Naga began to sing and chant, dancing around the rising flames and punctuated the silent night with screams. As the animal's chest began to heave in fear, a Naga chief in a black and red robe whispered into the buffalo's ear, asking him to die willingly and peacefully, and blessed him with kongye, a milky rice beer. One warrior silently removed his dah, a long knife with sharpened edges and with one swift stroke chopped through the tendons at the back of the animals legs so he could not jump. the buffalo's shock and agony were short-lived as another warrior plunged a long spear into his heart.
I was asked by the committee members  to don a hat and black and red blanket with cowry shells and give a testimonial  to the Naga for their New Years celebration. In a short speech which was translated I thanked them for their invitation and hospitality and we toasted with my scotch and their kongye.
Early the next morning at the festival ground the kongye began to flow again and I was given a chair a the front table with the Naga councillors.
I remembered a story that one of the priests from Myitkyina had told me about the time he had brought a group of Konyak Naga girls to Mandalay.
"You must wear T-shirts", he had told them. "You cannot go in to town naked".
"But the T-shirts itch", they protested. "We cannot wear them".
"You must wear them when we are in town", the priest insisted.
The next day, the priest went to collect the girls for the sightseeing trip around Mandalay. They were wearing the T-shirts he had given them with a picture of Pope John II on the front, but they had cut holes for their breasts to poke through on each side of the pontiff's head.
At the celebration, Naga girls who were not topless continually poured kongye into the hollow lenghts of bamboo we were given as cups. By now all of the Naga groups had arrived, the Hunimya, the Makhury, the Naukawe, the Kuki, and the Lai Nawg. The Tanghkul and Kohyak Naga were absent, perhaps in the case of the Konyak, because of the government's requirement for them to wear clothes, as they would never do.
The Naga assembled and danced, some in monkey fur leggings and black blankets with red squares. Some had thick ivory bands from elephant tusks worn around their arms. Hundreds marched around shouting,
"Wow wah, wow wah" while beating their leather shields against their legs and screaming shrill war cries. Some shouted "Ah hay" which was high praise. Girls served pork, chicken and beef with wild mushrooms and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.
The feasing and drinking, dancing and singing continued all day and into the night, with different groups performing. Some of the girls were flirtatious, while other were shy. Girls of the Kuki Naga wore huge tufts of white fur in their ears, with strands of dyed-red goat fur nearly touching their shoulders. Some of the songs and dances were of war and triumph, when the villagers would welcome the warriors back home with the trophies of human heads they had taken in raids on other clans. Several of the warriors now dancing around the fire wore long strands of human hair from their ears.
This practice had supposedly been stopped, but I had heard of heads being taken in raids as little as three years before. And now, in the Patkai Bum range and the Angpawng Bum northwest of here, who really knew?

There seemed to be no taboos regarding sexual relations between boys and girls and many wandered off into the bushes. Late at night, when everyone had drunk their share of kongye, fist-fights broke out, and some of the girls could be seen carrying their drunken menfolk away on their backs, not really struggling under the weight, but staggering nonetheless, silhouetted against the moonlight.
Unfortunately something this good could not last. It didn't. Naga New Year today is a correographed  stage show with tour guides in Rangoon charging $1,500 U.S.Dollars per person to a throng of tourists probably outnumbering the Naga, who are allowed to attend for only one day, and take pictures of the backs of each others heads.