A week in my neighbourhood: Day 7, 8 & 9 ( Nagaland)

Day 7 (Dec 22nd, Monday):

K2 and I decided to hike up Japfu peak ( highest peak in Nagaland, I believe) – while J and M went to interview some people at the Secretariat and establish some contacts.

We were dropped at the Japfu college by our driver – it took us a while to find the trailhead, since there were no signboards or anything of the sort. We finally ended up on an unmarked trail, landed up in a potato farmer’s field, and he guided us back to the main trail. Halfway up the hike,  K2 felt unwell, and we had to abandon the hike. K2 got some good pics of the village women walking up to their fields.

We ate chowmein at a resort type place – after a few hours, K2 and I were puking our guts out. We spent the afternoon and evening in misery, taking turns to throw up –K2 not even sparing the steps of the cathedral in Kohima. ( largest in the NE, just behind the circuit house where we stayed).

J and M did not have a very fruitful day today in terms of interviews, but they managed to get some leads.

Day 8 (Dec 23rd , Tuesday):

We decided to visit Khonoma village today. It is a Angami Naga village, about 20 kms from Kohima.

J and M have been discussing about the Nagas wanting a separate country – so far I had not spoken to any Naga about this, and did not know much about the movement. The visit to Khonoma village showed very clearly how the concept of a separate country for Nagas was deep in the people’s mind.

In the village center, next to the Baptist church, is a stone memorial for “men and women of Khonoma who gave their lives for a free Naga nation”. Further, it says “we remember and salute them and still hold fast to their vision”.

M says that Phizo, father of the movement for a free Naga state, was from this village. Phizo’s movement was largely non-violent. Unfortunately, the current movement is not.

Another stone plaque on the way: ”Nagas are not Indians, their territory is not a part of the Indian Union. We shall uphold and defend this truth at all costs.”

A stone memorial: “In loving memory of <person’s name> who gave their lives for the Naga national cause”.

K2 and I talk about this – we are starting to get a sense of how much Nagas think of themselves as being very different from the rest of India.

Khonoma village is one of the most picturesque villages I have seen. It’s  surrounded by  misty hills  , with terraced paddy cultivation all around.

We stop to hear a woman play the guitar – she invites us into her house, and offers us some very milky tea. We chat for a while – I ask her if she has been to Guwahati, she replies that the furthest she has been to is Dimapur, bordering Assam. She hopes to visit Guwahati some day.

We meet a very stylishly dressed local boy Noel, home from Kohima for the Christmas holidays. He is very self-assured, and talks confidently with us.

K2 took some nice pics of the painted owl, and the village rest-house.

In the afternoon, we go to the War Cemetery – it is one of the few green spaces inside Kohima town. The Cemetery is well maintained – taken care of by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. We read the names of the people – Indians, Dutch, British – sepoys, naiks, doctors.

Late in the afternoon we head to the supermarket. It was quite crowded even in the late afternoon – the women at the stalls were doing  brisk business. Interesting items were on sale – plastic bags of tiny frogs alive and jumping, a string of wriggling caterpillars, a few rodents – and a pheasant-like bird, which I suspect is illegal to sell since the woman immediately hid it when she saw our camera.

We headed to the handloom shops – to check out the different shawls made by the various Naga tribes. Bought a Lotha Naga shawl for J, for Christmas.

We browsed at the supermarket – all the items on sale were Made in China. These goods are smuggled through various routes into India – and make their way to the supermarkets in various hills towns.  Save for a lone Bata store, I did not see any other branded goods apparel store in Kohima.

Day 9 (Dec 24th  , Wednesday):

Kohima – Dimapur – Golaghat ( Rongapani) – Bokakhat – Nagaon ( Next day Guwahati).

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A Week in my Neighbourhood: Day 6 ( Don Bosco Institute)

We wake up early, and start driving through thick fog from Jorhat towards Dimapur ( in Nagaland). Our first stop today is at the Don Bosco Institute – a missionary center.

Talking to Father Thomas, in charge of the institute, was interesting, in view of the community development work that we are hoping to undertake through our NGO. The Don Bosco institute has been actively working with the Mising community for a few years now, achieving some degree of success in helping the community develop. Bosconian missionaries work with youth around the world and the Bosconians here are involved in similar effort. They were training selected youth from the Mising community. The youth, in turn, were going out and working in their villages, trying to solve the specific problems of the villages. Talking to the father confirmed what we had heard from the civil official in Margherita – each village had its own specific problems, and addressing those problems needs engagement and involvement from the villagers. This I guess is in keeping with the Self Help Group initiated by the govt, though the self help groups have not really been a huge success in villages from what I have heard so far. But the youth trained by the missionaries seemed to have been more successful – if their future plans are any indication. There is a weaving center being built in the institute, and they have plans for starting a computer center. An interesting issue was also brought up by Father Thomas – apparently a number of youngsters from the villages were seeking jobs as security guards and watchmen in bigger cities – these were educated youth, but they did not have the skills needed for a job. Father Thomas wanted to figure out a way to train these youth so that they would not have to leave their homes for a job that was not financially rewarding. It was interesting since I had run into a number of young Assamese boys working as security guards in Hyderabad, but I did not realize it was a problem in the villages.

K2 and I bought a handloom sample – a kurta with Mising design. We also promised the Father to help with two things –K2 will help him design the database for information on the 250 + villages they are working with and we would also help him in exploring markets for their weaving center. K2 and I thought this would be valuable experience for us to learn how this business worked.

After the Don Bosco Instt.  we drove straight onto Dimapur. On the way, we passed through Karbi Anglong – a disturbed area. We drove straight on to Dimapur – very mindful of the signs that warned us “vehicle theft area – vehicles may be stolen with drugs or guns!”.

The drive took us through some beautiful tea estates. We arrived at Dimapur in the afternoon. J and M went to meet “over-ground” activists from NSCN (K2 and I waited outside the house, and watched the gun-toting men on the rooftops – during a time when ceasefire had been declared between the govt. and the extremists).

The Dimapur to Kohima ride was largely uneventful, but not monotonous thanks to some lively discussions with J. Kohima was beautiful in the evening – the houses all lit up with Christmas lights.

A Week in my Neighbourhood: Day 5 ( Dec 20) – NamPhake village

We retraced our route today – back from Margherita to Jorhat, through Digboi, Tinsukia, Dibrugarh and Sibsagar.

The Digboi museum is really mind blowing – it is a small museum dedicated to preserving the history of the oil industry in the area, but fascinating because it shows how industry developed in this region, which was at that time, jungle covered with isolated pockets of habitation. It piqued my interest – and led to my reading quite voraciously a book called the “History of the Assam Railway and Trading Company” – the company that created the Coal and Oil industry in this region. Coal, oil, tea, the railway making it all possible, opening up routes that linked to the steamer on the Brahmaputra to Calcutta – the pioneers who came to a leech infested rainy jungle to set up these industries – it is really a fascinating read. The names of the towns today tell of the stories  – Digboi, which is really “Dig Boy” – shouted out by the prospecting oil engineers. Margherita – named after the then queen of Italy, to honor an Italian Engineer who set up the collieries.

From Digboi, we drive without stopping till we reach the Nam-Phanke village near Dibrugarh. On the way we pass by Lakhipathar, a dense forest which was once an ULFA training ground.

The Nam-Phanke village is home to the Tai-Phanke people, who had crossed over from Burma in search of a hospitable environment. Their history ( as written in a small pamphlet by an enterprising member of their community, the pamphlet being published in English, Assamese and the Tai script) – is a sad one. They were forced to be on the move for a long time ( starting with their initial migration from the Yunnan province in China), until finally, they established their village on the banks of the Burhi-Dihing river, at which place they have peacefully survived till today. They are Buddhists, a beautiful monastery on the banks of the river serves as the center of village learning today.

Some of the villagers still live in the “Chang-houses” built on stilts – these houses look charming, set along a little mud-path on the river.

The Tai-Phanke people have reached out to their communities in Thailand and Burma – and made interesting discoveries. Their scripts are very similar, and their language is almost similar to that spoken by people in Thailand and some parts of Burma. Their customs are similar, in fact, more preserved, since they have been practiced with rigor over the ages.

The Tai Phanke people are now trying to revive their culture, and in this process are exploring ties with their kinsmen in SE Asia, especially Thailand and Burma. Recently, they invited two monks from Burma to their village – they discovered that their scripts and language were very similar. In an attempt to preserve their culture, they have started a school where both young and old are taught to read and write their language.

< Too tired to add photos today>

A Week in my Neighbourhood: Day 4 (Dec 19th, Friday)

A long walk through the tea-gardens in the morning gave me some much needed exercise.

Tea estate in Margherita

We decided to visit the Collieries today. My interest was specially piqued by a remark from PPM – about the sulphur from the collieries killing the aquatic life of the streams and rivers nearby. And about the little kids who don’t go to school because they earn a fair bit of money stealing coal from the mines.

We are shown around the mines, M’s Uncle works at the coal mines. The quarry is a deep pit, truckloads of coal are being taken out to be loaded onto cargo trains. I try to question the person showing us around about the ETP ( Effluent treatment plant) – get the expected answer, that of course, all the water is treated before it is released. We have, however, seen the streams lined with orange-yellow sulphur – it seems to me that if the water really was treated that sulphur should not have shown up.

Collieries in Margherita
Collieries in Margherita

Coal India Limited has a number of collieries in this area – coal, alongwith tea and oil, are still the only significant industries in Assam, and they are all concentrated in this area. Each of these three industries were developed by the British (a company called the Assam Railways and Trading company – the history of which makes for a fascinating read).

We decide to visit the Sema Naga village we had passed by the previous day – the headman’s wife showed us around the village.  K2 and I wanted to look at the handloom products – a kind of initial survey for our idea of promoting handi-crafts from the region. We learnt two key things – 1. Most people did not sell their products, they wove for their own use 2. The finished products were very expensive, even when bought at the source. A small scarf I bought for A cost me 250 Rs ( more than people would be willing to pay for something like this in, say, a Fabindia type place). We would have to think carefully about our business model, if we decide to get into this.

From the Sema Naga village, we stopped at the Chinese war cemetery, where soldiers from WWII had been buried. A single tombstone was intact – the rest ( if they existed) had disappeared – J knows Chinese, and managed to figure out the name of the person.

We decided to go onto Miao, a town in Arunachal a few hours from Margherita – secretly, I was hoping ( a little irrationally, I confess) that we would continue onto Namdapha Wildlife Sanctuary, where I would get to see some wildlife. We never reached till Namdapha, but our little trip to Miao was worth it. In the darkness of the night, with the stars lighting up the sky above us, we crossed the river valley of the Noa-Dihing river by ropeway. It was worth the experience!

The evening was spent in the Ledo Club ( a hundred year old Club – club members claim with grim and misguided pride that Idi Amin was employed at this club when he was with the British Army!). The Club house was built in the sprawling style of old British bungalows – we drank whiskey sitting by the century old fireplace, in the company of PPM, the highest ranked police officer of that area, and 3 senior Coal India officials. I wondered what we were doing there until my second whiskey ( I think it was Bagpipers, or was it 100 Pipers> or so – after which I stopped wondering.. when the pipers started playing in my head as J says.

< Photos courtey K2>

A week in my neighbourhood : Day 3 ( Dec 18th) Stilwell Road

We are excited – today, we go down the Stilwell road, from Ledo to.. well… to as far as we can. The plan is to try to get to a market a few kms into the Myanmar side – we don’t have a visa to enter Myanmar, so we will be depending entirely on lady luck and M’s capabilities of cutting through red-tape to get us there.

The caretaker of the Coal India guest-house in Margherita feeds us some decent breakfast of toast and eggs (inspite of the bird-flu scare, we all eat the eggs) – we take off well fortified for the day. PPM warned us multiple times about the scarcity of good food beyond Ledo ( “Be sure to take apples and oranges along!”) – we decide to take a chance, and take along nothing but water.

We reach Ledo in about 20 minutes – this is where the Stilwell road starts. A large signboard has a map of the Stilwell road with distances marked from Ledo in Assam to Kunming in China.

Stilwell Road map at Ledo
Stilwell Road map at Ledo

The sign-board also announces the name of the local MLA whose enthusiasm for the restoration of the road led to its reconstruction for the first 50 kms from Ledo  in Assam to Nampong in Arunachal. Unfortunately, it is a full 1700 kms from Ledo to Kunming in China – who will build the rest?  In their enthusiasm in talking about the Look East Policy and land routes, the politicians of our country are glossing over the fact that restoring this land route would probably not figure very high on Myanmar’s military juntas to-do list.

The stretch of restored road from Ledo to Assam border is very good – we are flying along at 120 kmph – scaring cows and goats out of the way. Once we reach Arunachal the road turns Kuchcha (mud road) – through still very serviceable. Our pace slows down – to 40 kmph.

We reach Nampong – and meet the civil official who was to give us a pass to continue. Officially one could not cross into Myanmar without a visa. However, people on one side of the border have relatives on the other side they want to meet, they have things they want to buy (Myanmar side lacks basic needs -this part of Myanmar is kind of like what the NE is to India, though the NE is in better shape relatively). The border authorities on both sides had worked out a deal – every Friday people from the Myanmar side could come over and buy what they needed at Nampong, and every 15th and 30th of the month people from the Indian side could go over and sell stuff on the Myanmar side. Unfortunately for us, it’s a Thursday, and neither the 15th or the 30th – and the civil official is an upright Bengali gentleman. He simply would not give us a pass. We would have had to turn back ( “Sorry, I really want to help you, but I cannot. Please have some tea instead” – says our friend the Bengali gentleman. Ya, right – we have traveled thousands of kms to have tea with you).

Here is where lady-luck comes to our rescue.

At Nampong, just before we went to get our passes,  we were stopped by an army officer – who happened to be from JNU! On learning that M and J were from JNU, the officer turned nostalgic, and became really pally.

When we were refused the passes – we decided to resort to name-dropping. We unabashedly used the army officer’s name at the two remaining army check-posts, were politely waved through, and reached the Myanmar border at Pangsau pass, with an escort of two army personnel.

At the border, I was sorely tempted to bribe/ cajole/ emotionally blackmail the two army guys who were with us – to let us walk a few kms into Myanmar to the market. M did not entirely approve of the idea (he was glad to have come this far, and had given up on the market idea) – so I dropped it. We got cheap thrills out of walking a little into the road in Myanmar and taking photographs on no-man’s land. The Myanmar side was covered with dense jungles of the Patkai hills.

The pass through the Patkai hills had been in use for a long time – it is known that the Tai people migrated through this pass from Burma to India, in the 1200’s. Su-ka-pha, the leader of the Tai people, established the Ahom kingdom that reigned in Assam for the next six centuries, until the British came along in 1826 to help expel invading Burmese (who used the same pass to cross the hills and wreak havoc in Assam). During WWII, the Stilwell road was built to supply war necessities to the Allies (China was on the side of the Allies). A lake on the (then) Burmese side of the road, not far from the border, has the name “Lake of no return” – planes that caught fire tried to land on the lake, and “never returned”.

We sat for a while under the “Union of Myanmar” signboard painted in bright red colors.

Union of Myanmar ( Photos copyright of K2)
Union of Myanmar ( Photos copyright of K2)

On our way back, the army official (JNU history) invited us for beer and snacks, and eventually lunch. Really, when it rains, it pours! And boy, the drinks really seemed to be pouring today – PPM invited us for dinner later at his house.  This time it was whiskey pouring.

In the evening, we happened to also see a gathering of all the tribes in the nearby areas, getting together to discuss the upcoming “Dihing-Patkai” festival. Among them was the Raja of the Singpho tribe – a tribe that had (along-with the Tais) migrated from Burma a few centuries ago. The Raja, in case you are wondering, looked just like every other ordinary guy.

The day was hectic – but we had to go out to see the moonlight over the tea gardens. It was heavenly!