Wednesday, February 24, 2016

An English summer

Summer. The tell-tale petunias, geraniums and what-nots spilling out of their baskets at every street corner, public house and building. Summer brings the crowds out onto the streets, into parks and public spaces in London. It also brings in a rush of tourists who seem to have a whale of a time.  
Is it fun for the residents too, having their city invaded by multitudes each summer? Do they wish for a quiet, sunny corner to catch a nap, read a book, sip some wine and just day-dream?

Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace
History, geography & all the rest

Admiralty Arch, soon to be hotel
History, geography & all the rest

Arches as seen from Trafalgar Square

A London pub on the riverside in Southwark
History, geography & all the rest

Sunshine, Hyde Park & the distant London skyline
History, geography & all the rest

Even the trees seem to reach out &
soak up some sunshine

Ah! Good old London Eye. For that 360 deg view of the city
History, geography & all the rest

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Summer sky

Used only to the many moods of Indian summers, I landed in the midst of a beautiful English summer. 

Colours of the earth & sky

July 2015, 9PM, Oxford, England, UK

Scattered clouds floating in a crimson sky. Daylight stretching beyond the notions of (Indian) propriety. Beer(s) under the shade of old trees in farmhouse pubs. Walking back home in companionable silence. In the air remained the promise of a similar summer day, the next day & many days afterwards. 

North Eastern Odyssey 6 - Mokokchung

To get to Mokokchung from Mon, our driver did not use any of the interior roads within Nagaland. I am not sure if he was worried about any untoward incidents occurring along the way or the condition of the roads or both. We followed the highway back into Assam and then drove into Nagaland, closer to Mokokchung. The roads this side of Nagaland were surprisingly good, at least far better than anything we had seen on the Mon leg.

Across the border into Nagaland, in a few minutes we met our first check post. Our vehicle got a thorough once-over, even our bags were checked. The men on duty were polite but firm and more than a little surprised that two women were travelling around the countryside on their own (according to them, I don't think the driver counted as 'protection'). As we left the checkpost, they assured us there was no trouble but we too should take care and not be out on the roads or streets after dark. 

We reached Mokokchung after 5 hours on the road. On the way side we passed neat little villages that looked straight out of a postcard with wooden homes and well-tended gardens, flowering away. Clouds rolled over the hills, sometimes above us and sometimes below.

Early in the morning before the sun could
chase away the clouds

Picturesque scenes like this dot the landscape

We stayed at Metsuben in Mokokchung town, a well-known hotel it seemed, as a lot of different government meetings and seminars were being held while we were there. The hotel was comfortable and had far more amenities than we expected. The next morning we were up fairly early but there was no guide available. The hotel was supposed to arrange for one and they had goofed up. While they were sorting it out, we visited the viewing tower a little way behind the hotel and took some photographs, ooh-ed and aah-ed over the breathtaking view. Absolutely breathtaking. 

Mokokchung town spread out before us. 

Another view of Mokokchung

Our guide for the day finally arrived, T, a recent graduate, was still figuring out the 'what next' in his life. In the meantime he was moonlighting as a tourist guide. He showed us the places of interest but wasn't involved or as knowledgeable as an experienced guide would be. 

Mokokchung district is mainly populated by the Ao tribespeople. We first went to Longkhum village. We saw the log drums which are now preserved but in the old days were beaten to signal war or celebratory feasts. We also walked a stone pathway in the midst of a thickly wooded area. The place looked ancient as if the trees were centuries old (probably were!) and the stones that formed the pathway were thrown across to create a passage through the trees. There are some interesting legends - of Jina and Etiben, their very own Romeo and Juliet, of secret tunnels near the pathway that go on for miles, opening into the heart of the forests and more. 

pic courtesy: INTACH
For the complete document click here

In Longkhum there seemed to be a different vibe in the surrounding forests. Wherever I was in Nagaland, I never felt far away from nature, especially with the brilliant green and the floating clouds around every corner. But, in Longkhum this feel was intensified, it felt like I was entering hallowed grounds, following in the footsteps of centuries of people before me. There was a particular 'oldness' to the place that is indescribable bringing with it silence and peace, amplified only by the sounds of nature. (Yes, amplified :) because it didn't disturb the atmosphere, but added to it). 

Stone path through the forest

Log drum at Longkhum

Granaries set up away from the main village area to prevent
loss of food-stock incase of fire or other accidents

Another log drum
We visited the home of a local inventor too, known in these parts as the 'scientist' - the man was no more but his family were gracious enough to allow us to look at the inside of their home which was a curiosity in itself. The doors and windows throughout the house could be opened/closed sitting at a distance, with a system of levers and handles the man had set up, all by himself. He had even constructed a boiler which heated water with pipes running from the fire in the central fire place. This would have been a boon for the family all those years ago when electricity hadn't reached the village and running hot water was unheard of. It was an interesting house and the family was very proud of the old inventor's accomplishments. Unfortunately, I didn't take any photos in the house.

Ungma village was our next stop. Supposed to be the oldest village where the Ao Nagas settled. The village was pretty but the old ways were gone. Some aspects had been preserved. Their training place known as Riju here, (morung in Mon) had been recreated. There was a log drum here too safely housed next to the Riju. We also saw a really tall pole in the centre of the village. T claimed it was a stairway to heaven which men climbed to get closer to the Gods. At Ungma we also visited a weaver who was creating beautiful fabrics and shawls in the traditional design of the Ao tribe. 

The Riju in the village

The log drum in Ungma, created in 1935

Cloth in a traditional design on the loom

Most women in the northeast learn to weave as soon as they are old enough to handle a loom. Nagaland is no different. Each of the tribes have their distinct designs woven into the cloth and shawls as a mark of identification. This is illustrated quite well through displays in the State Museum in Kohima

Later, after lunch, we wandered around Mokokchung town for a bit, shopped for handwoven shawls and bags which are a speciality here in Nagaland. The younger generation from the northeast are known to be the most fashionable in India and the shops in Mokokchung and Kohima proved just that. There was quite an interesting mix of the traditional and modern in both these towns.

Mokokchung town before it awoke in the morning

The next day we left for Kohima. Our last stop before we headed back home. 

On the way to Kohima

More on Nagaland:
Kohima (State Museum)
World War II Memorial, Kohima
Razhu Pru, Kohima (a Heritage Villa) 
Mon 1 
Mon 2 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

North Eastern Odyssey 5 - Mon (contd.)

Early morning we headed out to Longwa near the Myanmar (Burmese) border. Our guide, Anyang, a Konyak himself, gave us a pretty detailed idea of life in these hills. The Konyak tribe has settled in the villages around Mon, the last known tribes to have headhunted in these parts. Hence, they have sort of a celebrity status among tourists visiting Nagaland.

At Longwa, there exists a porous border between Myanmar and India. There are border patrols and bases, but they aren't as intimidating or fenced and armed as in other parts of India. Here, the border is an invisible line that cuts right in the middle of the Ang's (chieftain) house (so the claim goes). He is head of over 500+ households in that area. One half of his house and a part of the village sits in Myanmar and the other in India. Some of the villages in his territory as Ang lie on the Myanmar side of the border.

The Ang's house in Longwa village through which
runs the international boundary between India & Myanmar

On our side the hills are almost bereft of any vegetation with villages dotted here and there on the hillsides while on the Myanmar side it is lush with thick jungles. A short distance from Longwa, there is a marker indicating border post 154 in both Hindi and Burmese. 

The Myanmar side of the border with thick forests

The Indian side of the border bereft of forests

The border post marking the international
boundary that runs through Longwa

The Ang's house was the largest structure in the village and maintained in the traditional way as much as possible i.e. the rooms were all partitioned off with bamboo walls and wooden beams. 

The traditional interiors of the
Ang's house

The Ang was sitting with some of his clansmen in a room that was decorated with old artefacts - monkey head bags, carved benches, headhunter necklaces etc. The Ang, wore coloured beads on his legs, below the knees, a privilege accorded only to him. Most of the men were smoking and in the haze filled room everything appeared surreal. If it wasn't for the guide and the more modern clothes everyone wore, I could have easily imagined I had time-travelled. Our guide gave the Ang a 'gift' (in kind) which every visitor is expected to make and he happily posed for pictures and allowed us to wander around. The men seemed too lethargic to talk except for asking the guide, "What two women were doing in these parts by themselves?" and "Are they Indians?" 

These questions we had got quite used to as the only tourists they were used to seeing this far were foreigners - fair skinned, non-black hair, different accents etc. The only Indians who travel this far are usually government officials, sometimes the odd journalist and  adventurous male visitor. Everywhere we went, we could only laugh this curiosity off, explaining was beyond us. 

One of the many curiosities inside the Ang's house

Carved benches & bedsteads

The Ang of the Konyak tribe who have settled
in & around Longwa village

Interestingly, the Ang has seven wives and many children. But, we did not see a single woman from his household though we could hear them now and then. Polygamy and head-hunting have both died out now that the Nagas have become Christians. Though, they manage to straddle their animism traditions along with Christianity without losing much sleep over it. 

Longwa village with the Ang's house (far right),
with the 
thatched roof

The village for all its remoteness, had some touristy stuff going on. They had a small market set up where they were selling hand carved wooden artefacts, beaded jewellery and other items. In a way it was a little depressing as much of the objects being sold were going for a songThe market is not likely to die down as it's a huge hit among the visitors who buy souvenirs for home. 

The tribespeople are not poor as they are self-sufficient and seem to have more than enough to keep body and soul together. If you cut out the romanticism, what they required in Longwa, was nothing that money could buy - access to good quality schools, healthcare and public utilities. This is only possible if the government put its mind and will to it. But I suppose like in all border areas, this becomes one among a long list of neglected villages. 

The mini-market of artefacts set up in the village

The Konyaks are good carvers of wood and workers of metal. We saw little children carrying machetes and other weaponry used to kills small birds and animals. After spending a few hours, we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch.

In the afternoon, we left for another village, this time closer to town. This village was also called Mon. Here, the old men were tattooed, an ancient warrior rite and some wore necklaces to represent the heads they had taken in their lifetimes. They had large curved spikes in their ears made of mountain goat horns. I can only imagine how fierce and terror-inducing they must have been in their heydays as warriors in these hills. 

The Ang here is chieftain over a 100+ households and his territory is all on the Indian side. We met the Ang in his old house which has become a sort of meeting place for him and his friends. Right next to it there is a more modern, concrete house for his two wives and many children. 

The Ang (far right) recognisable due to the beaded
strings below his knees, with his friends in his home

We were taken to the Morung in the village. In the old days, the boys who were of age (to become warriors) were all gathered here and tutored over many weeks and months in the customs and traditions of the tribe, in wielding weapons and in fighting. Today, the morung is used as a meeting place for the village and the boys are still taught tradition and lore but no one stays there and certainly no fighting is taught. 

The old men we met were nostalgic of their days as headhunters when they were young and strong and were feared. With old traditions ended or lost, they seemed unable to figure out their place in this new world. Here too, they were smoking. And of course, chewing betel nut, a constant with both men and women especially if their stained teeth and red lips are anything to go by. Apparently, it keeps them alert and energised. So they say. :) 

The men gathered in the Morung in the evening

An old warrior (tattoos on his face represent his status)
was happy to pose outside the Morung, in front of
the many Mithun heads

The men started singing a folk song, with a sort of chanting, haunting melody. We couldn't understand any of it but it added to the sense of nostalgia in the fading daylight. As we left the morung, they moved on from one song to the other, hopeful that the younger generation would pick up where they left off. 

In Mon village too, we did not see any women outside. Only the men were around and a few children who were quite fascinated by the (Indian-looking) foreigners visiting the village. After the fantastic day we had spent in Mon we headed back to the guesthouse. We left early the next day to Mokokchung. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

North Eastern Odyssey 4 - Mon

After Arunachal Pradesh (Ziro & Aalo), we travelled towards Nagaland. To do this we drove back into Assam, halted at Dibrugarh, crossed the mighty Brahmaputra (so wide, I could've mistaken it for the sea!) before heading towards Mon, our first pit stop in Nagaland. 

Brahmaputra showing us his placid, calm side
(Trivia: It's the only river in India we mention in the masculine gender)

Orderly tea gardens as we got closer to Dibrugarh

We had a few uncertain moments where our driver wanted to cancel out because he felt there was trouble brewing near the Assam - Nagaland border. But, we decided to go ahead and see for ourselves. His fear was unfounded because as we neared the border people seemed to go about their lives normally. 

At the border town, Tizit, we stopped for a snack break. The Assam Rifles outpost there runs a small eating joint manned by one man - a soldier, who is the cook - server - manager all rolled into one. The place is open to the general public and they serve tea and snacks like noodles and momos. The  cook was friendly and full of good-natured advise on where to go and what to see. While we were there we saw the locals including children on their way back from school dropping in for a bite to eat or for the chai (tea). After the much needed break, we started our journey further into Nagaland towards Mon. 

Little streams flowing down the hillside
(not a great photo, taken from the moving vehicle)

The roads again are terrible on this side of the border. There was not even the ghost of a tarmac left, if there was ever one in the first place. But enough said. We reached Mon late in the afternoon, after a good 6+ hrs drive (not counting the break at Tizit). Our stay was at Paramount Guesthouse which is one of two recommended places to stay in Mon. Since lunch was over for the day in the guesthouse, we found something to eat at the eating joint next door. Simple fare but good enough or maybe we were so hungry that we couldn't care less. :)

Paramount Guest house is run by a lady, who is simply called Aunty by everyone. Her family runs the other guesthouse in town too. The place was comfortable, clean and neat. The weather had turned colder and we were glad the room was warm. The power had gone out with our arrival in Mon and had not come back until we left. There was no power backup at the guesthouse at the time we were there. I don't think accessing fuel to run generators is very easy or inexpensive. We made do with candle-light, warm clothes and multiple quilts. The food served in the guesthouse was delicious. The lady who cooked and managed the kitchen made absolutely yummy local fare like nettles, pork/ chicken with bamboo shoot etc which are their specialities. After Mon, we didn't get to eat as good a local fare anywhere else in Nagaland. 

The guesthouse overlooks the main road into town. As early as 4am in the morning, we heard people stirring, walking to work or to catch the bus/ local transport due to arrive. From our room, we could see the Mon spread out below us. Mon sits at the top of 2-3 hills, spreading over their slopes. When we looked out of the window, we could see only clouds. As the daylight grew and the sun became warmer, the clouds dissolved and the town was revealed, below us. 

The whole daylight & time scenario was fascinating. 

View outside the window at 7.00AM

View outside the window at 2.00PM

Mon town at 5.30PM

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

North Eastern Odyssey 3 - Aalo

Swift rivers, sliding slopes
After Ziro we travelled to Aalo, around 360 Kms away. As the road was hilly as well as terrible, it was a very long drive. We stopped overnight at Daporijo, about 6 hrs away. We were supposed to stay at a homestay run by a local family but there was a mix up and we didn't have a place anymore. Finally, after much going around the small town, we ended up in a 'work-in-progress' hotel with some 'stay-able' rooms. It was pretty bizarre but since the region is fairly safe, we put our trust in the family running the hotel & who lived in the premises too. Our other option was probably our vehicle which was not an incentive. We ate a small, simple meal cooked by the owner's wife and crashed out. We left early the next day onwards to Aalo. 

A Miri tribal home balancing at the edge of a steep slope

 Banana plantations are in the midst of the wilderness

Jhoom cultivation (slash & burn) is practised in most areas of the North East. Here, in Arunachal Pradesh it's at the pace of every two years. It is not surprising to see forested areas suddenly throwing up patches of cultivated crops.

Bridges like these and some even
more rudimentary are the lifelines across 

rivers. This bridge's strength could only 
accommodate pedestrians & two-wheelers

Enroute we came across many hidden springs like 
these which seemed touched as if with magic

Aalo is north-east from Ziro and approx 6 hrs from Daporijo. The town lies on the banks of the Siyom and Sipu rivers. Locally, the river around Aalo is known as Yongmo and is revered. We spent our time in Aalo trekking along the river, visiting an Adi Galong tribal village, the local market and shopping a little at the local stores. 

Our trek alongside the river wound in & out of dense foliage

Minyong, an Adi village across the river from Aalo
spread out on its banks

A rudimentary bridge built & put up by the villagers themselves

Listening to snippets of life in Aalo from our two young guides, we realised a simple life is not attractive enough for the younger generation. They are well aware of developments beyond the mountains, thanks to the widespread reach of satellite television. The youth here are university graduates or at least have finished high school. Farming and other traditional occupations are not appealing anymore. It's not that they are unhappy with life at home, but they long to experience the glitz and glamour of big cities as they see  broadcast on their television sets. 

Mithun (a large animal of the bison species, domesticated in
the North East) horns in a home represent wealth & prosperity 

An offering to the Gods inside a home, by the village shaman

Adi home on stilts & with large sun-decks, to make 
the most of the sunshine

Our rest stop in Aalo. Was comfortable & not too bad

Employment levels are low and opportunities are limited to what they see around them, the things they feel are within their reach. Joining the government or the security forces is top of the list. The former for the same reason as the rest of India - job security, a spot of 'extra' money to be made and it allows them to mostly live not far from home. The latter for similar reasons (except the extra money) and the power connected with men in uniform, in these parts. 

The unhappiness with the state machinery which they feel has left them behind in the development game is palpable. Basic necessities like good, regular healthcare services, higher education facilities, motorable roads, regular public transport service between villages and towns are all they are asking for. Inspite of the lack of these and the adversities, the people are full of grace, generous and also very thankful they live in peace (as compared to their neighbouring states and with China breathing down their necks at the border). 

Arunachal Pradesh does not have the trappings of development - the big houses, office complexes or industries. But the people aren't poor, they live within their means, are self-sufficient and have learnt to live with what life has given them. But one can feel the winds of change in the people and the place. It's coming. I fervently hope the change is for good. 

Temporary halt on the highway as the road was cleared of 
a minor landslide. These are seen as common occurrences here