Saturday, 20 February 2016

Nagaland: Quest for Identity – 2

“It was so strange: this mix of tribal identity and Christianity which is a little on your face. Even largely Christian countries, including ours, is not……so Christian.”

It was early morning in Nongriat, Meghalaya, and a few backpackers, including me, were sitting in Byron’s verandah waiting for the sun to peek from the hills and him to serve us his amazing porridge breakfast. The topic of conversation, as in most backpacking gatherings, had turned again to travel experiences (and thankfully not to Game of Thrones!). While all the travelers dispersed after the sumptuous breakfast, I stayed on at the homestay nursing a sudden bout of back pain and weak knees and thinking of what the Australian couple had said about Nagaland. It had piqued more than my curiosity, it set the tone of my travel onwards to Nagaland.

I spent Christmas with M’s family in the pretty village of Mima attending Christmas Mass in the village’s Baptist Church filled with people dressed in the best of their attires – both western and oh-so-pretty traditional ones with distinctive Angami colours and patterns – and followed by a delicious community feast of rice and pork and some more pork. Moving out from the ‘city’ of Kohima and traveling further north and south, the contradictions that the Australian couple had talked about, became more apparent. Most parts of Nagaland are now highly westernized, both in lifestyle and attire, perhaps a little less in local and clan traditions and customs. Unlike Arunachal Pradesh where tribal culture, lifestyle, attire and traditional homes, are still very much prevalent, in Nagaland one gets just glimpses of a culturally rich past mostly during religious and social occasions. H, who works on tourism and community development, said with a bit of regret that Christianity has erased most of the tribal lifestyle and culture as it’s now considered a taboo. His grandparents are the last generation of ‘Pagans’ or people who followed the old ways of animistic living.

Christmas at Mima, near Kohima

As my friend J explained, Christianity came to Nagaland after the British almost 150 years ago. The Baptists have been there since the beginning while Catholics and Revivals came much later. Unlike the European ones, the American missionaries did not accept any of the tribal culture, considering anything to do with animism, a taboo. From head-hunting and tribal warfare days, people have come a long way in terms of modernization, largely due the influence of these missionaries. As N in Khonoma pointed out, the last few regions who live the ‘Pagan’ lifestyle (mostly eastern Nagaland) are still largely poor. With visible improvement in lifestyle and economic advantages arising out of mainstreaming, generations have consciously let go their tribal past, even refusing to talk about it. H, who has experienced such a transition since his childhood, said that earlier hygiene and sanitation practices were abysmal and it was especially bad with pigs, chickens, mithuns and people all roaming around the village freely, reminding me of the conditions still prevalent in many villages across India. Akole from North East Networks (Chizami), who was wearing a traditional mekhala when I met her, felt that it was easy for people to adopt Christianity as there were a lot of similarities with the Pagan belief systems.

High heels in a village - western with the traditional

It is however the youth – the fourth or fifth generation Christians – who are beginning to question their socio-cultural identity just like they are doing with their political identity. Fashion conscious and so effortlessly stylish that they can easily put our metro fashionistas to shame, the youth are looking at different ways to resolve their ‘crossroads’ moment. A section of youth want to reaffirm their identity by going back to their roots, by understanding their ancestral history and keeping their heritage alive. AVT, a TISS Mumbai graduate, who met us in Kohima, took us down narrow bylanes past old houses to a decrepit place which served the local rice drink Dzutho. Any form of alcohol is officially banned in the state including the local rice drink. Sipping the rice beer and watching the sun go down across the valley, AVT enthusiastically talked about tribal practices and customs he knew of and showed us burial practices that existed before. He rued the fact that there were too many western influences in the society now. C, who took me to the forests around Khonoma on New Year’s day, said that the youth want to know more about their roots but parents are not really interested in telling as it’s against their religion to talk about taboos. He felt that his generation is the last who can do something to retain their rich heritage, after which everything will be lost forever. L, who took me around the fields of Khonoma and narrated all the stories/folktales related to the village’s history and monoliths scattered around, is passionate about his village’s past and want to write down all the folklores and stories of his village.

The other section of youth is going back to religion in order to forge and strengthen their identity. Like my friend K, they feel that it is religion which has helped them through decades of conflict and improve their lives. It is also finding oneself and others through religion that will help them resolve future issues and bring them together as a strong Naga community.

A Totem put up by an ex-hunter at Khonoma

Walking around the forests and the fields of Khonoma, I could not shake the feeling of being watched by ‘somebody’ amongst the gnarled alder trees, the sudden shriek of a bird, secluded ponds, and the mellow sun filtering through the trees – making me want to believe all the nature spirit stories that I heard there. It was magical. Perhaps it is a bit of this magic, faith in Christianity and the inherent strength of the people who have held on despite odds stacked against them that has made Nagaland a beautiful and distinctive place like no other.


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