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In these Naga villages enjoy the hospitality of warriors

travel Updated: Oct 12, 2016 16:03 IST
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Snigdhendu Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
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A Naga fort at Khonoma village. It is one of the three in the village. The Angami Nagas used to fight the British from these forts in the nineteenth century. (Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)

When a group of travellers at Khonoma – a picturesque, hilltop village surrounded by uninhabited hills – found it difficult to connect with the hosts at their next stop, Dzuleke, their hosts at Khonoma relieved them off all the trouble. There are only two landline phones in Dzuleke and it often takes hours to get through the line. At Dzuleke, when the owner of the only available car demanded double price for a ride to Kohima, 35 kilometres away, the hosts spent nearly two hours to arrange another car for the usual fare.

Welcome to Nagaland. It is transforming. With insurgency fizzling out, the tranquil Naga villages are getting ready to welcome tourists.

Read: Naga framework agreement remains an inside job between the signatories

Barely a few hundred metres ahead of Khonoma stands a monolith that declares: “Nagas are not Indians; their territory is not a part of the Indian Union. We shall uphold and defend this unique truth at all costs and always.” Angami Zapu Phizo, regarded by insurgents as ‘father of the Nagas’, hailed from this village. It was under Phizo’s leadership that the Naga National Council and Naga Federal Army launched their secessionist movement in the late 1940s. Khonoma is considered the ‘birthplace of Naga insurgency’.

The Khonoma village atop a hill. Most of the houses don’t have electric fans. Winters are biting cold. Locals said summer temperature seldom crosses 30 degree Celcius. (Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)

It is here that the British forces faced the fiercest resistance, resulting in the famous ‘Battle of Khonoma’. The three small forts in the village bear testimony to resistance against British invasion during 1850-1879. A plaque outside one of the forts reads: “The fiercest of battles were fought between the British and the Nagas during 1850-1879 in this Semona fort of Khonoma. This fort was described as ‘one of the strongest’ in the northeast by Maj. John Butler of the British Army.”

But Khonoma, 4,600 feet above sea level, is now home to some of the most hospitable hosts.

Read: Naga leader Isak Chishi Swu dies in Delhi hospital

“Everything we do is in harmony with nature. Scenic beauty and rich biodiversity are its prime attraction. Besides, travellers can get a close look at the traditional Angami Naga lifestyle and taste authentic Naga cuisine,” said Neikedolie Hiekha, manager of Dovipi Inn, the only hotel at Khonoma that started operating in December 2015.

At Hiekha’s home, old muzzle-loaded guns used by their ancestors are put on display as testimony to their valour. But the gun-toting men patrolling along the forests were not insurgents. They were protecting gayals (aka mithuns) – a semi-domesticated animal larger than a buffalo – from the packs of wolves and wild dogs.

Old muzzle loaders adorn the outer wall of a Naga home. (Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)

The villagers have banned hunting and taken up large scale projects for conservation of nature and protection of biodiversity. The village councils have also banned hunting of birds and the result is a steady flow of bird watchers. The vegetables they consume – and those cook for tourists – come from kitchen gardens.

“Anyone caught hunting is punished by the village council. It is only through harmony with nature that we can achieve sustainable development. And since we are trying to project this village as a destination for eco-tourism, it is all the more important that biodiversity and wildlife is protected,” said Tsuvilie Thomas, a local boy who has trained in carpentry and acts as a guide on nature trails.

Read: Northeast yet to make a mark on India’s tourism map

Apart from the hotel, Khonoma has two homestays running since 2014. Dzuleke has five. The facilities at the homestays are basic but their locations offer travellers the scope of staying on the lap of nature amidst breathtaking beauty where chirps of birds and crickets and the burble of torrents dominate the soundscape.

Once in Khonoma, locals will offer trips to the three small forts in three parts of the village and the mausoleum of British officers, including their first political officer G H Damant, killed in Khonoma in 1879. The monument that according to the Archaeological Survey of India bears ‘historic importance’ is a matter of great pride for the villagers.

They, however, have put up a bigger monument – a monolith – in memory of Judelie Hiekha, who initiated the attack to kill Damant.

A plaque in Khonoma village. Such plaques fondly remembering those who fought the British and led the insurgency after Independence dot the villages. (Snigdhendu Bhattacharya)

At Dzuleke, travellers will have to first registrar at the interpretation centre that allots guides and homestays to travellers on rotational basis. “It is to ensure the entire village develops as a community,” said Avi Kesa, a villager.

There are several trekking routes in the area. The Khonoma-Dzukou trekking route leads one to paradise, it is said. A trekking route from Dzuleke takes one to the top of a hill from where the Kohima town can be seen. In winter, thin layers of snow cover the fields and forests in the morning. Flowers of a hundred hues bloom around the year. Till now, Japanese researchers and Indian trekkers make most of their guests.

“Tourist inflow has increased over the past two years. The state has exceptional beauty to offer travellers but the roadways need to improve,” said Annie Jamir, who launched the Longchen Homestay at Dimapur last year.

Several homestays have come up in the villages of Vishwema, Zakhama, Kisama and Tuephema in Kohima, Benreu and Mt Pauna tourist village in Peren and Riphyim in Wokha district over the past couple of years.

Read: Nagaland may get separate flag as part of final accord with Centre

According to Kakihesumi, the tourist officer for Wokha district, “The government is prioritising development of tourism infrastructure and encouraging locals to start homestays facilities,”

In Kohima, the Razhu Pru hotel – a heritage building – was once the home of A Kevichusa, an officer in the British administration who during 1947-48 had led Naga delegations in talks over maintaining Naga sovereignty. A monolith in front of the hotel’s entrance proudly declares that Kevichusa’s wife had unfurled a Naga shawl – an alternative to national flag – a day before India became independent. The act was to mark Naga aspirations.

Read: Govt withdraws restriction on foreign tourists going to NE

In 2016, this hotel too reflects the changing face of Nagaland. It will be difficult to get rooms in winter without advance booking.

“The only insurgent group that broke the ceasefire is the S S Khaplang-led faction of National Socialist Council of Nagaland. They are based in Myanmar and holds influences in some Myanmar and Manipur-bordering pockets of Mon, Tuensang, Phek and Kiphire districts. However, districts like Kohima, Wokha, Mokokchung, Peren, and Longleng have been peaceful and we can assure tourists have nothing to fear,” a travel organiser, who did not want to be named, told HT.