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Excerpt: Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains by Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

A fascinating account of a journey across Arunachal Pradesh is full of anecdotes about shamans, hunters and WWII battlefields. An excerpt

books Updated: Jul 19, 2017 18:14 IST
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
Hindustan Times
Arunachal Pradesh,Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent,head-hunters
The author with one of the radial engines from the crashed C46 at Karoi.(Pictures courtesy Simon & Schuster)

Miao sits at the edge of the seething jungle, the final port before an ocean of emerald wilderness. Beyond yawn Namdapha, India’s third-largest national park, and the violent forests of Burma’s Kachin state. Originally dominated by the Buddhist Singpho, the town was now home to an ever-expanding population of migrants and refugees, driven to this wild corner of India by politics and poverty. In the bazaar, Lisu women squatted behind piles of red chillies, ginger, garlic, coriander and tiny purple aubergines, calloused feet poking out from the hems of brightly woven sarongs; Bangladeshi tailors pedalled at antique Singer sewing machines; Bihari men stood at stalls crammed with tawdry Chinese tat; Tibetans sold momos in shacks strung with prayer flags. With all these peoples had come their beliefs, stamped on the streets and alleyways in wood and stone. Candles flickered around chipped deities in little Hindu shrines, crosses stood outside the wooden churches of the heavily Christianized Lisu and, in the main Buddhist temple, Nepali boys darted between the pillars, laughing and shouting, ‘How are you I am fine,’ in shrill staccato voices.

I rested here for a few days in the quiet of Phupla’s camp, an oasis of thatched huts near the stony banks of the Noa-Dihing, where vented bulbuls bickered in silk-cotton trees and fruit bats gorged on plums in the eaves of my hut. The only guest, I was given the full memsahib treatment by his merry trio of staff: Sanjay, a blithe Nepali teenager whose high voice filled the camp with Hindi ballads from first light; Dorje, a shy Tibetan boy, and Bijay, the young Manipuri cook. They sang and whistled and chopped and cooked from dawn until dark, regularly appearing outside my hut with trays of tea and biscuits.

…Their pièce de résistance was supper, which Sanjay would announce with a beaming ‘Dinner ready, Ma’am’, at seven on the dot, and Dorje would reverently serve, covering the small dining room table with dish after wonderful dish. There I’d sit like the Queen at a tasting banquet, mopping up spicy fish curry and chana masala with fresh, doughy chapattis and forkfuls of fluffy rice, washed down with warm Kingfisher beer bought from one of the numerous wine shops in town.

Phupla, now dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, appeared at the camp each morning and we’d sit in the weak sunshine talking and drinking phalap, bitter Singpho tea. A brisk, efficient man of around forty, with receding hair, pale skin and an inquiring gaze, he had the air of a kindly Oriental potentate. Sharp as a tack, he’d been ‘topping’ at his Catholic college in Shillong, yet he wore his intelligence lightly, his conversation broken by bursts of laughter. He had never met a lone female traveller before – certainly not one on a motorbike – and he studied me in the way one might scrutinize an unknown creature you’d found under your bed. The few tourists he dealt with were generally Indian birdwatchers and groups of Dutch trekkers. He questioned me about my age, marital status and why I travelled alone, steepling his fingers and going ‘hmmm’ at my answers, as if completing a mental questionnaire.

His father had been a Singpho king, a great hunter who shot sambar with a homemade muzzle loader and was employed to catch wild elephants for the government in the 1970s. Mela shikar, a practice officially outlawed in India in 1981, involved the lassoing of wild elephants from the back of a domesticated one, a koonki. Smeared in elephant dung to disguise their smell, the mahouts would ride their koonki into the middle of the wild herd, stopping undetected next to the victim of their choice. Being short-sighted creatures that rarely look up, the unfortunate beast wouldn’t know a thing until the jute lasso slid over its neck. Ironically it was the elephants’ instinctive reaction to protect their trunks by pulling them up into their mouths that allowed the lasso to tighten. It took a brave man to catch wild elephants, and many a mahout was gored or trampled to death.

There were still cases of illegal mela shikar, said Phupla – ‘elephant boys’ from the Singpho and Khampti tribes catching young animals that strayed into their villages. Trained elephants were worth between seven and fourteen lakh rupees, around £7,000–14,000, a fortune here by any standards.

The Political Officer, Major John Butler, perhaps irritable after an evening of fitting his windows, dismissed the Singpho as a ‘rude and treacherous people’ whose ‘excessive laziness, immoderate addiction to opium and general uncertainty of character’ made them ‘anything but good subjects’. But Phupla was anything but this. Generous with his time and knowledge, he had time for everyone.

‘I have many friends,’ he said. ‘That’s what I learn in life – friends are important, not money.’...

Butler had been right about one thing, though, and that was the opium, which Phupla bemoaned as the scourge of Miao. But it wasn’t just good old-fashioned opium the masses were getting high on; it was ‘brown sugar’ now too, brought here by unscrupulous dealers from Dibrugarh and cut with ‘rat poison and God knows what’. Around twenty-five per cent of Miao’s young men were addicts, said Phupla sadly, and people were dying all the time. But the government was doing little to help and, when he had set up a detox camp for local addicts, there was no official support.

‘I’m worried about you travelling alone,’ he warned. ‘There are so many addicts here, you might get robbed.’ …

In the Devakotta monastry (Pictures courtesy Simon & Schuster)

In the afternoons I explored the packed earth alleyways of Miao, where Chakma women sat on the porches of their bamboo houses weaving bolts of red, fuchsia and indigo cotton. Asked into one house by a charming, pretty teenage girl, I sat on a low stool on the swept earthen floor while she made me milky ginger tea on a stove made from dried mud and cow dung. Delighted to use the English she’d learnt at the ‘most big and beautiful’ school in Miao, she told me about her people. They were a Buddhist minority from the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, she said, and had been coming to Arunachal Pradesh since the 1960s, when religious discrimination and the construction of a hydroelectric dam had rendered them homeless. Now there were 100,000 of them here, fighting a long battle to be given official refugee status and recognized as Indian citizens.

When her father, a carpenter, came home, he pulled up a stool beside me, took my hands in his and asked his daughter to translate. How glad he was to meet me, he said, and although he was black and I was white we were all the same – all just human beings. The girl wanted to be a bank manager when she grew up, so she could look after her parents when they were old. As with the Bangladeshis in Dibrugarh, I left feeling humbled by their kindness and resilience.

The very few tourists who come to Miao are on their way to Namdapha, a largely unexplored wilderness of alpine meadows, Himalayan peaks and tangled forests jutting 200,000 hectares into the easternmost nook of India. It’s not an easy place to visit. Apart from a single mud-clotted track winding some hundred miles from Miao to the Burmese border, there are no proper roads, very few trails and immense tracts of uncharted land. The forests are so dense that even conservationists who spend weeks sloshing through the dripping jungle rarely glimpse anything of the tigers, snow leopards, leopards, clouded leopards, hoolock gibbons, red pandas or hundred other species of mammal that live here (not to mention nearly 500 species of bird and a thousand types of plant). Encounters with snakes and leeches are far more common. There are about one million snake bites a year in India, 45,000 of them fatal, and few areas have more snakes than the jungles of this, the Northeastern frontier.

‘You’re lucky the snakes are still hibernating,’ said Phupla. ‘A bite from most of the snakes around here means you need to say your last wishes and tell your relatives goodbye.’

There was the added risk of insurgents. Researchers conducting a tiger census in 2012 had been shot at by militants and had all their camera traps stolen by poachers. But I wanted to have a taste of Namdapha, and to do so I’d need both a permit and a guide. Phupla applied for my permit in Miao, dashing off at 11.45 one morning to catch the park office before its staff went home for their three-hour lunch.

‘When you Britishers left all Indians became lazy,’ said Phupla with a chuckle.

The author in Kormu and Mishing’s house in the Mathun valley. (Pictures courtesy Simon & Schuster)

My guide would be Japang Pangsa, Namdapha’s head mahout, a man I’d been told about over email by a leading Indian conservationist. A dying breed, these mahouts held a strange allure, jungle knights aboard their giant steeds. But there was another reason I was itching to meet Japang. He was a Wancho Naga from the Patkai Hills, the very area Herman Perry had fled to. Of all the Naga’s roughly seventy sub-tribes they were one of the least known, and had once enjoyed a reputation for being among the most terrifying.

Read anything about Northeast India and you’ll soon be entranced by tales of the terrible Naga. Inveterate headhunters, until as recently as the 1990s there was nothing a lusty Naga warrior adored more than returning from a raid on a nearby village with a bloody basket of freshly taken heads. Heads, they believed, were the dwelling place of the soul and hence receptacles of great power: the more of these grisly, staring prizes a village had dangling from their ‘head tree’, the greater fertility and good fortune they’d enjoy. Best of all were the heads of women and children but essentially any old noggin would do. The men brave enough to conduct such raids wore little brass heads around their necks, one for each victim. One can only imagine the inconvenience of having the Naga next door. In 1837 a Scottish tea planter observed that ‘they are the wildest and most barbarous of the hill-tribes, looked upon with dread and horrour [sic] by their neighbours’.

No one knows where these paleo-Mongoloid peoples came from, or when they arrived in these hills. But their myths and headhunting ways are closely connected with those of tribes in Borneo, Sarawak and the Philippines. It’s possible they were all part of the same diaspora that walked and paddled south from Mongolia, Tibet or Yunnan sometime around the tenth century. Although they had no written script until very recently, ancient Naga folktales talk of great sea journeys, and their obscure origins only add to their mystique.

Aware of their unsavoury habits, the British initially left the Naga tribes to their own devices, but when Assam planters kept finding headless coolies among their tea bushes they couldn’t let it slide, and there followed several decades of bloody skirmishes. Gunpowder didn’t always win against dao, and in one nasty incident in 1875 Wancho Naga tribesmen ambushed and decapitated eighty British soldiers, legging it with the head of the commander, Lieutenant Holcombe. Holcombe’s head wasn’t found until 1925, when another British Political Officer found it occupying pride of place on the head tree in a nearby Naga village.

British attempts to outlaw headhunting failed abysmally; it was simply too important to Naga society. Verrier Elwin, a British anthropologist and passionate advocate of tribal rights, who became Nehru’s tribal advisor in 1954, wonderfully summed up their passion for taking heads.

‘If you talk to a Naga on such tedious topics as theology or economics . . . he quickly slips away to have a refreshing rice beer. Open the question of head-hunting and his eyes light up and a torrent of exciting and improper information pours from his lips.’

When they weren’t boiling heads in pots of chillies their shamans were said to engage in a spot of therianthropy, turning themselves into tigers and leopards to roam the jungles in search of prey.

Incredibly, by 1914, relations between the British and their uppity subjects had improved to the point where around 5,000 Naga fought with the Allied Labour Corps on the Western Front. The Germans were appalled, some even complaining to their High Command about having to fight ‘savages’. But they proved a welcome novelty among the British troops. A copy of the Illustrated War News from 1917 describes them as ‘wild looking little fellows who . . . in their native hills do a little head-hunting when the humour takes them . . . but here in France they are quite good tempered and jolly’. Needless to say, the ‘jolly’ Naga were bitterly disappointed when they were ordered not to take German heads, and to settle for just helmets instead.

Read more: Tsangpo: The last mystery

Thirty years later they fought for the British again, acting as scouts and trackers for the Allies in the jungles of the IndoBurmese border. Not interested in cash, they were paid in trinkets such as matches, buttons and safety pins. This time the rules were looser and many a Japanese head ended up decorated with grass and buffalo horns, hanging from a head tree…

First Published: Jul 19, 2017 18:11 IST