On January 19 we set off from the HM Explorer berthed on the Chindwin River just below Khamti town. We switch from the comfortable boat to two modified pick- up trucks for the road ahead into to the north and west. While intern Charlie Brown, film-maker Xavier Li and Myanmar Coordinator Daw Sandra sit in the “air seats” bolted to the cargo bay of the truck, enjoying the dusty view, I opt for the more confined but less dusty cab, riding shotgun with the young Naga driver. The driver and I make small talk on the way in broken English and Burmese. His father is a soldier stationed near the town, and we stop briefly to meet him. The son is obviously proud of his new job as a driver, and he calls out the names of the towns as we travel through them. At Lahe town, 1,005 m above sea level, it is already 13:40 and I am hungry. Howman knows this town well, since it was the scene of the annual Naga Festival last year when he attended. This year the festival is in a more remote location, and we have decided to follow another route instead of attending the somewhat staged assembling of the tribes. We stop to have a quick lunch and register with the police, then get back in our positions in the pickup trucks and continue on, passing some nice patches of forest, but there is progressively less forest as we continue on travelling west. Instead, we pass very large swidden clearings, where the trees and brush have recently been cut and are now drying before burning. The brush will be burned to release its nutrients, and then a mix of crops will be planted in the ashes – hill rice, beans, Job’s tears, pumpkins and gourds
A Black Eagle soars low near a hilltop, the first I have ever seen. We descend steeply to a river, then ascend along the river to Makyan village, arriving at 18:30 as dusk descends. Here, the houses are large with thick elaborate thatched roofs like over-turned boats. Nearly everything here seems to be constructed from bamboo or palm; the walls, the fences, the churches and the schools. Even the children’s jumping ropes are made of bamboo. We eat and sleep in the morung house, which is the traditional men’s club of a Naga village. It also has sweeping thatch eaves and crossed bamboo ornaments with tassels above the entrance. To the right of the entrance is a totem pole and inside is huge drum made from a single enormous tree trunk. Heavy, double-sided, wooden beaters sit on top of the drum. The morung would have traditionally housed all of the young men of the village, who would be constantly ready to respond to any alarm of an attack or an interloper looking for victims. The defences were essential, as the Naga were traditionally raiders and head hunters. The last reported case of head hunting was in the 1990s on the Indian side of the border, but village feuds have continued right up to the present day. The next morning, we have barely packed up the breakfast things when it is time to set off off again to another village, Tsawlaw near the Indian border. There we stop so Howman and Sandra can purchase more artefacts for the CERS collection.
In Tsawlaw, there is also a large morung communal house, with a huge community drum labelled 2008 and again carved from a single trunk of about 1.5 meters diameter and 12 meters long. I sit in the clan house and imagine. In old accounts, it is said that raiders would return with the heads of their enemies and hang them inside the drum, after which the men of the community together would beat out a victory song on the wood. As the heads bounced up and down in resonance with the drum beats, the men would call out jeers and mock them. Afterwards, however, the heads would be carefully cleaned and the skulls given a place of honour on a frame, there to bless the village and share their spiritual power. We continue on stopping briefly in several villages along our way. Howman’s strategy has been to go out as far as allowed, then stop at different villages along the way back. At each village, if time allows, I peak under the eaves of the roofs to see if there are skulls on display. Many houses have skulls of water buffalo or mithun cattle hanging on their front walls, reminders of past feasts hosted for the village by the household. The mithun are semi-domesticated forest cattle unique to this part of the world. Inside or outside the houses, there are also often racks of other smaller skulls; wildlife killed on the hunt. I recognize many Wild Boar and Muntjac skulls, and there are also rarer skulls – the Chinese Serow, a dark-haired goat-antelope that can scale cliffs, and carnivores that may be civets or badgers.
And there are primate skulls. Many have the prominent snouts, deep brows and raised sagittal crests of macaque monkeys, but some have enlarged crania and flat faces, making me guess that they may be from gibbons. The Western Hoolock Gibbon has been reported from this region, and local people tell us that, living in the forests, there is a black “monkey”with no tail that sings in the morning, which is a perfect description of the gibbon. The skulls look so human that it is easy to imagine the fathers of these Naga hunters taking human heads instead of gibbon heads. On January 20, we stop in Makyan Village for the night, and are invited to sleep in the school house, which has been vacated by the teachers. Makyan is a large village with a good school, a church, a Buddhist stupa and a newly built morung with totem pole, all perched on a hilltop above the village houses. The morung is a large open structure, but the construction, with posts and beams of wood and split bamboo for walls, is not that different from the regular houses. After dusk, we see that several large bonfires have been started in the village below. Charlie and I descend to have a look, and we are immediately invited to sit in the circle of men and boys around one of the fires. Soon, I am also given a bamboo thermos full of warm, sour rice wine. It has a bamboo straw that is fitted on the opposite end with an ingenious woven strainer made of bamboo to keep the unhusked rice out of the stream of liquid. The wine has been prepared by the women of the village, and many of them are now inside the house preparing pork meat.
Charlie and I leave to return for dinner with our colleagues just as the food is being distributed. One of the men rushes after us and gives each of us a hot piece of roasted fat-back. It is chewy, greasy and delicious. That night, the others sleep inside the village school, among the desks and chairs, but I decide to try out the new CERS down sleeping bags, setting up my bed outside in the pavilion above the village. The bonfire party in the village below continues late into the night. I can hear the men chatting, and one man continually sings a droning chant, which is not unpleasant to my ear. There are also occasional choruses of yips and yells, which remind me of the Hollywood versions of Native American war cries from the old cowboy and Indian films that I watched when I was a kid in the US. I drift off to sleep finally, but at some point, very late in the dark night, a resounding chorus is issued, seemingly from all the men at once. After that, some men disperse, others stay on even later, talking and singing. What is the cause for this drunken celebration? I imagine that in the past it might have been the culmination of a successful head-hunting raid, or perhaps a male bonding ritual held in preparation for village warfare. Men’s gatherings like this might have been a necessity to ensure that the men fought bravely for their community. In the morning we learn that the celebration was in fact for the completion of communal construction of a new house, which stands out from its neighbours by the colour of its roof thatch, still fresh and green.
After breakfast, Sandra and Howman go on a collecting spree, and Charlie catches the fever as well. Prize purchases include hand woven blankets with traditional patterns, a bamboo drinking thermos complete with strainer straw, a pair of spears and a shield made of buffalo hide. I scold Howman and Sandra for purchasing more hornbill heads. Four species of Hornbills are now represented in Howman’s collection of heads: Oriental Pied Hornbill Anthracoceros albirostris, Great Hornbill, Buceros bicornis, Rufous-necked Hornbill, Aceros nipalensis, and Wreathed Hornbill, Rhyticeros undulates Only Tickell’s Brown Hornbill Anorrhinus tickelli is missing. It is remarkable that five species of these fascinating birds occur in this region, but for how much longer? How long can these slow breeding birds hold on, with so little forest left and so many hunters, who are now hunting not only for their own use, but also to provide curios for sale to ignorant tourists. Back on the HM Explorer and heading down the Chindwin River, I can’t help thinking about our Naga experience. Listening to the news, I can see a direct connection between the Naga men’s evening drinking parties and the tailgate parties that are planned for next week’s Super Bowl in the US. How typical was the Naga pattern of inter-village rivalry, raiding and warfare during the long pre-history of human evolution? Perhaps in the distant past, any human group whose members did not fight together, defending their village and raiding those of rivals, would not have thrived or survived. Comradery, loyalty to tribe, reverence for heroes, hatred of other groups - how many human traits are wrapped up in ancient necessities like that? Are there still lessons to be learned from the Naga?
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