Posted by: itsme | June 3, 2010

Kohima, Capital of Nagaland

Kohima is a hill town like any other. In the manner of Darjeeling, Shillong or Gangtok, it is a messy town, crowded and congested. Developing a picturesque hill station requires a great deal of planning followed by proper execution. It is not something we Indians are capable of. If anyone thinks otherwise, let them explain why all hill stations are in such terrible conditions. Unfinished buildings stick out as eyesores. Old buildings cling dangerously on slopes. The romance of hill stations is in the green forests and cool climate. The former is gone due to urbanization. The latter is suffering from global warming. Power cuts are common in Kohima. Water is in great shortage. Many hotels in town remind you not to do your own laundry. As for public behaviour, a banner on a wall sums up the situation:

Nagaland. Singapore
Civic Sense

On the way to Kohima from Dimapur by bus, my permit got checked by an officer. He sort of warned me to mind the dates. My permit is valid for only a week. I find a decent room, dump my stuff and go out to see the state museum.

State Museum

‘There is no power,’ says the guy at the ticket counter. He refuses to issue me the five-rupee ticket to the museum.

‘When will power return?’ I ask out of vain hope. I sort of know the answer to this one.

‘No idea,’ he gives a blank look. I have seen that before.

‘There should be some light from the windows,’ I ask hopefully. Seeing something is better than nothing.

‘It is very very dark. You cannot see anything.’

I wait around at the entrance. Nearby is an old door with typical Naga reliefs carved in wood. The door is painted wonderfully although the colour has faded with time. Such doors were used as part of village entrance gateways. With nothing else to do, I bring out my sketch book and start making a sketch of the design on the door. It occupies me for many minutes. Suddenly the power comes back.

The guy was right. Some of the galleries are in the basement and without power I could not have seen anything. This is one museum that no visitor to Kohima can afford to miss. It gives a wonderful insight into the customs and traditions of the Nagas. There is a wide array of artefacts and anyone interested in the culture of the region will do well to spend a few hours here. I bring out my notebook and make frequent notes about the exhibits. From miniature models of traditional Naga huts to handwoven fabrics embroidered with cowries and dyed goat’s hair, the collections take me to a world so different from the rest of India. Nagaland is home to many different tribes and sub-tribes within. Each tribe has it speciality but they do share many things in common.

‘Nagas are quite different from other parts of the North East. This has served as a unifying force for the Nagas,’ comments another visitor as we walk out of the building. This old man is a local who has come to borrow books. The museum building is also home to a local public library.

‘There are many tribes in Arunachal Pradesh but they are all different. They are not as unified as we Nagas,’ he continues. This make explain why the people of Nagaland are so supportive of Nagas living in Manipur and the call for Greater Nagaland.

Kohima Village

Next I go in search of what is claimed to be the biggest village in the world. It is a strange superlative. Smallest village makes sense but not the other way. It is as silly as someone claiming to be the tallest midget in the world. At what size does a village become a town? Is it more than size that determines the definition of a village? Is it perhaps the administrative setup? Biggest village. Sounds a little backward in terms of progress and development.

The local term for this village is Bara Basti. The village is spread on hilly slopes. In the days of old, there used to be many small villages on this hill. Each village was a contained settlement that could be accessed only by a massive wooden gateway. The doors of these entrance gateways are wooden, painted and decorated with wooden reliefs. Just earlier today I had seen such a gateway at the museum but I am on my way to see original examples in the village.

The first gateway I see is in pretty good shape. It is dated 1969 on the doorframe. A little later I climb a steep flight of stone steps to find a gateway sheltered between trees and vegetation. This is date 1940. At a place named T-Khel I find two doors at the gateway, one a more recent addition to an older one. They are dated 1976 and 1947 respectively. Later in the evening I find a gateway dated 1909. This is the oldest gateway I have seen in today’s walk in Kohima Village.

Wooden doorway with carved reliefs

Wooden doorway with carved reliefs

All gateways share similarities in design with differences only in the details of the reliefs. The gateway has a gable on top which sometimes ends in cross blades at the top. The gable is decorated with concentric circles, vertical bars or four-pointed stars. The doors open on a hinge on one side. The hinges are wooden. Very little metal has been used in the construction. The reliefs are the most striking decoratives of these doors. In general, the head of a black bull is carved with great horns. These horns curve up boldly and frame the scene. Within the frame of the horns is a man standing with a frilled headress of feathers. He is flanked by bulls, sometimes by swords or mature crops. Often this man carries in his left hand a severed head while at the top of the door is a set of severed heads carved out in line. These heads are painted in red, sport black moustache, dark eyebrows, white eyes and white teeth through half-parted lips. Their hair is painted black and is made of tufts of thatch, coconut coir or even fur of some sort. More modern doors contain guns in addition to swords.

There is a lot of symbolism in these reliefs. They contain a message to visitors coming into the village. Those were the days of head-hunting and the heads were a symbol of power and conquest. The weapons proclaim their capability in warfare. The crops are a sign of prosperity. The gateway as a whole tells of mastery in wooden craftwork, art and culture of the village.

Catholic Cathedral

Near my hotel is the Ao Baptist Church. The entrance is open. I walk into the church while an evening service is underway. The pews are mostly empty except for about five and twenty people seated in the front. It is a significant crowd for a weekday evening. I can imagine the place packed for a Sunday morning service. Windows with pointed arches and glazed glasswork are to the right. The hills and Kohima Village can be seen splendidly framed by the arches. I pick a book of songs and out of curiosity leaf through the pages. When the service ends, I walk out with the rest of the congregation. People look at me as they pass. That I am a stranger is no disguise.

Ao Baptist Church

Ao Baptist Church

‘Christian?’ one of them asks.

‘No. I am just visit Kohima as a tourist,’ I reply.

As the sun sets, this part of town is thrown into darkness. There is a powercut. Someone tells me it may be another hour for it to come back. I go in search of dinner. I find a nice place in JN Restaurant. The place is run by Ari, a retired teacher. She tells me that the place is popular with budget tourists. It is already fully booked for the annual Hornbill Festival in December.

‘Why are there so many hostels in Kohima?’ I ask her.

‘People come here to study. There are not many schools outside the capital,’ she replies. There seems to be a pattern in the North East. Development is concentrated to a few towns and generally only to the state capital cities.

‘You are a Naga yourself?’

‘Yes, I am an Angami,’ she acknowledges proudly. ‘Angamis are more educated and better off than other Naga tribes.’

Frankly, it seems rather inappropriate to name her as tribal anymore. Society has changed with time. ‘Are you a Christian as well?’ I ask.

‘Yes. In fact, 99% of all Nagas are Christians.’

This sort of surprises me. I had not imagined that Christianity would have taken such a strong root in Nagaland. My food takes time to arrive but when it does, it is fresh, tasty and good. I have ordered boiled vegetables as a side dish. This seems to be a typical Naga preparation. Vegetables are cut into large chunks, simply boiled in water with a pinch of salt and served in a bowl. The cabbage is green and fresh. Strips of carrot are tender.

This morning I take a bus to get to the Catholic Cathedral set on a hill. Town buses are common and an excellent means of getting around. Fares are generally no more than five rupees but you may have to change to connecting buses. As I walk up the hill to the cathedral, I see a woman weaving in front of a house. The loom is similar to what I had seen in Arunachal Pradesh. Her weft of black threads has run out. She gets up to get another roll.

‘You go inside. Take her picture,’ she parts the curtain over the doorway. I see another woman weaving a similar design inside. I am offered a low bamboo stool to sit on. It is a big room yet small for the purposes it is being used. At the back is the kitchen. To the right is the bedroom with a medium sized double bed. To my immediate right, opening to the street, is a little space used as a shop for sundry items. The space in the center is where the woman has temporarily setup her loom. Her two and a half year old girl is peeping at me shyly.

‘What are you weaving?’ I ask. The warp is mostly of black threads with a few bands of white or yellow.

‘This is a vest for men,’ Aasa says. ‘You want to buy one?’

‘How much?’

‘How much money you have?’ she laughs enquiringly.

‘Not much.’

‘Sixteen hundred,’ she says.

The other woman, Pengha, who had been weaving outside some moments ago walks in. She is followed by a third who has a baby strapped to her back. The women laugh and joke. They are amused by my interest in their weaving. Their laughter is loud and uninhibited.

‘Where are your clothes?’ they ask as if I am standing naked before them.

‘My bag is in the hotel, near the Ao Baptist Church,’ I tell them.

‘Your underwears? Elastic?’ they ask and erupt into laughter. Some of the things that we take for granted are still novel to them. Their frank behaviour and often lewd gestures surprise me. Women and girls are not persecuted in Nagaland. They are respected. I think female infanticide is virtually unknown here. After many minutes, they get back to serious weaving and leave me alone to take my snaps. I thank them for their time and continue uphill to the cathedral.

Catholic Cathedral

Catholic Cathedral

Churches in Meghalaya and Nagaland can make a separate study on its own. They are inspired by local beliefs, customs and symbols. This cathedral is arranged in a circular layout. The tall gables and deep eaves support on iron truss work are inspired by local Naga architecture. Behind is a tower with a cross. On the inside, Christ is nailed to the cross and below his feet is the skull and horns of a bull, a symbol so sacred to the Nagas. A criss-crossed emblem of spears or spears standing on their own decorate the altar, candlestands and the pulpit. Christianity in this modern church has been localized in such symbols of ethnic significance. The entire structure is supported by iron framework and covered with asbestos. It is a church I like a lot.

I walk outside and take pictures of the wonderful facade. The lawn is nicely mowed. Today’s rain has brought it a fresh coat of green. Steps leading down through pine woods take me to the main entrance gate. On the way are reliefs depicting the Stations of the Cross.

War Cemetery

This war cemetery is dedicated to the memory of the men of the 2nd Division. Between April to June of 1944, British and Indians fought together against the invading Japanese in the Battle of Kohima and subsequently the fight for the road to Imphal.

Cemetery seen in fog and rain

Cemetery seen in fog and rain

As I walk into the cemetery grounds it is raining heavily. The place is fogged out and visibility is limited to a few meters. A gardener is turning up a little bed of soil with a small hoe. Some flowers lie at his feet. Other workers and guards are taking shelter from the downpour in a garden pavilion topped with a cross. Their wet umbrellas are set out to dry but they will probably not see dryness till the end of day.

The immaculate lawns are the home to many gravestones cemented into the ground in neat lines. These gravestones are engraved with the names of men who have died in battle. They range from various sections of the armed forces – Dorsetshire Regiment, Royal Berkshire Regiment, Army Remount Department are just a few examples. Flowers bloom beautifully between the gravestones. The fog seems to hang over them in remembrance. Droplets hang delicately on petals as tear drops of nature pining departure, loss or sacrifice. A few red petals at one grave have seen the last of their glorious days and lie scattered around the manicured beds.

The lawns with their gravestones are laid out on terraced levels. Ivys climb up the walls on these terraces. In places, clumps of rhododendrons cling to the ground as if they are laid out as offerings and the ground itself is the altar for the fallen. Muslims have their gravestones too but the Hindus among the fallen have been cremated. Their names are recorded in a separated monument at the far end of the cemetery. A visit to this cemetery is an emotional experience. It is a poignant reminder of the cost of peace and freedom.

World War Tank

My departure from Kohima is delayed because there is no transport in the afternoons for Mokokchung. I have to stay here one more night. I return to the hotel for a nap. It’s not a great day for walking. It’s been raining all day.

Tank of World War II

Tank of World War II

‘Have you not seen Netaji’s tank?’ asks one of the caretakers in the hotel. His voice is a little presumptious as if history is his regular fodder. He is partly admonishing me for not visiting this important landmark of Kohima.

‘Is there one?’ I ask. I didn’t know there was a tank in town.

‘You must see that one. We will go there this evening,’ he tells me. Locals have a way of planning itineraries for you whether you like it or not. He continues, ‘There is another place where Netaji’s coat and cap are hung on a peg. They are hanging there even today exactly as he left them. He took a flight from Kohima and never returned.’

To my knowledge, although INA was in the North Eastern frontier fighting alongside the Japanese, Subhas Chandra Bose was elsewhere. His flight is said to have crashed in Taiwan. I am beginning to doubt this fellow bold claims.

Towards evening the rain stops. I have to go out anyway for dinner. I might as well go in search of this tank before dinner. I walk past the War Cemetery. I ask around and I am pointed to a path going into the wood. A short walk brings to pine woods set on a slope. At the edge of these woods is the tank, very much battered in battle and the passing of half a century. Firstly, it has nothing to do with Netaji. It is an American tank used by the British.

On May 6, 1944, the tank careened downhill, hit a tree and came under heavy fire from the Japanese. The crew jammed the triggers to enable continous firing, set the turret to rotate and escaped. As a memory to that battle, the tank remains in the spot where it was abandoned. It is one of the places of Kohima that brings history alive.


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