29th March 2003
TRAVELS WITH MY CAMERA / ANU MALHOTRA
COLOURS OF SPRING & THE JOYS OF REMEMBERING
THE MIST rises on the first day of Aoling, the Konyak spring festival, the beginning of the architectural year. Palm trees, bamboo groves and peach blossoms transform the hills into a kaleidoscope of colors and patterns offset by the sparkling blue sky.
Fertility is integral to the Konyak belief system, which finds expression in many customs and rituals. The fertility cult used to be linked with the Konyak practice of headhunting and among the 16 tribes that continue to live in Nagaland, the Konyak were the fiercest. Today, the konyaks are 95 percent Christian and headhunting is a part of history.
The Konyak still revere the natural cycle of fertility, with animal sacrifice, feasting and dancing. Pong Tao, our guide and interpreter, leads me to a typical village hut, made with bamboo and palm fronds, and we’re welcomed with black tea and bananas by the family to witness the roasting of a pig. The animal is strung on a bamboo pole, brought before us and then cut with surgical precisions for fair distribution among family and friends. The balcony of the house is bloodied as hands weigh the head and sift through the innards. From the corner of my eye, I see my cameraman’s face blanch. He’s vegetarian, but keeps shooting the gory close-up that I require!
The village of Wanching is as picturesque as it’s quaint, with huts strewn across the rolling hilltop. About 600 people live here in complete harmony. Pong Tao tells me, “Many men live away from their families and are only here for the Aoling. It is an important occasions for us to renew ties with our people.”
After lunch, we head towards the Morung, a huge wooden hut-like structure with slanting roofs and wooden pillars carved with animal figures. This is the traditional dormitory for men and I’m overwhelmed by the colours of their ceremonial dress. The men are wearing electric blue kits over shorts, cane-belts, cane helmets with decorated with ivory and hornbill feathers, brass and cowry shell armlets, and calf bands made with dyed grass. I hear a medley of loud screeches, gongs and laughter. So begins the head-hunter’s dance, with the warriors hopping, jumping, shouting war cries, as they waved their cane shields, spears and rifles.
Pong points to the typical head-hunters cane basket, decorate with monkey skulls, jiggling behind every back, “They used to come back from a head-hunting expedition carrying heads in those baskets. The heads were mounted on poles and left till the flesh fell off. Afterwards, they would perform puja, feed the skulls and then store them in the morung
as sacred objects of fertility,” he tells us.
We had towards another Morung,
where a group of men are singing a song that exalts the village. Ingeniously handcrafted instruments provide a lilting accompaniment along with rice beer, a favourite Konyak drink, being brewed in bamboo canisters. Pong hands me some and everyone watches as I take a sip. It smells like nail polish! Pong urges me to gulp it down in one go, which I do, getting a round of applause from the men.
Suddenly, there’s a buzz. The girls have arrived, decked in elaborate jewelry, from head to toe. In the old days, young girls wore long lead earrings, which were changed to brass, when parents considered them old enough to take on lovers. Sexual relationships among the youth are considered natural. Today, love marriages are the norm and divorce doesn’t lead to social ostracism. Regarded as embodiments of fertility, women are accorded great respect as mothers who provide life and nourishment.
The boys and girls hold hands and being the fertility dance in a circle. Village elders lead the dance in the centre, looking exotic with long stems of orchids, ferns and goat horns hanging from their ears. Some have tattooed faces, the mark of a head-hunter.
Pong shows me his uncle’s necklace, which has five skull-shaped pendants hanging from them. “In the old days” he tells me, “you could tell how many heads a man had hunted by checking out his tattoo and necklace,” I observe that the Konyak youth have an ingrained sense of respect for their elders, who’re treated as important members of society.”
At this point, an old head-hunter approaches me swinging a string of leaves under which was attached a piece o human skull- an ancient, sacred heirloom. He points his spear at me and ominously jumps towards me and really scares me. I am invited to join in and soon with headgear and jewellery on, and spear in hand, I try the war dance, cry and chant “Oooaah! Oooaah!” accompanied by much hooting and laughter.