3/30/2009 to 4/6/2009 | India , Nagaland

Aoling: Return to Nagaland

I hopped on the Northeast express at Mughal Serai station just south of Varanasi for the long hall to Guwahati, very long, considering the train was 6 hours late by the time it reached Mughal Surai and it only lost more time after that. I was headed back to Nagaland, more precisely my friend Phejin’s village of Shiyong for the spring Konyak festival of Aoling. In addition to the festival infamously ill-tempered TV chef Gordon Ramsay was going to be shooting an episode for a travel/cooking show titled “Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape” airing on Channel 4 in the UK. The conspiring events meant there would be plenty going on in the usually sleepy village of Shiyong, in Nagaland’s northeastern most Mon district.

I met Phejin on the train by design, she was traveling back from Delhi, the two of us met May in Guwahati, the girl form Singapore who I had gone to Shiyong with on my first visit to Nagaland, and who was also returning to observe the festivities.

After a stint in mostly vegetarian Varanasi, I was looking forward to the carnivorous diet of the Naga, who have a great affection for all types of animal flesh. I was especially looking forward to some beef which of course is hard to come by in most of India due to the sacred status of the cow for Hindus. But Nagas who are nearly 100% Christian converted by mostly Baptist missionaries from there traditional tribal religion, have no such qualms. For more on the Naga see my first post on Nagaland, Delhi to the Hornbill Festival. I did not have to wait long for the beef, with two cows being slaughtered for the festival, there was plenty of beef to go around. I watched the whole process death, cleaning, and butchering and then picked out a few pieces to barbeque as steaks; something I had been thinking about ever since I had decided to return to Nagaland. Unfortunately my expectations did not match with reality. I discovered why beef is usually aged; the meat was still warm with recently departed life when I threw it on the fire. I cooked it to a nice medium rare with a bit of pink in the middle, however it was still pretty tough, far from the melt in you mouth fillet I had been dreaming about. It was even less popular with my Naga hosts who said the sauce is good (I had made my own barbeque sauce) but it’s not cooked. Nagas typically boil there meat for hours or smoke it for days so the concept of eating meat with any pink in it is a completely foreign one. I adapted and threw the chewy stakes into a pot, boiled them for a few hours and mixed in the barbeque sauce making some semblance of the barbequed beef sandwich you might get at an American deli, minus the bread of course. This creation turned out to be much more palatable to all concerned.

During Aoling the Konyak trade in their western cloths for some of their traditional ware. At the very least the men will don a brass necklace containing the traditional motif of a row of heads, a design dating back to the days from when the fierce warriors of the Konyak would take the heads of there enemies. These days the only body parts under assault are the livers of the Konyaks themselves, as they drink large quantities of home brewed rice beer as well as garden variety rum, whiskey and beer, in this very “wet” dry state where alcohol is on paper forbidden. In some villages traditional dances are performed. May and I along with Phejin’s father went to the nearby very picturesque village of Chingtang to witness one such performance. I distributed some photos from my first visit to the village back in December which made the locals even more willing to be photographed. The Aoling event in Shiyong that seemed to generate the most enthusiasm was the football (soccer) tournament, which was organized in part by the village elders to try to tone down the drinking of the youth during the festival, giving them a more “productive” activity in which to spend there time.

The village of Longwa has the geographic distinction of straddling the India-Burmese border. A point the separatist Nagas (who have been fighting the Indian government since its inception) like to use to emphasize the arbitrariness of the borders drawn when British left leaving the Naga people divided between the two Indian states of Nagaland and Aurnachal Pradesh and the nation of Burma (Myanmar). The geographic location has made it as big of a tourist draw as there is in Mon district. Michael Palin visited the village on his Himalayan TV series, pointing out how the village headman sleeps in one country and eats breakfast in another. We were planning to go on our first trip to Mon but never got around to it. This time we made the trip, though it didn’t really live up to expectations. Chingtang just down the road from Shiyong was a much more atmospheric place. Unfortunately jeep tours through the region had turned the place into a village of trinket sellers and beggars. Nevertheless, I did technically return to Burma, which I visited in 2002, although my passport will have no such reference to my 2009 visit.

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