Sat, Dec 18, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Nagaland: India’s final frontier

In northeast India is a remote state, largely unknown even to Indians. Almost cut off from the world, its rich culture thrives in landscapes of startling natural beauty

By Jonathan Glancey  /  The Guardian, London

My first visit in the 1980s involved an arduous walk through Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, and across the northeastern border. That walk was an adventure made for its own sake through magnificent wild landscapes. It was a very inefficient means of getting to the Naga Hills. If only the Indian government had been able to tell the difference between those intent on innocent travel and those bent on trade, trafficking and trouble, and had issued visas to bona fide visitors. It didn’t, so you had to find your own way in.

Fresh from visiting the brand new and thrilling tiger reserve at Namdapha, I walked down to the Brahmaputra. Ferried by fishermen across the demanding river in one of its gentler moods, I was dropped off, now in Assam, at Dikhomukh. Here, innumerable tributaries flow into the Brahmaputra. One of these is the Dikho River, and while I was climbing up its banks I was approached by a slight, wiry and long-haired young man, my own age I guessed, dressed in sawn-off jeans, his bare chest and shoulders draped in necklaces made of beads, animal teeth, tiny fur-lined paws, small gold and silver coins and, intriguingly, a World War II Burma Star. This was Ngangshi — a nickname taken from the fine cloths his family wove — the first Naga I had met in his own country.

Ngangshi led me to a faded blue putt-putt boat tied to a tree and, with my bag and his knapsack on board, we set off into the shadowy riverine landscape. So low were we that it was only the following morning that, having scrambled up a steep bank, I caught sight of the Naga Hills for the first time. How they glistened. The pastures and paddies leading up to them were dressed and adorned in what appeared to be alpine flowers. How the birds sang, while monkeys looned and jeered. Up in that beckoning green citadel was a people whose history had barely been written.

In the morning, we walked up by an old railway track to the rickety wooden settlement of Naginimara. And from here, with new friends and by paths that might defeat a less than able goat, I got about the country. And met its people, and, slowly, wrote their story, of which this article is a fragment.

It’s still hard to get a visa to travel freely here. The present situation is that foreign and Indian tourists can apply to visit “Protected Areas” within officially defined “tour circuits” with “definite entry and exit permits.” The Government of Nagaland promises to “monitor the movement of foreign tourists.” So you can visit specific places — many very beautiful, including nature reserves and villages abounding in colorful festivals — but you won’t be able to continue up into the heights and depths of the Naga Hills where the borders disperse, often without barriers — but with fearful insects and other creeping, biting things — into surrounding states and countries, where you will encounter traditional village ways of life as well as Naga warriors dressed in battle fatigues and armed with mobile phones, Chinese guns and American bibles.

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