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

Missionaries, many from the US, have been hugely successful in turning Nagas into Baptists; the biggest buildings in the ramshackle towns are their churches. The most ardent freedom fighters, even when committed Maoists, are often devout Christians.

It is notoriously hard to get above the hail-filled clouds that wreath the Naga Hills in the long months of the monsoon, but when the clouds lift, views from these slippery crests, peaks and ridges, whether at 600m or 3,600m, are utterly sublime. For kilometer after kilometer, a densely green landscape rises from leech-infested, mosquito-haunted tropical jungle before plunging down the next ravine to deeply shadowed rivers — icy in winter — snaking through hill after hill. Ravines follow one another in what appears to be an ever-closer succession until the greenery blurs hypnotically under peerless blue skies.

Zoologists and botanists describe Nagaland as a “biodiversity hot spot.” Good enough reason to go. The wealth of plants, flowers, birds and animals here is stunning. Pangolins, porcupines, barking deer, buffalo and elephants share forests, clearings and riverbeds with monkeys, wild dogs, at least 40 different snakes, several of them poisonous. Bird life is prolific. There are bears in the higher hills, leopards and tigers, too.

All too many animals, however, end up in the pot. On my last visit to the market at Kohima, the state capital, I looked with a resigned sadness at skinned dogs, dog skins, rats and rare birds, writhing red worms and a capuchin monkey, which I hope was not the one offered to me as a pet the previous day in Kohima cemetery.

Earlier European visitors to Nagaland were equally in danger of extinction. The haunting military cemetery at Kohima records the deaths of those who fought at the Battle of Kohima in 1944, a hand-to-hand combat that saw the Japanese driven back from the borders of India.

One marker honors the uncertain remains of Private Thomas Collins, 21, from Barkingside, southeast England. The fighting at Kohima was so intense that bodies were mixed into a mash of bloody tropical ooze. It seems not only sad that a life like that of Collins should have been blasted from him at such a tender age, but also somehow almost ineffably strange that this young lad from England should have died in the Naga Hills. This was very probably his first trip abroad. One moment, his big adventure would have been to take a train up to town from Barkingside; the next moment, drilled, dressed in khaki, Lee-Enfield .303 over his shoulder, Collins was packed off to die in this improbably remote corner of the British Empire.

Would I recommend going to Nagaland knowing the restrictions imposed on visitors? I think so. It has taken me years to get to know this forgotten frontier, its peoples, history, wars, culture, myths and hopes. If you long to find an exotic “Switzerland of the East,” here it is, although don’t expect gleaming hotels, rosti and reliable transport; more importantly, you may just get to know a forgotten people who will make you see Britain, India and global ambitions through very different eyes, while the landscape, as so many who have come this way know to their cost, is truly to die for.

Further information: As well as an Indian tourist visa, visitors require a Restricted Area Permit for Nagaland. Restricted Area Permits are only issued to visitors traveling in a group of four or more, or married couples. In effect, solo travelers cannot go to Nagaland.

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