A former headhunter’s festival

Wong How Man
Khamti, Myanmar

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Tribal chief with hornbill beaks on headdress. Young Naga warrior with ornaments. Lady with tattooed face. Naga family with multiple children.“Mind your head,” said my interpreter as I entered a Naga home. Too late, as my cap shaded my view of the low-hanging doorway and I banged my head. But that phrase of warning rang deeper and went back centuries into time immemorial for the Naga living along the border of Myanmar with India, up near the foothills of the Himalayas. Headhunters the Naga were, up until at least 1983, perhaps even into the 1990s, as one account puts it.

Thus visitors in the past always had to “mind their heads” when traveling among the jungles of the Naga hills. When the Naga hit, like guerillas coming out of the jungle, they took no hostage, just heads. Some of these raids among villages netted not just one head, not even a dozen heads, but hundreds. Feuds among neighboring tribes could last for generations, at least until the British colonial power finally extended their rule and penetrated the remote region with an attempt to pacify the area and put an end to such barbaric tribal warfare.

Parade of one of the tribes.They were only partly successful as some of the Naga became Christians. Teaching by the British that one shouldn’t kill each other did not stand up to test during the Second World War. The Naga started questioning how come the Japanese and the British were at each other’s throat. Following independence of first India and then Burma, the ancient practice on both sides of the border resumed again. Even today, in such a distant land, little to no modern law seems to apply. The Myanmar government also exert only nominal rule in many of the country’s frontier region. This is evidenced by the periodic sentry points that I passed, with army and military police carrying machine guns and assault rifles while overseeing all passers-by with watchful eyes.

Drum made from single log.The Naga region is officially closed to visitors, save for a short few days around January 15 each year when the government organizes a Naga New Year festival with the cooperation of local and native chiefs of Nagaland. This used to vary from village to village, during a time after the Naga harvested their last crop and make ready to plant for the new season. But the government tried to make it uniform so the tribal chiefs and their cohorts could get to know each other, even their former enemies, and make peace. It also came to show some nominal authority of the central government in a nation filled with minorities, many of which are insurgents up till today.

I took a chartered flight from Yangon with a dozen or so foreign visitors. At a stop in Mandalay, more passengers came onboard. They were all local tourists, mainly photographers, or aspiring photographer of sort, noticeable from the array of photographic equipment they were all carrying. One teenage-looking girl, purportedly daughter of one of the richest businessman in Mandalay, was sporting two Nikon D800s with multiple long lenses. Unlike them, I always hide my “real” camera in a small non-descript photographic bag while only showing a tiny point-and-shoot camera for candid opportune shots.

Naga men and women at festival.Our organizer U Mg Ni said this year there were far fewer visitors. Over the past dozen or so years since the government inaugurated the festival, each year they may have 70 to 100 guests signing up for the trip. As the exclusive and only organizer for “tourists”, he charged an exorbitant sum, especially for a country like Myanmar where the Kyat currency usually goes a long way. This year there were only 18 of us foreigners; two from Hong Kong, three from France, one German, one Austrian, one Dutch with his Thai partner, two Japanese, one Iranian with his Mongolian partner, and a bit surprisingly five Russians. Almost all were professional photographers shooting for assignment, except the Russians. Together with the local guests, we made up a group of 31.

The last hour of our flight was all over the jungle. Not a village or even a road could be seen below us. The twin prop dropped from the clear sky ceiling and landed in a short airstrip outside the town of Khamti, along the upper Chindwin River. This river is one of the most important tributaries of the Irrawaddy. Starting from the Himalaya foothill, it runs for over 500 kilometers before joining the main Irrawaddy below Mandalay. Our CERS exploration boat, 100-foot in length and shallow in draught, is being built with exploring this Chindwin River in mind. Thus it was a relief to see that, even during the dry season, similar boats of up to 150-foot length still made it to this point. My I-pad map tracked my whereabouts, as I noted our position was only 50 or so kilometers from the border with India.

We boarded open-backed motor tricycles with our bags. In a caravan of eight vehicles, we sped off with a trail of dust to the jetty by the river. From a prop plane to motor tricycles swaying back and forth, then in open long boats along the jungle, it conjures the image of Tin Tin and his sidekick Snowy rushing off to the next adventure. Topping it all, we got to the west bank of the river and climbed on top the metal scaffolding frameworks of six pick-up trucks and began our long and bumpy road journey.

Some six hours away into the jungle would be our final destination of Lahe, a small mountain outpost, which is the festival ground for this year. Two other Naga villages, Leshi and Nawng Yang, are rotated as festival ground yearly depending on security issues during any particular year. At the moment, given the insurgency and government army activities in the Kachin region adjacent to Nawng Yang, it is doubtful next year that village will be considered.

Neck decoration fashioned from beak of the hornbill.The climb to Lahe was particularly difficult with huge inclined grades as I heard our truck forcing its way uphill using only first and second gear. Three hours into the trip, zigzagging up and down switchback mountain dirt roads, we were into darkness as the winter sun set early. It may be just as well since we could not enjoy the lovely jungle canopy of huge tress at night. Furthermore it was easier not to see the dust that came at our face from the car in front. I remembered the short note provided by the organizer on our itinerary for the day, “five to six hours travel on air truck”. ‘Air truck’ sounded all so romantic before reality sets in. After all, we were all on real Upper Class, as the term is used in First Class travel on the trains in Myanmar.

I must admit to feeling relieved and delighted as we turned one corner and saw lights in the distant, after riding for hours in darkness. Reaching “town” took another twenty minutes. I looked forward to checking into our hotel but that dream was downgraded to a small local house on wooden stilts, and then further downgraded as I was led into my room with two cramped and tiny mats on the floor. Temperatures dropped drastically during winter night in the mountain and the thin blankets provided were hardly enough to keep us warm. Luckily I brought my thinnest sleeping bag and picked up a blanket in Yangon as insulation inside. With that, I mustered through the night while most other guests complained, but somehow shivered through.

The next morning we finally had a good look at the festival ground just a few hundred meters away. Many vendors were beginning to set up shops on the ground, selling oddities like digital watches, pocket radios, CD players, and LCD lights, mostly brought in from neighboring India. There were a few street side cafes and clothing stores at the main junction, the only junction of Lahe.

Animal head trophiesreplacing one-time human heads.By mid-morning, I heard a low unison chant, at times like grunts, getting closer and closer to the festival ground. In ten minutes or so, I saw a long file of scantily dressed Naga warriors marching toward the festival ground. First you saw white feathers over their decorative hats before you saw their heads and then bodies. The feathers were plucked from the tail of the hornbill birds of the region. This signaled the arrival of the first tribe, having been on the road for five days marching on foot. Since they came from the furthest village, to control timing, they had left their home earliest.

For the remaining part of the day, more and more tribes started arriving. By the end of the day, there were about twelve different tribes; some had large groups of women marching along. The nearest tribe had still taken a day to trek to Lahe. Large groups may have up to a hundred participants and small ones maybe fifty or so members represented. They were put up in local schools, government buildings and larger homes. It was said that the organizer took care to keep a distance among former enemy tribes, such that hostility would not flare up.

I paced the festival ground to look at the merchandise on sale, as I hoped to pick up some artifacts for the CERS collection. In particular I was interested in hand-woven textile of the Naga, colorful and with lovely motifs. While there were a few ladies demonstrating weaving with their hand looms, I only wanted old and used blankets and shawls. Prices were reasonably high and I was told by one local that it would drop dramatically by the last day of the event. So I only picked what I wanted with my eyes and waited for the fiscal cliff in prices in two more days. Such measured prudence proved very effective when I purchased items later on at less than half the original price.

Air Truck, or open-top truck.I also took one of the trucks to the nearest Naga village some 15 kilometers away. Chief U Ka Yar was away, but his 26-year-old son Lar Law was at home. He was being groomed to become the future chief. Such chieftains were hereditary among Naga tribe and the young man went to primary and then secondary school at Lahe, thus spoke Burmese. Through him and my interpreter, I was able to find out a few things about their village. The local primary school has 56 students for a village with 80 families and over 300 inhabitants. I was also shown the many racks under the eaves of houses, once reserved for display of heads hunted from enemy villages, but today only adorned with all types of animal heads. Most abundant were buffalo, deer and monkey skulls.

At the Chief’s home, I visited the mother of the current Chief. At age 80 and with face tattoo, she was sharp as a nail and brought out her finest weaving specimens to show me. Asking price was high, but she kept emphasizing that at her senior age, she would never make another piece. And the younger generation could no longer be taught such refined skills. I took the bite and bought one of the two last pieces of her handiwork for 100,000 Kyat or approximately US$120.

At a thatch-roofed house, another old lady waved for me to enter. Words travel fast in a village and she must have heard that I was potential clientele. She brought out a number of fabrics and blankets. For a blanket, she asked for only 10,000 Kyats by putting up ten fingers, a fraction of what I just paid a little while ago. That would be approximately US Twelve Dollars and very reasonable. But with buyer instinct and routine, I counted 9,000 Kyat and put in front of her as my offer. Throughout the years, I have learned when a seller sees actual money, he or she knows you are serious and would enter into real bargain. The deal was quickly struck and I handed the money over.

Spectators in the evening.Next I bargained for the remaining two pieces, again at 9,000 a piece by offering her 18,000. But now she refused to budge. It took me a while to realize that the old lady could not multiply. I turned around and offered her the same price, one piece at a time. We parted happily, she with her money and me with the additional two pieces. That was a great bargain compared to the 100,000 Kyat I had to pay to rent a beat-up truck for just a few hours in getting there.

The second day’s opening ceremony of the festival was presided by local, district and even Central Government officials. As foreign guests, we also had special seats assigned under a roof. The Naga tribes all took up their places on long bamboo benches. The most disappointing part was all ceremonies were conducted in Burmese, then translated briefly into English for our benefit. Unfortunately for the Naga, although they are the center of attraction, their language was never used on stage or throughout the entire event.

The third day, the main day of the festival, was filled with performances and dances by each of the participating Naga tribe. Most of these were accompanied by songs like battle chants, and stylized dances. Several groups, one at a time, would take over the long drum carved hollow from one very large and long log, some thirty feet in length. The beat got my heart pulsating to its rhythm and it could be heard from a great distance.

That evening a huge bonfire was lit and more dances ensued, to the accompaniment of some fireworks, paid for by the government. The Naga sang and danced late into the night, drinking to their heart’s content the home-made rice wine stored in a bamboo cylinder that they brought from home. By the next morning, they would begin their long journey home. So would I, who attended this little-known Naga festival in the northern jungle of Myanmar; my head still intact, though a little intoxicated. And next year, I shall return, in our own boat, and with luck I’ll be able to bring a few more CERS heads. That is, if my board directors are willing to risk theirs!