Backpacking through Nagaland, I landed up at the spring festival of Aoling.
Nagaland isn’t the most popular tourist destination, nor is it a traveller’s paradise. Naturally, my parents were thrown when I said that I’d like to know what the topography there is like. My friends asked me why not just go to Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh then? I remember telling them when I hear those names, I imagine a scene from Dhanak or Paan Singh Tomar. It’s not that I know those places, but I’ve seen enough in films, in advertisements, in brochures to sort of, you know... get it.
For Nagaland, on the other hand, I had no point of reference. The same goes for most places far up in our North East – I cannot create a picture in my head. Of course, my friends still didn’t get it, and so, with a giant “piss off” to the lot, I decided to backpack through the North East. My one remaining friend, Sarah, joined me.
Now, Sarah and I didn’t really go with an agenda, so it was a surprise that our fates there happened to coincide with a festival the largest Naga tribe Konyak celebrates. It’s called Aoling, and celebrates spring. A six day festival at Mon, for which we arrived on the most significant, fourth day.
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Women in traditional dresses and bright jewellery at the festival
Mon was sparsely populated, and we saw almost no Indian tourists but many foreign journalists. The village has a huge mud-ground on which all the villagers gathered early in the morning. Sarah and I squeezed into the stands. The entire scene was lifted from my school’s Sports Day. The ground was crowded with nine groups of identically dressed members. There wasn’t a common band, but there were drummers positioned around the groups and rifle-holders standing along the side-lines. The shaded stage was mounted on a pedestal and had seating only for VIPs. The sun was blazing, the speeches were long. Spectators and participants were getting restless - this had to be Sports Day.
Men and women both dressed up in funky accessories
The Konyak were dressed in colourful tribal clothes; the men wore a loin cloth and a shawl, and women wore handwoven skirts and blouses. Regardless of gender, everyone donned funky jewellery made from animal and bird remains - necklaces made of boar tusks and brass skulls, headgear decorated with bird feathers and animal tails, bamboo baskets, machetes on waists and matchlock rifles in hands. Everyone except the millennials of Mon who were in ripped denim jeans and Versace t-shirts.
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The ceremony began with a rhythmic beating of drums
Simultaneously all the groups formed circles and began chanting and dancing. The Chief Guest of the festival was the local MLA who stepped off the pedestal and shook a leg with dancers. The ceremony went on for a few hours, and the impatient observers (us included) ditched the stands and surrounded the villagers, taking pictures and asking for selfies.
Bullets being fired all round
While a huge feast of meat, red rice and beer awaited them, nothing awaited us. Sarah and I were exhausted by the day’s occurrences and we headed back to our more-than-modest, unaffordable guest house. The story behind our lavish lodging was that I knew someone, who knew someone, who knew someone who did us a huge favour and arranged our stay and food in a government guest house.
Thanks for paying your taxes, guys.
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By Nidah Kaiser
Photographs by: Nidah Kaiser