Khonsa (Arunachal Pradesh): “There are Goblins in the forests”, said Richa.
“Goblins? Have you seen them? What do they look like?”
“They have long hair that reach their feet. They are tall. They visit the Khonsa market sometimes. They are visible to just one member from a village. Only he can see them. My father once saw them by bribing a villager. They are fearful to look at. They are forest folk who gave each village a recipe to the secret ingredients to jumin (rice beer).”
Richa, a state government employee looks into the government’s agriculture initiatives in Khonsa, Arunachal Pradesh, while her father cultivates large plantations of tea and bamboo just before Baromile (12th Milestone). She had gone to the palatial Rajkumar bungalow, which has stood the test of time, with her cousins and friends. A pristine white statue of a lady carrying water was at the entrance, there for three generations of Noctes now. They shared some jumin, which her mother had prepared at Loku, the Noctes’ harvest festival.
This was my third visit since November 2012 to the land of the Noctes, an erstwhile headhunting lower hill tribe in the Patkai hills of eastern Arunachal Pradesh and the insurgency-affected Tirap, headquartered at Khonsa. Ethnically related to the Konyak Nagas, the Noctes are originally from the Hukong Valley in Myanmar, from where they migrated during the 1670s-1700s.
While the Noctes gave up headhunting in 1960s – the last incident was reported in the 1980s – when the chiefs unanimously decided to give up on the practice and become part of civil society. It was also the period when the armed forces were securing the location to integrate the region with India. Christianity was gaining momentum alongside the insurgency ( and the advent of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland factions). By the 1990s, the Noctes were Christianised and the Morung – where the hunted heads were displayed, once a symbol of a Nocte village’s prosperity and strength – lost its heads and glory.
“Take some gifts for the Raja, when you go to Lapnan. It is tradition,” advised Samman, a resident of the Rajkumar bungalow and the chief of the Pansumthong village, on the outskirts of Borduria, which was an early gate to Myanmar once upon a time.
At Lapnan, there was no statue of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. The raja’s hut was the biggest. It not only had a crisscross V-shaped bamboo flooring, as was the tradition for the chief’s hut, but was elevated from the ground to protect from animal attacks and was made entirely from bamboo, which grew aplenty there. Traditionally, the rajas could take in many wives, who all lived together. The rani (queen) was the first wife of the chief and of royal lineage, while the other wives were part of an alliance or treaty to conquer other lands and maintain peace. Only the rani’s eldest living child could inherit the chieftainship. Lapnan, incidentally, turned out to be the only Nocte village that hadn’t embraced Christianity as the raja and the community were keen to protect the Nocte culture and traditions. The Morung at Lapnan had on display hornbill heads, bison heads, wild boar heads and few snake heads placed in the rack below the over two dozen human skulls of various sizes and shapes. The Morung was a sacred place, where women couldn’t enter and served as a meeting place for the menfolk.
Headhunting would involve a group of men organising a hunt for food or to protect their land or conquer new land, and only headhunters would decorate their daos (traditional swords/long blade knives) with the hair of their hunted. The woman’s hair was treated with respect as it showcased that the headhunter had successfully headhunted a woman after killing her protectors in battle, as well as the strategy of occupying new land. The successful headhunting party would then be tattooed on their faces. The oldest of the headhunters is now in their late 80s. Tattooing too is dying out, with the oldest tattoo artist, 84, losing the steadiness in her hands.
The Noctes have a strong sense of identity and are still trying to preserve their culture, and look towards community building and belongingness to their land to prevent them from migrating to other urban centres in the country. Most of the Noctes are employed in the government services and Loku is when they celebrate their identity, traditions and culture along with the state, army and tourists.
“Baba, see we are in the land of the rising moon”, said Samman pointing out in the night sky that was getting lit up, while I tasted porcupine in the raja’s house, gulping down the bittersweet meat with jhumin, looking at the rising full moon behind the Patkai hills.
Indeed we were.
Udit Kulshrestha is an independent photographer based out of Gurgaon, and works on the subjects of culture and conflict in the unseen geographies of North East India. He is also the author of Darwaze, a limited edition self published pictorial photobook of his early works.