Khonoma. Breathe and let live

DSCN5524Khonoma in Nagaland, India. 10 reasons why you should be here.

Detox: All a tired soul needs is downtime in a wooden cottage in Khonoma’s terraced valleys. Pound those cobbled streets and feel the bushed limbs spring back to life. Flowers abound, especially calla lilies and roses, splashing cream and pink in the greenscape. Neat stacks of firewood and filigree trash baskets line the spotless, spit-less, excrement-free roads ideal for the barefoot traveller. The wind is high. You can sit on the roadside, perched on the edge of the terraces. You can touch the oxygen.

Accessible:  Khonoma, called the green or model village, is an hour away from Kohima in Nagaland but since a part of the road is rough, keep an extra half hour in hand. The nearest airport is Dimapur. Cars are available, whether pre-booked or otherwise. There are two homestays in Khonoma, both efficiently run by ramrod straight women. The one where I stayed had three rooms with clean linen and white bathrooms. There are little touches like hand embroidery on the lemon yellow pillow covers. The power situation is uncertain, bound by the whims of weather. March and April are the windiest months.

As close to organic as it gets: They do not use chemical fertilisers. Food on the table, which comes free with the homestays, is off the fields. The cooking is simple, mostly braised or boiled, the spices minimal. A chutney of tomatoes and Naga or King chilies is de rigueur on the table. Pork is the go-to meat here. Being fed and fattened with all the right elements and never injected with antibiotics, the homebred pigs of Khonoma come close to the lambs of Scotland and the wagyu of Shibuya. Of course nothing is officially certified here. We depend on our native taste buds. Chicken is also available. The potash-free saag tastes deliciously different.

Steps of green: The rice fields of Khonoma are friendly terrain. With the fine rain spray on your face, a walk up and down the gentle terraces is like a visit to a spa. There are narrow raised paths separating crystal clear water bodies and cropped land. There are even shelters you can dive into in case the rain gets heavy. Farmers you meet on the way are happy to share their lunch with you. Be brave. Their menu is always the same, rice boiled with fresh local catch from the waters around them. It could be anything from frogs to shrimps to anonymous genus.

The village: Post-siesta, a walk around the village beckons. To examine the local architecture. Some homes here have their own emblematic design. They sport mithun (large and gentle bovine found in these parts) horns on their main gates, a right earned only after the affluent homeowner throws a meaty party for the community. The inner doorways are festooned with skulls of beasts large and small, relics of a slowly morphing culture.

Birds in alder forests: Birdwatchers always have Khonoma on their agenda. Since the Angami elders here got together and coaxed the naturally warlike Nagas to stop killing birds, the alder forests here have become a sanctuary for the feathered ones. This is not so normal in Nagaland, as kids elsewhere in the state still naturally take to bringing down birds with slings. Their parents smile indulgently.

A part of the forest has been cleared for jhum cultivation. I come across expanses of bare forest floors of blackish umber. The weeds and other vegetation have been painstakingly uprooted and burnt. Branch-less alder trunks rise to the sky like stumps, adding a dystopian chill to the quietness. After the crop is harvested, the soil is allowed to “rest” for a while, I was told. I can’t help but gawp at the stunted avatars of the trees. It smells of a photographer’s project.

Morungs and Megaliths: There are remains of erstwhile ‘morungs’ everywhere in Khonoma. Morungs are large roomy dormitories with striking façades and roofs. They historically served as gurukuls. In true tribal tradition, groups of boys or girls would stay far away from family for a while and learn life’s lessons and local culture as well as pick up skills like weaving and woodwork from mentors during their stint in these morungs. Now, schools runs by Baptist missionaries impart board-prescribed education. Morungs have adapted to the times as picnic spots.

We come across solitary stone columns with mysterious etchings. These taciturn towers are found unannounced, in isolated spots, especially deep in the forested parts of this 700-year-old village. They are called ‘megaliths’ and no one has been able to break their code.

Otherwise unseen crafts: A girl weaves dignified scarves, the likes of which I have not seen in any city emporium. Instead of the regular black red and white Naga fabrics, I see chrome yellow, black and white, with typical Angami patterns. Another girl sells burnt pink sun-dried apple chips. An ancient man makes sturdy Naga baskets of perfect symmetry with bamboo strips. He offers thick bittersweet black tea. Nagas love their tea viscous and syrupy.

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Raid a local kitchen: Dark and cool with just the right degree of warmth around the fire in late-March, the kitchen is usually the largest room in a typical home. The hearth is either a quadrangle on the floor or a wall-mounted fireplace. There are numerous low stools near the fireside. There’s smoke but it does not seem acrid. Just friendly. A two or three-tiered wooden rack is suspended from the ceiling just above the fire. All kinds of meats and fats, vegetables, animal hides, wet clothes, anything that needs to dry, sit on those racks soaking up the smoke. Even us humans are getting gently toasted. Each house has at least a dozen Naga baskets, which lurk from overhead. Unlike in a typical Indian kitchen, there is no omnipresent coat of grease as frying is not a daily practice here. Meats and vegetables are stewed and broiled in a bit of fat and lots of water. I had a stew that Arin made with smoked pork and smoked yam leaves. It was coal black in colour. Slow food at its best. Arin says she comes to Kolkata to help a friend at a stall in a trade fair.

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A still exotic culture: It’s best to get a local guide who can decode this still-exotic culture for you, give you a peep into the recent past, tell you some folk tales by the fireside. I sit in such a kitchen listening to Arin’s friend disjointedly telling us the story of Chinewa and Ittiban, the Naga Romeo+Juliet. He says that this story is elastic, can be expanded and cut short at will. Zapu, our young guide, is by far the better raconteur. He tells a folktale about a ‘brother-sister who are more like husband-wife’. The warlike brother gets his butt bitten off in a bid to save his sister from fierce foes.

Disclaimer: Do not heed warnings (of the strictly ignorant) that you may be served dog meat in restaurants here. It is traditionally eaten here, BUT it’s way too expensive and restrictive measures too have had their impact. Dog meat has to exported from Assam, it was whispered. There are reassuring sitings of strays on the streets too.

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