Around 10 kilometers from Burma lies a village on the roof of the Shirui Kashong range, where the last bearer of an ancient tradition reveals the melted wooden ink on her. The unmistakable mark of a Tangkhul Naga woman..
“The Naga hills indeed have been my secret garden…” – Jonathan Glancey
I was told about the last daughter of an indigenous tribe that adorns a tattoo, believed to be the passageway to heaven.
I went in search of these motifs to find out if they really take you to heaven.
The quest took me to the end of the country, where I found a lost kingdom of my imagination coming to life.
Nestled high up the slopes of Shirui Kashong mountain range are a cluster of Tangkhul Naga villages.
Where walking is still the only way to travel.
Huddled around the evening fires, children here grow up on the stories of their ancestors, on the exploits of their village warriors. And perhaps hope to emulate them some day.
Many villages are till today cut off from the mainland culture and life revolves around their own little worlds. Electricity, water and roads are off limits here.
Time stops here; it almost moves backward.
Across the tropical virgin forests, the blue mountains of Burma loom in the distance. Here borders seem to merge on the waves of mountains on the horizon.
Around 10 kilometers from Burma, lies a village feared for their warriors where buffalo horns, monkey skulls and hunted eagles still adorn the doorways and walls of the houses. In the pre-Christian era, Sihai village was known for its headhunters, taboos and rituals.
Till date, home to hunters, farmers and artisans, Sihai village stands tall on the Shirui Kashong range.
Today this ancient Tangkhul Naga village represents a community whose rich and unique traditional way of life is at risk.
One of the last remnants of this era is the unmistakable mark of a Tangkhul Naga woman.
An elderly woman takes swift, quick steps to the rocky pathway leading to her home. Along her chin, her neck and shoulders, I can still see the symbols that almost a century ago, initiated her entry into womanhood.
Khanaola, literally meaning the ‘last daughter’ bears the mark of her clanswomen, a tribal tattoo from her chin down to her toe. This was the rumoured inked engraving believed to be a woman’s passageway to heaven. She is the last of the Tangkhul Naga women to still bear this tattoo, and along with her several beliefs, practices and taboos of the community are now fading away.
Three penetrated lines drawn from her chin extend all the way to her neck and chest. The sun, wind and dust from the hill ranges have carved lines on her skin that reveal all of her 96 years. Upon the scars of her century-old existence, the inked lines have only deepened the story of her endurance and survival.
“This tattoo signifies the mark of my womanhood. It is a mark implying that I’m a complete woman.”
She sullenly sips on her zamsham, traditional rice beer, and looks away at the embers beneath the hearth. A wooden tray hangs above the fireplace, where meat is smoked and later dried.
Pointing to the soot collected on the wooden tray, she tells us that was the instrument used to carve out the ink on her body. The soot above the fireplace was painstakingly used; she tells us how she remembers the pain of the engraving as if it were only yesterday.
This one woman alone is today raising a family of over 84 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
As she speaks on, the fire dwindles. She gets up to fetch more firewood, and returns to feed the dying fire.Sitting by the fireplace, she begins to sing.
She sings of her youth.
She sings of the coming of spring.
She sings about the legends of the Tangkhuls.
Khanaola herself had lived through the days of the Tangkhul Nagas that are now narrated across the generations as legends.
She is the wife of a headhunter.
Most women married to warriors knew not to question their husbands. They were left to work on the fields, as the men raged ahead in their raids.
The reputation of Sihai village also grew because of their triumphs in their raids. Married to a headhunter herself, she had seen how men worked hard to protect their village and their women, making the name of the village fearful.
Across the rickety wooden settlements of Sihai, and other villages in the vicinity, it’s still common to see old houses with massive crossed buffalo horns hung on the exterior and interior walls. These homes belonged to the warriors of their generation. The cross on the house symbolized that a powerful man stays here, who has slaughtered a buffalo and fed it to the entire village.
Several other legends are remembered from the days of attempted Japanese invasion of Manipur in the 1940s, and when the British fought the Japanese with Manipuris leading the war.
As the legend goes, the Japanese had stationed themselves as Manipuris and were hiding across the forests near Burma. They frequently plundered and looted other villages, yet they couldn’t harm Sihai village because it was the most powerful village.
The chief of the village still remembers a woman who that had eloped with one of the Japanese soldiers, and never returned to Sihai.
Among several other practices, was the ritual of making peace with the sprits for a good harvest.
The leaves hung outside the door signify the expulsion of outsiders. This sign denotes that a prayer for harvest is in process, and entry of guests is forbidden. Likewise, it’s forbidden for the family members to step out of the house as they thank the spirits for a good harvest.
Yet another legend is of Sihai Phāngrei, a mist-shrouded neighbouring village that rises far and beyond the mountain range. The ownership of the hill range was a point of dispute between Sihai and Lunghar village for decades.
Finally, a Tankghul customary law came to decide the fate of the village.
In ancient days, for unresolved disputes, the final test was either to eat a morsel of earth from the disputed land, or to immerse it in water.
The omen is realised if something untoward would happen to the one eating the soil.
Or if the morsel of earth that’s floating would be unable to sink underwater.
In the case of Phāngrei, the water immersion trial led to the victory of Sihai. In the year 2008, Sihai village was declared the rightful owner of Phāngrei.
The Tangkhul Nagas till date remain a small, close-knit society and work closely with each other in order to survive. Many of their ritualistic beliefs continue till today, you will still see young boys with guns of the edges of cliffs hoping to hunt down their prized catch.
Their tribal identities are still reinforced in these self-governed villages where the word of the tribal Chief is higher than the rulings outside. Till today, people take special care of little things like wearing their embroidered portion of their clothes outside, wearing it in the right order.
For the people born here, the land is so much more than just land. They believe the forests, the mountain rivers and the soil to be sacred, because it is the source of their existence and livelihood.
None of Khanaola’s 84 children or great grandchildren bear the traditional tribal tattoo. And she doesn’t mind it. The tradition has ended, and she herself advises the future generation not to engrave themselves as it is excruciatingly painful.
“..Oh, the spring season has come,
the cuckoos have come to sing,
to sow the seed
across the far and wide mountains…”
Today, the hilly terrains of Ukhrul roads are bustling with military convoys and 4×4 jeeps. The love for war is entrenched in their tribal identities. Back in the days, the men itched to be on a raid when they felt they had been home too long.
I get a sense of suspended time as evening colours melt across the horizon at 4 pm and the village folk walk towards the fireplace chewing their customary betelnut paan in their mouths. I’m suddenly overcome with the feeling that having an identity, a family or being happy comes from the joy of simplicity.
I finally ask Avi the most important question. “Your tribal tattoo comes with the belief that a woman once inked, would go to heaven. Are you, indeed going to heaven?”
She bursts into laughter and tells me off, “There was no such belief.”
She looks away at the evening sky overlooking the ancient skies of Sihai village. I laugh with her but ponder over the question. Her progeny now numbers to 84, and counting. I have found Avi in her heaven, here at the end of the country where life continues the way its been for countless generations, and for countless more to come.
Perhaps a heaven of a different kind.
Khanaola & Wungnaokan’s family for having us over.
Tennoson Pheiray, Shimreishang Haorei and Stalin for their immense guidance.
Tharmingam Khangrah and Easterine Kire for aiding in research.