Forgotten Naga

Rupert Winchester

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Zeliang Naga tribesmen at the Hornbill Festival. Photo: Vikramjit Kakati

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Barely ten minutes out of the airport at Dimapur, I had my first “land-of-contrasts” moment, that  hoary old travel writer’s standby. I was trying to chat to a woman selling dead spiders from a plastic bucket on the roadside when I looked up and noticed we were outside a branch of KFC.

Dimapur is the gateway to Nagaland, a staggeringly remote part of India, on the tangled eastern tail of the Himalayas, bordering Myanmar. For most of the twentieth century, the north-east of India was firmly closed to both foreigners and Indians alike.

When I lived in India years ago, I’d make my way every few months to the Ministry of Home Affairs in Delhi and optimistically submit an application to an endlessly cheerful Sub-Assistant for Domestic Liaison, Mr J.K. Chatterjee, for an Inner Line Permit, to allow me to travel to the “Seven Sisters” — the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Megalaya, Tripura and Nagaland. And every few months, Mr Chatterjee would smile, shake his head, and tell me, over a cup of wincingly sweet chai, that the permit had again been denied.

But a few years ago the Indian government changed its policy on the north-east and is now encouraging tourists, both Indian and foreign, to visit. I was invited to see the Hornbill Festival, an annual Indian government confection in which the 16 Naga tribes spend a fortnight dancing and singing and flogging food, textiles and jewellery to culture-hungry tourists.

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