What you need to know
High in the Patkai Mountains on the Indo-Myanmar border, the Khiamniungan Nagas have been leading an isolated life in the absence of proper road connectivity and modern healthcare.
When the Swedish journalist Bertil Lintner first came into contact with the Khiamniungan Nagas in the 1980s, he called them Kalyo-Kengnyu – “dwelling in stone houses” – a name they earned owing to their mountainous habitat in the snow-clad Patkai ranges. The Khiamniungans are a transnational Naga tribe inhabiting mountainous geographies across northwestern Myanmar and northeastern India. In the Indian state of Nagaland, they live in the small border town of Noklak and its multiple cluster villages tucked away amidst the emerald hills.
Just as the other neighboring Naga tribes, the Khiamniungans are traditionally known as fierce warriors – for taking heads of the opponents in tribal warfare. The tribe is often neglected in the greater Naga political discourses of India and Myanmar, owing to their remote location and marginalization. In India, the Khiamniungan “ancestral land” starts from Chendang Saddle, a place 25 kilometers off from Tuensang, a major border town in the eponymous district of India’s Nagaland state, and rises in the mountains above 3,000 meters up to Dan, a border checkpoint on the Indian side of the Indo-Burmese border. Adherents of Christianity, the Khiamniungan population in India is currently estimated at over 60,000.
The Khiamniungans are still leading a considerably reclusive life because of their geographical isolation and poor road connectivity. But, as a Khiamniungan elder in Noklak puts it, they’re “trying to catch up with time and adapt to changes brought in by modernity.”
Photo 1: The town of Noklak at dusk. The town is undergoing a transformation after the Khiamniungans' demand for a separate district in Noklak was conceded by the government of the Indian state of Nagaland on Dec. 21, 2017.
The creation of a district for the Khiamniungans in Noklak, however, has faced mild objections from the Chang Nagas, a predominant Naga tribe in Tuensang, the district from which Noklak has been carved out as a separate locality. The Chang Nagas object to the inclusion of the Chang Naga-inhabited Chingmei range in the newly-created Noklak district and are apprehensive that this will make them a minority in Khiamniungan-dominated Noklak district and thus susceptible to tribal marginalization.
Apart from the developmental transformation, the town is also experiencing natural changes. Recently, a couple major landslides have claimed a major chunk of the town – so much so that the biggest church at the center of the town is barely managing to stand intact.
Photo 2: Kusho Lam, an octogenarian from Nokhu village on the Indo-Burma border, narrates the history of Nokhu and the Khiamniungans. He talks about the athiu, a term that denotes the white people – the British colonizers – in the local Khiamniungan language; and the advent of Christianity and modernity that altered Khiamniungan life like never before.
As a child, Lam’s father told him stories of British colonial aggression. “The white men came and changed the familiar landscape of the village forever; the missionaries came and established churches and converted us to what at that time felt like an alien religion,” Lam says.
He also vividly remembers inter-village raids – particularly the last tribal warfare in Nokhu in which heads were taken. “On May 24, 1951, the villagers of Hembu launched an attack on Nokhu village, not sparing anyone in sight and took the heads of those fallen in the attack,” Lam recalls. Hembu is a Khiamniungan village on the Indo-Burma border, not far from Nokhu. Only those who could escape to the forest, survived the wrath of the Hembu villagers, says Lam, who was at that time in his teens.
Photo 3: Game skulls decorate the entrance of Kusho Lam's abode in Nokhu village. Hunting was a favorite pastime of Lam when he was a young man.
Photos 4, 4a: Craft Network located at the heart of the Noklak town is a shop that sells traditional Khiamniungan artisanry. A slew of handcrafted items such as shawls, khangs (receptacles made of bamboo), spears and necklaces decorate the interior of the shop.
Mrs. Yenungshi, the co-proprietor of the shop, says people hand their products over to the shop and, after their items get sold, they get paid for their products. The income from craftsmanship, though not substantial, is crucial for the local artisan-villagers as a supplement to their primary agricultural income.
Photo 5: Two Khiamniungan villagers from Myanmar on their way back home are waiting to cross the border checkpoint at Dan on the Indian side of the border manned by Indian security forces. Riding motor-bikes on almost unmotorable hilly tracks, Khiamniungan traders and villagers from the Burmese side cross over to India in Dan and travel to Noklak to procure daily essential commodities such as groceries, clothes, and rice. The town of Noklak, by virtue of being located on the border, sees a flow of varied commodities, material cultures, and ideas from both sides of the border and works as a site of interaction between the two nation-states of India and Myanmar.
Photos 6, 6a: The roads in the Khiamniungan hills of India are in shambles. Most of them are unpaved, and some are mere dirt tracks, almost unmotorable.
In Noklak, villagers use Kenbo KB125, an underbone motorcycle manufactured by China’s Yunnan Yinxiang Motorcycle Manufacturing Co. Ltd and smuggled to the area by illegal means in the absence of a legal cross-border trade mechanism. A local youth from Noklak says this vehicle is suitable for the nearly unmotorable hilly tracks in the area. One doesn’t need a driving license to ride a Kenbo bike in Noklak. However, the use of this bike is restricted only to the border town of Noklak and its cluster villages, and not allowed beyond a certain demarcated area into India.
Photos 7, 7a: A noticeboard erected on the bank of the river Lengnyu, alternatively known as Zhungki, by Nokhu Public Organization, a local village governing body, prohibiting harmful fishing techniques such as bombing; use of fishing nets, chemicals and electrocution. Fishing using traditional methods like fishhooks and spears aren’t prohibited, however. The Lengnyu, a major river in the area that flows westwards to Burma through the Khiamniungan hills in India, is a tributary to the Chindwin. According to Kusho Lam, it is important to utilize the natural resources in a judicious manner and conserve the environment as the local resources in the Khiamniungan hills are fast depleting. “We should emphasize sustainable use of the natural resources so as to make sure that our progeny has enough resources to survive on,” explains Lam.
Photo 8. A meya kam or a Khiamniungan morung at Pangsha village en route to the Dan border checkpoint. The morung is a traditional Naga community hall and crucial socio-cultural space. In a Khiamniungan Naga village, all the important discussions take place in the Meya Kam.
Photo 9: A lumberjacks’ hut at Chingmei, a range rich in forest cover. As we passed by, we saw trees being felled by villagers. The forest is shared by the communities living on and around the range. Trees are often felled by locals for firewood and constructing houses.
Photo 10: A glimpse of Khiamniungan everyday life: As dusk descends, women and men near Noklak return home from their fields. The khangs – bamboo-made receptacles – on their backs are filled with firewood, fodder, and other edibles.
Photo 11: A paddy field with ripe crop to be harvested in late October. The Khiamniungans are primarily subsistence agriculturists cultivating paddy and vegetables on the hilly slopes along the Indo-Burma border.
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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