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The Nocte homeland trails

A local strikes a pose. Photo: Udit Kulshrestha  

On my way to the remote town of Khonsa, I realised how little I knew about the headquarters of Tirap, a district in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Myanmar.

Through the rainy morning in Assam, the concrete roads took us to Hukanjuri check-post, where the permits are checked and I bid farewell to the concrete roads. The views of the small patches of tea gardens under the overcast sky fuelled my curiosity. After the six-hour drive, Khonsa delighted me with its brimming life, friendly people and brighter skies.

The inhabitants of Khonsa are primarily Noctes, whereas Tirap also has a high percentage of Wanchos and Tutsas. Barring the minimal difference in facial features, the lifestyle and the practices of Noctes and Wanchos are similar. Their origins can be traced back to the Naga tribes. Noctes have now created sub-tribes, depending on their original villages and are often considered as becoming somewhat ‘urbanised’. In my time of exploring the Nocte villages, I found that assumption was perhaps true.

In the next few days, I spent my time exploring villages where the Noctes reside. As I drove away from the muddy roads and the steep houses of Khonsa, the landscapes drastically change. Sanliam, Kheti, Lapnan and Luthong villages are hidden away behind the thick green grove of trees. The brown patches of Jhum cultivation have left their despairing signs in the abundant, lush green forests.

Sitting beside Khon Wang, my guide around Tirap, I eagerly ask all my questions about the lineage of the Noctes. He introduces me to stories of their ancestral practice of headhunting. The origins of this traditional practice are varied from the ceremonial purpose of owning territory and defending communities to ritual violence and cannibalism. For generations, Noctes have been fierce headhunters, where they have ambushed and strategised attacks on enemies to expand or safeguard territory. The art of divination played an important role in their daring ambushes. A prediction from the almighty Rang would guide their optimism and strategy. Prestigious facial tattoos were awarded to those who came back successful from the raids, demarcating a step-up in the hierarchy.

Headhunting was banned by the British and the last case in the district was reported in the 1960s. With the introduction and the spread of Christianity, people have chosen other ways to sustain themselves, like moving to cities like Itanagar for urban jobs or enrolment in the Indian Army. All the prized wins from their conquests were buried, destroying all signs of the tradition in very many villages now.

Lapnan is a scenic village with 140 houses, about 6 km from Khonsa. It was here that I was initiated into the Nocte way of life. As I made my way through the thatched houses, I saw curious children peep from behind the bamboo walls. Since I was heading to the Chief’s house, it was only natural that I was quickly briefed about the social significance behind his designation.

Every village has a Chief or raja and he is considered the decision-maker and the final authority in the village. Most of his work consists of delegation, while maintaining harmony within his space. The practice of polygamy is prevalent in the Chief’s personal life where he is expected to marry at least three times. In the Nocte households, the wives live separately in each house with their respective children, while the husband has to support all families simultaneously, both financially and socially. Previously, the selection of the Chief was inherited; now the process is democratic, where the villagers vote.

I walk into the Chief’s house and I am greeted by his young and very welcoming wife. This home was my first brush with Nocte hospitality. Their homes are spacious and usually divided into male and female sections, where both areas have fireplaces. The fireplace in the female section is used as the kitchen, whereas the men huddle around theirs, spending hours in discussions.

I sat quietly admiring every artefact and utility. Houses here are made of bamboo and adorned with various animal heads like the Mithun’s, a big bovine found in these parts, or the Hornbill’s. In no time, we were served a glass of Jumin, a rice beer made locally with fermented rice or millet.

A few steps away from the house, I crossed over to look at the Morung, the Nocte community space. Morung or pang, as it is referred to in one of the Nocte dialects, is where once the headhunters would display their trophies after successful conquests. It is a dormitory hall made of mud, and more recently covered with glass, which has wooden shelves for the display of the skulls and heads of other living creatures in a hierarchical order. After a victorious hunt, the dead were offered prayers of peace, and celebratory feasts were held, with singing and dancing. Women are not permitted into the Morung, and customarily, the men and young boys guarding the village stay here. In case of any threat or emergency, they play the large log drum, which is the trunk of a large tree. Returning to the town centre of Khonsa, I realised my days of exploration had just begun.


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Printable version | Aug 5, 2021 5:01:50 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/amrita-das-on-the-nocte-tribe-in-arunachal/article7720213.ece

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