This 700–year–old Naga village was the site of two ferocious Anglo–Naga wars, one in 1879–80 and the Indo–Naga war in 1956. Completely hidden between the mountain ranges, Khonoma looks beautifully traditional, with emerald paddy patchworks of perfectly terraced fields carpeting valley floors between towering ridges. Khonoma, named after a local plant, has 250 plant species, including over 70 for medicinal purposes, 84 kinds of wild fruits, 116 kinds of wild vegetables, nine varieties of mushrooms, and five kinds of natural dyes from the surrounding forests in the village.
Local people have recorded about 204 species of trees, nearly 45 varieties of orchids, 11 varieties of cane, and 19 varieties of bamboo. Villagers also recorded 25 types of snakes, six kinds of lizards, 11 kinds of amphibians and 196 kinds of birds (of which English names for 87 have been identified, including the grey–billed or Blyth’s tragopan, a threatened bird. 72 kinds of wild animals have also been reported by the local people; however, English and scientific names for all have not been recorded yet. These include tiger, leopard, serow, sloth bear, Asiatic black bear and common otter. A village that twice brought the British army juggernaut to a halt and forced the Indian Army to suspend its military operations in the 1950s, at the height of the battle against insurgency in the state, Khonoma is some 20 km off Kohima, with a population of 3000, and stronghold of the Angami tribe, one of the sixteen major tribes of Nagaland, and a past dating back centuries.
The terrain of the village is hilly, and the hills are covered with lush forestland, rich in its various species of flora and fauna. Today, Khonoma is witnessing another historic struggle. In an incident reminiscent of the British invasion, in the mid–1990s the villagers had to physically resist timber merchants who came with several dozen elephants to carry out logging, unfortunately, aided by some insiders.
Over the last decade, Khonoma, inhabited by the Angamis, one of Nagaland’s tribes, has made giant strides in establishing or strengthening systems of natural resource management, conflict resolution, village administration and appropriate development, all coupled with a resolute will to conserve biodiversity and wildlife. All this is embedded in the traditional ethos of the village, without fighting shy of experimenting with new technologies and thoughts from outside. The results are impressive enough to warrant yet another key historic place for this village, this time in the annals of India’s environmental movement. Battle lines are still drawn in Khonoma, but this time it is between sustainability and long–held traditions like hunting.
This story began two decades ago, with the slaughter of around 3000 Blyth’s tragopan, a pheasant with stunning plumage and the state bird of Nagaland. This massacre made the almost extinct and village elders, notably Tsilie Sakhrie, who had in the 1980s been a contractor dealing with the Forest Department, aware of an impending eco–war. Thus Khonoma’s conservation movement was born.
Today, it is India’s premier eco–village. Logging and hunting stands banned today, a great triumph, as once, even headhunting was considered a cultural right of the Nagas. In 1998, Khanoma village council reserved an area of 20 sq km as a Tragopan Sanctuary, India’s first community–led sanctuary. Soon, the forests which had gone silent were alive with the calls of Tragopan and other birds. With the advent of missionaries here, (Nagas are mainly Christian), head–hunting was stopped but hunting is still second nature to the Nagas.
It is threatening to wipe out the sparse population of mammals found here; the Hornbill once found in plenty is to be seen no more. There is increasing pressure from the youth to revive the hunting culture. They forced the council to open a hunting window in the last few years. Though hunting has revived, it is allowed only to maintain nature’s balance and the forest’s carrying capacity.
A giant gate welcomes you to the village. I started my trek through its forests (if you keep on going, these forests ultimately take you to Nagaland’s natural treasure, Dzoku valley), keeping a keen watch for any Tragopan, and then moved on to the old forts and moruks (learning centers) in the village. A winding cobbled path runs through the village. Quaint wooden houses stand on one side of this path and are quite dispersed, compared to other Naga villages, the other overlooks terraced rice fields.
The luminous, motionless air filtering through the forests, carries a remarkable purity and there is an aura of tranquility around. Little marigolds on the sides of the path toss their heads and dance in the chilly breeze. Khonoma has shown the way in effective slash and burn or ‘jhum’ cultivation, widely practiced in the North East. They don’t burn the entire patch of land, as some older trees are spared or coppiced (pollarded at a certain height) so that they can grow back. The land is cultivated for two years in a row and then left fallow for the natural forest to regenerate.
These practices have helped Khonoma become the first green village in the country. Once, even all its rooftops were painted green! Khonoma’s ‘Green Village’ is a Rs. 3 crore project sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India and the department of Tourism, Government of Nagaland. Since its inauguration by Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio in 2005, it has become a model for all villages in Nagaland and other states to follow. Overlooking the village is a mountain, some 6–7 km away. The mountain is covered with trees on all sides but the center of the mountain is bare and the rocky cliff resembles a human face.
This face, according to village legend, is Goddess Sikheu – Khonoma’s Guardian of nature and tourists have begun to pour in to view it. It was believed that Sikheu gave animals her own will, so hunting was futile without her blessing. But the Hindus too have their own interpretation. It was believed that Shiva cut off Aditya’s head by mistake and his head and body fell apart and the face, like a natural carving on the rock, is believed to be Aditya’s head.
But today’s green village Khonoma was yesteryears’ battleground. Tales of Khonoma’s bravery in the first Anglo–Naga battle of 1879 are still passed down through the generations. Angamis, especially those from Khonoma, were fierce warriors legendary for their bravery. On the peak of the hill is the memorial site for British Political officer, G.H. Damant, who first came to Khonoma in 1879. He was warned about waging a war against Khonoma, but he and his regiment saw their courage in their guns and proceeded with marching into Khonoma. Damant was killed in a month long battle and with his death, a series of battles started. The old fort of Khonoma is the burial site of three British officers who waged a war after Damant’s demise.
“But the British had guns…” I told my guide Rivozono. “And the Nagas, spears and arrows, but we also had the advantage of higher ground and knowledge of the place, and stamina to keep up with all the running, and some local tricks,” she quipped, and that aroused the curious cat in me. She took me into the forests and showed me a species of bamboo. “When you hit the dry bark of this bamboo with a stick, it gives out a blasting sound. This trick was employed to give the British the wrong impression that the Nagas have bombs, and so they held their positions instead of advancing further.” Truly ingenious!
A year after, a peace treaty was signed between Khonoma and the British army. The old Fort was completely demolished in the battle, it was rebuilt in 1890, to be demolished once again in the Indo–Naga battle of 1956. The elders of the village, or Gaon Burahs, as they are locally known, describe the war of 1956 as worse than the Anglo–Naga wars. The village was razed to the ground and villagers forced to scatter.
After this good dose of history, I strolled through the village to see and feel the real Khonoma, which lives in the twinkle of old men’s eyes, youthful smiles and childish giggles. You are never an outsider in this village, and from the moment you step into your homestay, you become a quintessential part of village society. A gang of young kids playing cricket invited me to join in and an elder guy cried out from his balcony ‘Hindi, Hindi, welcome’.
I never felt a tourist here, and when I went to watch the Naga wrestling competition, I became a part of it. An unknown guy welcomed me and explained to me the rules of the game so that I can better appreciate the wrestling style. And when I got bored, small kids, curious to see my camera, became a part of my shoot. I walked down the cobbled paths, which then turned into walls of granite so I had to rappel down them, navigating my way around chickens and ducks, who would follow me for sometime. The village, divided into Khels, has 600 families from three different clans.
Red poinsettias adorned the roadsides and the wild lilies struggled to jut their heads over the green carpets and nameless local flowers. Often, a girl would smile at me and kids show their eagerness for a photo, with grandmoms sitting in the shops inviting me to buy something in their Khwunomia dialect. The village, amongst many other things, is also well known for its award–winning handicrafts, such as its beautifully woven bamboo baskets. Random guys offered me rice beer. I was getting fat with love and hospitality. I was staying in one home but the entire village had become a home for me.
And upon my return from the village tour, I was greeted with endless smiles of my host and his family, and some snacky welcomes along with their tasty beer. The day ends early in Nagaland, dinner is served at 7 pm in the evening. And at the dinner table, you realize love is not just limited to Naga smiles, it’s in the food too. A well laid table with the sweet aromas and distinct flavours such as bamboo shoots of dishes cooked in authentic Naga style, it is a reason in itself to return to Khonoma.