Monday, 18 April 2016

Travel Diaries: Assam - Mon, Nagaland

Assam - Mon, Nagaland

Mother and child in Longwa home
Last month I was invited back to Nagaland, my favourite corner of India, to deliver a lecture on ‘Cultural Reference in Tourism Architecture’ to the Nagaland Ministry of Tourism. This is a subject I feel very strongly about — especially since the rise of the Singapore-Jakarta hotel developer world ‘Culture Neutral’ Movement.
I went via Goa on the West Coast of India, to do a bit of gardening on the way at the fabulous Taj Fort Aguarda Resort.
One can fly to Goa direct from Jakarta now — via Kuala Lumpur on Air Asia — avoiding the hassle of an overnight stay in Mumbai.
I actually flew from Bali on Singapore Airlines and spent the night in Mumbai at the gorgeous new Taj Santa Cruz airport hotel.
Below my posting from my first morning, on the way to Goa:
I am on board a Jet Airways flight to Goa at 0515 and it has a sprinkling of desiccated hippies, all thawed too late from the glacier of alternate conciousness — the Goan playgrounds of the flower power years have long ago been concreted. I sometimes feel that today's travellers looking for enlightenment on the old hippy trail — and I include Bali's dwindling hippy tribes in this category — are just bathing in a nuclear winter afterglow of sexy summers.
The fabulous Jeffrey Wilkes designed Taj Santa Cruz at the Domestic Airport, Mumbai
Naga-baba beaming goodwill in seat 1a on my IndiGo flight to Dibrugarh, Assam
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Goa has so much stunning heritage architecture from its Portuguese colonial era, but its real claim to fame is as the winter playground for Delhi-wallahs, Mumbaikers and an assortment of Europeans is search of sun, fun and cheap pot.
The Taj Fort Aguarda, built in and around the remains of the old 16th century fort, is an old 1970s hotel with superb views  and Goan food — a heavenly mix of Portuguese and Indian cusine.
From Goa I took Indigo Airlines via Kolkata to Dibrugarh in Assam in far North Eastern India, home of some of the finest tea estates in the world and gateway to Eastern Nagaland.
Images of Fort Aguarda at sunrise, Bardem, Goa
Day One: Dibrugarh, Assam, India
I stayed overnight at Mancotta Tea Estate in the manager’s bungalow.
There is nothing like a full English Breakfast on the wide veranda of an 1850s plantation bungalow.
My hosts, the Jalans, are third generation tea estate owners and run a travel business that includes rafting, elephant rides and ecotourism adventures. I visited their Jalanagar tea estate nearby and did a fascinating tour of the factory where the tea is made.

Above: (Clockwise from top left) Mancotta Tea Estate: heaven is an english breakfast on an Assam tea estate bungalow veranda; Dibrugarh Lodge, Mancotta Tea Estate, Dibrugarh, Assam, India; ; image of Assam Tea Estate near Siwasagar workers at Jalanagar Tea Estate, Dibrugarh, Assam, India
Above: (Clockwise from top): 16th Century Hindu temple in Siwasagar, Assam; carved diety in wall of temple; Holyman at Siwasagar temple, Assam, India
See below video link for a guided tour
Day Two: 3 April 2016: Mon, Nagaland
Mon is the main town of the Mon District of Nagaland. The Mon District is one of the largest in Nagaland and is famed as the most artistic and also the most primitive (read serious head-hunting in the old days).
Mon sprawls over the three hilltops like a Wild West frontier town. Tapan, my driver keeps saying that the Mon people are straight forward but backward; (fortunately there is a large mirror for him to pluck his face hairs in our simply furnished room at the Wangsa Arms in the centre of Mon town). We had a splendid dinner last night of pork fat and chicken-flavoured charcoal with rice in the very exotic dining room — a mixture of north Korean airport modern and Essex country bargain baroque.
On the 8 hour drive from Dibrugarh we had stopped at a small Mon village and I had seen my first Mon traditional Ang (chief’s) house with its array of magnificently carved timber columns supporting the thatched roof overhang at the long house’s front. This afternoon we go to Lungwa the most famous village — which straddles the Burmese border — to check on preparations for tomorrow's festival.  
Best of Konyak Architecture, Lungwa Village, Nagaland
The Mon district’s Aoleang Spring Festival is held annually in the first week of April. Today it is described by guides and guide books as a thanksgiving or as a new year’s festival. I imagine that the line-dancing in fancy warrior dress, with much shaking of head-hunting weapons, was once done as an offering to a fertility goddess (long banished by zealous missionaries).
There are a few excellent books on Naga culture — ‘The Nagas - Hill people of Northeast India’ by Julian Jacobs is one of the best — which go into the intricacies of the ceremonies and belief systems of the 18 Naga tribes. A lot of the research in this book is devoted to the Konyak people of the Mon District — with copious photographs of the amazing tribal architecture of the early 19th century.
Much is still around today — even though many of the decorative panels and tribal artefacts have found their way into the hands of collectors over the past 20 years, since Nagaland was opened to the tourists. Sadly the famous Ang chief house in Longwa was pulled down late last year. It is being replaced by a concrete-framed version sponsored by the Hon. N. Rao, former chief Minister of Nagaland and amateur geomancer.
While I was there, Mr. Rao arrived in a helicopter. My host Mr Longshah from the Longwa Homestay dragged me, as token paleface, to meet him as Mr. Rao skipped around moving columns.
Best of Faces and Fashion at the Aoleang festivals, Nagaland
See my video : Assam & Nagaland, India Adventures:
From the Ang’s land — perched on a hillock above the soccer field which lies in front of a huge church — one can see a string of hamlets running deep into Burma, which starts half-way through the Ang’s house.
The rather large village is spread for almost a kilometre along a mountain ridge — it is idyllic, landscape-wise, with handsome Konyak huts and long-houses set amongst tall sugar-palm and fan palm groves. The deputy Ang houses and the village’s morung (bachelor halls) are of particular architecture merit.
I watched a few sets of ceremonies — circles of exotically dressed, chanting women shuffling around the Ang house forecourt — before the ten hours long drive back to Dimapur in western Nagaland for my lecture.
The first three hours of the drive, up until Mon’s border with Assam, was broken with frequent stops at roadside villages — all in the throws of celebration, inebriation and much slit-drum pounding.
The ladies were all wearing full ceremonial garb — featuring some exquisite tribal necklaces and beaded head-dresses. The men were all heavily sedated on opium, I observed, and wore a wide variety of feather-adorned head-dresses and elaborate vests and scarves and skull necklaces  over western cowboy dress.
Day Four and Five:
My lecture at the capital Kohima’s Culture Hall was well attended (over 300) with a good representation from the tourism and architectural communities.
All the politicials I met seemed sincere in their commitment to the preservation of the unique culture and architecture of the Nagas, who are cousins of Indonesia’s Iban Dayak, Nias and Torajan tribespeople.

With the Hon. Apok Jamir, Nagaland Minister for Tourism, at the Razhu Pru lodge, the night before my lecture
Day Six: To Dipyu River Lodge
My Assamese host (the lodge’s owner), Mrs Jahnabi Phookan and her husband Ashish have created a luxurious boutique hotel on the Diphlu River at the edge of the Kaziranga Nature Park, one of India’s oldest (established 1904).
Ashish’s grandfather had acquired the land during the 1940s — he had a visionary’s eye for the future of the wild life tourism industry.
H.R.H. Prince William and his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, were due to arrive three days later so the hotel was in extreme ethnic chic readiness.
I did the morning safari trip in an open jeep, which was exhilarating. The 400 hundred square mile park is host to an astounding array of wilder-beast, birds and butterflies. I saw rhinos, elephants, wild water buffalo, hornbills, vultures, eagles and deer. A bull elephant had charged our jeep as a flock of Myna birds shrieked past over head. It was like Jurrasic Park 101.
Assam is a beautiful state — the nature reserve is just one of a huge raft of attractions. Next visit I want to visit Majali Monastery Isle, the world’s largest in-river island and cradle of Assamese culture.
Best of Kaziranga Nature Park
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The following day I flew to Kolkata, from Dimapur.
After a week in the beautiful Assamese and Nagaland hills the messy city seemed more like Blade-runner (the movie) than ever before.

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13 April 2016: Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge
visit Diphlu Lodge, Assam, India