Former headhunters embroiled in a decades-long fight for independence, the Naga tribes inhabit the remote, mountainous borderlands of Northeast India and Myanmar. For centuries the Naga perched on their hilltops in near isolation but today, more than a hundred years after the first soldiers, surveyors and missionaries tramped into these wild borderlands, their culture is fast disappearing. The last living headhunters will soon be dead, only a handful of shamans remain and their rich cultural traditions are vanishing beneath a tide of external influences.
Having first encountered the Naga during my travels across Arunachal Pradesh, this winter I’ll spend two months exploring the Naga tribal territories of both India and Myanmar.
Travelling by motorbike, boat, foot and local transport, I’ll meet former headhunters, traditional healers, Baptist preachers, hunters and conservationists and, in doing so, tell some of the story of the Naga and their lands today.
While much has been written of the Naga tribes in India, very few outsiders have travelled to their villages over the border in Myanmar, and this is the bit that really interests me. Most of these villages remain unmarked on any map and the jungles around them boil with wildlife and Naga rebels. As one local Naga told me, these villages are so hard to get to that only ‘serious enemies or true friends’ can reach them.
If you’ve read my last book, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains, you’ll know I’m an ardent fan of Ursula Graham-Bower. This ‘pert, pretty’ Roedean educated debutante set sail for India in 1937, aged 23, with the vague idea of going to Nagaland to ‘potter about’ with her camera and maybe write a book. A few years later she was captaining a 150-strong Zeme Naga guerrilla unit against the Japanese Army – and with great success. Not only did the Zeme Naga worship her as a goddess, but many an Allied pilot shot down in these remote jungles owed her their life. To this day, Ursula remains the only female guerrilla commando in the history of the British Army. What a woman!
I’ll be following Ursula’s footsteps into the Naga Hills, meeting her daughter, Catriona and attending a very special Zeme Naga festival.
If you’d like to follow my journey I’ll be intermittently posting on Instagram (internet allowing) as @AntsBK.
My heartfelt thanks go to the Royal Geographical Society, who have funded this expedition. Much gratitude also goes to Arakan Travel, Native Route, Montane, Osprey Packs, Thermarest and Water to Go for their support. Hold on to your hats boys and gals, it’s going to be a corker!