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 her travels across Arunachal Pradesh, in later 2019 Antonia spent two months exploring the Naga tribal territories of both India and Myanmar.
Travelling by motorbike, boat, foot and local transport, she met former headhunters, traditional healers, Baptist preachers, Naga rebel commanders, hunters and conservationists and, in doing so, gained a rare insight into 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 was the really interesting bit. Most of these villages remain unmarked on any map and the jungles around them boil with wildlife and Naga rebels. As one Naga told Antonia, these villages are so hard to get to that only ‘serious enemies or true friends’ can reach them.
If you’ve read Antonia’s last book, Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains, you’ll know she’s 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!
While Antonia won’t be writing a book about this journey, she is currently working on a number of articles about it for The Telegraph, The Guardian, Geographical, Wanderlust and more. One of her Naga stories has already been featured on Kate Adie’s From our Own Correspondent, and a thirty-minute documentary about community-based conservation in Nagaland will be aired on BBC Radio 4’s Costing the Earth on March 10 at 15.30 and March 11 at 21.00. Don’t forget to tune in or hear it on Listen Again.
If you’d like to see photos and stories of Antonia’s journey please follow her on Instagram and Twitter @AntsBK.