One time in November 1997, on a break from the drudgery of lonely PhD fieldwork in Pakke, I travelled with Japang, who was my guide/assistant/friend to his village in eastern Arunachal. He is a Wancho from the far-away village of Konnu in erstwhile Tirap district (now Longding district) near the Myanmar border. I justified the trip to myself as being partly a survey for hornbills and to learn more about hunting patterns and practices in eastern Arunachal. Like the Nyishi in western Arunachal, the Wancho also used hornbill body parts – but instead of the upper beak/casque, they used the tail feathers of the Great hornbill in their ceremonial headgear during festivals.
In those days, it was a bone-rattling journey on several Arunachal State Transport buses which took 3-4 days. For some reason, we took a bus to Itanagar from Seijosa, then a bus to Tinsukia in Assam and then next morning to the town of Khonsa, headquarters of Tirap district. In Khonsa, we stayed with a relative of Japang’s who worked in some government department. I remember his bhabi well – a beautiful graceful lady – but she was horrified to hear that I was going to Konnu. She kept warning me that I would find it too backward, dirty and that it would be difficult. And said that now even she finds it hard when she goes back to the village. I laughed it off saying I would not mind and was excited to be going there.
After two days of roaming around Khonsa and the nearby Khela village and talking to people, we boarded a crowded bus that plied few times a week to Pongchau. On the way, we passed several rivers – alliteratively named Tissing, Tirath, Tawai and Tissa. After leaving the Nocte tribe’s area, we passed several villages in the Lower Wancho areas.
Inside the bus, instructions in red admonished “Do not spit inside the bus, keep your head and hands inside the bus”, which was very funny because neither could most people read nor did they care about such niceties. People were almost hanging out of the windows. At Longding, where the bus stopped, there was a crazy mad rush to get inside. One elderly Wancho man clambered over my head and seats to find some non-existent space at the back of the bus. People were also jumping in through the windows. It was totally nuts but I found it so amusing and still remember that bus ride fondly.
The journey which was supposed to take 5 hours, took almost 10 hours. We reached Pongchau which is at 1500 m in the Upper Wancho area in the late evening. It was a beautiful moonlit night and we stayed in the dilapidated PWD Inspection Bungalow where we met and chatted with several people including a long conversation with a young Honchun Ngandam who is now an MLA and Education Minister of Arunachal Pradesh.
The GREF were building a road to Konnu and Konsa, the farthest villages and along the way, we saw Wancho villagers also helping in constructing the approach road to Konnu. I found that unusual, because in the little time I had spent in some parts of western Arunachal, I had not seen tribal people working as road labour but Japang said that life was hard and people had no sources of income, so people in the Upper Wancho did work as labourers.
But it would be some years before it would be completed. We had to walk 4 hours to reach Konnu. For the most part, the walk was along a wide path/road, but in some places, I recall we took steep shortcuts mostly through old jhum fallows with dense clumps of bamboo. In those days, I was fit enough to walk with a reasonably heavy rucksack on my back. I was loaded with some gifts for Japang’s relatives – packets of salt, tea, and some other essential stuff (which I cannot remember now) but which Japang had said would be useful for people in this remote area. Tribal people were stopped and checked by the army, they were not allowed to carry too many rations, especially salt, since it could be taken to Myanmar and used by insurgents.
The area was part of the NSCN’s main area of operations and the Wancho tribe along with the Nocte tribe are a part of the Naga group. The area borders Mon district of Nagaland, home to the Mon people. The NSCN claimed Tirap district as part of Nagalim or the Greater Nagaland area.
The districts of Changlang and Tirap were mostly considered as ‘disturbed’ because of the presence of insurgents and their activities. The villages of Pongchau and Konnu in the Upper Wancho area were very remote and underdeveloped.
I remember stopping on the path when we were near Konnu, exhausted from the morning’s walk, craving some food. Luckily Japang had carried some. He brought out some cooked local red rice and boiled tiny feathery dark-maroonish mushrooms for us to eat. He had carried it from Pongchau for the journey since we had left early at 6 am. It was all chewy and with almost no salt and Japang was extremely apologetic about feeding me that stuff but I remember being grateful.
Kooga, which is the Wancho name for the Great hornbill is highly prized for its striking black and white tail feathers. It was not seen in the area anymore and had most likely been locally extirpated.
Feathers were worn by the Chief (Raja) and other prominent important people, and only the higher classes could wear Great hornbill feathers (according to Japang).
The Wanchos have a two-tiered society with the Raja and his kinsmen and the commoners. The Wangsas were the higher class who lived in the upper part of village at the hill top, while the Pansas lived in the lower part of the village.
In those times, two Great hornbill body feathers were bought for Rs. 260, while a single tail feather cost Rs. 600-700. For some reason, they used to be more expensive earlier (Rs. 1600-1700). It was amazing that people would want to pay that much for some tail feathers when they had limited cash income. The Great hornbill feathers were mostly obtained from Burma, and in earlier times, exchanged for mithun horns and wild boar tusks/pigs and now for money.
Japang showed me how the feathers of Great hornbill were kept very carefully, wrapped in paper/plastic and tied with string in dried banana leaves. The feathers are pulled and turned back for better show – only done by one person in the village who can do it well. Hornbill feathers were a matter of prestige, not everyone could wear/possess them.
People also used hornbill fat for its purported medicinal value which is believed to cure joint pains. They boiled the whole bird in water without skinning or even removing the feathers, then a slit is made in the stomach and the fat is taken out and left to boil in the water. That gives pure oil, it seems.
According to Japang, the Rufous-necked hornbill (Kung-ap) and Oriental pied hornbill (Long-o), were seen sometimes. The Rufous-necked hornbill is mainly killed for meat and feathers. Its tail feathers are considered more beautiful than the Wreathed. And its bright rufous head and neck feathers are used on their headdresses. The feathers of the Ulat (Wreathed hornbill) were not used as it has all-white tail feathers. They were rarely seen in the area, mostly large flocks that visited in winter. While the Wreathed hornbill is not used much, it is still hunted for its meat. The tail feathers of the smaller Oriental are only worn by women and children in their ears.
In the day like in most rural households, no one was home, everyone went to work in the fields, with only the kids and elderly at home.
As we went around the village visiting different houses, I saw many heads and casques of Rufous-necked hornbill, and a single one of Wreathed hornbill, but none of the Great hornbill, i.e. apart from the tail feathers in some houses, which by all accounts seem to have been obtained from elsewhere.
Japang said that Longding and other villages in the Lower Wancho area was more likely to have Great hornbills and their feathers and heads.
In the Raja’s house in Pongchau, there were 32 Rufous-necked hornbill heads, 32 serow skulls, four tiger skulls, five bears – the teeth were in necklaces.
In Konnu, in one house, I saw six RNH, three primates (capped langur and Assamese macaque), 12 porcupine skulls, four bear paws, three bear skulls 15 serow, six wild boar, and one tiger paw.
In the 2nd Raja’s house, we saw three serow and barking deer each and five Rufous-necked hornbills.
In another house, there were three bear paws, six Rufous-necked hornbills, and a headdress covered with clouded leopard and marbled cat skin.
Another house had barking deer, two bears, seven serow, monkeys, wild boar, cats (marbled cat, golden cat), leopard cat headdress and porcupines.
Yet another had seven more hornbills.
The number of heads/antlers/horns/skins displayed in households is only a crude indicator of the extent of hunting on different species for various reasons. In addition, all animals hunted need not be kept or displayed; many are thrown away, or given away. While in some villages and tribes, hunters may keep most of their trophies, in others they throw them away when too many accumulate, many Christians now do not keep the trophies, usually burying or discarding them. Within a village too, while some individuals may keep and display their trophies, others may discard them. Remains of smaller less spectacular animals are also thrown away. In addition, it usually does not give any idea of the extent of current hunting, since trophies are accumulated over a period. However, the display of wild animal trophies is a traditional custom and indeed, among all the tribes, the trophy board and trophies is a sacred thing and they often resent outsiders touching or removing them.
I noticed that the headdresses were usually covered with cat skin, wild boar tusks and bear fur. They hunt cats with dogs or shoot them on trees. One hunter claimed that he might have shot 10-12 alone. But in the village, apparently only four of the active hunters had guns. Hunting small birds was also a common practice. I was told that sambar, barking deer and wild pig meat were sold openly in markets in Longding, while the trade in bear gall bladder was more covert.
As a 27 year old researcher who had just started working in Arunachal a year before, while I was shocked and sad at the visible evidence of hunting, a part of me did not judge at all. I understood it as part of their way of life/living and they knew no different. They lived in a remote area where they had a hard life with very poor access to health care, education and to other facilities and options. Indeed, most villagers of Konnu only knew of Assam and had no idea of the existence of the rest of India and the world outside. There was no school in Konnu and only two primary schools in neighbouring villages in Mintong and Longpong and a secondary school at Pongchau. And I don’t think there was a Primary Health Centre at that time.
They saw and viewed the wild animals as a renewable resource, though clearly it was not. But as a fleeting visitor in their home land, while I did not condone the hunting, it was not really my place to condemn or be outraged. That is how I still feel in many situations when faced with the hunting problem. Although certain situations do need strong interventions or only law enforcement, there are others where the law cannot be enforced by criminalising an entire community. Japang used to also hunt, but he stopped after he got exposed to a new way of thinking.
What we do need though, are alternate, varied and creative ways to address this issue.
Most of the forest area was community forest (or as is the term in Arunachal – Unclassed State forest) and looked quite degraded with jhum fields, abandoned fields and regenerating secondary forest with dense bamboo. Although, there were very few small patches of primary forest, villagers said the jhum cycle was still 10 years. Shifting cultivation for rice was the main occupation, but in bad years, people are forced to consume tubers and root especially the pith of the fish tail palm. Salt and tea leaves are a scarce and highly valued commodity.
Opium cultivation is the only source of income for many villagers here, although there have been efforts by the Government and the Assam Rifles to stop the practice. Kani (or opium) addiction was a big problem and common among the older generation. I remember when I met the Raja of Pongchau, he too had been taking opium sitting at his hearth. It is grown by villagers as one source of cash income as there are no opportunities otherwise. Periodically, army men would come and burn/cut down their opium to discourage cultivation.
Wancho houses are different from the houses of all other Arunachali tribes, in that they are built on the ground and not raised on platforms/poles (chang-ghar). Inside the house even in the daytime, it’s almost pitch-dark and it takes time to adjust to the dim interiors. On stepping outside, the light blinds your eyes.
They also build their houses all clustered together on hilltops – this was apparently to be able to see clearly any approaching enemies in the old days. But now, given that water sources are far down below in the streams it seemed quite painful. Through my stay, I only saw women and young girls walking up and down carrying up water from the streams in big bamboo chongas (tubes).
I have never understood the reason why the houses were on the ground, even though maybe it is because they did not have to face much flooding or insects as the houses were on hilltops, but then several other Arunachali tribes also live in the mountains and they build chang-ghars.
The women were especially friendly and warm. Many of them came and shook hands. Japang’s grandmother, very wrinkled and old, kept breaking into cackling laughter on seeing me.
I loved the sound of the Wancho language – there is a sing-song and very gentle quality to it with a lot of unfamiliar intonations/syllables. At that time, when I visited, it was very remote – things would have changed now but some were not fully clothed and some older people were heavily tattooed.
Tattooing, a common practice earlier is now on the decline. Tattoos on different body parts signified different things. If I remember correctly, tattoos below the knees in women signified their marital status. Many of the older women also had cropped short hair. Men who were great warriors/head-hunters had facial tattoos.Women also wore coloured paper as earrings in their big pierced ears, sometimes even umbrella holders! One other thing – I noticed was that to decorate and probably liven up the dark interiors, people had stuck soap, biscuit wrappers on the walls of their huts. Even amusingly on the TV set in the Raja’s house in Pongchau.
Wanchos are known for their remarkable wood-carving skills, for the bright and beautiful woven designs and the most amazing and beautiful beaded jewellery.
The old morung (bachelors’ dormitory) was no longer in use and the Raja’s house had several many of these old huge wood carvings. In the abandoned morung and in it a wooden carving of a great lizard-like creature and also of a man and woman. In the Raja’s house, was a carved wooden stump, a carved creature and two men – it had some symbolism which I have forgotten now, if Japang had explained it to me.
The wood for these log drums and the containers called jham in which they pound maize were apparently all carried in from Burma. He even said the entire full large logs of giant Jutuli (Altingia excelsa) trees were carried from Burma. There was frequent trade with people from Burma. Konnu is right on the border of Burma and the forested hills of Burma can be seen. One of the days, we came across 4 men and women from Burma who had come to the village for some business and were leaving.
I felt really sad to see the decrepit state of the morung and how abandoned and uncared-for such amazing carvings were. Sad that no one cared enough to preserve these items as part of their past heritage and history.
The Wanchos here had converted to Christianity and at that time, there appeared to be a breakdown of traditional rituals and community customs, with disputes between Baptists and Catholics and attempts to convert the remaining villagers who have not become Christians. Most of the village were either Roman Catholic or Baptist and according to Japang there would often be fighting among villagers now about which was better.
We met an old woman and Japang later told me a little about her – she had refused to convert to Christianity (and if I recall correctly), was a shaman following the animistic ways. She lived alone with one daughter. Because she had refused to become a Christian, villagers mostly shunned her and so she had to work alone. Otherwise it was the normal practice for people in the community to work together and help each other out in the jhum fields.
Although Christianity is prevalent, people still followed their traditional harvest festivals with great fervor and enthusiasm in traditional costumes. Some animist beliefs and rituals are still followed. For instance, there were honeycombs and broken egg shells hanging outside people’s houses apparently meant to ward off illness. Outside some people’s houses there were Y-shaped wooden stumps stuck in a row – which meant that they can sacrifice pigs, and mithun.
The Chief or Raja system (as Japang put it) was still in place, though his authority and influence had eroded and there was the usual Government-appointed headman (Gaonburra).
We met the Raja of Konnu – he wore an earring which was a bamboo piece with hair of a man’s head which only great warriors can wear. He was heavily tattooed. In his house, there were 10 serow, 20 bears, Wreathed and Rufous-necked hornbill heads, some wild boar, sambar, and barking deer.
The Raja apparently was not a Christian and also took opium regularly. I wondered how come he was not ostracized like the old lady.
Near his house, in a sacred place under a fig tree, all human and tiger skulls from past head-hunting practices are preserved. Along with over a hundred human skulls, what caught my eye were 2 tiger skulls. I cannot remember whether anyone told me when they were hunted. Tigers must have existed in the area long back.
According to some people in the village, the last head-hunting incident happened only 4 years back. Officially, head-hunting is supposed to have stopped in the late seventies. After a head-hunting trip, a puja is done and pigs are sacrificed.
In the village, we stayed at Japang’s elder brother Saipha’s house, he had another younger one called Jalem. Because Japang thought it would be uncomfortable for me in the main house, so he had arranged a place for me to sleep in a kind of platform in a smallish hut. It was cold out, but while we were there, the moon was full blown and yellow and large. I enjoyed the moonlit nights even as I shivered in my inadequate sleeping bag.
One of the people I still remember the most was Japang’s proud and tall uncle. We could not communicate as he spoke no Hindi or Assamese. He had an amazing presence and we spoke, with Japang translating. His name was Wangnai Wangsa, – for years whenever I spoke to Japang, I would ask about him, till one day I heard he was no more.
His aunt was also a lovely person, very warm and affectionate with a big wide amused smile. Japang’s uncle was supposed to be a big hunter – we ate dinner at his house one day – it was a simple meal with some boiled wild greens and very tasty red rice from their jhum kheti. Since I was a guest and they had no other meat, he apologized profusely and offered me some cooked meat of the bar-tailed cuckoo-dove which Japang had told him I would not want. I said no, but I understood that from his point of view, he felt he had to offer it to a guest.
The people had very simple meals – boiled veggies with chillies and salt, on occasion boiled cow meat with rice or boiled jungle mushrooms with chillies and red rice. The lack of tea and salt was a major problem. Japang felt bad that we had such limited stuff to eat and one day he bought or got a chicken from somewhere and cooked it for me. I felt embarrassed and told him it was not necessary.
On the 19th of November, we left Pongchau by the 6 o’clock bus. I overheard someone complaining in Assamese “Tirap district mein iman dikdari ase”. I remember the bus stopped several times for the kids to vomit. And that the Apatani bus conductor was tall, slim, and had a drunken dissipated look but was a very amusing fellow. We again passed the villages of Longpong, Mingchong, Niausa, Niaunu, Longding. I so love saying and remembering place names.
Japang is a treasure trove of stories, knowledge, interesting titbits and wisdom. On the long bus ride back, Japang told me there is a tree in their area, which if the bark is cut, has a phosphorescent glow. And after burning the wood; the coal is used to make gunpowder. I am ashamed to say I still have not found what that species is till date. And he told me about trees from whose barks, they extract different colours – the reds, yellows which are prominent in bright Wancho weaving – sadly, I still have not found out the scientific names of those plants either.
Even though it’s over 20 years now, and I have made countless journeys to many places in Arunachal, many of which are now mostly a blur, I somehow have more vivid memories of this trip –because back then I was more diligent about keeping some daily notes and helped by the fact that Japang was there to tell me so much. There were no mobile phones, internet, network – all things that distract. I am glad I took a break today from my usual work and revived those scribbled notes from an old Word file on my computer called ‘Trip to Tirap”. I was almost going to title this ‘Tripping in Tirap’ but that sounded somewhat frivolous and forced.
The Wanchos were famous (and notorious) for being warriors/head-hunters in the past but strangely enough their fierce reputation does not match at all what I experienced on that trip to their village. The overwhelming feeling I came away with was of a really warm, hospitable and gentle community who spoke in soft lyrical tones. And on returning to Khonsa, I told Japang’s bhabi how wrong she had been about me not enjoying it. I told her – yes maybe it was ‘backward’ in the conventional sense, but for me it was a rich memorable experience because of the warmth and generosity of the people I met.
I hope to go back soon with Japang this winter. We have some plans but that’s another story for another day.
Postscript: This rambling writing is just a patchy account of a short trip, of fleeting glimpses and impressions. There may be inaccuracies in some facts after so many years (based as it is on a few people’s perceptions) and my fading memories. In no way, is it a well-researched anthropological account of the community. However long back, after I had returned from the trip, I had read JN Choudhury’s ‘The Wanchos’ – (a detailed account of the Wancho beliefs, customs and ways) to find out more and corroborate what I had seen or been told. In these days of easy and quick outrage, if any of it offends anybody, my apologies, in advance. My account is told with the utmost respect for the people.
In those days, I took pictures with a small camera and print rolls, some prints are around, other lost. As I find them, will scan and put up a few more of village life and the area. Mostly I had people pictures on this trip, and that too – posed ones. For now I have quickly put up the ones I could find. Some are poor quality as they are photos of the old photos:)