Along the India-Myanmar border, deep in the forested hills of Nagaland, lives a tribe that has the last living headhunters in the country. The Konyak Naga tribe is the largest one of the 17 official tribes of the state and is famous – some would say, notorious – for this tradition. Headhunting is obsolete now, but the rituals and customs of the Konyaks have been kept alive, and the Aoling festival – heralding the arrival of spring and the Konyak New Year – is their celebration in the most authentic, untouristy, and undiluted way.
Heart of It
March ends. The cold winter slowly gives way to a mild and verdant spring. The sowing season in Nagaland is over and before it is time to go back to the fields, it is time to celebrate the spring. Spring, for the Nagas, is a time for renewal; it’s the time when their New Year begins, it’s a time to revive their old rituals and it’s a time to start the year afresh. The Aoling festival stands for all of that. It celebrates the New Year and seeks blessings for a bountiful harvest in the coming year. It is a time when young girls and boys are initiated into adulthood with due ceremony. For the Konyak, it is also a time to forget old debts and grudges, bid adieu to the dead, and to celebrate with family and friends.
So each year, in the first week of April, the Aoling festival or the Aoleang Monyu as it’s sometimes called, brings together all Konyaks, who are mainly concentrated in the Mon district of Nagaland. This district borders Myanmar and the Konyak tribe also has members living in the neighboring country. In fact, in Lungwa, one of the main villages in the region where the Aoling is celebrated with much rigor, the Chief’s hut sits right on the border of India and Myanmar. The half-Indian and half-Burmese residence has become a must-visit for any tourist lucky enough to witness Aoling in Lungwa.
The Aoling festival is celebrated over a six-day period. From the 1st to the 6th of April, Mon in Nagaland resounds with song, drums, dance and the joy of celebration. The first three days are spent in preparation for the festival. Firewood, fruit, and vegetables are gathered, domestic animals are prepared and then sacrificed, young boys and girls are initiated into the rites of adulthood, old clothes are patched and new ones woven and stitched, food and rice beer is prepared – all amidst prayers and merriment. The fourth day of the festival marks the great feast. This is when the Konyaks let loose; they wear traditional clothes and headgear, sing, dance, get drunk on life and rice beer and reenact their old rituals and traditions – including headhunting. (No heads are actually hunted – only the traditional dances are performed and the custom reenacted.) The last two days of the festival are family and home focused. The entire village is cleaned and the Konyaks spend time visiting family members, remembering their dead relatives and generally sobering down. This is the time when they’re more than willing to regale visitors with their stories and you might be invited into a house or two.
The Aoling is like no other festival. Nagaland is usually associated with the Hornbill Festival held in December, but Aoling is more authentic and unstaged. Unlike Hornbill, everything on display here is an actual part of the Konyak way of life. There are no props and no staged dances or displays. While the Hornbill festival focuses on all the tribes in Nagaland and showcases their culture, Aoling is the living, breathing tradition of the largest tribe in the region.
The headhunting days of the Konyaks may have set in the 1980s, but remnants of the tradition can still be seen at the festival. Some villages still have longhouses that proudly display bones and skulls. And if you are really lucky, you might just have the opportunity to talk to an elaborately tattooed elder who will recount the glory of his headhunting days to you.
The Aoling festival is an experience that will mark you for life. It will definitely alter your notions of Indian society and what it comprises. We think it will also open your mind to a culture that is still underexplored and almost mystical. In fact, we wager your experience in this remote corner of India will leave you with a surreal feeling once you return to the comfort of your city. But then, that’s the beauty of our country – a land of contrasts and the unexpected.
When: 1st to 6th April (Different villages have different schedules for the celebrations. It’s best to reach there and ask around.)
Where: Mon district, Nagaland
Closest airport: Dibrugarh
A lot of individuals and small tour companies organize tours for the Aoling festival. If you’ve never visited Nagaland before, we suggest that you sign up with one of them. They know the area and customs and will be able to enhance your experience of the festival.
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