When ‘Gods’ Descend…

Sitting under the canopy of trees, I listen keenly to Madhavan, the priest of the Mela-Kaav (Upper temple) as he narrates a string of fascinating mythological stories. The quaint village of Palloor near Thalassery, was gearing up for its beloved and cherished form of worship; unique to this (Malabar) region of Kerala and coastal belt of Karnataka where it manifests itself asBhootakola‘. I was here to get my first ever ‘up-close’ experience of one of the most ancient and traditional art of worship-the Theyyam. Infact, Theyyam, I am told, is considered to be a form of Upasna or the attainment of God itself!

The prep

At the Koyyodan Koroth temple premises, the preps have begun. A temporary Aniara (changing room) with thatched coconut palms is erected at one end. A huge pandal with enormous vessels containing prasadam in the making, stands adjacent to it. This auspicious food would be first offered to God and then served to more than a thousand devotees at lunch the next day. In a few hours, a series of Theyyams would commence and continue through the night into the next evening with intervals in between. Small groups of bare chested men sat on the muddy ground ripping delicate strips from coconut palm fronds to create the outfits for the performers. A 30-feet long skeleton made of cane is being festooned with identical shapes cut out of palm leaves. Costumes and ornaments made of metal and glass hung on ropes shimmer in the light of the afternoon sun. Inside the Aniara, faces are being smeared with bright orange paint and sketched with delicate, almost invisible patterns and outlines. Few artists painted their faces themselves, looking through tiny bright colored mirrors in their hands. Their eye sockets are daubed with jet black. As the performers get into their wardrobe, they are adorned with ornaments and garlands. Their head gear is secured tightly on their crown amidst final touches. Everything around is happening with lightning speed and precision. As I move around in cramped spaces to click all the action, I meet curious eyes, friendly smiles and mouths uttering repetitive questions. Strong whiffs of toddy fill the shed. Finally, by late evening the first set of Theyyam performers- namely, the Gulligans are ready for the show!

                                                   Hover over the image for captions..

Gulligan Theyyam

Meanwhile, at the Thazha-kaav (Lower temple), the chitter-chatter of an impatient crowd is infused with the energetic beats of the Chenddas, Ilathalams and Kurunkuzhals*. The Gulligans parade towards the arena; their jewellery clink-clank as they pass by. After seeking blessings from the idol under the oak tree, they take their positions on stunt wooden stools. Chanting prayers, they begin spinning on their stools. The speed of their rotations increase as they jump on to the ground. It feels like being in the centre of a field with spinning red tops rotating and revolving with varied intensities. Towards the end, a Gulligan is led towards a burning heap of charcoal a few meters away. He kicks the pile with his bare feet multiple times. With no control over his consciousness any more, he faints and falls to the ground, but is immediately held by the mob of people who seem to be anticipating the act. This marks the cease of the Gulligan Theyyam.

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Gulligan Theyyam commences..

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A performer kicks burning charcoal towards the end of the Gulligan Theyyam

A series of other Theyyams follow through the night and as the performance gains momentum, the degree of spiritual transcendence also rises. During the Vishnumoorthy Theyyam, the lead performer dances to the rhythm of the Chenddas with various props like swords, hand mirror and shield. His eyes are loaded with hideous expressions, more like a sly wild animal  of the night. After almost an hour when the performance finishes, a line of devotees queue up to seek  blessings from Vishnumoorthy who has now attained a state of Godliness. Advices on issues and questions of the future are being answered.  In return money is tucked into his palms.

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Vishnumoorthy Theyyam

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The attire resembles a wild animal

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Kandakarnan Theyyam 

By 10 am, a serpentine queue has already lined up for lunch, getting longer by the second! At the arena, a set of five Kandakarnans arrive; dressed in skirts made of green and cream palm fronds. Their face masks resemble demons. My eyes follow the never ending tower of head gear worn by the men. Standing almost 20 feet tall, I struggle to fit them into my frame! Little did I know that the cane skeletons that were being decorated the previous evening were actually the head gear! The Kandakarnans have a pair of bamboo stilts each in their hands. As the beat of the Chenddas gain momentum, the key performer takes to centre stage and dances on the stilts with swift and quick movements. The stilts added another 5 feet to his height, but his balance is astounding! The rest of them dance in a similar fashion, minus the stilts. 

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Kandakarnan with stilts and a towering head gear

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Kuttichathan Theyyam

The crowd, now tripled, impatiently awaits the grand procession of the 40-odd Kuttichathans. After about an hour of wait, the vivacious performers finally arrive- dressed in vibrant orange and red, rectangular, box shaped skirts. Props are being secured to them, one by one. First up, massive wings made of wood and glass, impersonating a peacock, is tied to their backs. Then, face masks with intricate designs, mimicking an elephant head covers the faces. Protruding silver eye gear having a tiny opening is secured to the mask. Their chests are bare and so are their rounded bellies with circular designs painted all over. One by one, all the forty Kuttichathans circle the temple premises in a swaggering gait, climb up a concrete block in front of the deity, spin around, seek blessings and perch themselves on the wooden stools. They sip a drop of holy water off a ‘Pan’ (beetle leaf) before commencing their performance. Holding the hands of the helpers for support, they sway their heads and bodies like an elephant and swing back and forth like a dancing peacock. One can easily assume the weight of their costume. They let out intermittent bouts of roaring, demonic laughter. Placing their fingers onto the burning ‘Mashaal’ (flambeau), they rub ash on their fingers and smear it onto the heads of random devotees coming their way. Koyyodan Koroth temple looked more like a fiction movie filled with creatures not belonging to this planet. Half way through the performance, almost all the Kuttichathans reach their peak of trance. After what seems like ages, the rigorous beats of the Chenddas cease, making way for a re-run of the ritual of blessings and fortune telling.

                                             Hover over each picture for the caption..

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Final get-up of a Kuttichatan.

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Kuttichathan’s face resembles an elephant

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Kuttees spin on wooden stools holding hands of helpers for support

Ucchita Bhagavati Theyyam

In the interim, tonnes of fresh logs that had burnt all night had transformed into a huge heap of burning grey charcoal. The Ucchita Bhagavati Theyyam comprises of the artists performing around and sitting over the burning pyre for several minutes, flag the end of the 2-day long ceremony. Though I miss the performance in the interest of time, my journey would continue to other parts of Malabar where I would meet the Gods who descend in more elaborate forms like the Mucchillot Bhagavati.

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Postscript

The origin of Theyyam can be traced back to the 13th century or perhaps, even earlier. Manakadan Veliya Gurukkal, the Aashrit (dependent) of the King, Kolathiri Raja, is believed to be the first tutor of Theyyam. Theyyam is a family run tradition and is passed on from one generation to the other; the teachers are usually from the same family or community. Theyyam deities are believed to have been formed from 7 cults namely Shaiva, Vaishnava, Shaktheya, Gananatha, Aryaka, Guha and Stithinashakara.

There are around 400 characters or Roopams of Theyyam, each descending from a legend attached to it. Madhavan (the priest of Mela-Kaav) exclusively narrated the story of Kuttichathan and Muthappan. Kuttichathan was the son of a Namboodri (Brahmin) who went against the rules and customs of his cast and family. He often got punished for his deeds. One day, upon being scolded and insulted by his father, Kuttichathan set his house ablaze. Wild with anger, the outraged Namboodri chops off his son into 280 pieces and throws it into the forests. The chopped pieces come alive as 280 clones of Kuttichathan, possessing divine powers. Similar myth prevails about Muthappan, again a spoilt son of a Namboodri and a sorcerer, who was asked to leave his home. Obeying the order, Muthappan decided to leave for a place called Punvathur. On his way he climbed up a toddy tree and started drinking toddy from the pot tied to the tree. The toddy owner or ‘Kalluchettukaran’ named Chandan, caught him during the act and objected to the theft, to which, Muthappan, with his witchery, turned him into a statue. Later, upon Chandan’s wife’s pleas, Muthappan brought him back to life. Such are the interesting thread of stories attached to each Theyyam!

Theyyam performers are usually from the lower sects or communities. Every sect has a few varieties of Theyyams reserved for themselves. For instance, Mucchillot, Nagabhagavathi, Paradevata and Vishnumoorthy  are performed only by Chettiars or Nairs, while Muthappan and Kandakarnan are performed by Izhvaah’s (Pronounced as Irvaas). Of all Theyyams, Mucchillot Bhagavati is the most elaborate and favourite form, followed by Kuttichathan which usually has a minimum of 39 performers dressed identically! Since Theyyam is only performed by men, they take up the roles and attires of women characters too. A Theyyam performer is considered to be an incarnation of God and hence has to follow strict rules or Vridhams pertaining to his lifestyle, like refraining from meat and alcohol, leading a life free of theft and sins etc. Around the days nearing the actual performance, their food consists strictly of fruits, green gram and coconut water in bare minimum quantities. On the day of the performance, there is no intake of food. Water is taken in sips from a miniature brass jug called ‘Kindi’.  The heavy and elaborate costumes make it impossible for them to use the washroom for the entire day. Costumes comprise of makeup, ornaments, attire, masks and head gear, primarily in shades of bright red, orange and yellow. Ornaments are usually made of brass or white metals and flowers. The performers attain a state of trance during the performances. They are considered as immortals during the event, often thronged by the devotees for advices on their future and fulfilment of wishes.

Theyyam is broadly classified into three parts and usually spread over 3 days.

Day 1 : Natathira Orthottam : Comprises of vocal admiration and minimal dance.

Day 2: Vellattam : A more elaborate version of day 1, with longer duration of dance performances and

Day 3: Kaliattam or Theyyam which is more action packed. Of which, Kaliattam happens once in 12 years!

Synonyms:

*Prasadam– a devotional offering made to a god, typically consisting of food that is later shared among devotees.

*Chenddas, Ilathalams and Kurunkuzhals- Traditional musical instruments of Kerala

Special credits

My heartfelt gratitude to  Mr. Mahadevan for the beautiful insights on Theyyam and its folklore.
Many thanx to Lijit for all his help on arranging my visit and stay. For Theyyam at Koyyodan Koroth temple, you can reach him on 9846820996.
I thank Mini and her family for the warm hospitality rendered to me during my stay.

To be continued with Mucchilott Bhagavati….

 

The Thrills of Kambala

A hollow pitch has been laid on a moderately sized mud-ground. A 140-meter long race track filled with slush has been prepared with a concrete barrier in between. Bright satin Pandals have been placed on either sides of the track with rows of plastic chairs arranged neatly under its shade. Adjacent to the Pandal, is a raised podium to seat the VIPs. Few men move relentlessly, arranging chairs, bringing in coconuts and fixing the sound system. I get off the auto-rickshaw and walk towards a group of people standing at the far corner of the arena. I feel a bit anxious of their interrogative glances and questions, “Madam are you a reporter? Are you from PETA? Why do you want pictures?” However, it doesn’t take much time or effort to convince them over my identity and purpose of visit. Eventually, I notice a paradigm shift in attitude; their doubtfulness gets replaced with protectiveness.

It’s the last day of 2017 and I am in a small hamlet called Madhava Nagara in Surathkal, the suburb of Mangalore, to witness an ancient sport called ‘Kambala‘. Kambala, the race of buffaloes, originated in Dakshina* and Uttara* Kannada regions of Karnataka and its inception is traced back to more than 300 years ago. The race is held in different villages across Mangalore every year between November and March.

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The partitioned race track is filled with slush. Empty Pandals on both sides will be jam-packed with on-lookers by dusk.

I am pulled by the scintillating aromas of food from the far side of the ground. I pay as little as INR 50 for a lavish breakfast of Idlis, Vadas, Avalakki*, spiced chickpeas, and Kesribaath* topped with a generous supply of steamy hot coffee. At 10 am, the costal sun is hitting me already. I wrap my face up in my stole, wandering around like a goon. A three-foot tall brass lamp decked with garlands is placed in front of the race track. A cluster of men from the Panchayat* gather in crisp white shirts and Lungis*. A coconut is broken before the lamp in one swing by the Sarpanch* and its water is sprinkled on everyone around. Hymns are being chanted aloud as he lights the lamp. A Poojari* in a green turban and red Dhoti* blows a Shankh* aloud and marks the commencement of the event. A melodious tune emanates from the sounds of two local percussion instruments- the Thavil* and the Nadaswaram*. After what seems like an eternity of wait, the first of the buffaloes ushered by a trail of thrilled men and dancing kids make their grand entry. The buffaloes look well-fed, almost royal and at the best of their health! Their black and lustrous skin massaged with pure coconut oil gleams under the sun. With their horns garlanded, their faces adorned with vibrant ornaments and their heads smeared with a generous blob of red teeka*, these were by far, the most handsome lot of buffaloes I have ever seen!

The first phase of the practice session begins. Two buffaloes, along with their masters (farmers/owners), take their stands on either sides of the partition. Their bodies and nostrils are splashed with water. The masters toss water over their own heads and drink some of it too, as an auspicious gesture. All is set for the first race. A committee member makes an announcement that gets blasted on a loudspeaker. Within a split second of his signal, the buffaloes begin their torrential run, gushing a fountain of slush all the way. Their masters run with them, yelling and nudging them to move faster. As soon as they reach the end of the track, they jump up to the dry mud in one stride, where they are stopped and controlled by a group of men. Almost instantly, they cool the buffaloes down by splashing their heads with buckets of water. The total time taken by the buffaloes is detected by a laser placed at the end of the track and flashed on the analog screens. The first set of buffaloes have finished their race in 13.5 seconds. The buffaloes are further taken backstage where they are bathed with generous buckets of water pulled from a large tank.

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The first practice session kicks off.

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The last leg towards the finish

Another pair of buffaloes follow, yet another and another. Mr. Vidyadhar Jain, a core committee member and announcer for the event, tells me that “Kambala” originally was a royal sport and the winning master usually received only a coconut as his prize. Gradually, as the sport evolved, Samiti’s* were formed. Coconuts were swapped with gold coins. Manual judgements were upgraded to laser detectors. However, more than anything else, the respect and pride earned as a winner matters the most to the contestants. Few farmers have been proud champions of the race year on year. The participating buffaloes are treated with utmost care. There is no compromise on the purity of the coconut oil used for their massage and their fodder is of supreme quality! Few of them have even have private swimming pools and air-conditioned rooms!

As the practice gains momentum, the race is run between two pairs competing against each other on either sides the barrier. I am fascinated to see the temperaments of the buffaloes and their masters. Some are polite and obedient, while others are stubborn and arrogant. Some buffaloes are getting a pat by the owners for outsmarting the competitor, while some are being yelled abuses for not performing upto the mark. Having said that, the highs and lows are just in the spur of moment. It is evident that the owners love their buffaloes to death! My attention drifts from the buffaloes to their bare chested masters. I am amazed to see their six-pack abs, thunder arms and muscular built!  After around 30 races, the first demo for buffaloes under 6 years is over. My eyes are glued to the action and my camera has taken 300 shots already!

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The second leg of practice is to begin soon. I am given free lunch coupons by the Samiti. As I walk towards the tent serving lunch, I uncontrollably proceed towards the stalls selling junk. I start with a long glass of sweet sugarcane juice, followed by some Bhel*, hot masala Vadas and end with some tangy local version of veg Manchurian! Upon my return, I confess to them about how I fell prey to my sinful urges and apologetically, give back the coupons; making way for some unexpected giggles and laughter!

Kambala comprises of four varieties of races- a) Hagga Kambala- in which, the master runs with a rope directly tied to the buffalo’s nose, b) Neligu Kambala- the master runs with a plough tied to the buffalo, c) Adda Halage Kambala- the master stands on a wooden plank tied to the buffaloes while the race is in progress and d) Kenne Halage-  the master stands on a disc shaped wooden block with holes that propel a huge spray of slush during the race. Of these, the Hagga Kambala is for entry level buffaloes and the rest are for the age group of over 6 years.

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Hagga Kambala-the master runs with a rope directly tied to the buffalo’s nose. This race is for buffaloes under 6 years of age.

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Neligu Kambala- the master runs with a plough tied to the buffalo.

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Adda Halage Kambala- the master stands on a wooden plank tied to the buffaloes while the race is in progress

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Kenne Halage Kambala– the wooden disc attached to the plough propels a fountain of slush

The second phase kicks off and this series seems more action-packed with buffaloes over 6 years of age entering the pitch.  The venue now has close to two hundred onlookers. The Neligu Kambala has begun. I am gripped by the pumping energy levels of the raging hefty buffaloes and their masters running neck to neck at lightning speeds. I almost reach to the edge of the concrete fence to capture their expressions. Each time a buffalo zooms past me, I pull back just in time, saving myself and my camera from getting drenched in the mucky shower. I am loving the bouts of adrenaline rush from this little stunt. The practice session draws to an end with the last round of Adda Halage Kambala.

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Finally, with the sun going down, the finals are announced! A beautiful sunset unfolds in the backdrop behind the coconut and palm trees. The crowd has touched almost seven hundred and now comprises of women and kids as well. The raised podium overflows with politicians, policemen and village heads. The first set of buffaloes hit the track. With speeds multiplied, the difference in distances are as meagre as 0.1 and 0.2 seconds. The ornamental decoration on the buffaloes have gotten elaborate and prettier. The air bursts with screams, abuses, cheers and claps. The loudspeakers are blaring with pumping Hindi and Kannada tunes being played by the live orchestra. The oomph around me is electrifying, almost insane!

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The electric energy during the finals at sunset

Suddenly there is a long and intonated ‘ooooooohhh’ from the audience. A master, whilst shoving his buffaloes to run faster, has tripped and fallen in the muck! His buffaloes, though, continue to race beyond the boundary line. The master walks behind them with heavy foot; his head held low. Next; a pair of overexcited buffaloes win the race and return to the pitch for a re- run! The crowd roars with laughter as the big lads are pulled back to the ground. Meanwhile, there is a huge commotion at the other end where the next set of contesting buffaloes are supposed to be ready, but are too adamant and are acting pricy. After about fifteen minutes of push and pull, the group gives up and retreats, making way for the next contenders, but makes a re-entry in no time.

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An “oops” moment! The master trips and falls with a splash, but the buffaloes continue to run

Next up, the ‘Kenne Halage’ begins under the floodlights. The masters are on a frenzy and seem to be flying through the track. The speed propels voluminous jets of slush, reaching over fifteen feet! I witness the action, absolutely flabbergasted! Night creeps in, but the races are in full swing and would continue till the first rays of dawn. The buffaloes and their masters have a long way to go before the final winner is declared. One man will walk away next morning with his head held high with two of his four legged sons by his side. The winner would return to run the Kambala next year, even stronger and the ones who lost would try harder with hopes in their eyes and storm in their feet.

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Kenne Halage under floodlights

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The finals continue through the night

At 9 pm, I decide to wind up, but not before thanking the Sarpanch; an old, kind-hearted man, somewhere in his eighties. He hands me a beautiful cane-whip festooned with colourful rayon strings at its tail end. In a feeble voice, he says, “The whip for us, is a token of love and respect. This is a gift from our village to you, it was our pleasure to have you here. Please do visit again!” Overwhelmed, I manage to hold back my tears behind a pressed smile. Voices drown as I walk away from the Kambala, holding the whip in one hand and a mixed bag of emotions in the other..

PS : I wish to thank Dr. Krishna Mohan (photographer) for his guidance and reference blog. I also thank Vidyadhar Jain, Vinod Shetty and Santosh Shetty for their support and for being such wonderful hosts at the event!
Glossary:
Pandals- A temporary shed
Uttara- North, Daskhina-South
Panchayat-Village council
Idlis, Vadas, Avalakki – Common break fast items of South India. Avalakki is an equivalent of Poha.
Kesri-baath -sweet delicacy, equivalent to Sheera/Suji ka Halwa
Lungis/Dhotis – traditional attire of rural India men
Poojari– temple priest
Sarpanch- head of a village
Shankh- conch shell
Thavil – type of drum and Nadaswaram -type of trumpet.
Teeka – customary generous blob of dry red color daubed on the forehead
Samiti- Committee
Bhel- Indian street delicacy made of puffed rice.
Snippets : 
When : Between November to March. Dates changes each year but are easily available on the net.
Where : Different parts of Uttara and Dakshina Kannada.
Duration of the event – 24 hours
Accessibility : very easy. Buses ply from Bangalore to Mangalore. Autos/ buses can be taken from Mangalore to the respective village depending upon the proximity.
Stay : Not required. Nearest city- Mangalore is loaded with hotels.
Essentials : light clothing, loads of sunscreen
Recommendation for solo women travellers : Totally safe!

Khonoma

A cheerful and cuddly man, somewhere in his late 60’s, wearing a coat and muffler around his neck, greeted us with a pleasing smile and a warm handshake. Uncle Tsilie had been patiently waiting for us at the ticket counter of the Nature Conservation office located at the base of the village. We had traveled for two hours on mucky roads from Kohima in a cramped shared taxi. It was December and the weather of North-East, being predictably unpredictable; sprinkled rain out of nowhere! A serpentine road with alternate bends played hide and seek with us until, suddenly, a sleepy village named Khonoma, nestled in the rolling mountains of Nagaland made its first appearance.

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First views of Khonoma

Uncle Tsilie’s home stood on a mountain slope. We climbed up the 150-odd stone steps with our heavy backpacks, panting and sighing until we finally made it to the top. I was amazed to see his grit as he climbed ahead of us, without a gasp or break!  One section of the house was an elongated block comprising of four rooms in a row facing a common corridor. The kitchen stood independently with vibrant wild flowers lining up its base. Pomegranate and guava trees grew in the porch with other shrubs and grotons along the fence. The home overlooked a stretch of gargantuan mountains and incredibly stunning terrains.

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The warm and hospitable couple- Uncle Tsilie Sakhrie and his wife

Wild flowers at Uncle Tsilie’s homestay

I met Mrs. Tsilie and the adorable kitten in the kitchen that was warm from the burning hearth. One of the rooms was converted into a library. Uncle Tsilie came across as a well-read man and his fetish for books was evident from his compilation. There were books on travel, mythology, history, wiki, astrology, encyclopaedia, science, fiction and more.  A few books gifted to him by the writers and researchers who stayed in his homestay during their work had pretty words of gratitude for the man. Some even had contribution from him on the research content. Uncle Tsilie has contributed immensely towards conservation of Khonoma for decades and has been instrumental in placing Khonoma on the map as Asia’s first green village.

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The adorable kitten of the house enjoys the warmth of the hearth

With no specific agenda on our mind, we spent the entire evening on the couch in the library, sipping on some hot tea while flipping through random books. I stumbled upon a book that spoke about the historical past of Khonoma. It was the land of the brave Angami tribes who fought the British troops with all their might to safeguard their territory, resulting in wars and bloodshed. Many warriors from either sides lost their lives. After about 30 years, a truce happened and eventually Christianity became their main religion. I could now relate to the memorial I had seen at the entrance of the village that morning. British names were engraved on a huge grey stone pillar surrounded by burning candles and fresh flower wreaths.

Dinner prepared by Mrs. Tsilie was a visual and gustatory delight . Simple yet wholesome food of boiled rice, freshly plucked broccoli and potatoes, dal and crunchy salad, all of which had a generous garnish of coriander leaves was served. Post dinner, when we reached our room to retire, our beds were already arranged by her; backed with an unending supply of clean and cozy blankets! I slept with the blissful sound of the trickling raindrops in my ears.

Gulping our tea in a hurry next morning, we set out on our quest to spot a rare, vulnerable and endangered bird specie of the region- the Blyth’s Tragopan. Tragopans are a subset of Pheasants endemic to Himalayas, of which, the Blyth’s Tragopan is found only in Nagaland. These birds are extremely shy, hence spotting them is mostly, a matter of sheer luck. With the help of a local guide, we decided to trek to the Tragopan Sanctuary, tucked into the virgin forests of Khonoma. Climbing up a few hundred steps above our home-stay connected us to the main road. Adjacent to the road, on the top of a mountain, our guide pointed out to a barren patch that resembled the face of Hanuman and thus, the mountain was considered sacred by the villagers. I could hear hundreds of bird calls around me, however, could barely spot a handful due to the thick foliage.

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A patch on the rock resembles the face of Hanuman

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The unpaved road slithered between dense vegetation for almost two kilometres before disappearing into the woods. We trekked on gradual elevation, passing through abundant wild apple trees. Hundreds of small green apples, mostly half-eaten by the Mithuns (wild cows) were scattered all around; Their citric but sweet fragrance engulfed the forest along with the intoxicating scent of wild oranges and lemons. The damp soil was laced with brilliant flowers blooming in varied shapes and sizes. After about two hours into the jungle, we still did not have any luck on sighting the Blyth’s Tragopan. With the intermittent drizzle adding to the frustration, we finally retreated, hopelessly; like a troop that lost the battle. We stopped by a virgin brook that flowed serenely through the mossy rocks, looking incredibly mystical in the play of shadows and light. How could I stop myself from tasting its sweet and chilled waters? By the time we were out of the forests, I was convinced that with all the other birds that we heard and sighted, it wasn’t really a bad day after all!

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A pretty waterfall runs through the moss-clad rocks in the play of light

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A family of Mithuns (wild cows) enroute on the trek trail

Rich biodiversity of Khonoma

The valley that lay between the home-stay and the mountains encompassed a massive expanse of infinite and gorgeous step-fields starting at the elevated end and gradually receding all the way down to the base of the village. We strolled down to the main road and deviated onto a muddy trail that took us directly to the edge of the step-fields. Each patch of field was bordered with hard soil and stones with narrow canals running along their rims. With careful steps, we walked on the fringes, breathing in the fresh aroma of garlic and spinach mixed with the delicate scent of fruits and wildflowers. The joy of plucking a luscious ripe guava off the tree and biting into its sweet tenderness- free of chemicals and pesticides was indescribable.

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Step fields start at the top of the valley and taper down to the base of Khonoma.

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Canals bordering the fields

 

 

An abandoned Naga hut sitting next to a bare tree peeped hideously through the tall grass. A lofty mountain stood in the background with giant cotton balls stuck to its face. A small wooden over-bridge was built to cross over the canals. My shoes got drenched in  rain. By the time we reached the base, hundreds of tender, harmless arrows propelled by a local variety of weed held on to my pants so intractably that it became impossible to get rid of them! We rested under the canopy of a huge banyan tree before we made our way up through a steep climb that brought us back to the main road.

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An abandoned Naga hut

 

Exchanging hugs with Uncle Tsilie and his wife, we climbed down the 150 odd steps for the last time. It was an overcast Sunday morning. With houses shut and shops closed, the streets looked deserted except for the sound of the church bell, few burning candles and two souls with rucksacks heading on their way back home..

Snippets 

Khonoma is a small picturesque village, 20 kms away from Kohima and is Asia’s first green village. There is absolutely no tourism here, no fancy hotels and no restaurants.

Things to do : Trek to the Tragopan Sanctuary and Explore the brilliant bird life of the region.Wander aimlessly on the terrace fields and relish the organic fruits and vegetables. Relax in the library at Uncle Tsilie’s if you are  bookworm. Gain indepth insights to Khonoma- its history is rather interesting.

Where to stay : Uncle Tsilie’s homestay, 8575553862

What to buy : Dried wild-apple bits

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In the wee hours of a winter morning, I tiptoed towards the verandah on the squeaky bamboo floor of my hut that stood on stilts. Before me, a pretty little pond daubed with hyacinths, rested in absolute stillness. Mist gently rose from its surface and drifted away like floating white spirits. A fragile-looking footbridge stood at the far entrance. Except for the occasional ‘bloop -bloop’ of few fish in the pond, there was not another sound to be heard. Unending stretches of golden paddy fields swayed in the gentle aurora of the morning sun that was rising in the backyard of the ‘Ygdrasill Cottage‘. Dew-soaked cobwebs on weeds and grass shimmered like beautiful diamond necklaces. Underneath the fine layer of mist,  a gloomy, yet picturesque Majuli was waking up to the soft golden glow of a godly sunrise.

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View from the backyard of Ygdrasill cottage

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A silhouette of my bamboo hut at sunrise

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Vistas around Ygdrasill cottage

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The dew necklace

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The fragile bridge at the far end of Ygdrasill

Majuli is an unruffled river island on the magnificent Brahmaputra river in Assam. It is believed that originally, Majuli was just a long stretch of land in between two parallel rivers. However, due to frequent earthquakes and floods over decades, Brahmaputra moved in southward into the other river, Burhidihing; thus giving birth to the largest river island of the world. Simply put, the topography of Majuli is a concoction of soothing green fields, semi-opaque wetlands and striking landscapes dotted with unspoilt tribal villages.

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Majuli waking up to a godly sunrise

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The breathtaking vistas

Renting a bike from Beda, the owner of Ygdrasill; we rode on narrow, unpaved roads cutting through the length of Majuli. We passed brief patches of bamboo canopies and swamps having Chinese fishing nets and canoes scattered by their periphery. (I was convinced that Chinese fishing nets orCheenavalas were only specific to Kerala, until I saw them here too). Tribal bamboo huts built on stilts saved the houses from being washed away in the frequent floods. People were at work in the vast fields already, although no one seemed to be in a hurry. Children played in the courtyards while adorable baby goats bleated around joyfully.

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Cheenavala look-alike fishing net

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The slow paced life

 

A visit to the Satras : After a simple breakfast of PooriSabzi and wheat Burfi at a small local eatery, we reached Kamalabari Satra. Majuli presently has only around 22 Satras or monasteries, of the 65 satras constructed in the 16th century by few saints of the Vaishnavite culture. A Satra is a hub of art, cultural, literature and classical studies for the Vaishnavites of Majuli. Kamalabari translates to “Orange Garden” in Assamese. The Satra had a huge arch at the entrance. To its right was an auditorium where a few Gurus taught classical dance to a group of almost 30 young boys and girls. A long string of rooms attached to a common corridor occupied three sides of the Satra. Every room had  a beautifully carved entrance with heaps of harvested rice crops stacked at the doorway. Lads and men in crisp white dhotis; busy in their routine chores, glanced at us with interrogating eyes. At the centre of the Satra, a clean and peaceful shrine rested amidst fruit and flower bearing trees. We relaxed in the sanctity of the Satra for a bit before proceeding to meet an interesting man with an interesting talent.

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Long stretch of rooms connected with a common corridor. Kamalabari Satra

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Paddy stacked in from of each block

The mask man of Chamaguri : I could have easily overlooked the Satra if it wasn’t for the spooky mask that hung outside his home. A simple man in his 50’s sat in a white dhoti and vest in the courtyard, engrossed in shaping the tooth of an unfinished demon mask. Sri Hem Chandra Goswami is reputed in Majuli for his expertise in mask making and more so, for his tireless efforts in keeping his family’s age-old tradition alive. I stepped into a dingy room to find myself among a dozen ghostly eyes and monstrous teeth! Around 80 masks of various sizes, shapes and characters filled the room. There were face masks of monkeys, bulls, birds, deities, demons and full-sized body masks of tigers and mythological legends. The most prominent features of all masks were the protruding teeth and bulgy white eyes. The skeleton of the masks is made by weaving straw, which is then coated with clay and dung. A tender bark of a tree resembling thermocol is used for the teeth and mustaches. The masks are let to dry thoroughly before they get painted. Sri Goswami gets visitors from all corners of India and the world; not to mention the dozen trophies and recognition to his credit. Apart from his unmatched talent, I was also greatly moved by the fact that despite of all his achievements, the man has managed to stayed simple, humble and grounded.

                           Hemchandra Goswami of Chamaguri Satra and his creations..

Salmora, Mishing and Deori : One thing that stood out during my visit to the secluded tribal villages of Majuli was that women seemed to be equal bread-earners of their families. In a village called Salmora, a housewife and her mother-in law molded pots on a small disc rotated by hand outside their small hut. Around 50 pots were neatly arranged at one corner to dry. The lustrous grey clay used for making these pots was collected from the riverbed, a few feet away from their house. Clay is available for free and in abundance to Salmora, since it rests right on the banks of Brahmaputra. Each pot roughly takes ten mins to shape up and approximately three days to dry before making its way into the local market. Pots are made by women, while the men handle the sale. The houses of Salmora dangerously sit on the banks, making its people vulnerable to floods and erosion, however, this proximity is also the very source of their livelihood.

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Pots left to dry at Salmora Village that sits right on the banks of Brahmaputra

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Women at work.. Pots in the making.

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Women are equal bread-earners of their homes in Majuli

In another remote village called Mishing, every house had a small handloom set up in its courtyard. I was dumbfounded to see women, who barely knew to read or write, operating the loom with ease and perfection. They wove delicate silk and cotton sarees, shawls and traditional wrap-around skirts (Mekhala) with intricate floral and geometrical patterns in beautiful color combinations! Weaving an entire saree or a Mekhala, thread by thread takes upto 3 months and gets sold for anywhere between INR 2000 to 3500 depending on the fabric and complexity of the design. In Mishing as well, women solely executed the weaving while men took the final products to the market. It was amazing to see the dedication of the Mishing women, going beyond the burden of their routine chores and responsibilities to economically support their families; all this with a smile on their faces and warmth in their hearts!

The handlooms extended to other nearby villages too, including Deori. Deori was more remote with houses built amidst beetle nut trees and on taller stilts. The tribes of Deori also engaged in making items like stools, mats and thatches from cane and bamboo.

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We spanned Majuli aimlessly throughout the day, passing through alluring panoramas of fields and wetlands. A little before sunset, we stopped on a bridge over a swamp where tens and thousands of whistling ducks, pintails and coots swam and bathed to glory in a hullabaloo of whistles, quacks and splish-splash. On the serene banks of Brahmaputra, the sky had begun to cast shades of brilliant gold and orange as the sun melted over the horizon. A river dolphin dived and encircled the shallow edge while a Majhi (boatman) sailed his last trip of the day on the shimmering waters. In no time, Majuli cuddled silently under the cozy blanket of fog under the twinkling night sky.

 There is a saying in the North East that whoever crosses Brahmaputra once, is bound to cross it again, at least 7 times. At the break of dawn, when my ferry left the banks of Majuli, I bid adieu with a secret wish to touch its shore again..

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Captivating sunset on the banks of Brahmaputra as seen from the Viewpoint in Majuli

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Snippets

About Majuli: Majuli is worth a visit for its landscapes and tribes. However, tourism barely exists. There are hardly any hotels or amenities.

How to reach: Majuli can only be reached by a ferry from Neemati ghat. The nearest town ,Jorhat, also has an airport. Share autos ply from Jorhat to Neemati. Ferry from Neemati starts at 7.30 am or 8 am  (depending on the season) and ply every one hour until 10 am and then at 3 pm. It takes 1.5 hours to reach Majuli. Follow the same route on your way back, however the ferry takes upto 2.5 hours or more while return since Neemati is upstream.

Where to stay: Ygdrasill Cottage is heavenly but economical @ 1200 per cottage. Food extra. Contact Beda on 88767 07326. La Maison De Ananda is another good option and is well known for the delicious food spread. The satras also provide cheap stay. Check http://majulilandscape.gov.in/tourism_stay.php

When to go: Nov-Jan is the best season

How to travel: Rent a bike from your cottage. No other option if you wish to explore the island in limited time.

What to do: Visit a few important Satras as mentioned in my blog above. Don’t forget to visit the mask man of Samaguri Satra. Visit the tribal villages of Mishing, Salmora and Deori. Interact with the locals.

Its also important to do nothing at Majuli and just soak up the surroundings. Sunrise at Ygdrasill is heavenly in winters. Sunset at the view point is a must-see.

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Kids at Mishing eager for a photo

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reflections at Ygdrasill

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Pots ready for sale at Salmora

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The Hornbill Festival

Angami, Ao, Konyak, Chang, Chakesang, Zeliang, Phom, Kuki, Khiamniungam, Yimchungru, Sangtam, Pochuri, Kachari, Rengema, Sumi and Lotha. Wondering what I am talking about? Well these are tribes from the various regions of Nagaland; some, from its remotest corners. And the convergence of all these tribes under one roof is what makes up the Hornbill Festival!

The Hornbill festival derives its name from the state bird of Nagaland. But apart from that, it doesn’t really bear any co-relation with the mighty bird. Simply put, the fest is a vibrant extravaganza of cultures, traditions, folklore, lifestyle, food, arts and crafts loaded with a riot of colors, dance and music. The Hornbill festival was first held in the year 2000 by the Government of Nagaland with the aim of encouraging interactions between the tribes and to promote tourism in the state. Its popularity has scaled so much that thousands of tourists and photographers from across the globe flock to Kohima each year to witness the spectacle. Hornbill fest has now become synonymous with Nagaland. The event is held every year between 1st to 10th December on a mammoth arena in a small village called Kisama, 12 kms away from Kohima.

Dance, music and festivals are the inseparable aspects of the Naga tribes. Like any other tribe, they have a song and a dance for every occasion, including and in between life and death. Each of the 16 tribes have their own unique lifestyle with everything from clothes, costumes, accessories, folklore to celebrations being different from each other.

A huge amphitheatre on an elevated ground forms the epicentre for concerts and performances. This is where all the action around folk dances, music and competitions happen. From tug of wars to cock-fights, from songs of war to the songs of lullaby, from the dance of intoxication to the dance of harvest, there is a celebration for everything under the sun! The drama of colors and vibrance clubbed with unmatched energy levels of both the audience and the participants is worth witnessing.

Every tribe has a temporary Naga hut pitched at multiple levels surrounding the amphitheatre. The huts are impressively built and provide an interesting sneak-peak into the livelihood and traditions of each tribe. Each hut exhibits everything from crockery, weapons, jewelry, food, to musical instruments, costumes and handicrafts  specific to their tribe. The patio outside each hut is a platform where tourists interact with the tribes, click loads of pictures and participate in their dances! Music is an integral part of Nagaland, and its not surprising that there has been a boom of young singers, mostly into live rock bands. The musical/rock concert held in the evenings have live performances on Hindi, English and Nagamese songs by the artists.

In a nutshell, the Hornbill festival needs to be experienced to be felt and needs to be on the bucket list of every traveler.

Snippets :

  1. Hornbill fest is held every year from 1st to 10th of Dec in Kisama.
  2. Accommodation : A very few homestays are located in places like Kigwema, Kipfuza etc which are at a distance of 2 to 3 kms from the venue. The next best place to stay would be Kohima which is flooded with hotels, lodges and homestays. However, an advance planning of at least 3 to 4 months is required since the number of tourists visiting Kohima during the fest is alarming! I stayed at the Greenwood Villa homestay in Kipfuza. The homestay is beautiful and cozy with great food. Mrs. Savino keeps her guests highly engaged during the evenings. Contact : Nino Savino 7641905723. Alternatively, bookings are also done by the Nagaland tourism dept. Visit their website tourismnagaland.com
  3. Food : Food options in Nagaland are limited. Nagas are mostly meat eaters and eat all kinds of meat, especially pork and dog meat. This shouldn’t offend you. Having said that, you can prefer and specify your choice. Food is mostly boiled and bland, except for the Bhoot Jolokia or Ghost chilly or Naga chilli – the 2nd hottest chilli of the world!
  4. What not to miss- Thutshe or Zutho, the traditional drink of Nagas. These are varieties of beer made by fermenting rice or millet and served in bamboo mugs.  Bhoot Jolokia and bamboo shoot pickle is also a must-try.
  5. What to buy : Though the stalls are endless, the souvenirs are exorbitantly priced. But its worth to bring back a few pickles, bamboo mugs, dried wild apple, wooden masks, Naga headgear and the beautiful beaded chains with a naga face pendant made of brass.
  6. Hornbill can be clubbed with a visit to Tuophema tourist village and Longwa. For details on Longwa, click here : https://gauricosmos.com/2017/12/26/the-legends-of-longwa/
  7. The Naga tribes are amazing and lovely people. No matter how many times they’ve done it, they never hesitate or turn down a request for another photo or a selfie  🙂

For once, I don’t have a story to narrate, so I’d let the pictures do the talking !

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