“We don’t hunt, we don’t cut trees here,” said Mr.Tsile who was my generous host and guide at Khonoma Village, 20km from the Nagaland capital of Kohima.
I thought he was being sarcastic until I caught the dead serious look on his face. I had landed at the first Naga village that doesn’t hunt or cut trees. It was a good joke, until the joke isn’t that funny anymore. Welcome to the green Village!
It was as if I was saving up all my luck for this wonderful moment. My friend happened to know a friend from Khonoma village. They were classmates in a theological college and his father Tsile Sakhire turned out to be social worker and the Secretary of Khonoma Nature and Conservation Trust and Tragopan Sanctuary. He was knowledgeable with the history of the Village and also the conservation project. The sanctuary is one of the few community conserved areas in India. Though the 70 sq km sanctuary is known to harbor lots of animals and birds it is best known for the Blyth’s Tragopan birds. The sanctuary was set up with the theme, ‘Care for nature.’
We hired a taxi to Khonoma from Kohima and reached there as early as 9am. A giant gate welcomes you to the village, even before you could see the village. You can see the village only when you’ve reached there. The village is almost at the base of mountains and shielded by mountains on all sides, giving it the name the ‘hidden village’.
As soon as we reached the village we were served tea. We brought some pork from town and Mr. Tsile’s wife began the task of cleaning and cooking it in the traditional Angami Style with some bamboo shoots.
Mr. Tsile took us to their sitting room, inside his cozy wooden house and educated us on the village history going back as far as 1879. There was too much to learn and too little time. He showed us a few books from his shelves and his name was mentioned in many of them. He had played good host to many researchers, writers and photographers.
Among others who have come and lived as guest in his house there was this particular photographer who came to photograph and write a book on the village and the Nagas . Then, she published her book successfully and went on to study in a reputed university in UK. Mr. Tsile has a wealth of knowledge on many things and it was a revelation to meet him.
Khonoma ‘Green Village’ is a Rs. 3 crore project sponsored by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India and the department of Tourism, Government of Nagaland. The village has gained a lot more by going green. Since its inauguration by Nagaland Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio on 25th October 2005 it has become a model for all villages in Nagaland and other states to follow. The project has gained widespread attention in India. Though the government has jumped in to help, it was first initiated by the locals. In a Naga society where people are still very dependent on nature, it is a brave step; something that takes a lot of courage. They’ve grown up hunting and spending half their life in the woods. Now to abruptly put an end to all these activities is a great change one can’t quickly accustom to. Hunting is part of their culture. But Khonoma, one of the oldest Angami Villages has shown the way for others to follow.
At one time Khonoma had gone literally green, when all the village rooftops were painted green. It was a pretty sight then, but now only faint vanishing smudges remain and don’t look too good. The term green also has a lot to do with conserving trees and plants. Nagas are very dependent on land. They change the land after every few years even for farming. This accounts for too much wood cutting and jhoom cultivation. Mr. Tsile was quite proud of what he called ‘renewable jhoom cultivation’. Their technique was to plant alder trees and cut them occasionally. They resist fire and can grow back from nothing. They are also known to generate one of the best natural manures at a great pace. By cutting smaller branches and leaving only the bigger branches they’ve succeeded in farming without cutting trees.
Khonoma has taken great leap in eco-conservation. And the others have to follow suit. Overlooking a village is a mountain, some 6-7 kms. But you could see it clearly. As we sat in the sun at Mr. Tsile’s place we could see the mountain covered with trees and greenery on all sides. The centre of the mountain was bare and the rocky cliff resembles that of a human face. It is because of that that a myth has been borne and tourists have begun to pour in to see this. ‘We could tap this to bring more tourists,’ Tsilie said, his face ligthting up.
“Our ancestors believed this to be the Sikheu- Guardian of nature,” he said. It was believed that she gave animals in her own will, so hunting was futile if they don’t get her blessing. But the Hindus too have their own interpretation. It was believed that Shiva cut off Aditya’s head by mistake and his head and body fell apart. Hence the face like natural carving on the stone is believed to be Aditya’s head.
The conservation efforts didn’t go without criticism. Initially they faced strong opposition from many villagers. Mr.Tsile said that the awareness was brought about by a journalist friend. The journalist, while doing a small research found out that as many as 3000 tragopan were killed in 1993 alone. It was a startling revelation even for Mr. Tsile who had never thought of the loss that way. He along with few like minded people took up the cause in the village assembly finally succeeded in implementing the ban. By the year 2000, hunting was completely stopped in Khonoma Village. Mr. Tsile has attended many national seminars on nature conservation. Writing for a magazine he wrote, “We no longer wage war with nature anymore. We do want peace in our land among tribesmen and we realize that even our wildlife wants peace and freedom.”