As a small boy Alo grew up with his grandfather, absorbing every detail about the hill forests while they were on hunting trips.“He told me stories of the deer, monkey, wild boar, bear and birds in the forests but also how to make traps and agricultural equipment,” recalls Alo.
His home village, Chizami, lies in the hills, like most of those in the northeastern Indian state of Nagaland which lies between India, Myanmar and China. The hills, inhabited by the indigenous Naga people, roll out in shades of blue, green, grey and brown, leading beyond Nagaland into the Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and neighbouring Myanmar.
Families like that of Alo have continued to rely on the hills for their survival. Of the Naro clan, his parents named him Tshetsholo, meaning ‘acquiring knowledge till the end,’ a name which was shortened for ease to Alo. He grew up with his grandfather and, early on, learned from him how to interpret the ecological signs of his mountainous homeland. On hunting trips his grandfather conveyed the stories, customs and beliefs of the Naga to his grandson. Among the Naga it is the task of the elders to pass on the knowledge necessary to survive in the mountains to the next generation.
In the past, this knowledge was preserved by the community through songs, dances, established rituals in hunting and through the weaving patterns of clothing. Above all, in the past, heritage knowledge was taught in Morung, a kind of school in a longhouse located in the centre of every Naga village. This structure would house boys – as very few villages had Morungs for girls – who would spend their entire youth here learning the ways of their world. With Christianity taking root in the Naga hills since the late 19th century, and coming of the modern nation state in the 20th century, the Morungs disappeared. The burden of learning to live as a people of a culture fell on the family, the clan and the tribe.
Alo grew up in these hills, which lie some 3,000 meters above sea level and have been ridden by conflict since 1947. Like the Indians, the Naga people claimed their right to self-determination when the British left the region in 1947. The Indian army was sent in to capture the Naga areas. The political conflict continues till date, though there is currently a ceasefire amid political negotiations unfurl between the Government of India and Naga political groups that stand for the Naga right to self-determination.
With an estimated overall population of four million, the Nagas speak hundreds of languages often differing from one village to the next. Each village was self-governed until the state began to take root in 1947. Self-governance meant each village had its own society and polity, defining their own language and culture. Here, this cultural process of learning often happened during hunting.
For young people like Alo, whose family battled poverty, the hills became a classroom. Unable to complete his formal education, Alo gave up hunting after he killed a mother squirrel in 2010, something which is firmly off limits. “Killing a mother is equivalent to wiping out the family, so hunting a mother is banned in our culture to protect the animal population,” said Alo. Hunting in the Naga hills goes hand in hand with helping maintain natural biodiversity. So Alo took the knowledge he gained from his grandfather through another course. He eventually became a nature conservationist, scientifically classifying endemic species of butterflies in his village that had never previously been documented in Nagaland’s hills, part of the Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot, described by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as the “one of the most biologically important regions of the planet.”
Starkly different from the monocropping-on-fixed-land culture of the plains, the Nagas, like their neighbouring hill peoples, are capable of growing up to 60 varieties of indigenous food crops on a field for “jhum”, or shifting agriculture. They first burn a patch of hill forest, cultivating it for 3-5 years before shifting to another patch of land, leaving the previous spot fallow for up to 20 years. With Naga women bearing the prime responsibility of seed keeping, sowing and harvest, they also keep the Nagas rooted to their tradition of collective enterprise.
Alo’s mother, Khwepeloü, together with a group of women, sing in unison on the field. Millet has its song, as does maize, beans and roots. The highs and lows of their voices drift onto the next hill where another village is tending to its land. Naga folklore, often told in long-winded songs, is riddled with dedications to the frog, shrimp, snail, crab and fish, which can all be found in the wet terrace rice fields that many have been cut out of the hills.
“The shrimp had to intervene in a conflict between millets and paddy to ensure both their survival though in separate parts of the hills,” narrates Kezungulou Wezah, a jhum farmer.
The agro-biodiversity of the hill farms finds their way into their traditional attire, which is woven on the indigenous loin loom. Women like Khwepeloü, who speaks only her local Khezha language, spend their non-farming hours with the loom strapped to their back, weaving the patterns in which she sows her seeds onto her wrap around, gifting herself the distinct identity of her land, and thus her clan. Today, she works with a small enterprise of weavers like herself that helps market their woven cloth.
In India, the Nagas are recognized as Scheduled Tribes and is defined by the Constitution of India as a community with indications of “primitive traits, distinctive culture, geographical isolation, shyness of contact with the community at large, and backwardness.”
While the Nagas recognize their culture as a lot more than this, modern education does not. School curriculum offers little in terms of Naga history, its ecology or the significance of the hills, the food that comes from them or the systems that have been sustained here. Many young people have abandoned the hills, preferring the more globally interlinked economy of the plains.
But hope has emerged in the form of citizens like Alo. Under the mentorship of a non-profit organisation called North East Network in Chizami, Alo began to share his knowledge of the hills with younger students who gathered under the umbrella of an Eco Club that met informally every Saturday. They learned to photograph and film the flora and fauna around them, and listened to his talk about preserving its diversity. Eco Clubs have now mushroomed across several villages across Nagaland, enabling young people to return their focus onto the rich ecology of the Naga region.