The Naga people of north-east India have a nice folktale which explains why their country is so hilly. It was said that when their creator god was making the earth he lavished lots of attention on it to make it as nice and neat as possible. However, whilst he was working on the final place, Nagaland, a giant cockroach came along with a warning that an enemy was coming to get him. The fearful god rushed to finish his work before making a quick escape, and consequently the Naga countryside ended up the rough and ready hodge-podge of peaks and valleys that we can admire today. Judging by appearances, I imagine that the very last place that god made was the Mon region of Nagaland, the most beautifully jumbled up landscape of rolling hills and razor-sharp ridges in the whole state.
Located on the very border between India and the tribal parts of Burma, the Mon valley is as culturally fascinating as it is beautiful. According to the charming official Indian terminology it is the most “backward” part of Nagaland, which means in practice that it’s the most traditional and therefore most interesting area. Head-hunting only stopped here in the 1980s. Elements of traditional costume still make up part of the day to day wear of the Konyak Nagas of Mon, which means you’ll find old men with nearly foot-long animal horns through their ears, necklaces of golden skulls and the full-facial tattoos which indicate that they have successfully hunted a head.
In the villages around Mon you’ll find all sorts of examples of traditional architecture from thatched houses covered in buffalo skulls to “morungs” the old schools that are still sometimes used to teach boys survival skills and which now house some of the relics of the head-hunting era. Some of the best traditional architecture is to be found in the village of Longwa which is perched on a ridge exactly on the Indian- Burmese border. The longhouse of the king actually stands half in one country and half in the other.
Although Mon’s reputation does attract a few tourists, during our week long stay we only saw two others. If you avoid Mon in the days immediately before and after the big choreographed celebration of Naga culture that is the Hornbill Festival in state-capital Kohima then you’ll probably find Mon as empty as we did. Also there are villages here which remain well off the tourist trail. If you’re interested to explore somewhere really unknown and interesting sounding we heard about a village called Wangti which is under the thrall of an unconventional Christian prophetess who insists that her congregation worships naked.
It’s also worth noting that there has been a long-standing insurgency in this area, although at time of writing a ceasefire still persists. The capital of the Mon Valley, Mon Town can be reached either by overnight bus from Nagaland’s capital Kohima, or by day services from the town of Sonari in neighbouring Assam. See my forthcoming full article on travel in the Mon Valley for more information and recommendations on places to stay.