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MOUNTAIN KINGDOM OF PENURY

Longwa (Mon), Feb. 15: He is a dual citizen. It is not a status conferred upon him under international laws. He is a dual citizen simply because he lives in two countries through the day, day after day.

Take, for instance, the room in his house in which he and his two companions sit around a fire, with the latter smoking opium. It is inside Myanmar. The opium is from Myanmar too.

Step out into the large hall and walk across to the other side and you are in India.

It is a single large house — the largest in the village — and perched at an altitude of about 1,450 metres.

But Ngowang’s claim to fame is not his dual citizenship. He is the “chief angh (king) of Longwa village,” proclaims the brass plate that hangs from the chain of beads around his neck, five symbolic miniature brass human heads dangling from the plate completing the neckwear.

“The international border cuts right through the middle of the house lengthwise,” he says.

Skulls of assorted small animals, large horns of mithuns and buffalos adorn a wall — inside Myanmar — of the front room from which a corridor with rooms on either side leads to the large hall at the rear. Walking down the middle of the corridor means walking with one foot in Myanmar and another in India.

The pillars of wood have carvings depicting aspects of the Konyak way of life. Several tube lights hang from the ceiling. No other house in the village has them. It’s bad investment actually, because there is hardly any power to breathe life into these slow starters.

“There are 52 villages in Myanmar and four in India under me,” the monarch says. “We are one people,” he says, adding though, that those in Myanmar don’t get the right to vote in Indian elections. “They vote there,” he says.

His subjects pay him annual taxes that could range from opium to paddy, toko (tokou in Assamese) leaves used for roofing, meat and carvings both on wood and metal, among other things.

In his sixties, Ngowang has seven wives and 20 children — 19 sons and a daughter. He will pass on the mantle to the first son from the first wife, who happens to be from the Wangcho tribe of Arunachal Pradesh with which Mon district shares its border.

Longwa is about 40km from Mon town, which is the headquarters of Mon district, the land of the Konyaks — the warriors and head-hunters of lore. The village falls in Phomching constituency, one of the nine in the district and held by K. Konngam Konyak of the Congress for the past five terms.

Election, however, is the last thing on the minds of the people here, the next crop of maize grown on the hillsides through jhum cultivation is.

The road from Mon to Longwa is a revelation after the one to the district headquarters town from Tizit on the Assam-Nagaland border in the same district. Rather, the one to Longwa is a road while the other is a mere reminder of what used to be a road.

“The road is motorable. Because there has been no development, enough vehicles just don’t ply to cause damage,” an Assam Rifles jawan says. The paramilitary organisation has a company headquarters on the ridge on which Ngowang has his house.

The village and its surrounding areas had sniffed hope when it was announced some years ago that a border trading post would be set up. Many puffs of opium have since filled lungs around the fire in Ngowang's room in Myanmar but the post has remained behind a haze and the children still kick around a ball made of rags in a game of soccer on the small ground.

The British had introduced opium to the Naga hills to keep the people calm and, in particular, keep the Konyaks from head-hunting. In these parts, they continue to remain calm and wallow in penury, a penury that reduces even a monarch to drop hints of visitors leaving behind “something” for him.

It doesn’t require a king’s ransom to bring a broad smile on Ngowang’s face for the first time in 45 minutes, one of unadulterated joy, a smile worth crossing many a jhum-scarred mountain to see and share.


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