(Women in Leshemi village spinning yarn from nettle: Kalpana Sharma)
When you look down from the main road, the imposing Baptist church in Leshemi village, in Nagaland's Phek district, looks like a wedding cake.
But Leshemi's claim to fame is more than an impressive church. Leshemi is located on the hill opposite Khezakeno village, a place that the Nagas believe is the original village settled by them. From it, they believe, Nagas went off in different directions. The three main Naga tribes, Angami, Chakhesang and Sema, trace their origins to this settlement.
Leshemi is a small Chakhesang village, perched on a hillside with thick forests above and terraced rice fields below. What makes it unusual is that it is virtually a "village republic", a concept Mahatma Gandhi articulated. Its 800 or so inhabitants want little from the outside world, as the women tell you.
"Do you lack anything in your village?" I asked 65-year old Solhouii, part of a group of women who had just demonstrated how they spin yarn from stalks of stinging nettles found in the forest.
She thought for a while, then laughed and said: "No."
Though they do need a few things from outside, Solhouii said that they grow their own rice, millet, vegetables and fruit. They even make salt from brine found in a natural spring. There is plenty of water. They spin their own yarn from nettles and homegrown cotton. And they weave this into shawls and wraps, following the traditional patterns of their tribe.
Like neighbouring Khezakeno, people in Leshemi also believe that they live in one of the oldest villages in Nagaland. As proof they show you what they call their fetish stones (which, they believe, contain spirits and special powers), which were found by their elders. These stones are now being carbon dated to establish their real age.
A stone shrine of sorts has been built around one of the original fetish stones.
Two elderly men, who are hovering around the little structure, tell me that the stone "died" when the Indian army burnt Leshemi village in 1957.
That statement, said sotto voce, is a wrenching reminder of what ordinary people in Nagaland went through from late 1950s till the ceasefire in 1964, during what they call the Indo-Naga war. This was fought between the Nagas, who believed they were independent and not part of the Indian Union, and the Indian government and its army that saw them as insurgents to be forcibly brought into the Indian fold.
I asked these two men if they remember that time. Yes, they do, they told me. For an entire year, the villagers had to hide in the forests. Those who went to the higher reaches survived despite hunger. Those who went to the valley died of disease or could not tolerate the heat and humidity.
The village that stands today was rebuilt after that.
The women and men in Leshemi do not bring politics into the conversation. But you cannot escape the past, the sadness that hangs over such villages, and the memories that live on.
The old and the new
Just as the smiles, the jokes and the laughter hide deeper wounds, so does the talk of self-sufficiency.
For the reality in Leshemi, as in other villages in Nagaland, is that changes in the name of modernisation and development are undercutting the self-sufficient nature of their traditional societies.
A group of women farmers (and the majority of farmers are women) explained why today, what they grow is not enough to meet their needs.
A group of Chakhesang women in Chizami village, east of Leshemi village, spoke of the dilemma they face. We need cash, said one, to pay for school fees and medical expenses.
What they grow is enough to feed the family and sometimes there is a surplus that can be sold in the market. But the earnings from this cannot cover these other expenses necessitated by the introduction of education (Nagaland's literacy rate is now 80%) and modern medicine (in the past people relied on local cures).
As a result, the women look for work in the fields of others, where they get paid Rs 300 per day. The men find work as construction workers in the road repair projects that are perennially underway (despite which the roads are in a terrible state), and under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Boards in all these villages announce improved village roads, or structures like community centres, that have been built courtesy MGNREGA.
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