Members of this warrior tribe have always been fiercely protective of their environs; in the early 90s, when logging and hunting threatened to wipe out the nearby forests, the village elders, notably Tsilie Sakhrie, rose to the occasion. Hunting, which was practised extensively across the region was decisively banned, while the forests around were declared as the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (1998). It is due to this foresight that, today, the woods are alive with the cries and calls of wildlife that is regaining its numbers once again. Protection and conservation of the Blyth’s Tragopan (Tragopan blythii), the State Bird of Nagaland was also initiated by the community. The sanctuary adjoins the Japfu mountain range and is designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Besides the Tragopan, it shelters many other rare and endangered avifauna species. This is even more significant considering that wildlife hunting is a way of life with Naga tribes. That the community collectively decided to ban hunting exercises in the entire village, and not only the sanctuary, speaks volumes about how far it has travelled since its headhunting days.
As if to live up to its reputation of being difficult to conquer, the road to Khonoma is a battle in itself. The hour-long ride from Kohima rattles every muscle and bone in your body, but at the end, as if to compensate for the gruelling journey, the road opens up to splendid views of wood and stone houses hugging the mountain slopes. In 2003, the Khonoma Tourism Development Board was constituted to encourage local men and women of the village to work as tourist guides, tour operators and interpreters. In the same year, the Union Ministry of Tourism and Culture adopted Khonoma under its Green Village Project, making way for a circular road and solar lights. This postcard village is interconnected by a maze of stone pathways and dirt tracks, making it an absolute walker’s paradise. The morning after my arrival, I set out to explore the tiny alleys. Tsilie, my enthusiastic guide, led us to our first stop, at the craftsman Angulie’s workshop. Angulie has won a national award for his skills in weaving an array of bamboo products. At 62, his eyesight is still strong and he spends most of the day crafting intricate designs. We followed this up with a visit to a family of handloom weavers, who make lovely shawls and jackets. Nagaland is home to 16 (officially-recognised) tribes, each of them having distinct vocations, livelihoods and skills.