Bleary-eyed sessions in a Nagaland dope den

23 February 2016

Away from the staged pageantry of Nagaland’s annual Hornbill Festival, this Indian state with its 66 tribes conceals some real gems for the travel photographer. Dump your long zooms: travel to the right places, sit with the right people, slap on a fast medium wide or a nifty fifty, ISO up into the low thousands, and a fascinating glimpse of tribespeople in a state of transition, stagnation and decay opens up for you.

You don’t have to be an opium smoker. But hey, what happens in Nagaland stays in Nagaland.

The honest tribal action’s not in the handful of big towns in Nagaland. (There’s an equally fascinating young subculture in these towns, but that’s another story.) It’s in the forest villages and hillside settlements, reached after long, denture-rattling 4×4 journeys to places where the last European they saw could have been an American missionary or a British anthropologist. Or a private Travelshooters photography tour client.

So grab a newspaperful of fried silkworms as a travelling snack, and trust your guide to take you to the forest settlements.

The markets in the village hub towns are simple but bustling and vibrant. This is where you stock up for the last and bumpiest part of your journey, because after this the roads are purely notional and the wild forest very real. So grab a newspaperful of fried silkworms as a travelling snack, and trust your guide to take you to the forest settlements.

Once here, introduce yourself with great deference to the village chief. It’s the done thing. It opens doors and demonstrates your willingness to fit in rather than stand out. And if the chief happens to be right in the middle of a day-long opium session, be prepared to join the party. Carry a few thousand rupees: buying a ₹300 round of opium every now and then makes you a player, not an observer, and keeps the den photogenically smoky.

When we gatecrashed our opium party, it was a little after 1pm and the chief and his buddies had been holed up around the hut’s campfire for several hours, lung-deep in the poppy-stuff and lubricated with Old Monk. It was near-dark with most of the light coming from the campfire. The vibe was generally slow and downbeat, punctuated by bursts of laughter over slurred anecdotes. The smokers went separately through states of sociability and somnolence, navel-gazing here, nodding off there. Best of all, they just left us to our own devices, free to shoot and shuffle around the campfire for a better angle.

Pass the dutchie ‘pon the left hand side, chief.

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