My helmet visor failing to keep precipitation off my face, one nearly-frozen hand wiping water off my phone's screen and Google Maps failing us miserably by showing us a blank screen for direction...these were just few of the challenges we, a group of five, faced on our way to Khonoma. It was the darkest of nights when Cyclone Mora hit the northeastern side of India. Mother Nature finally took pity on us and stopped pouring down as we struggled to find the right cut on the side of the road, a short-cut route to reach the village.
As we stopped to re-figure our plans, in the quiet of the night we heard voices drifting from the other side of the hill. We followed the sound and after an hour saw flickering lights of a village ahead. Lay in front of us Khonoma, our pitstop, our much-needed shelter for the night. Our host, Neikedolie Hiekha, was waiting for us at the Dovipie Inn. After a warm welcome with piping hot black tea did I realise the exhaustion I felt. It was almost midnight and pitch dark outside, but thanks to the flickering faint street lights, I could see the layout of the khel (a residential territory). Narrow and elevated cobbled stone paths connected one home to another in a serpentine fashion, pots of colourful geraniums adorned most houses, my careless inspection of woodpile startled a tomcat...I was starting to like the bucolic vibes around me. Cold won that night and forced me to retreat to my room, one of the six well-appointed rooms at the Inn. In my heart I could not wait for the day-break, but sleep came as soon as the head hit the pillow.
That May morning was cold. As I rushed outside to take in the warm rays of the sun, my eyes went to the beautiful exterior of the inn and the outdoor sitting room, designed in traditional Angami ways, complete with logs for seat and a firepit. My team members decided to tinker with their bikes for our onward journey later that day while I sat down with Hiekha as he began telling me every little bit about his beautiful village–Khonoma.
Khonoma, India's first Green Village, has a very interesting story to it and every little aspect of my stay there supported that. Butterflies, big and small, fluttered all around us (butterflies are indicator of a healthy environment); tidy Naga traditional houses; beyond the locality boundary I could see the thick forest cover. Khonoma of the past had a different history altogether.
For Nagas, hunting was a lifestyle. Right from their forefathers, hunting and foraging was an integral part of life; stuff that Naga traditions are made of. Then came the days of Raj. The British left the country but left their guns behind. The erstwhile hunting and foraging for sustenance turned into commercial activities. There were more resounding gunshots than birds chirping and tigers roaring; collection of wild herbs and vegetables turned commercial and slowly the forests turned from green to an ominous brown. Because of rampant and mindless exploitation of the once verdant forest, the people realised they were getting lesser and lesser vegetables, and animal/bird encounters dwindled to none. Amid it all, there stood a deeply forested hill with a face on it–according to legends, the face is of Chiikhie-u, the goddess of animals and birds. Thanks to human actions, it was starting to look like the goddess was none too happy. This touch of tradition brought the much-needed realisation that corrective measures needed to be placed.
Under the guidance and awareness works of some nature-conscious people, the village elders finally gave a verdict that banned all forms of hunting and misuse of forests. A restricted section of the forest was assigned for all timber needs. However, the locals would have to follow the old laws of the forest that if one must cut an adult tree for housing purposes, it should be done in a way the tree could grow back again. No trees were to be cut for commercial purposes and zero tolerance policies towards hunting were introduced. So much so that there were even vigilantes who helped nab many poachers and illegal loggers.
It was going to be a long way for the forest to heal; meanwhile, concerns were also raised about the drastic decline in the population of Blythe's Tragopan pheasant, Nagaland's state bird. The species faced near-extinction and it was only the timely realisation to start captive breeding that saved it. Close watch and conservation work started, one egg at a time.
The ban of hunting did stir up some dissent in the community as it would mean turning a new leaf. Here comes the community spirit; the people of Khonoma have a very strong sense of community and present a commendable spirit of teamwork. So, for the love of their forefathers' forest and land, the community agreed to look into new possibilities. First, the ban on hunting happened on the Dzukuo Range and with time, animals and birds started to come back to the forest. New ways of earning though the forest surfaced in the form of eco-tourism. This conservation drive led to the formation of Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS). This total ban on hunting and logging caught the attention of the government and huge funds were sanctioned to develop Khonoma as India's first Green Village and an upcoming eco-tourism destination to watch out for. Under this initiative, environment-friendly solar-powered street lights, green waste baskets were installed and many houses were selected as homestays, another alien initiative. Along with these homestays, Inspection Bungalows and an Interpretation Centre-cum-museum were established to put more focus on local art and handicrafts (Khonoma is popular for handwoven bamboo baskets). On October 25, 2005, Chief Minister Neiphiu Rio inaugurated it and formally declared Khonoma as a Green Village.
At a distance of 15km, there lay the quaint and tiny hamlet Dzuleke, efficiently following the conservation drive and presented itself in its green best upon our short day trip. The village headman hosted us with a generous lunch and told us how they do sustainable Himalayan trout farming–only fish what is sufficient for you–whilst showing us around his home, also a homestay. Note: the only way to Dzuleke is through Khonoma. As I was taking a walk around, a friendly passerby stopped to point at a nearby dark forest. "We protect that forest" said the man with pride.
From being known as a village of great hunters, the present-day Khonoma is known as a No Hunting village and all these for the love of the nurturing nature, crucial for their sustenance. It's the sense of giving back to the nature that makes Khonoma and its people special. My visit to this quaint village was an eye-opener and writing about it was of an utmost importance. The forest no longer wakes to the sound of gunshots.
Where: Khonoma, 20km from Kohima, Nagaland
How to Reach: By Air Nearest airport is Dimapur; By Road Dimapur to Khonoma is 71.9km via NH 29; By Train Nearest railhead is Dimapur.
Where to Stay: Dovipie Inn, a 6-room inn by Neikedolie Hiekha is a good stay option. All twin-sharing rooms have hot water, basic amenities for a comfortable stay. If you are interested, Dovipie Inn can arrange for village tours, treks, transportation; for wildlife enthusiasts, there are birding and butterfly spotting tours; traditional fishing can be arranged on request.
Tariff: Naga Babbler double occupancy; ₹3500 per night; fireplace and attached bathroom; laundry service is available. Deluxe Room from ₹2500 double occupancy; attached bathroom and laundry service is available. Dormitory 4-bed from ₹800 per person, ₹300 for extra bed; attached bathroom and laundry service is available.
Contact: +91 8575185649, +91 7085896732; firstname.lastname@example.org