“A lot of people from different countries visit Nagaland during the Hornbill Festival, but we feel really happy when Indians from other states come here too. We want more people from India to see our culture,” said the man standing next to me in a crowd, on learning that our group was a mix of people from different parts of India. The man went on to describe the significance of the ongoing ceremony, seeming way too happy to answer never-ending questions from the members of our group. We’d quite unexpectedly ended up finding an “unofficial guide” who was a native of the place and seemed to know a lot about the ceremony that we’d gathered to witness.

We were in a small village called Mima, a little over 18 kilometers from Kohima, the hilly capital of Nagaland. We’d hiked the previous day to Dzukou valley and had spent an almost-sleepless night – it’d been a cold, really cold night. While on our way back from the gorgeous Dzukou valley to Kohima, we’d made a slight detour and stopped in Mima to witness the stone-pulling ceremony, an age-old tradition followed by the Angami tribe. The lack of sleep was making me feel a little tired and a bit low on enthusiasm and energy levels. It didn’t take too long for things to change though. A step outside the tempo traveler and a look at the hundreds (if not thousands) of people from Mima and surrounding villages in their traditional fineries was enough to provide the much-needed boost to the enthusiasm levels.

Loved those headgears!

The stone-pulling ceremony had already begun when we reached the venue. Hundreds of men were pulling the ropes tied to an enormous monolith that was placed on a sled of bound tree trunks. Some women, holding huge containers in their hands and carrying bamboo baskets on their backs, were offering refreshments to the stone-pullers and bystanders. Some enthusiastic tourists, including a few from our group, had joined the stone-pullers, who were chanting (what sounded to me like) “hai hoi” in unison.

Stone-pullers
Women offering refreshments to people in the crowd

“Where are you from?” Our conversation with our “unofficial guide” started with the usual question that tourists get asked. What we least expected was to get a free guided tour right up to final the destination of the stone! After an exchange of pleasantries, he started explaining what the ceremony was all about and why it was special.

“This ritual takes place in a different village every year to commemorate a special occasion. This year, it is being held in Mima to celebrate 75 years of Christianity in the village. Earlier, before the village embraced Christianity, there would be fights between different groups. Christianity brought peace among the warring groups since it teaches forgiveness. It also brought education and civilization. The stone-pulling ceremony symbolizes forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation,” said the man. So, before Christianity, what religion did the Nagas in this village follow? “They were Animists. Do you know about Animism?” he asked. Well, I was hearing about it for the first time. And how many times had he been part of the ceremony? “In 42 years of my life, I’m witnessing it the second time, in this village,” he said.

“That stone being pulled weighs 10 tons,” said the man pointing at the stone once it was in sight. (As per the local newspaper, it was 21 feet long, 2.5 feet high and 4 feet wide! Quite massive!) “And you see that man in all white clothes? He is an important man in the village. He will be hosting a feast at the end of the ceremony.”

Not a great picture… But there’s the stone that was being pulled (if at all you can see it in this pic!)

The conversations continued as we kept walking with the crowd and the man kept getting bombarded with more questions from our group. I thought he’d eventually get tired and would want to get rid of us… Nope! He ran ahead enthusiastically, making way through the crowd that had gathered, signaling us to follow him so we could get a better view of the procession. We all ran up a mound, giving each other a helping hand and trying to keep up with the pace of our “guide”. We followed the procession, listening to the stone-pullers’ singing and chanting, seeing them sweat it out as they pulled the massive stone in the direction of the Mima Village Ground.

As we reached closer to the village ground where the ceremony would end, our “guide” invited us to the feast. “We’d have loved to, but we’ve already had lunch,” we told him. “Why did you eat if you knew you’d be coming here? It will be rude if you leave without eating food here”, he said, sounding a tad disappointed. We were stuffed, but how could we possibly have afforded to be rude? A little indecisive, we walked to the venue of the feast where huge containers were neatly laid out on tables and hundreds of people were busy relishing the food. We stuffed ourselves a little more with some more traditional Naga food (Being a vegetarian, I opted for rice and bamboo shoots curry and some spicy chutney) before thanking the man and leaving the place.

Feast venue

It felt good to see how the ritual had brought together a huge number of people from different places. It felt great to experience the hospitality of the hosts who personally made sure that the visitors were fed well and that the arrangements were up to the mark. It felt amazing to come across a kind stranger, who went out of his way to provide information and make sure we returned with a lot of information and great experience of tradition so unique!

The more I travel within my own country, the more I realize how little I know about it. So many places, so many people and such different age-old traditions! Some of those are well-documented and well-known, while for some others, there isn’t as much information available (or if it is, I do not know about it). I thought I’d be able to verify my understanding of the information about the stone-pulling ceremony against some sources and I came across some interesting papers and articles. I can’t say I have been able to process the information that I came across. I’ve only put those parts of the conversation that I felt I’d interpreted fairly accurately. The local who we met also told us something about the millionaire in the village hosting a couple of feasts before the village becoming eligible to hold the stone-pulling ceremony. I searched for some information about how they decide which village will have the stone-pulling ceremony in a specific year and how the eligibility of the village is determined – and came across some really interesting articles about “feast of merit”. While I don’t know if this is the same as what the man we met was talking about, the articles were interesting to read! And oh, I also came across an article in a newspaper about a restaurant in Melbourne that is named after the “feast of merit” practice followed in Nagaland! Interesting, right? Anyway… I’m digressing. The intention of this post is to share my experience of witnessing the ceremony and my understanding of the information shared by the man. If you would like to suggest any corrections, please add your suggestions in the comments.


2 Comments

Lewis Randa · January 7, 2021 at 9:45 am

We do stone pulling (STONEWALKING) in America and throughout the world to commemorate the loss of life due to wars and diseases. We are planning a 250 mile Stonewalk with a 2 1/2 ton stone commemorating victims of COVID-19. We would like to speak to the leader of your Stonepulling festival to see if we could coordinate the stone coming to India as a cooperative project with you. Lewis Randa, Director, the Peace Abbey Foundation, Boston,Massachusetts USA
508.259.8508.

https://www.peaceabbey.org/stonewalk-intl-requiem-memorial-walk/

    Namrata Shah · January 14, 2021 at 8:31 am

    Hi Lewis

    Thank you for your comment. I wish I could’ve been of help in getting you in touch with the leader of the stonepulling ceremony. I attended one during my travel to Nagaland and I do not personally know anyone from the community there. The efforts you are making to bring people together in sorrow are commendable. I’m glad to know that you want to coordinate the stone coming to India as a cooperative project. I’ll see if I can get any leads that I can share with you. Wishing you the best in your efforts.

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