NO ONE messes with Mireuding, the guardian spirit of Nagaland’s Benreu village. Janile, his flesh-and-blood sister, found it out the hard way. “Mireuding would fling her from wall to wall if she failed to obey his command,” says Janile’s granddaughter Azeu Thou, 30. She claims she saw her grandma suffer whenever she refused to give ailing villagers the life-saving herbs Mireuding would place on her palms.
Janile ceased to be the medium for supernatural brother Mireuding – he apparently vanished from his mother’s womb, streaking out like a fading star – after she died in 1989. But that has not stopped him from watching over some 100 Zeme Naga families, both Christians and so-called animists, of Benreu. And from keeping a leash on malevolent spirits from his perch atop Mt Pauna, Nagaland’s third highest peak overlooking the village sited 3500 ft above sea level.
One of Mireuding’s mysterious herbs, villagers say, is Cailihei found on the Pauna range. But the herb, purportedly potent enough to bring the dead back to life, can only be found accidentally, even by the gods. The hard-to-get Cailihei, featuring extensively in Naga folk tales, was precisely the reason why locals believe Hanuman uprooted Mt Pauna to ensure he had the right herb to revive Lakshman.
CAILIHEI HAS remained as elusive as Mireuding. Benreu, though, has had a cure-all alternative for ages –Telianedui or the bitter-sour honey from the hive of the tiny, stingless bee (Trigonna iridipennis) called Teliane. “They don’t bite, but an agitated swarm will snip off your hair,” says my host Vatsu Meru. “Maybe, Benreu is the only place where you can get your hair styled by angry bees.” He adds that the honey gets stronger and sourer with age, and takes care of every ailment, even snakebite.
Meru’s house is barely 500 metres from the eight-cottage Mt Pauna Tourist Village beyond Benreu’s community playground where three ornate totems stand for the three Zeme khels or clans. The house provides a stunning view of the high, cloud-covered hills around and the plains of Assam yonder. And way down is the Teipuiki river serving as Nagaland’s boundary with Manipur, where more than half the Zeliangs – Zemes and Liangmais together – live.
Like all villagers, Meru has a colony of resident Telianes, which make their hives inside barks of trees with a waxy, funnel-like entrance that’s too toxic for other insects. He also rears hornets, whose nutrient-rich larvae or Kuidine are a delicacy. “They are costly at Rs 500 per 250 grams,” says fellow-villager Ikiesappe. The hornets are scared of the Telianes, I am told, for the little ones nibble off their antennas if attacked.
Ginseng @ Rs 120
KUIDINES ARE no longer the common Naga’s power food, but something’s that dirt cheap at Benreu is Nembeipok or ginseng, as the rest of the world calls it. Villagers trekking up the hills or down to their paddy fields collect the aphrodisiac herb from rocky outgrowths. At Rs 120 a kilo, you can have it by the quintals. But the back-breaking ‘single’ road to Benreu – the 120 km stretch from Dimapur or the 67 km landslide-prone track from Nagaland’s capital Kohima – won’t let you have that many.
The road, perhaps the only downside in this unfrequented paradise, serves a conservation purpose though. Villagers had eight years ago banned hunting of wild animals and birds in forests above the road, allowing check-and-balance hunting below. Besides giving a fresh lease of life to the Blythe’s tragopan, the ban has placed Benreu among the most biologically vibrant areas in Nagaland, otherwise infamous for “eating anything that moves”.
“A piece of ginseng dipped in Telianedui can work wonders for your health and you know what,” says Meru with a glint of mischief. Villagers are known to use ginseng as well as some no-name medicinal leaves to elevate their dishes from the mundane. The herb-enriched Tangnengkwa (snail) curry, for instance, is a heady – and healthy, asserts Meru – companion for Nrizau, the local rice beer.
THERE’S NOTHING like feasting and getting high in a morung, the traditional dormitory where khel-specific male Nagas gather for community bonding. The Benreu tourist village offers a recreational morung, but it isn’t a patch on the oldest one in the village below. The wooden benches and beds within, and skulls of bears, boars and deer hanging overhead, add a touch of eeriness to the morung’s dark interior. “Life in a morung shapes a man,” says village headman Kutsing Haining, leaning on an adjoining monolith commemorating one of Benreu’s accomplishments.
Benreu, villagers claim, also has one of the highest concentrations of the highly-prized, semi-wild mithun. The wealth of a villager is gauged by the number of mithuns he or she owns. The animal, marked for special feasts, roams the wilderness unless it is time to come home for addictive salt once in a while. “Anyone can offer salt to the mithuns, but only the owner has the right to sell or kill them for food,” says Meru. Each mithun has one of its ears nicked at one or more points. “The number, size or position of the notches identifies a mithun’s owner.”
The mithun’s trails have turned into trek routes for adventure enthusiasts. Along these routes are Tancuhebung, a natural curative bathing pond, Tingkaiki, a mysterious cave with an air hole that blows hot air throughout the year and Hetia Kerelibe, the echo-producing boulder. Oodles of pure oxygen won’t let you feel tired, but if you do, there’s Nembeipok and Telianedui to fall back upon.