When you look down from the main road, the imposing Baptist church in Leshemi village, in Nagaland's Phek district, looks like a wedding cake.

But Leshemi's claim to fame is more than an impressive church. Leshemi is located on the hill opposite Khezakeno village, a place that the Nagas believe is the original village settled by them. From it, they believe, Nagas went off in different directions. The three main Naga tribes, Angami, Chakhesang and Sema, trace their origins to this settlement.

Leshemi is a small Chakhesang village, perched on a hillside with thick forests above and terraced rice fields below. What makes it unusual is that it is virtually a "village republic", a concept Mahatma Gandhi articulated. Its 800 or so inhabitants want little from the outside world, as the women tell you.

"Do you lack anything in your village?" I asked 65-year old Solhouii, part of a group of women who had just demonstrated how they spin yarn from stalks of stinging nettles found in the forest.

She thought for a while, then laughed and said: "No."

Though they do need a few things from outside, Solhouii said that they grow their own rice, millet, vegetables and fruit. They even make salt from brine found in a natural spring. There is plenty of water. They spin their own yarn from nettles and homegrown cotton. And they weave this into shawls and wraps, following the traditional patterns of their tribe.

Unhealed wounds

Like neighbouring Khezakeno, people in Leshemi also believe that they live in one of the oldest villages in Nagaland. As proof they show you what they call their fetish stones (which, they believe, contain spirits and special powers), which were found by their elders. These stones are now being carbon dated to establish their real age.

A stone shrine of sorts has been built around one of the original fetish stones.

Two elderly men, who are hovering around the little structure, tell me that the stone "died" when the Indian army burnt Leshemi village in 1957.

That statement, said sotto voce, is a wrenching reminder of what ordinary people in Nagaland went through from late 1950s till the ceasefire in 1964, during what they call the Indo-Naga war. This was fought between the Nagas, who believed they were independent and not part of the Indian Union, and the Indian government and its army that saw them as insurgents to be forcibly brought into the Indian fold.

I asked these two men if they remember that time. Yes, they do, they told me. For an entire year, the villagers had to hide in the forests. Those who went to the higher reaches survived despite hunger. Those who went to the valley died of disease or could not tolerate the heat and humidity.

The village that stands today was rebuilt after that.

The women and men in Leshemi do not bring politics into the conversation. But you cannot escape the past, the sadness that hangs over such villages, and the memories that live on.

A monolith at the entrance of a village in Nagaland. [Credit: Kalpana Sharma]
A monolith at the entrance of a village in Nagaland. [Credit: Kalpana Sharma]

The old and the new

Just as the smiles, the jokes and the laughter hide deeper wounds, so does the talk of self-sufficiency.

For the reality in Leshemi, as in other villages in Nagaland, is that changes in the name of modernisation and development are undercutting the self-sufficient nature of their traditional societies.

A group of women farmers (and the majority of farmers are women) explained why today, what they grow is not enough to meet their needs.

A group of Chakhesang women in Chizami village, east of Leshemi village, spoke of the dilemma they face. We need cash, said one, to pay for school fees and medical expenses.

What they grow is enough to feed the family and sometimes there is a surplus that can be sold in the market. But the earnings from this cannot cover these other expenses necessitated by the introduction of education (Nagaland's literacy rate is now 80%) and modern medicine (in the past people relied on local cures).

As a result, the women look for work in the fields of others, where they get paid Rs 300 per day. The men find work as construction workers in the road repair projects that are perennially underway (despite which the roads are in a terrible state), and under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Boards in all these villages announce improved village roads, or structures like community centres, that have been built courtesy MGNREGA.

Money power

This need for money is one factor that could, in the long run, undercut the sustainable forms of agriculture that continue to survive in many parts of Nagaland and elsewhere in the North East.

For instance, in villages like Leshemi and Chizami, no chemicals are used in the paddy fields. Villagers save seeds for the next planting. And their diet consists of locally grown rice and millet, vegetables, greens and meat, including birds and animals they hunt in their forests. But the need for money leaves them vulnerable to the incentives offered by the government's agriculture department to switch to faster growing hybrids. This also means using fertiliser and chemicals that they have never used before.

The traditional Naga form of agriculture has been organic before that term became fashionable. Their food, too, has the ideal balance that highly paid dieticians recommend to unhealthy city dwellers. But all this could change.

Besides the temptation of earning more, the future of traditional forms of agriculture also depends on the next generation. Will younger, educated Nagas go and till the land like their parents? Or will they only keep the link with their villages during festivals and occasions? This is already happening and is something that worries the women.

These women also know that not everyone wants to do the backbreaking work that is so much a part of their lives. They literally work from morning till dusk.

I asked a woman farmer from Chizami village to describe her typical day: "We wake up at 4 am, light the fire, make tea, cook, prepare children for school, eat something and then go to the field by 8 am. We take a break at 12 and then continue working till 5. On the way home, we collect fodder, then cook, then feed the livestock. We rarely get to sleep before 9 pm."

How many young women and men today will want to follow such a schedule?

Resources threatened

However, the biggest threat to the sustainable existence of such villages in Nagaland and elsewhere in the North East is the policy the Indian government has framed for this region. Essentially, it envisages ways in which the area's forests, rivers, land and minerals can be fully exploited.

Activists say local people do not fully understand the environmental and social consequences of some of the proposed projects. For instance, In Nagaland, new roads and highways are being built cutting through pristine forests. People have consented without realising that easier access to these forests could also spell the end of precious biodiversity. However, in Arunachal Pradesh local communities are asking questions and opposing the many hydroelectric projects being constructed in the state.

"It is scary,” said Akole Tsuhah, a young activist working with the North East Network, a women's rights organisation. “Our people are not prepared for this. Because of the need for cash, it is difficult to convince people about the need to safeguard our resources. Once we lose our common resources, we will lose our independence, our sovereignty."