I read everything on the Internet with a bit of skepticism. Its good practice considering how much the information highway lends itself to the creation of urban legend. So when I heard about the loin cloth wearing head hunters who include bag pipes and ghost peppers in their Christmas time celebration, I thought surely this is a fabrication. Then I looked to the URL to assess the reputation of the website. The website belongs to The Smithonian Magazine.
Welcome to Nagaland
When some new ChiliHeads hear the word Nagaland for the first time, they likely believe it to be the mythical land of ghost peppers. A playful but fictional term to describe where the ghost chili (aka red naga chili) are free for the picking. Sort of a Candyland for ChiliHeads. Many are shocked to learn it is a state in Northern India.
Both the state and the peppers are named after a group of gods / deities found in both Bhudhist, Hindu, Jainism, and Sikhism religions. A type of diety which takes the form of a giant king cobra. The female form of a naga is the nagi.or nagini.
A sacred book of that region, the Mahabharata, warns that the naga and nagi are tremendously baneful creatures. There in they are described as “persecutors of all creatures”. The naga and nagi are described as having “virulent poison, great prowess and excess of strength, and ever bent on biting other creatures”. Ah,such a lovely description of a people, a land, and a pepper.
Back to The Smithonian Magazine article, we see that in the land of Naga, the people of Naga, used the Naga peppers for a rather novel purpose. Evidently, the peppers are used to make a solvent which aids in the removing of flesh from trophy heads. Although now replaced with fake heads in their celebrations, these pepper heads were once a trophy of great importance in Nagaland and were displayed with great pride, especially at the annual Christmas time festival. The last known instance of Naga head hunting is recorded as taking place in 1969.
Somewhere during English occupation, it seems someone introduced the people of Naga to something even more horrific than severed heads: the bag pipes. Evidently, the tradition stuck and expanded such that every year the festival now includes traditional Naga bagpipe music.
Naga Eating Contest
Of course no festival in Nagaland would be complete without a Naga Eating Contest. With a substantial prize of $600.00, the competitions are taken seriously on a secular level. But despite most Naga’s being Baptists today, one has to wonder if in eating the naga peppers there is not a bit of a communion with their elder gods.
After reading this article and doing a little bit of fact checking, I have a whole new take on the ChiliHead festival here in the United States. Today, without bagpipe playing, loin cloth wearing, head hunters eating the flesh of their god, our Chili Festivals just seem a bit less entertaining.