This is a travelogue on stay at weaver’s place and experiencing the Loinloom festival, organised by exotic echo.
In a NUtshell:
A memorable home stay in a real naga village, inside a traditional village bamboo hut on stilts, a never before exposure to weaving and weavers, unending conversations with some very interesting, passionate and talented people from around the world, beautiful music in the air always – thanks to practice sessions by the members of bluegrass band from USA, evenings with bonfire, barn dance and some fantastic hard core/ authentic / at times ‘toned down to suit a wider palate’ Naga food and to top it all, an inspiring story of individual passion that is behind all this.
Short description- in case u r in a hurry
The term loin loom weaving refers to a process of weaving in which one end of the bamboo is held by means of a strap worn around the lower back of a woman weaver. The adjustment of the weaving takes place by movement of the person’s body.
This weaving is practised in several parts of the world , most of which are below the equator – north east india, hill states of myanmar, north Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, few other islands of south east Asia, south Mexico, guetamala, Peru and Bolivia.
The loom was used in remote locations where the regular loom could not be set up / know how was not there. The advantage of this loom is that it is also mobile – can be packed and carried on the back.
Loinloom festival was started 5 years back to support the loinloom weavers, promote their products and showcase this art to the world. The vision was to create 15000 rural jobs all over the world by 2030 thru this profession, creating Livelihood thru traditions by helping people maintain their own traditional art and not teaching something new, and in the process create Womens empowerment. They also aim To emerge as the leading Loinloom intervention hub by 2025. A living craft museum is also on the cards.
I hope all these come true but even if they are a bit here or there in terms of achieving these numbers, salute to the guys behind this. A half Bengali half Sindhi man who has a different day job and does not stay in Nagaland, works on this project with a Naga lady & her family remotely. This has been happening for almost a decade now. The project is a drain on their personal resources and does not yet cover all costs. It is admirable to see someone with passion to do good for the society and spend time and energy but it is an altogether different level to spend large sums of personal wealth (savings from the job, not inheritance)!!!! Respect. Inspiring!!!
Well there is a story of how this all began. The gentleman (whom I mentioned above) was travelling with his father for tourism purpose, in Nagaland. It was lunch time. They were driving through a village. They asked a stranger ‘where can I get a restaurant’ to eat lunch. The stranger said ‘there isn’t any here’. He also mentioned that the nearest restaurant wud b 2 hours away. What he did next was to invite the father and son to his own house, cooked up a meal and served it. This warmth from a stranger touched them and they thought of doing something good for the society here.
At the festival there were debates & discussions on stage, tribal dance performances, local handicraft stalls, Loinloom product stalls, a weaving competition, a bit of local food stalls.
The location where this festival happened also had a beautiful homestAy where we stayed – real bamboo huts with everything made of bamboo – almost no plastic (sewage pipes, plastic doors & buckets for storing water were the only things plastic I remember).
The hut we stayed in was built on bamboo stilt and wud squeak every time we walk – unbelievable close to real bamboo hut experience.
Loved the nature walks in the village.
A combination of local naga Food and some other east Indian food was curated by food historian and journalist Pritha Sen, who has been researching on Indian local cuisine made from local Ingredients. She works towards promoting sustainable livelihoods . In exotic echo her role is to set up an additional bouquet of services like the homestay, food etc.
Naga food is somewhere between the real Chinese food (boiled, steamed, minimal oil, strong flavors of ingredients, limited / no spices) and a bit of Assamese curries. It is still way more basic than most complex Indian foods. This cuisine is less evolved than many other Indian cuisines as this might not have been their priority. A warrior’s life , moving around had led to the community evolve their weapon , Marshall arts and warfare techniques.
Coming back to food – The gravies are soupy and watery. The beauty is in their flavors.
The curries might seem super bland to most people from the rest of India, who have a liking for strong taste and oil/ ghee based gravies.
Infact in this region there is almost no milk or milk products used in food.
People with a width of palate will of course love this cuisine. e.g. Lai shaak (local greens) is served by just boiling in water , served with the water in which it is boiled. Nothing is added. Not even salt. It takes a bit of mental adjustment too to start liking this dish.
Fat in a lot of curries is actually from the fat of the meat (mostly pork from pigs raised in the house).
The challenge to Pritha was interesting – people like us are always searching for ‘authentic’ and will try everything that the locals are eating. Then there are the other extreme who want their daal roti everyday. And the third and largest population of guests is usually those in between – who are willing to try a tweaked version of the authentic – a bit spiced up maybe, a bit ‘adjusted’ to suit the palate.
The challenge was to serve food that catered to the first and third category people at the same time, not just once but multiple times during the stay.
So she created some simple dishes from local produce, slightly tweaked the original versions to adjust and some were just as it is. Since everything was made from fresh produce and hence unpredictable, I saw her deciding on the menu every day.
She has trained the Naga girls from the village in last few years to cook these meals.
I will b ever grateful as she sneaked is into the weaver’s kitchen to eat what the weavers had cooked for themselves to eat , not for serving to guests. A memorable, unparalleled experience.
During our stay, we also got to learn a lot about the people of Nagaland thru conversations.
There are 16 official tribes in Nagaland. Every tribe has their indigenous customs. Even the pattern of weaving and final garment is different for each tribe . Every person in hierarchy in a tribe has a different attire. Males and females have different attires.
Patterns in weaving vary by tribe and so do the colour combinations. The colours used by tribes also depend on the Colors that they cud make for the dyes in earlier times – there were no companies selling colors those days. So one had to make colour from natural resources.
Heavy jewellery is worn by both men and women
While attending the festival I felt that There is massive sense of pride and belongingness to the tribe among people and it seemed to me that many times there is a feeling of competition with the other tribes even today.
I was so humbled by the Very warm and smiling people I came across – at the festival, in the market.
The people here Speak nagamese language which is a mixture of English, Bengali, Assamese and local languages.
There is no script for nagamese and hence this language is not written.
Most people we interacted with , knew good enough hindi / English to have a conversation.
Detailed description – in case u hv the time to njoy reading:
This is not a 5 star hotel. Or a 4 star etc etc. this is not a modern urban set up. Stay is not cheap here either. Do not plan a trip here if u will constantly compare with your last trip to such a property. There is no swimming pool. You hv to bathe from a bucket. When you wake up to pee early morning it wud b freezing and you wud b in a open roof area, no air conditioner, NO ROOM SERVICE.
If all that sounds ok in exchange for a taste of real life in a naga village, it can’t get better than this.
Set up of the weavers place –
Weaver’s place is a land in a village converted to a home stay, by building additional huts the same way the original hut was made. All bamboo huts with bamboo stilts, bamboo floor, walls and ceilings.
The first hut built for guests on this piece of land, stands in the front, next to the original village huts.
The hut is built on stilts. So in a few steps on a bamboo stairs, we reached the floor. In the front was a beautiful balcony where bamboo sofas were kept. There were some interesting weaving instrument left back by weavers from Africa who were here before.
Our room was on the right, after crossing the balcony. On the left were few more rooms. There was an exit at the end of the aisle.
Our room had a table and chair made from bamboo, bulb shades, wall decorations, bed- everything made from bamboo. The room had a huge glass window that ran end to end.
As we walked into the room we realised something that this was the beginning of a never before experience – bamboo floor squeaks as one walks on it. It goes down with human weight and springs back to its original place. Everyone in the room gets to know if someone moves a little. People in the balcony could here us, we could hear the people talking in the next room and vice Versa.
Rational mind wondered – what if a pen drops from my hand – will it go thru the floor and fall between the stilts? Answer is ‘obviously yes. Who asked you to bring a Cartier pen here’.
The bedroom had an attached toilet which was partially covered from top. In the covered area was a western commode and a wash basin. An overhead tank supplied water to the bathroom. On two occasions water supply was affected due to some pipes getting jammed and we had to pour water from bucket to the cistern tank to use the flush.
The open ceiling part of the bathroom was the bathing area. Its walls were made from split bamboo. The floor in this section was bamboo as well – just placed side by side. Large plastic buckets were provided to take bath. There was an immersion heater as well.
The rational mind was saying that ‘two bamboos side by side have gaps. So if the light is on, someone can see an outline from outside’ etc etc. Reality was that no one was interested to do any such thing. So knowing that there is a toilet, people passing by would just look away. Rational mind reminded – this is not delhi
The other interesting feeling in an open ceiling toilet with a porous wall is that sound travels both ways and so does air. So both the passerby (wearing a strong perfume) and the one on the pot get to hear each other and also inhale the relatively stronger smell!!!
As we lay down in bed in the night we could see thousands of specles of brightness in the wall, as if stars in a pitch dark clear sky – reality was not as poetic though – these were rays of light trying to make their way in from millions of tiny holes created in between slit bamboos that were woven to form the wall.
The same tiny holes also let the cold air come in and the sound of the wind as well. Thick blankets provided by the home stay made sure that we felt none of that cold while sleeping.
….. must say that it was a never before experience for us, who have grown up in concrete urban spaces. Loved it. Not sure wud njoy this if I had to live like this for a year but super enjoyed this short stay – soaked in the experience to the fullest.
On the rear side of our hut was a very well maintained common washroom. A village kitchen was located a bit further.
As we walked further in, there were two huts of the left that looked like storage rooms. On the right was a kitchen area.
After walking a bit thru the walking path created between the bushes, we smelled something unusual . Soon after we saw the very well maintained piggery.
And after a bit more of walking further we reached a cluster of huts with a clearing in the middle, a bonfire area in the center of the clearing, bamboo benches and tables along the sides and the weaver’s place kitchen on one side.
These huts had beautifully locally woven curtains. Some of these huts were available on sharing.
Lovely flower plants and other plants with colourful leaves had been planted all across.
Further to this area was another clearing where tents had been put up for guests.
We super enjoyed our Village walk – enjoyed finding out new plants, flowers and more.
Evenings were super nice as the band members just played music around bonfire. Guests and hosts all sang.
We just could not remember another occasion in our life where we were not with existing friends or family but had such Unending , super interesting conversations – people from different walks of life , from different countries in the world – a man from Japan who worked in world bank and is an economics professor, works for two years and travels two years, weaves his own cloth at his home, goes around the world to see and learn ancient weaving techniques, wears a wooden watch…… a super intelligent, introvert Bengali engineer who has a flourishing construction business, a African born British actress who travels around the world in winters and is back to London to spend 6 months of summer, a French lady who runs a ethnic garment shop in Goa, a Russian girl who moved out from her city home to a village by the forest , cultivates , farms etc during summers and came here for few winter months, a sharp, dreamy eyed, young Bengali girl who studies law and sings American bluegrass music in kolkata – was travelling for a month with the band from US, a bunch of super talented American musicians who play bluegrass music ….. and many more.
After all those lovely evenings we would wake up to the sound of Free range, desi hens and roosters which were organic fed – we were not fed these chicken by the way …..
Weaver’s place was not functional thru out the year. So during events they would manage everything thru Volunteers who would come for short term projects. One of them came from mumbai, one from Pondicherry, one from chennai and Anna came all the way from Russia.
The loinloom festival was started with a Traditional cultural performance.
This was followed by a series of speeches and debates on the art of weaving, loinloom, patenting of centuries old designs that have been inherited by the Nagas, selling these to the rest of the world etc.
A bit away from the main podium was a clearing where a Weaving set up was done. Weavers from different tribes say in a circle and weaved their traditional cloth.
Around this area were temporary Stalls that were selling Local wine, wooden cutlery, local sauces made from the fiery Naga mircha/ bhut jalokia / Raja Mirchi, Naga spices, locally made natural products – soaps and cosmetics, memorabilia, tribal ornaments, woven baskets, table mats, runners, wrap around skirts, shawls, hand bags, knapsacks , jackets, collectables, refrigerator magnets, woven baskets etc etc.
2 little girls were selling Naga style fried chicken, pani Puri, home made rice beer etc. We enjoyed the taste of fried chicken – was a bit dry though.
Loved the rice beer but this could not match the one served by mrs lakhiprabha at her home in majuli.
At the stall that was put up by Exotic Echo, Tribal ladies were showing the entire process of weaving, right from extracting the cotton, de seeding, to making threads , wrapping it up around real sticks. Fascinating. See the videos below.
In the middle of all this, there was a lunch break, when Pritha sneaked us into the weaver’s kitchen to eat food cooked by the weavers for the weavers!!!! As authentic as it cud get. Unforgettable. My taste buds are ever thankful to Pritha for this experience.
Must mention here that all ingredients used in the food were locally produced. The pork used was from the farm. Small pigs ensured perfect ratio of meat and fat and unbelievably soft & good taste.
A later addition was pig entrails curry cooked with pig blood. Rockstar of a dish. Had the same dish during Christmas as the Bombay canteen. The latter was Very good by mumbai standards but the former was of a different level altogether. The intensity of the curry was stunning.
We also got to sip on some great rice beer that was presented to the delegates.
Earlier, in the morning as we were loitering around, we saw the preparations for the lunch happening.
I just got magnetically attracted to the Meat processing area – a clearing under big trees. Three to four guys were cutting pork in kind of an assembly line way (without the assembly line) – one guy was cutting the entire animal into big pieces, throwing the meat to a pile near another guy. The second guy was making it into smaller pieces and passing on to the next. The third guy was doing the final cut.
A fourth guy was cleaning up all the innards (intestine, stomach, liver, heart, kidney etc. ) in hot water and passing it on to be chopped.
Chicken was also being de-feathered here. The Nagas eat chicken with the skin, like the Chinese, unlike in most other places of india.
The bluegrass concert
In the evening we attended a Lovely performance by A blue grass band from the US – the bluegrass journeymen. I do not remember attending a music show before that did not have Any leather based percussion instrument (like a drum / dhol/ tabla etc). This one just had string instruments – no ‘blow air’ instruments as well!!! Super loved the music part of the instruments. Some bug in the instrument setup led to sound of instruments overpowering the sound of human voice.
This form of music is usually played on banjo, mandolin, fiddle, acoustic guitar, double bass, resonator guitar, ukelele. Needless to say that the sound of double bass made up for the lack of bass from leather instruments.
Fast, Super melodious music. Loved it. When Nabanita, the bong girl in the band started singing a Bengali song on bluegrass music, the American founder Patrick also joined in the singing.
Pritha also joined the band to sing a song
B4 I write about the food, lemme describe the Place to eat – it was an open ground surrounded by huts. Sitting Benches were made of bamboo, tables were made of bamboo.
The guests had to pick up the lightweight steel plate, eat the buffet laid out and had to wash his/ her own plate. I loved it. Being grounded on a vacation , trying to live a village life – cud not b better. We would use Chilling cold water from a water drum & bend down / squat to clean the dishes and put it back on the pile. Then wipe their hands on a ‘gamcha’ cotton woven cloth hung from a stick.
All Cooking was happening on wood fire only. The Wood was being collected from the forest – both dry dead wood and old dry bamboo.
To adjust the fire, they were blowing air into the fire thru a hollow bamboo.
All food was served in wooden bowls and plates.
All lunch and dinners had only rice as cereal. No roti. Coz roti is not a part of traditional food in this part of the country.
Most curries were dry/ moist (no visible gravy). Even if there was a gravy, it was thin , watery, yet had strong taste and flavor. Each gravy had different flavours. No common masalas used all across. No masala paste. Infact many curries cooked in traditional Naga way had no masala. Vegetables in different curries were cut in different shapes. In most curries each vegetable retained their texture and form.
All dishes were cooked in no / minimal oil. Ghee / butter was not used in cooking. So the food was light and no menu felt heavy after eating the meal. Super loved this feeling.
It takes a genius to curate such a wide, unique spread of food and to make sure the execution happens as per plan. Amazing how not a single dish was ‘off’. Hats off. Memorable culinary journey.
Unlike most of my reviews I will not rate each and every dish. In these 4 days we ate 8 meals with an average of 5 dishes each and it wud become just super long to rate 40 individual dishes. With a very few exceptions, Most of the dishes were unique. Even the daal was different in most of the days.
The day we arrived
Meal 1. Lunch.
The Egg curry was made with spring onion and tomatoes. Loved the flavours of spring onion. Unlike most North Indian egg curries there was no thick gravy.
Pork curry was excellent, with supple meat from small organic farmed pigs from the village. Very difficult to find this in delhi or mumbai.
Daal was simple masoor with no spice tempering. Only turmeric had been added. Simple , East Indian (Bengal, orissa, Assam and other states if the north east).
Cauliflower and potato curry was slow cooked, no gravy curry. Again low on chilly, no spices on the face, very tasty.
Chutney was made from tomato, potato and the fiery bhut jalokia. Loved the taste but is was difficult to eat this beyond 1 teaspoon per meal. Super hot.
We saw Pomelo on the tree as we walked towards the kitchen area. We expressed our excitement seeing these and in some time our hosts had arranged for fresh from the tree pomelo for us
Meal 2. Dinner
Kaali daal was an aberration – this was not a local dish but the girls of the Naga village love this. Hence this was on the menu. This again was cooked in a simple manner. No extra ghee, no extra chillies and of course no cream on top.
Dry Aubergine curry was made from local Naga aubergines. These are narrow and cylindrical in shape, unlike the roundish aubergines found in most parts of india. The Naga aubergines are a bit chewy but are good to eat. Flavors express themselves well.
Loved the simple Gourd curry – a bit of watery gravy. Super comfort food. Perfect seasoning.
Meal 3 breakfast
Local small bananas were sweet and very tasty. They were a bit firmer than the large, hybrid farmed varieties.
Local ripe papayas from weavers place were mixed – like they are in nature. Every piece was not super juicy and super soft. Some were a bit over ripe, some sub optimal and some suboptimally ripe. Loved the flavor, freshness and taste. Unparalleled. Priceless , for city dwellers living on cold storage vegetables and fruits.
Boiled eggs were kept with shell – you de-shell before you eat. No babu giri….
Bread and other fruits were also served.
Meal 4.1 – the weavers lunch that we sneaked into
Naga mircha, boiled potato and raw onions mix was fiery, watery, had the right amount of salt, no oil and was very enjoyable – in small quantity.
Super loved the Watery, fiery, flavorful daal cooked with garlic and onions.
I liked the Pickled vegetables
Pork curry was excellent – I saw the fresh meat being cut in the morning. Again, a rare experience in the age of ‘abattoirs outside city limits’ leading to refrigerated meats in most places. The curry was hot, pungent and nice. The meat pieces were supple and had the perfect meat to fat ratio.
Pork entrails curry cooked in pig blood was the best entrails curry I have ever had in my life. My first experience of having animal entrails was about a decade back in China. Had it few times after that. Recently had at ‘nose to tail goat’ festival at the Bombay canteen. After the Nagaland trip in end December we tried the same dish at the Bombay canteen.
Lai shaak was at its simple best. No salt. Just boiled.
This day, I am not ashamed to say, we had 2 subsequent lunches. Of course with a gap of 1 hour!!! Reason – we did not want to let go of the weaver’s place guest lunch.
Meal 4.2 – guests lunch
Lai shaak was just boiled local saag – difference between the traditional version and this is that it had a bit of salt unlike the traditional one.
The Aubergine curry was nice. Same as the previous night.
Soupy, no masala , no tadka Daal with bamboo shoots ensured that flavors of bamboo shoots expressed themselves super well. One of the best daal of the trip
Pork curry was very good as well
Meal 5 – dinner
Green beans and tomato curry with watery gravy was very good to eat as it is. The green beans were soft enough to be chewed well but firm enough to hold up to their shape. Loved sipping on the watery soupy gravy.
I loved the Flat beans curry where the beans were almost crisp. Wah.
Loved the Country chicken curry – low on oil, high on hot (chillies) , no floating gravy.
The next day we were at the hornbill festival. The trip was organised by exotic echo.
Meal 6 – dinner
Deep fried fish was a simple yet enjoyable dish. No spices. Fish, salt, fry in oil.
Gourd curry was nice
Fish gravy was very good to taste. It had a strong fish flavor to it.
Enjoyed the Super light yet yumm Daal
Deep fried aubergine was a new way we had the Naga aubergines. Loved it.
Sautéed Saag was tasty.
Locally grown pineapples were juicy and naturally sweet
Meal 7 – breakfast
This was the only meal in the trip that had an Indian bread – Puri
It was served with lovely aloo Ki Subzi. Super loved it. Over ate.
Poha with peanuts was very good to taste. Different from the Marathi and MP variety that I am getting used to now, ever since in mumbai.
We went out during the day to dimapur and also did a village walk. We visited the handicrafts shop run by exotic echo
Meal 8 – the last supper (no second meanings)
I liked the simple home like Okra and onion curry
The Daal was again super simple, yet nice.
I super loved the Bitter gourd (Karela) and radish curry – I remember I took 2 helpings.
Mixed vegetables curry with radish, green pea, French bean was superb.
Desi Chicken (with skin) curry was delicious. We kept licking our fingers.
What an experience ….. aha
YUMMRAJ’s thoughts to make this fantastic culinary experience even more interesting for future events (thinking aloud, without paying attention to practical challenges ) –
there might be an option for guests to pre choose (while booking the room at weaver’s place)
1. hard core authentic Naga meals cooked by someone from the village
2. a moderate version of Naga food interspersed with popular Indian dishes from different parts of the country, cooked by the weavers place kitchen.
People like me who always are searching for authentic local food while travelling, wud go for the first kind. The others wud go for the second type.
At the buffet area it wud b good to hv some small steel bowls to sip in to the lovely, watery, thin, soupy gravies …..
…….. signing off
Sorry, cud not make it shorter. That wud not do justice to this great thought & effort!!!