The Naga Warrior: A daughter travels to Nagaland to retrace journey of her mother

Her daughter travels to Nagaland to retrace the fascinating journey of Ursula Graham Bower, the British woman who made her home in these hills in the 1940s, learning the ways of the Nagas, and leading them against the Japanese during WWII

It was an arduous journey for 62-year-old Catriona Child. A flight to Guwahati from New Delhi, a train to Dimapur, a night halt and then a 15-hour drive across the sparsely inhabited Peren district of Nagaland. But as she rode through yellowing fields of tall reed encircled by bluish mountains; as she hurtled and slipped while climbing slushy mountain slopes on foot, and hitched rides on dilapidated World War II trucks and newer gypsys, on her way to the remote village of Magulong on the Manipur-Nagaland border, she was also coming home.

Ursula Graham Bower's daughter

Ursula Graham Bower, a British woman, had made her home in these hills in the 1940s. (IE Photo)

At the entrance to the village, children stood in a line, welcoming them with a song sung to the tune of God Save the Queen. “They had been waiting for us for several hours,” says Child, who was accompanied on her journey by a group of friends and cousins. As was their tradition, the villagers offered to carry their guests in but when they protested, they tied a rope to the front bender of the gypsy and pulled it all the way to the church at the centre of the village.

With that, Child had travelled through an arc of time — Magulong was where her parents Ursula Graham Bower and Colonel Frederick Nicholson Betts were married by Naga rites over 60 years ago. Her mother, the amateur anthropologist who lived for several years with the Nagas, whose life and customs she was documenting in the 1940s. Her mother, whose image was splashed on the cover of Time magazine in 1945, celebrated as the woman who led a squad of Naga warriors against the Japanese during World War II.

Graham Bower, who was described by her mother to the Time magazine, as one who “never would sit still”, arrived in Assam in 1936, a disappointed woman. Having fought all her life to be sent to the best private schools in England, the 22-year-old had been denied a chance to study at Oxford because of a financial crunch at home. “She felt that her life was over. Till a friend, Alexa Macdonald, whose brother was an Imperial Civil Service officer recently posted in Manipur, invited her to join them. My grandmother, who never understood my mother’s ambitions, felt it was a good thing and that she would find a husband here. Instead my mother found the Nagas,” says Child.

In the beginning, Graham Bower, a plump, academic woman, did what other white women of the Raj did — shop at a bazaar in Imphal or watch a polo match on a sunny afternoon. Then, on a trip to Kohima, she spotted the muscular Nagas for the first time, in their traditional kilts and ornaments. Graham Bower would tell Child much later that she felt a strong connection with these mysterious people, a sense that her destiny was tied with them. She began visiting Naga areas and photographing them. When she went back to London and showed her anthropologist friends the photographs, they encouraged her to return to finish the work she had started.

Between 1939 and 1946, Graham Bower travelled to remote villages, helping the people with medicines and rudimentary medical care, as well as photographing them and documenting their traditions. She spent many years among the Zemi Nagas, the object of her study, in Laisong village in north Cachar, Assam.

In 1942, thick in the middle of World War II, her presence and familiarity with the villagers was a strategic advantage for the British, who did not have many friends among the local, often hostile, tribes. “Maybe, because she was a woman and not an official, people began to accept her,” says Child. Graham Bower’s medical kit had become popular among residents. There were few antibiotics available, so the medicines she carried would be the only care they had for sores, fevers and infections. Over time, she developed an unshakeable bond.

When the Japanese army invaded Burma in 1942 and threatened to push forward to India, she was recruited by the British to scour the jungles for the enemy. Bower mobilised the Nagas against the Japanese, placing herself at the head of a formidable band of 150 warriors, armed with ancient muzzle-loading guns. She herself would carry two sten guns. They came to be known as the Bower Force, for rescuing wounded Allied pilots and ambushing enemy missions.

It was in the hills that she met Lt Col Frederick Nicholson Betts, a fellow adventurer, who she married in 1945. The newly-married couple set off toward Magulong a year later to meet the tribes in “Manipur State, outside British India and 30 miles off across forbidding hills”. First down into Jiri valley, over a steep hill, climbing over Maovam in lashing stinging rain and running down hills to finally reach a camp where the headman of Magulong, Khutuing, was waiting for them. He was carrying a ge-ze — a human hair-tufted shield and two long strands of human hair in his two ear lobes — a sign that he had taken the head of a Kuki. It was from Khutuing that Graham Bower learnt the headhunter’s war cry. “My mother really loved them, as Magulong was a warlike village, very much like Khonoma, where the Angami (tribe) lived,” Child says.

In her 1952 book, Naga Path, an account of her life in the hills, Graham Bower writes of her second wedding in this village. “Tim and I had been married, the village knew, by the sahib’s laws and rites. But there ought to be more. It was right that I, who was a Zemi, should also be married by tribal rites as well — the only rites that the Zemi recognised. Magulong, therefore, proposed to see it done.” Not only had the Zemi accepted Graham Bower as one of their own, but she had also started dreaming in their language, believing herself to be one of them, says Child.

For the ceremony, Khutuing adopted Graham Bower as his daughter and another family of warriors adopted Betts. There was singing and dancing and drinking till the early hours of the morning. A villager stumbled upon a bear in the middle of a field and speared it. He said he had killed it on behalf of Betts, in honour of his bride Asaipui, or the queen, as she was known by the Zemi.

Child is here to visit the two families who adopted her parents. Over a meal of meat, boiled greens and rice beer, she tells Gobi and Rimzam Disuang, 88 and 85 years respectively, the descendants of Khutuing, “I only have a sister, no brothers. You are my Naga brothers.”

Rimzam was six when Graham Bower first came to Magulong village, now in Manipur’s Tamenglong district. “We had never seen a white person before and were frightened. She had different skin, hair, eyes, ears. She was so big! One of her thighs was the same size as a child. We all ran away. Then she took her gramophone to a small knoll in the middle of the village. There she started playing music. We went up to the knoll and looked around for the person singing the song. But there was no singer. Only a box from which these songs emanated in a strange language. One of the gaon budas (village elders) warned us. He told us not to listen to these songs as they would attract us and convert us to a strange religion,” recalls Rimzam.

Child first came to India in 1986, intrigued by her mother’s stories, and tried to visit north Cachar. “But there were many restrictions then and I was turned away. I never told my mother I was attempting the trip. When she later found out, she was furious, first of all because it was a dangerous journey to make at the time and also because she was jealous that she couldn’t be with me,” says Child. It was only much later in 1996, after a decade of building contacts, that she met the Nagas from Magulong in Shillong. Source: Indian Express

The Daughters-in-Law – myth

Once there was an old man who had eight sons, and he got wives for all of them. Now the old man had a fine necklace, very valuable and very heavy, and all the wives wanted it.

“Very well,” said the old man, “Let all of them go and prepare zu and I will see which is the best wife and give it to her.”

That night he went secretly and slipped an egg into each woman’s dhan-pounder, and when first thing in the morning the women got up and began pounding furiously in order to be first with the zu, the eggs smashed and the more they pounded the worse was the mess. The youngest of all, however, stopped to clean out her dhan-pounder before she began, and found the egg, which she took and showed to her father-in-law.

“Arre! he said. “The hen must have laid it there!”

Now all the other wives had prepared great vats of zu, thinking to please the old man that way; but the youngest girl prepared only a very little, and that very carefully, and the old man found hers much the best. However, he said nothing but: “I am hungry. Prepare me food, that I may eat.”

Then the wives set to and prepared quantities of meat and vegetables and chillies. The youngest girl prepared only a little, but so carefully that it was delicious, and the old man said only:

“I am an old man and feel cold, so I shall sleep by the fire. Go and get fine big pieces of fresh wood to build up the fire and keep me warm.”

Off went all the wives and cut quantities of wood, but the youngest girl only pulled off bark and took that back.

“Apao,” she said. “I have only brought this, not fine logs like the others; if I go far into the jungle my children will be hungry and cry; so what shall I do?”

The others put their wood on the fire, but the logs were full of sap and refused to burn, and clouds of smoke filled the house; but the girl put the bark on carefully, bit by bit, and it burned with a bright, clear flame and the old man was warm.

Then he said: “we will all go to the fields.” They all went together, and on the way the old man said: “Look, at that huluk in the tree!”

Now there was no huluk, but the wives, thinking to please him, cried out: “Oh, yes, I see it!” “Look, there are two!” “No, three!” and so on. Only the youngest said: “Apao, there must be something wrong with my eyesight. You and all the others can see it, but I can see only the tree.”

Then the old man said: “you are short-sighted and afflicted and greatly to be pitied, and so I shall give you the necklace.” And he took it off and put it over her head.


LATER VERSION: Then the old man said: “there is no huluk, so where could you see it?” and he took off the necklace and put it over her head.


(Extracted from UG Bower N.I., July 1940).


Bees as messengers of love


In the old days it was said among the Zemis that if you tied a hair from your head to the leg of a certain small wild bee and turned it loose to go to your loved one, it would, wherever he or she was, and the loved one would know the hair as a love-token. This is a very old traditional belief, no more than “we have heard the old men say that….”

At Bara Nenglo one of my Tangkhul servants caught a bee and declared he was going to tie a hair to it and send it to the girl he was shortly going home to marry. Namkia exclaimed that it was an old, old Zemi custom, and here was another Naga from a country they had never even seen using it in the middle of the same road. Surely indeed it was true that all the Nagas were one people and all came from the same place! He was much struck with it and embroidered on the theme for some time.

16.3.1940 by UG Bower (Extracted from Note Book by UG Bower)


Note: Even I have heard the same story from my parents and others too. It is said that bees were used to send the love message in antique. – Thohe Pou