• U.S.

INDIA: Ursula and the Naked Nagas

2 minute read

“Are wa ittai nan dai?” (What on earth is that?) cried a startled Japanese officer as a burst of elephant-gun fire whistled past his ears and a troop of half-naked Nagas leaped out of the bushes. He found out, but too late. He and his jungle patrol were wiped out. But last week other Japs who had survived the fight in northern Burma knew more about the Naga raiders and their leader. The half-naked tribesmen from northeastern India were directed by a white woman: pert, pretty Ursula Graham-Bower, 30, an archeology student who looks like a cinemactress.

In 1939 Miss Graham-Bower went out from England to India “to putter about with a few cameras and do a bit of medical work, maybe write a book.” She disappeared into the Assam hills to study the Nagas. These lithe-limbed warriors live in fortified hilltop villages, lead a somewhat humdrum existence punctuated by occasional raids to cut off their neighbors’ heads, which they carry about in wicker baskets.

Miss Graham-Bower managed to keep her own head on, and presently won the friendship of the Naga chieftains. Now & then people in the outside world got letters from her, exulting over the pictures she was taking of primitive dances and ceremonies. Some of the more pretentious Nagas wore a little apron in front, but most just wore bracelets. They cultivated little patches of cleared jungle for rice, and, like the South American Indians, used drugs to catch fish. They begged Miss Graham-Bower to name their babies. She named most of them Victoria Elizabeth.

When the Japanese armies surged across the Burma border and threatened to spill into India, Miss Graham-Bower declared war on Japan. She placed herself at the head of the mobilized Nagas. By her orders guards were posted on main and secondary trails, a watch-and-warn system was established. Over these trails thousands of evacuees, deserters, escaped prisoners and bailed-out airmen fled from Burma to India. Miss Graham-Bower also directed Naga ambushes of Japanese search parties.

She is still leading her pleasantly active life among the headhunters. In Leigh Hall, Cricklade, Wilts, Miss Graham-Bower’s mother commented on her daughter’s fighting blood, added proudly: “An extraordinary girl; she never would sit still.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com