The Vanishing Tattooed Headhunters Of Nagaland, In Photos & Text

The Vanishing Tattooed Headhunters Of Nagaland, In Photos & Text

Way out at the North eastern edge of India lies Nagaland, a place where swirling wisps of cloud gently caress mighty mountains that have nestled deep in its vast expanses of greenery, ancient cultures and lesser broadcasted traditions of the land. Known for its scenic beauty, Nagaland holds relics to a rich cultural heritage and legacy that seems like an anomaly compared to the rapidly modernising country that it’s a part of. Perhaps most enticing are the sixteen major indigenous tribes it is home to; all of mixed origins, cultures and practices, who for a long time were feared as headhunters. The most ‘vicious’ (as labelled by outsiders who knew far too little about their ways) of these tribes were the Konyaks, great warriors with a brutal past. 

Home to the Konyaks, Longwa is a remote village in the Mon district that sits atop a hill with one half in India and the other bordering Myanmar. The village came into being well before the international boundaries were drawn out. Unable to decide how exactly to divide an entire community between the two countries, Officials decided to let the imaginary border pass through the village without disturbing the tribe. With the lush forests of Myanmar on one side and vast agricultural fields of India on the other, Longwa village is a Konyak playing field that overlooks it all. The border even runs through the house of the Angh, the king or village chief, leading to the joke that he dines in India and sleeps in Myanmar. The Mon district is said to be the only one in Nagaland to still have this institution of Anghship, known also the ‘Land of Angh’s.’ Hereditary chieftains, one or several villages can come under the rule of one Angh. The practice of polygamy stil prevails, and one Angh is even said to have had almost sixty wives. The kings can be recognised easily by the clear blue beads on their legs, the layers of beads indicating the power they hold and respect they command.

Survival of the fittest

The forests here have had to witness years of intertribal warfare; a time where the martial Konyaks thrived. They would raid neighbouring villages, take over their land and bring back the heads of their victims as trophies of their conquests. Headhunting wasn’t a matter of taboo, the Konyaks were proud headhunters; it garnered them the respect of their tribe’s people and for many young Konyak boys war was a part of growing up, killing and beheading an enemy was seen as a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood. Success was rewarded in the form of an honorary facial tattoo to mark their accomplishment.

Longwa village, as seen from a vantage point. To the left is India, to the right is Myanmar Image source:

The fierce warriors would brandish their torsos, arms and faces with lines to symbolise the heads they’ve each claimed and body tattooing was a deeply rooted practice in the Konyak culture, strongly related to headhunting. Tattoos were made for status in the society, and it was also for beautification and identification of belonging to different clans. For women, tattoos would represent different stages of womanhood and important life events. For example, girls wore a tattoo on the back of the knee if they were married, and a different one would demarcate the bearing of their first child. The chest tattoo and the ‘specs’ facial tattoo are among the most recognised in the world, worn only by the best and bravest of warriors. Headhunting and tattoos had quite a great impact on the tribe’s culture and lifestyle that can be seen by the many folk songs, lore and dances all having been inspired in some way by the stories of valour, and skill of the warrior headhunters.

Take a head to get ahead? 

The belief behind headhunting was closely linked to the fertility cult; taking the enemy’s head would transfer some of his power and soul to the hunter, the fertility of their fields and the well-being of the warrior would increase. At times, a person would be spared had they eaten at the house of a Konyak Naga or had something that could be given to them as a gift. Heads would be hung at the entrance of the village on a sacred tree and adorn the outside of the warriors house as symbols of virility; the more heads you had, the mightier a warrior you were. The headhunters can easily be distinguished and spotted among the other Nagas by the tattoos they’ve earned from taking heads, as well as the necklaces they would wear of small brass heads--one brass head correlated to each real one taken by the person. They wore special war headgear too, made out of hunted wild pig horns, hornbill feathers and wild bear or goat hair. A traditional basket decorated with monkey skulls, wild pig horns and sometimes even hornbill beaks would be specifically made and used to carry back the human heads from the battlefield. The hornbill represented loyalty because the female bird would stay in the high nest and depend on her male mate to feed her, an iconic emblem of Nagaland. The right to use the feathers of a hornbill had to be earned by a tribesmen, so only those who excelled at the battlefield would have the right to decorate themselves with the hornbill feathers. Of course, these were past traditions. In time, the tribe was quick to realise the damage they were doing to the species and instead of hunting them, they started protecting the birds instead.

Burying old traditions and reversing ancient beliefs 

Konyaks were animists, worshipping elements of nature, and it was with the arrival with the British Christian missionaries in the late 19th century that things began to change for this once remote tribe of notorious headhunters. Many tribal practices were soon renounced, willingly or otherwise, such as the training of young boys in martial skills and educating them about the tribe’s beliefs and practices that would happen at Morungs, sort of a community building or dormitory for young boys, and the biggest practice that was done away with was that of headhunting, an essential part of their ritualistic lifestyle. Konyaks resisted Christianity and modernisation longer than most other tribes of the region, yet, by the late 20th century close to 90 percent of people in the state had accepted Christianity. Headhunting was no longer practiced and the people were encouraged to bury the heads they once so proudly displayed. Each village had a separate house for the collected skulls to which everyone was expected to contribute, most of which were subsequently destroyed. The Konyaks were reported to have given up headhunting in 1962, with last reported cases in the region documented between 1963 and 1969.

An annual celebration of everything that was 

Like the rest of Nagaland, the Konyaks are in a state of transition but spring arrives and for a stretch of six days in April, all the traditions of the tribals come alive with colour and splendour (apart from hunting heads) and that’s during the Aoleang Monyu Festival. The festival signifies the beginning of the New Year and is celebrated after the seeds are sown in the new jhum fields, marking the end of the old year and arrival of the next. People spend the first day of the festival, called Hoi Lah Nyih, preparing for the coming five days of celebrations, collecting firewood and vegetables, making rice beer and weaving new clothes. The second and the third days are called Yin Mok Pho Nyih and Mok Shek Nyih, which means searching and roping in the domestic animals to be sacrificed by the heads of each family during the festival. Lingnyu Nyih, the fourth day, is the biggest of the Aoleang festival. Men and women dress in traditional clothes and ornaments and the entire day is spent in feasting and merriment. Lingha Nyih, the fifth day, is a day of respecting and honouring each other. Elders of the village are honoured by the young boys and parents call their married sisters and daughters inviting them for a feast. Families visit the cemetery of their dead relatives and pay homage to the deceased. The sixth day or Lingshan Nyih means the final day of the Aoleang Monyu, and is usually spent cleaning up the homes and village as life gets back to normal.

Nestled in the hills and surrounded by forests, the Konyak tribe has had a relatively sheltered existence. Modernisation has slowly crept in through the winding forests and hills as against the picturesque landscape stand thatch-roofed houses of wood with occasional tin and concrete popping up. The tribe’s roots in the past slowly come loose as indicators of outside influence can be seen everywhere, such as the black bowler hats worn by some men. Yet if you look closely enough, you might still notice a brass head necklace. Headhunting may be barbaric to the modern ‘civilised’ eye but it held a place in the konyak society that was of grave importance and the time has come where the last generation of true headhunters are soon to pass on. You can still spot an elderly tattooed headhunter but the numbers are dwindling, and with the end of headhunting came the end of the tattooing tradition. Practice of headhunting was banned but the rituals have remained the same, wooden heads, carvings and animal skulls take the place of human skulls. Most of the fully tattooed men and women today are in their late 80s and 90s and their cultural legacy needs to be recorded as it slowly dies out.

 Anthony Pappone in his photo-series The Last Head Hunters, Konyak Tribe Warrior gives us an intimate look into the Konyak tribals in their private and personal space. Scroll down to see some of his incredible photographs.