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The Last Headhunters of Nagaland

 
 

The Konyak warrior tribe is one of the many Naga tribes. But what sets them apart from the rest of the tribes of this northeastern Indian state is their fierce headhunting history, which was part of their strong warrior tradition. Territorial conflicts between rival tribes and villages were resolved through warfare and Konyaks were feared for their headhunting skills – they beheaded their enemies and brought back the severed heads as trophies in a specially designed basket that they carried to the battles. The heads were then proudly displayed on the walls and doorways of the warriors.

The Indian government put a ban on headhunting in 1960 but Konyaks say that the tradition continued for a few more years before limited aspects of modernity were accessible in these remote parts of Nagaland. The next generation of the Konyaks partially embraced a Baptist-based Christianity.

In the remote villages of Nagaland ‘s Mon district, which borders Myanmar, a motley band of elderly former warriors are still visible — their tattooed faces and torsos bear witness to mortal combat and the once customary headhunting. It was tradition to honor the men with tattoos on their faces and chest as a mark of their heroic deeds. The elaborate process was done only by the chieftain’s wife.

Now mostly in their 80s, these former warriors are distinguishable also by their large ear piercings made ​​of animal horns and war hats made of hunted wild pigs’ horns, hornbill feathers, and wild bear or goat hair. They still carry the knives with which they killed.

Born into and inheriting a strong tribal identity, the present day Konyaks are as proud of their warrior tradition as previous generations were. The skills with a daw, or the long-handled headhunting knife, have been handed down through the generations. All the male members of the tribe possess homemade guns, fabricated in these remote villages. Thankfully, they no longer resolve their conflicts with these weapons; however, the Konyak festivals are often a throwback to their headhunting days, where war dances with guns and knives feature prominently and some of the enemy skulls buried deep in the forests are unearthed to be displayed – a reminder of a not-so-distant past.

In another decade or so, the last of the headhunting warriors will be gone; however, the Konyaks say that the tribe’s warrior past will live on through the oral tradition and festivals.

Sugato Mukherjee is a photographer and writer based in Calcutta and his works have appeared in The Globe and MailAl JazeeraNational Geographic TravelerHarper Collins and Yale University Journal. His coffee table book on Ladakh has been published from Delhi in 2013. Some of his visuals and stories can be found at sugatomukherjee.zenfolio.com 

The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
The skulls of enemies used to be proudly displayed in doorways of Konyak huts. They have been buried in mass graves since a ban on the practice. But during festivals, some of the skulls reappear. The young Konyak has painted his face, emulating a tattoo.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Ang Loe Khong, 85, killed 13 members of an enemy tribe in the two battles he participated in before headhunting was banned in 1960.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Baiwang, 80, recounts his headhunting days. "We used to fight over land, rivers and sometimes, women," he says.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Two Konyak women grinding rice in front of their home in Longwa village. The wall is elaborately decorated with buffalo horns. Previously, the decor would have been enemy heads.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Keplang was only 18 when he joined his band in a fight. That was more than 50 years ago, but he remembers how he beheaded two of the enemy. The proudest moment was when the chieftain’s wife tattooed his face.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
The brass necklace that every Konyak wears on his chest shows a tattooed face. The tattoo on a Konyak warrior’s face could be done only by the chieftain’s wife. The process often took more than 10 hours and was an extremely painful affair.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Ibiteng, 56, was born in the year headhunting was banned. He rues the ban and says that carrying enemy heads in the warrior basket was the high point in a Konyak’s life.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Wangnao had participated in a tribal war in his youth but did not return with an enemy head to his village. As was the custom, he got his tattoos on his chest only and not on his face.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
A few clubs on the floor of a Konyak home. In addition to the knives, these skull-headed clubs were also used in tribal warfare.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Sharing opium in a gathering around the fire is a favorite pastime of the old warriors. A session often lasts for three or four hours.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
A Konyak headhunter is easily distinguishable by the huge earrings made of animal horns, the brass and bone necklace, and the hornbill feather he sports on his head.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
The chieftain’s tomb in Longwa, one of the largest Konyak villages. While the tombstone is unmistakably Christian, the warrior baskets that hang overhead speak of the tribe’s headhunting days.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Pohi, the chieftain’s wife, chatting with her daughters inside her ancestral home. In her childhood, she remembers, she saw her mother etching tattoos on the warriors’ faces.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
The skills of using the daw, or the long-handled knife, have been handed down throught the generations among the Konyak tribe.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
In a festival of the Konyaks, young tribesmen in traditional attire wield country guns and knives (daws). Every male member of the Konyak tribe possesses a gun and a daw. The Konyaks say that the legacy of their warrior past will live on through these carefully preserved festivals.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Last Headhunters of Nagaland
Konyaks dancing their ancient warrior dance amid smoke generated by gunpowder shots during their New Year festival, held every April.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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