The North-Eastern side of India is pretty underrated, in my opinion. It has a rich history and culture and landscapes that are better than any Swiss Alps wallpaper you’ve ever seen. I have a friend from Manipur who told me the story of the vanishing Konyak tribe or as they are more popularly referred to as ‘the last headhunters of India’.
Yes, headhunting! You read that right! Headhunting was a common practice among the Konyak warriors who belong to the Naga sub-branch of the Sal family of the Sino-Tibetan clan. Konyak Nagas are at home in the Mon district of Nagaland, Myanmar, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. They are distinguishable from the rest of the Naga clan by their facial tattoos. Konyak communities were headed by a King who had the most skulls and was identified by the blue beads on their legs. In those days, skulls were placed as trophies all around the house of a village chief known as an Angh. But do not mistake them for cannibals, for they are not. Today that might cause an uproar, as they are not seen anymore.
A Konyak warrior who bought the chopped head of his enemy home commanded respect and reverence. The decapitated heads were believed to bring prosperity to the community and protect their crops. Headhunting was also a rite of passage, the initiation of a boy into manhood. And for every hunted head, a tattoo was inscribed onto the warrior’s body to mark the deed and the consequently earned status of the warrior. So, the greater number of tattoos that equals heads was directly proportional to the amount of respect. The tattoos, which began as a form of beautification, were etched onto the bodies of the Konyak men and women conveyed their status, their sexual maturity, their achievements and even distinguished between married and unmarried women.
Women were not exempt from tattoos. They too were marked with tattoos, but not for decollating heads. Rather to mark their passage through various phases of life – puberty, motherhood, etc. Women were also the ones who drew the tattoos. Tattoo artists called Anghyas were responsible for tattooing bodies by hand-tapping or hammering using a comb made from rattan needles. The tattoo ink was made from the resin of red cedar. These tattoos were believed to make a Konyak recognizable to his ancestors in the afterlife, thus ensuring a safe passage.
The twin-traditions of headhunting and the subsequent rewarding of tattoos are the facing image of the Konyak tribe and what makes them known to the outside world. The fact that such practices existed is a source of wonder and bewilderment that has made the Konyak community an intriguing subject for documentaries, blogs and films. And what seems to add more spice to this subject is that it is a culture vanishing as the hour turns more modern and with it the people’s beliefs and practices. The headhunters who exist today are those that saw the last of it. For them, it is a fading memory of a time when they were the fiercest community in India.
What ended the headhunting practices of the Konyak Nagas?
Like most tribal cultures in world history, the Konyak culture also faced a threat when the British arrived in Assam. Headhunting was abolished in 1935, which led to a similar fate for the practice of tattooing. The spread of Christianity, the establishment of schools, and access to education brought about tremendous changes to the Konyak community. They were the last tribe to turn into Christians among the Nagas, being worshippers of nature before the infiltration of the British. Almost 98% of the Konyak community today are Christians and have abandoned the heathen activities of their past. The converted Konyaks also raised their protest against the skull-decorations around the villages, which therefore were buried.
How it was back then
Tattooing was a big event among the Konyak community. In the past, there wasn’t a single person without the mark of a tattoo, and some even walked about bare to exhibit the motifs drawn on their bodies. The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters by Phejin Konyak, the daughter of a Konyak herself, describes the tattooing process to mark a young boy’s initiation into adulthood, saying that “A piece of rag was inserted into the mouth to suppress his groans from the pain, for it was considered unmanly to squeal.“
How it is now
It is hard to imagine a community like the Konyak Nagas and their tattooing practices in today’s society that is leaning towards Western ideals and modern attitudes of life. And it is the same for the younger generations of the Konyaks. The younger Konyaks refuse the tattoos that are central to their culture. According to them, the tattoos make it hard for them to merge with a culture that is not their own. The intricate art on their bodies would make them a spectacle among other cultures as most young Konyaks seek to leave their culture behind and move to big cities like Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore for better opportunities. “The tattoos make it difficult for them to get a job as it makes them incompatible with the modern world”, says Hriisiio Kaiherii, a Naga youth from a different clan, about the tribe’s past. Tattooing is now replaced by activities such as fishing or hunting to mark their manhood. “Tattoos are still popular among the young generation even though it’s no longer done the traditional way as their forefathers used to. They do not tattoo their whole bodies like their ancestors”, observes Hriisiio. With the passing of the last headhunters too, the old traditions might become extinct.
The Konyaks of the past did not have a choice. It was the rule of the community, and they had to follow the dictum. But with more and more Konyaks embracing a culture different from the past, Konyak traditions are fading more and more into the history books. In the old days, it was the achievements in hunting and fighting wars that were looked upon in admiration. But now, it has been replaced by mobile phones and hoodies. The curse of technology brought on by modernization has hit the Konyaks too.
While Western influence is responsible for a spike in literacy rates and the spread of education to the Konyak tribe, the Britishers also crushed an age-old tradition and wiped it clean like it didn’t matter anymore. Another British side-effect that the community still suffers from is an addiction to opium. Hriisiio says, “There is a rumour among our people that the Britishers stole the crafty skills of the Konyaks and led them to the usage of weed and opium.” Opium was used as a tool to tame the tribe and convert them into suggestible subjects.
The last of the Konyak headhunters
The village of Longwa is visited by many in the present day to see the last of the headhunters. This village situated near the border into Myanmar is home to the Konyaks. But mind you, they can be hostile towards strangers.
Maybe it is the reality that this culture is on the verge of disappearing that makes its history so fascinating that we almost wish that this culture and their face-tattooing practice doesn’t disappear off the face of the earth.