Nagaland’s Tattooed Headhunters

The tattoos on his face were old and fading. His eyes were small but bright. His smile complemented his eyes. He wore an expression of contentment and peace.

Meeting and talking to Penche, was a pleasure and privilege. He is one of the last surviving headhunters of the Konyak tribe.

Penche has beheaded 3 people in his lifetime. The tattoos on his face are proof of that killing.

Nagaland has 16 tribes spread across the state. Each tribe has its own language, dress and lifestyle.

The Konyaks are one of the most intriguing of the 16 tribes. Considered to be one of the fiercest tribes in Nagaland, they reside mostly in Mon district,  near the Myanmar border.

Headhunting was a way of life for them, till the dawn of Christianity. Then, everything changed…most of it for the better.

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Today head hunting is no longer practiced. However it is widely spoken about, from the elders who were once part of this intense and aggressive past.

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Shot at the Hornbill festival

Tribes would go to war with each other and beheading the enemy was the norm. The head was then hung on a tree for the entire village to see.  All the heads were kept on display by the head hunter.

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This is the actual tree where the heads were hung

Proud of their feat, they got their face tattooed to showcase that they had made a kill. The number of tattoos on the face and chest was an indicator of the number of killings.

Such was the life of the Konyak headhunter. Blood, death and gore was an integral part of the konyak’s life till a few years ago.

They proudly dress up in red which signifies bloodshed and victory.

A conical hat sits pompously on the crown. It is adorned with feathers and animal teeth, horns and claws.  A black and red vest is worn on the top with cowrie shells sewn on it.

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Brightly colored beads are strung around the neck with a pendant of multiple brass heads.

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The number of heads indicates the number of people killed

The waistband is accentuated with metallic accessories.

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Women wear a red wrap around skirt and top with red and gold necklaces.

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Headhunting stories are stuff of legends today and most of the warriors have retired into a peaceful existence. The tattoos on their face and chest is the only indicator of a bloody past.

I was looking forward to an educative experience of living with the erstwhile headhunters and their families and made the back breaking journey to Lungwa. This is home to Penche one of the last surviving headhunters.

On our way we witnessed this incredible sunset.

Lungwa sits at the border of India and Myanmar. Time seems to have stopped here.

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Thatched roofs and bamboo walls hold up the houses. The international borders seems to blur the difference between the two countries as the Konyaks live on both sides.

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The village of Lungwa

They walk across to each other’s villages to trade and barter daily items. For them the border is nonexistent.

The mountainous area is dotted with houses and offer sweeping views of the hills.

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Looking at the Burmese side from India, seemed that the villages there are more neglected and the people are more impoverished as compared to Lungwa.

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Looking towards Myanmar

I felt that the government of both the countries has forgotten the people of this area.

Wanting to experience the local life we were living with a family from the konyak tribe, who offered us glimpses of their past, present and future.

Seen above in the house that we stayed. Wooden carvings are on display for the guests. Some souvenirs and necklaces are also kept for sale.

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Corn drying in the kitchen.

There seems to be no birth control followed as the villages are filled with kids playing around with runny noses, and looking after their younger siblings.

A short hike uphill takes us to the milestone which demarcates the borders. Keeping one leg in India another in Myanmar I stand happily gazing into the horizon.

From this vantage point we can see India on the left and Myanmar to the right. Our guide pointed us to an open playground. The house belonging to the chief of the village, was opposite it.

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Chief Angh’s house sits between India and Myanmar and I was eager to visit his home.

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The entrance to the Chief’s house has signs indicating, Myanmar on the left and India on the right

On our way we bought a bottle of Old Monk rum, apparently his favorite. This was to be given to him as a gift. When we arrived we got to know he was away. One of his wives was at home and she played the perfect host.

The Chief’s house has wooden carvings at the entrance depicting the animals and birds. A huge stuffed animal of mythical nature welcomes us and it seems it is the house guardian.

Seen above are some of the old weaponry, animal heads including the head of the hornbill. These are at display in the Chief’s house.

We spent most of our time in the kitchen chatting with the Chief’s wife and the kids of all the wives. Im not sure about the number of women that were married to the Chief, as I only met one 🙂

She  offered us some ‘lal chai’ (red tea).

The Konyaks widely practiced polygamy. After embracing Christianity, it has stopped. But I guess the Chief still followed this.

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The house pet taking a snooze in the warmth while the tea water bubbles away

Since the Chief’s house is a popular attraction, the village women sell tribal necklaces and trinkets outside. A purchase will help the local economy.

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Lungwa was one of the last villages to convert to Christianity.

The people have integrated themselves with Christianity however they have not forgotten their heritage and culture.

This house in Lungwa, which displays the motifs of the tribal past along with one of the symbols of Christianity – the Christmas star.

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Lungwa still has strong remnants of the headhunting culture and is a recommended visit if travelling to Nagaland.

Even though Nagaland belongs to India, the people here have a culture unique compared to the rest of the country.

In the deep rural areas, it is common for men to walk around with guns, knives and machetes. They hunt and eat almost every bird and animal. When I asked my guide about the absence of birds, he mentioned that they probably had been hunted.

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The state is 100% Christian.

People speak English and are highly educated.  They prefer to dress in western attire. Korean food and tv shows are popular especially in Kohima, the capital city.

There is a strong belief among the people, that Nagaland should be a country of its own, and we had a good debate on the pros and cons of this with our guides.

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