Thursday, 20 April 2023 | Nagaland
For centuries, the warriors of India's far north-east would fight battles for land, power and disputes between neighbouring tribes. Victory was symbolised by cutting off the head of the victim and displaying it in the village of the successful man.
A rite of passage for young men, the act of marking one's victory in battle was celebrated with prominent face and body tattoos and wearing brass skulls on a necklace.
These men of the Konyak tribes were the Headhunters of Nagaland, India.
During the 1960's, British missionaries intent on conversion to Christianity, and also likely a fear of themselves being decapitated, worked to abolish the practice of head hunting. They convinced the tribes that collecting the skulls brought with it bad fortune. By the early 1970's the headhunting in Nagaland had completely stopped, and with it the practice of face and body tattoos.
In 2022, only a small number of true headhunters remain, with their body markings and bronze necklaces to signify their victories in battle. They are now old men who still hold positions of high regard within their villages. As each year passes, there are fewer and fewer headhunters left. Soon, the last will pass away leaving only the memories of these once fearsome warriors. We planned a trip to Mon Village, near to the border with Myanmar, to visit with several of the Konyak tribes and document the last headhunters of India.
Near to Mon, was a tribe with 8 headhunters, which is unusual to have so many still alive in one village. We arrived with our local guide who would help translate, but also provide an enormous amount of information about the history and culture of these tribes. The men were quiet, frail with age and initially very reserved. At first they didn't want to be photographed without their t-shirts, an almost "shyness" to reveal their bare chests showing the tattoos that signify their status as headhunters.
They explained that they didn't want to be seen as "tourist attractions" and there is a reluctance to allow people to visit for photographs. We had been fortunate to have this opportunity and through our interpreter, explained what an honour it was to spend time with them. Over time, each man became comfortable to be photographed without his shirt and they were extremely proud of the photos and insisted we send copies for their grandchildren - they wanted future generations to have an understanding of who they were and their place in the history of Nagaland.
We spent several hours drinking tea, taking photographs and talking via translators and hand gestures. The men laughed and joked as their photos were taken, the early apprehension dissolved each time they saw their own image on the camera. It was a strange contradiction to be sharing intimate moments with these old men, yet the weapons on the walls served as a constant reminder of their brutal past. It is difficult to ascertain, and inappropriate to ask, whether these men now feel any guilt or remorse for things that have happened decades ago......or whether they still wear the tattoos with an immense pride and knowledge they defended their village the way generations before them had done. Whilst the tribes no longer engage in bloody feuds, these men are respected as the fierce warriors they once were, both within their own village and throughout the wider Konyak community.
Not far from this village was a more populated village that no longer has any surviving headhunters. The traditional clothing is still worn, including symbolic jewellery around the leg to symbolise status within the village - bright blue beads are worn only by the King. The practice of capturing and displaying the head of a victim is now part of the tribal hunting practice amongst the Konyaks, with the walls of houses decorated with the skulls of buffalo and other animals that have been hunted.
In this village we met with the King, who was a younger man around 40 years old. He wore the traditional blue jewellery on his legs to symbolise his position in the village. We entered a small room where he sat boiling liquid opium over a fire - smoking opium is commonly practiced in villages in Nagaland.
A number of shy, but extremely curious children gathered outside the King's house - attracted by our presence, they quickly warmed up and also wanted to be part fo the photography, especially selfies.
We visited a third village close to Mon, where also the King was a younger man, this time around 35 years old. Like the previous village, there are no longer of the original headhunters still alive in this village and the responsibility of maintaining the history and culture of the Konyaks falls to the next generation. The King was charismatic and spoke some English. We joked and he was happy to pose for more portrait style photos. The traditional clothing he wore is reserved mostly now for ceremonial purposes and special occasions.
The next day we drove to a Longwa, a village that straddles the Indian-Myanmar Border. It straddles it to such an extent that the King's home has rooms in India and rooms in Myanmar! This is a relatively large village and more frequently visited by tourists. The King's home is a more open place that people can visit, with traditional jewellery, weapons etc displayed on the walls. There is a cultural centre that has authentic souvenirs for sale and local men dress in traditional clothing and perform war dances - similar to what is seen at the annual Hornbill Festival. This festival is a celebration of Nagaland culture, with tribes from all over the state gathering to pay homage to their tribal warriors, culture and heritage. It is an extremely popular festival that occurs annually in December.
We crossed over the border into Myanmar to visit with one of the last remaining headhunters of Longwa. This man named Panfa, is one of the more photographed Nagaland headhunters. Unlike the first village we visited, he is much more familiar with photographers. He was extremely animated, always joking, smiling and laughing - at times we had to ask him to be a little more serious for the photos, his personality was so upbeat. He measured arm-span with me as a test as to how difficult I would be to fight and told me jokingly that in his day, he would've easily captured my head! It was an amazing experience spending time with this man who had taken so many lives in battle, but was now so warm and friendly to visitors. As his age caught up with him, he quickly grew tired and we left with such an appreciation of his effort to not only allow us to photograph him, but to entertain us with his stories and jokes.
We were welcomed into a local home in Longwa, where we sat to a very traditional home-cooked meal. The diet in Nagaland is simple, yet full of flavour and spice. If you enjoy chilli, the local chilli is one of the hottest you can find and you will only need small amounts.
Our final visit to a Nagaland headhunter was another home back on the Indian side of the border. Most of the local homes have a very similar layout - almost no windows and only very dim lighting, an open kitchen area with fireplace with area for people to gather and traditional weapons, tools, jewellery and animal skulls decorating the walls. We took some photographs with this man who was far more reserved and quiet than Panfa. He had not been feeling well and there was a realisation that these were elderly men, who in a decade or so, will most likely no longer be with us.
There is a great appreciation of the opportunity to spend quality time with these men and take their portraits. There is also a sense of responsibility to do that opportunity some respect. All the men were adamant that they didn't see themselves as tourist attractions or social media props. If you are planning on traveling to Nagaland and wish to visit with these men, please do it in the right way - employ a local guide, research their culture and be respectful.
This photographic tour of India was done with good friend Daniel Kordan and we had a local guide with us - Harsh Agarwal.
For private or group photography tours in India and many other destinations around the world, please contact myself or Daniel.
Related Articles: Photographing The Brokpa Tribes of Aryan Valley, Ladakh.
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