Some life experiences stay with you forever. Meeting with the Konyak tribe, the last of the tattooed headhunters of Nagaland, is likely to be one such experience for me.
Residing in the Mon district of Nagaland, also known as ‘The Land of the Anghs’ (Anghs are the village chiefs), the Konyaks are identifiable by their body tattoos and pierced ears. The facial tattoos are reserved for those who ‘earned’ them by taking the enemy’s head in the past, a tradition that got banned since the advent of Christianity in the region. They are now octogenarians and the last surviving tattooed headhunters of Nagaland. Konyaks are also known for their craftsmanship, specializing in gun-smithing, iron-smelting, brasswork, beadwork, and wood-sculpting, among other things.
Traveling through Nagaland for the first time during the Aoling festival was like a cultural expedition, rich and vibrant in everything it had to offer — be it terrain, people, or food. The festival is celebrated in the first week of April every year to mark the completion of seed-sowing and is the biggest festival of the Konyaks. After experiencing the magic of the nighttime in Kaziranga and witnessing the fragility of life in Majuli, the third and final leg of my journey in the Northeast was equally memorable.
Camping Amidst Tea-Gardens in Shiyong
Bidding adieu to Assam and entering Mon meant driving past acres of tea gardens and vegetable depots. Our first stop was a homestay run by Phejin Konyak, author of The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters.
After a warm welcome and chai, we set up tents in her front garden that was surrounded by tea estates on all sides. It was a breathtaking sight to wake up to and the nights were no different, with thousands of stars bidding us goodnight every night.
Phejin was kind enough to personally cook for us and we were delighted to eat homemade Naga food at every meal: smoked pork, Mithun, rajma, local greens, chili chutneys, and other vegetarian accompaniments.
Phejin’s great-grandfather was well-known and highly-regarded amongst the Konyaks. He worked hard to abolish the headhunting culture of the tribe, and Phejin is one of the few people actively working towards documenting and preserving Konyak history and culture. It was wonderful to learn this directly from her during our stay.
Her book The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters is a very detailed account of the history and culture of the Konyaks and is a must-read for anybody interested in learning more about it. The book also features detailed illustrations of the various kinds of tattoos and stunning portraits of the Konyak people by photographer Peter Bos.
Meeting the Headhunters of Hongphoi & Wanchin
Our first tryst with the tattooed headhunters of the Konyak tribe was at Hongphoi. As we ventured into the village, we met the first octogenarian Konyak with a facial tattoo. He couldn’t speak our language, and we, his, but the age-old wisdom on his face, bright smile, and the power of his personality was enough to leave us spellbound and at ease.
We soon proceeded into the Morung, where Konyak boys used to live until they got married. There was a small fire lit in the middle of the hall and a group of the tattooed headhunters gathered around it — sitting, chatting, and meditating. On one corner of the hall was a big log drum that the men later played for us. The log drum is a hollowed-out tea trunk that the men beat with wooden hammer-like tools to produce deep sounds while chanting battle hymns.
We spent time with them, relying on smiles as the primary mode of communication, while our local guide occasionally translated our questions and their answers.
While only those who have taken an enemy’s head were allowed facial tattoos, the chest tattoos were meant for warriors and many of the men we met had these. Some of them also wore black tusks in their ears and neck, and traditional beaded necklaces with brass faces. Some of them also donned hats with feathers and white tusks.
Our next stop was Wanchin, a small village near Shiyong. We were greeted by hundreds of children playing on a big ground, and ‘Top of the World’ by the Carpenters blowing through the speakers, giving the village an old-world carnival feel, and quite a contrast from our time at Hongphoi.
The local University students had set up stalls for the younger children and there were all kinds of innovative games to be played and prizes to be won (including washing powder and a brush)! An ancient tree stood on one side of the ground, once decorated with beheaded skulls, now a playing site for the kids.
The Aoling festival is marked by the Konyaks dressing up in traditional gear and beaded jewelry. Like in the case of festivals in other parts of the country, be it Eid, Christmas, or Diwali, people visit each other’s houses to make celebrate together.
Devoid of tourists and cut off from mainstream media, there was something very personal about experiencing and celebrating the festival with the Konyaks in their villages. Some of the women at Wanchin were even kind enough to perform a little song and dance for us and cajoled us into trying out a move or two with them. They were especially delighted to watch videos of themselves on our phones and cameras, and this became a lovely light moment shared between strangers who didn’t share a common language.
We also met a lot of young Konyak men, dressed in traditional attire and carrying shotguns, occasionally breaking into a dance and firing shots. We walked along with them as they roamed around every nook and corner of the village. The gunshots were disconcerting at first but we soon got used to it.
Later at night, we visited Phejin’s family in Shiyong village. We spent time around the fire, chit-chatting, watching neighbors drop by with food, and also got to play the log drum placed at the center of the village along with the children. It was a lot of fun and we were there for several hours.
Celebrating Aoling in the Wild East
After two days in Shiyong, we proceeded to Longwa, in the northeast of Mon district. While the festival celebrations in the villages we visited thus far were intimate and unassuming, the scale of the celebration in Longwa was much bigger and a bit more… wild.
Fun fact: located on the Indo-Burmese border, half this village falls in India and the other half in Myanmar!
Here, too, young Konyak men walked around the village with their shotguns, shooting into the air at regular intervals. The main celebrations were outside the Angh’s house, where the men and women had separate chambers. While the women performed low-key, graceful songs and dances, the men sat around a fire and smoking opium (a huge addiction in these regions). The men occasionally stepped out in batches with their guns and sears, and marched in swirls through the village, singing battle hymns in local dialects, and occasionally firing into the sky. The celebrations in Longwa felt grander and more aggressive than what we had witnessed in the western region.
Witnessing the celebration was almost like traveling back to the 17th century. It was paradoxical to have the latest mobile phones and cameras in our hands sharing space with ancient guns and tusks, just like we were sharing space (albeit for a short while) with the last of the tattooed headhunters of Nagaland.
Walking Through the Indo-Burmese Border & Visiting the Gunsmith
Caught between India and Myanmar, it was no surprise to learn of the identity crisis and cultural conflict the local people face every day. While we didn’t face any kind of discrimination and were lovingly welcomed by everyone we met (in spite of what people from the Northeast have to go through in cities like Delhi and Mumbai), it was apparent that most locals considered ‘India’ to be a different country, not their own.
It wasn’t about development — lack of basic amenities like electricity, schools, and roads — but a matter of identity. It was a conflict between the people and the State. The people here had no electoral representation. In fact, it is said that no elected leader had ever visited this village as there was no proper road connecting it to the main town. Only the District Collector and Army occasionally visited to meet the Angh and during festivals like Aoling.
One morning, we walked hiked up to Pillar 155 on the Indo-Burmese border. From the pillar, we could see Myanmar — the view was simply stunning. Clouds floating past us, and the trees were lush green thanks to the light showers that morning, gently swaying to the cool breeze. The whole scene felt like a dream.
We also met a dozen children along the way, toddlers taking care of their little siblings while their mothers worked in the fields and fathers lay intoxicated. It was uncanny to not see a single baby cry (unlike in the cities), perhaps due to the peaceful surroundings and simple way of life in the region. The children appeared happy and content, climbing trees and playing innovative games with whatever they had. We offered them chocolates and it immediately brought out squeals of laughter and excitement!
As the festival celebrations came to an end and the Konyaks headed back to their respective homes, we were fortunate to visit a bunch of artisans: gunsmiths, brass-workers, and wood sculptors at their homes. We watched them work while taking a drag of opium through their carved bamboo bongs. To see such works of art being produced in a jiffy, under the dim light of a fire (barely any electricity in these regions) was truly fascinating and remarkable!
The Symbolic Naga Kitchen & Everything It Had to Offer
One of the most amazing aspects of this brief journey through Nagaland was experiencing the Naga kitchen. Similar to the Assamese kitchen, it constitutes the largest part of the house and is at the center of all social activity during the day and night. If one is awake, one is in the kitchen.
The last leg of our trip was when we truly got to experience the Naga kitchen and all that it had to offer.
Staying at Jeilei’s homestay couldn’t have been a more homely experience. While it was very basic in facilities (tiny twin rooms with wooden beds and a window with a picturesque view of the Naga hills) and two common (and very basic) bathrooms for all inhabitants, it was definitely my favorite homestay for two reasons — the open kitchen and our dear hosts.
The kitchen was a large area with beautifully woven moodas, a fireplace/chulha in the center, and a multi-layered platform hanging over the fire to roast and store meat. It was where we gathered whenever we were awake and indoors. By letting us into their kitchen at all times of the day, it felt like Jeilei and his family also let us into their lives.
Jeilei, our host, would chit-chat with us, while his wife and 12-year old daughter Athon would whip up the most delicious meals, served in Burmese tin plates with cups of strong black tea. Red rice with dal and potato-pork curry became a staple during our time in Longwa, and we couldn’t have been happier!
They say that in the olden days warriors would gather around the fire and tell stories. While we weren’t warriors (and certainly don’t want any more wars), it was quite the old-world experience to gather around the fire every evening and share tales.
By now, our group of eight had spent a week together. Athon, our host’s daughter, would join in on the daily post-dinner banter, sitting with us with her trademark smile. I’m not sure how much of the conversation she followed, but she soon became an integral part of each of those evening sessions, making us feel at home by her sheer presence.
It’s in those moments that we, strangers, felt connected — to each other as well as every village we visited, every family we stayed with.
As Pico Iyer reflects, “Travel is a little bit like being in love. Suddenly all your senses are marked ‘on.’ You are alert to the secret patterns of the world.” My ten days in the Northeast cannot be described any other way and was every bit a sensory carnival, as much a journey within, as without.
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