Konyaks - The tattooed Headhunters of Nagaland

Monday, November 11, 2013

On a bright Sunday afternoon, I was standing on a hilltop - one foot in India and the other in Myanmar. With neither a passport nor a visa in hand, there I was straddling across an international border [another thing off the 30 before 30 list]. In front of me, were the mountains of Myanmar covered in a dense blanket of lush greenery. To my left, located on a ridge below was the traditional Naga village of Longwa in India. The mountain air was fresh and knew no borders, but at that moment, I did.

Nagaland Konyak Children Longwa
Children of the Chief and the villagers, hanging out by the bonfire in the church grounds of Longwa, a remote Konyak Naga village situated on Indo-Myanmar border
Two days ago, there was nothing remarkable about the jam-packed, rickety and dirty bus journey along the broken mountain roads from a little border town in Assam called Sonari to Mon town in north Nagaland. But it was only until an old man climbed into the bus and sat next to the driver facing the crowd. Instantly I knew he had killed at least one man. How did I know that? Because of the dark tattoo on his face and the necklace with brass faces adorning his chest. He wore colorful beaded ornaments around his neck. His ears were pierced with long animal horns jutting out. He wore a headgear that was decorated with wild boar’s teeth! Never in my life had I seen so many vestiges of slaughter on one person. He was a Konyak Naga Headhunter.

Konyaks are the largest of the 16 tribes inhabiting Nagaland. Located in the mountainous regions of northeast, they are spread across Nagaland and Arunachal in India and Myanmar. They come with a history of brutal headhunting and animistic culture. Severing heads was a common practice amongst Konyaks until as recently as 1940s with the last reported head hunting in 1970s. Capturing an enemy’s head was the rite of passage for boys to turn into men, capturing the head symbolically represented capturing the enemy’s spirit. Only a person who had successfully hunted a head was given the prestigious facial tattoo.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
Longwa village, as seen from a vantage point. To the left is India, to the right is Myanmar
A day after I reached Mon town, I headed to Longwa, one of the bigger and traditional Konyak villages. The first glimpse of the village made quite an impression. Sitting atop a ridge of a far ahead mountain, Longwa commands a grand view of the valleys and mountains around. Naga villages were strategically built upon hilltops and ridges so that they could monitor enemy activity and impending raids. Konyaks were known to be the fiercest of headhunters and raids between villages were quite common. Neighboring villages were raided to command authority and acquire land.

Konyaks are still ruled by hereditary chieftains known as Anghs. When we arrive at Longwa, as per the tradition we first visited the Angh as soon as we reached. I could recognize the Angh by the turquoise blue beads he wore below the knees. A necklace with brass faces was hanging around his neck, however he wasn’t a headhunter. He had inherited the position and the necklace from his father, who was a headhunter. The practice of polygamy is prevalent among the Anghs and chief here had several children from many wives.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
Proud hunters. Earlier, human skulls were also part of this elaborate display, but since being "civilized", the human skulls are gone but the animal skeletons still remain
Hanging out with the children as they warmed themselves around a bonfire in the vast church ground was a surreal experience! The fire quickly died down as the darkness descended upon us bringing a deep chill along with it, the stars came out and filled the sky. I walked down the road that goes through the village. In the darkness, one of the Chief’s son pointed towards the mountains in front of me and said that is Burma and hidden inside those forests is the Burmese check post. I chuckled, wondering if I had to take his words with a pinch of salt. Earlier that evening, I was told the house of the Angh is longitudinally split between the two countries and that the international border actually cuts across the house and the village! The joke around here is that the Angh dines in India and sleeps in Myanmar. I wasn't very convinced of the border story.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
House of the Village Chief "Angh", it lies half in India and half in Myanmar. The international borders cuts across the house longitudinally!
Later that night, we huddled ourselves around the kitchen fire inside Wanlem’s traditional bamboo house, accompanied by her family. Wanlem was my host in Longwa, a young Konyak lady who is the caretaker of the rest house. Accompanying me was Aching, a young college boy from Mon acting as my translator. Very few people speak English and even fewer speak Hindi in the remote parts of Nagaland. Nagamese is the script-less language spoken predominantly in Nagaland, which is a mix of Hindi and Assamese. While Wanlem and Aching conversed and I couldn’t follow their conversation, I took to admiring the bamboo structure. I couldn’t get over the fact that these houses were so vast. Every house was decorated with hordes of skeletons of hunted animals and birds. Skulls of Mithun, a bovine species found only in certain parts of North East adorning the walls and was a prized possession along with hornbill beaks and feathers.

The next morning I woke up with a huge spider next to me in the rundown rest house but I couldn’t care less when I was waking up to views of cloud filled valleys, green mountain ridges and witnessing one of the most fascinating indigenous cultures! It was a Sunday morning and many of the villagers were heading to the church. Every Naga village today has a church. The Naga people were animists to begin with but after the arrival of Christian missionaries, almost all of them have adopted the new religion save for very few, like Wanlem. When I asked her if she would go too, she nodded vehemently saying she doesn’t like the church.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
The slow process of converting the animist tribe to Christianity started somewhere in the early 1900s. Today most of the Nagas have converted, left their headhunting ways and are staunch followers of Christianity. Every village has a church, like this. 
Nagaland Konyak Mon
The Border Pillar! Written in Burmese. I was technically in Myanmar while taking this photo! ;)
Wanlem had something planned for us for the afternoon, she wouldn’t tell us what. Aching, one of the Angh’s son and myself, three of us followed Wanlem diligently as she navigated through the mountain trails around the village. We left behind the village houses and kept going higher. Apprehensive, I asked Aching if he knew where we were headed. He didn't. Finally, we arrived at a small patch of land with brilliant views of the mountains of Myanmar and India. At the center of the open patch was a small concrete structure, the border pillar! Carved into the structure, was written “BP 154, 1970-71”, one side in Hindi and the other side in Burmese language. It was true, the international border did cut across the village and the Angh’s house! Fascinating as it was to me, it didn’t matter much to the Konyaks though. They woke up one day in 1970 to the news of the demarcation but how do you split an age-old community suddenly between two countries? They are free to move within the two countries to visit other Konyaks villages.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
A Konyak woman inside a typical Konyak house, they are vast airy and the kitchens have a hearth in the center which keeps the house warm during cold nights. We spent all our time around the hearth while I was there.
On our way back from the border pillar to the village, we came across Pangshong, a 76 year old former headhunter waiting by the roadside. His face was covered in a beautiful dark tattoo that seemed to be fading with every passing day. Later I find out he had claimed seven lives, today the older generation has resorted to smoking opium, chewing betel nut and reveling in the glory of the former days. These people are the last generation of headhunters who had severed heads before the barbaric practice was banned. These old men will take to grave with them, the traditions, stories and the famed tattoos! To put it in simple terms, it would be the end of an era - of brave warriors, rich culture and violent times.

Nagaland Konyak Mon
Pangshong, a former headhunter - took seven heads! Only those who have successfully hunted a head would receive the prestigious facial tattoo. His was the last generation of headhunters before the practice was banned. He is 76 years old. These men are old, vanishing fast and will take to grave stories of headhunting. 
But the Konyaks have made a rather long and remarkable journey - from living in times of inter village feuds to a more peaceful time of friendship across borders. After flying back home, just out of curiosity I tried searching Longwa on Google Maps, what I saw brought a smile to my face – a border line cutting across the village!

A different version of this story appeared in last month's National Geographic Traveller India. 
Read that story and the logistics here - Between the Lines

More stories from Exotic North-East:
Going Offbeat in Meghalaya & Learning Interesting Things
Notes from Nagaland : The beginning of an Adventure

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49 comments

  1. Not sure if you realize but you seemed to have treaded the same path that palin did during his himlayas documentary. The border passing thru Angha house was narrated by him too. Thanks for sharing. Truly off beat.

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    1. I realized it Mayank, but only a year after my journey when I was researching for the story for NatGeo. Saw the episode and was like wow, I almost visited all of Palin's journey in Indian Himalayas. :)

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    2. I think at last Palin took that cruise journey through Brahamputra onwards towards Sundarbans and that's where it ended....

      narration is truly remarkable.... kept me glued till the end...

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  2. Have been reading your posts for long.. commenting for the first time.

    I like your fluid writing and flaw-less photography, and above all, the off-beat places. Remarkable!

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    1. Hi Jaishree, am glad this post made you comment. Always a pleasure to hear from my readers. Thank you and hope to see you more often commenting here :)

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  3. Remarkable. Thoroughly enjoy reading your posts and viewing India through your eyes! Happy travelling!

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    1. Thanks Aathira, there is so much to India that it is impossible to uncover it all even in a lifetime. :)

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  4. What made you take such a long break, Neelima?! But I am glad you brought something nice!

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    1. The travel and writing assignments took the toll but I think I'm back now, lots more stories coming up! :)

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  5. Wow! this is quite an experience :)

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    1. It sure was, one of my toughest and most surreal experience!

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  6. Outstanding article Neelima... Keep going !!

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  7. Beautiful. I like the fact that the post has a story and not the usual you can stay here and you should do this.

    Love the fact that you try all this and bring to us stories of what we don't see in our beautiful country.

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    1. Thanks Varkha, glad you enjoyed this post. My kind of travel and story telling is just like what you have mentioned, should give an insight into the place. I'd like to think of it this way, tell me why I should go to a place, I'll figure out a way to reach there. ;)

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  8. Hi Neelima,

    Fantastic Account of your travel to Longwa. It was just like being there . Keep up the good work and keep travelling !!

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    1. Thanks Kaushik, also nice to put a face to the name now. :)

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  9. Nice writeup and gorgeous photographs of Longwa. One of our guest just returned yesterday from staying a few days in Longwa, having become a favorite of the Angh, having smoked and celebrated his birthday with the jolly tribe. Definitely a must visit for the offbeat traveler. Also, nice to see you have written about it in NG. Surely more people will visit this hidden village now.

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    1. Thanks Vaivhav, I was equally amazed by this place, especially with the border story! How crazy is our country and so many awesome places to see. I wanted to explore Nagaland beyond the hornbill festival and found out such gems. Now for Saramati and Dzukou Valley exploration soon. :)

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  10. Wonderful experience!! I really appreciate the way you are following your heart.
    BTW I somehow really liked the way the kid is standing in the pic where a woman is sitting by the kitchen fire :)

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    1. Thanks Aarthy, I consider myself incredibly lucky to have been able to follow my dreams! :)

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  11. Excellent narration! Now I want to head there.

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  12. Wow! This is one of the best travel posts I have come across and you write beautifully. Loved the pictures too.

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    1. Thanks Bharti, very nice of you to say that! :)

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  13. Congratulations for this post Neelima! It brought me a lot of memories. I'm currently writing my post about Longwa. It's been nice to see Pangshong face again! :)

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    1. Glad to see you here Sergio, thanks again for the help with the contact at Longwa, help a LOT in finishing up my story. And waiting to read your post on Longwa. :)

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  14. Awesome photographs!! sounds a memorable trip for you..
    Regards
    my new post about a world heritage site Amber Fort.

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  15. can I have some more pictures please. great job. share it on my fb Lemwang w. Chuhwanglim. thank you

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    1. Thanks Lemwang, glad you liked the post. I will try to post more pictures soon.

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  16. great travelogue...truly inspires amateurs bloggers like me....

    http://rediscoveryourdreams.wordpress.com/

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  17. What fascinating stories, Neelima! Sure how to see the line for myself some day.

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    1. Yes Shivya, you should! One of the most bizarre experiences I've ever encountered in all my offbeat travels! :)

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  18. This is a fascinating account of a fascinating place filled with fascinating people:) I had recently heard of a friend of a friend who had travelled solo to Mizoram and onwards to Nagaland and then she went into Burma, without any paperwork. Speaking to a Mizo acquaintance I came to learn that you don't really need any documentation, as long as you do not come in the way of the official check posts. I found that quite amusing. He was like, "You can cross into Burma and all that. I don't know what happens if you are caught." From your mention of the Angh's house being longitudinally separated, it seems like that is indeed true. Loved reading this travelogue:)

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    1. Yes, Nimish, very fascinating indeed! I was shocked to see how easy border crossings were in these areas. In Manipur, you can even visit the Burmese markets on specific days. Even in this village, there are treks towards Burma and one can go 40kms that side with out anyone stopping you. Crazy world! :)

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  19. Definitely something beyond Hornbill festival . Amazing narration

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    1. Thank you, there's so much to Nagaland beyond Hornbill festival. :)

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  20. Came across your blog by chance but I am glad as it brought memories from my last visit to Longwa.
    enjoyed reading as well. Cheers

    Regards,
    www.jimzubemophotos.com

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    1. Loved the photos from your flickr page too Jim, Nagaland's surely a great place for photographers. Thanks.

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  21. Hie Neelima,

    Came to your blog by following one link to another and then to another... and well.. here I am :) and I feel, you will be the one who can solve a couple of my queries.

    Actually, i have been wanting to go to Nagaland n manipur for a while now.. after I made all the train bookings to Dimapur, i realised that to enter nagaland I need an ILP which will be issued by some poeple sitting in shillong, del, kolkata and guwahati... Wanted to know how u arranged for ur ILP n how much time does it take to get one? Im here in Manipal (karnataka) and just cant get any clue how to go about this..

    Hope you can help or guide me :) Thanks in advance

    Sid

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    1. ILP will take one day, all they need is a scanned copy of identity proof and name. I got mine through the agent who was booking my hotel. I mailed him the details and he mailed the ILP scan back to me. You can also get it at Dimapur or Kohima. Check this http://dimapur.nic.in/Tourist%20information.htm

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  22. Truly enjoyed reading this article..Have you tasted the naga cuisine delicacy items then? There is a kind of chilly grown in nagaland , famous for being the most natural pungent chilly(worldwide) called BHOOT JHOLOKIA ( jholokia means chilly).. bamboo shoot pickles , momo are the la carta menu that one can try for in nagaland.. There is a saying " anything that is movable is eatable in nagaland", and hence the love for MEAT items is very high there.. looking forward from you more stories about unexplored places

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  23. I found your website via the BBC.

    I thought you might find it interesting to know that the Konyak child in Longwa standing in front of the animal skulls is wearing a T-shirt displaying the logo of WREK, the student owned-and-operated FM radio station at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Atlanta is over 13,000 kilometers from Longwa. The shirt is of a style most likely from the '70s or early '80s.

    Another, albeit odd, example of “modern civilization” creeping into Nagaland.

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  24. Excellent write up! Pic of the church is just amazing!

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  25. Feels exciting! And yes, splendid snapshots!

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