Meeting Headhunters in Nagaland, Northeast India
By Manuel D’Antonio
The sun was about to disappear behind the head of the mountain, giving the sky a pink-orange color, when a man wearing a uniform waved us to stop. I was sure I was going to be the first of the passengers to be asked something.
I was in a place so remote that it sees just a few hundred tourists per year, most of them Indians. A western tourist was almost an event to remember for the Nagaland people, and this was true for the soldiers of the checkpoint as well.
As I anticipated, one of them came toward my window and asked me to get out of the car. The actual check was mostly a formality, and it went on only for a few seconds. It took three days, moving from one city to the other, to get there.
We had no idea we’d soon be meeting headhunters in Nagaland!
This small state in Northeast India, on the border of Myanmar, chose to open to tourism only a few months ago, and it still is a sensitive area.
In a place like this, ideas such as time and space, which should be common everywhere, get a totally different meaning. You need days to move a few miles, and every time reference is just approximate.
Lots of People on the Road
We had met a bunch of cars on the road, but at that point, our jeep was the only motorized vehicle on it.
This doesn’t mean the road was empty, though. There were actually plenty of men and women walking on it, before disappearing on paths descending to the valley or climbing the mountain.
Men and Women Separate
Men and women weren’t mixing, the village followed traditional rules and the duties of the sexes were very different.
While women were carrying wicker baskets loaded with wood on their shoulders, men were armed with either a long hunting rifle or a sharp rectangular blade tied to a bamboo stick.
The features of their faces seemed to be from South America more than from Asia, some of them were wearing bird feathers on their heads, and almost every woman had a colored band to tie her long black hair.
Each man’s bearing was proud, many of them were walking alone, some had a colored band around the ankle, as to show a distinguishing mark. Some, the oldest, had tattooed faces.
Animal Skulls Near the Doors
Almost all the houses in the village were bamboo huts covered by a pitched thatched roof. Many of them had skulls of animals, such as buffaloes, goats or sheep, next to the entrance door. The structure of the village seemed not to follow any rule.
The houses were literally built on the mountainside, on which paths men, women, and children walked nimbly. Farm animals were wandering all around. They didn’t bother anyone. Nobody bothered them.
Longwa is the main village of the Konyak, one of the sixteen tribes living in Nagaland. They live in about sixty villages along the border between India and Myanmar, on both sides.
The system on which the village is based is quite ancient, as is everything about it. There is no known starting date, though, since habits and traditions are verbally spread, and something gets always lost on the way.
The Angh is the Chief
Longwa, as well as every other Konyak village, is ruled by an actual chief called Angh. Konyak don’t feel they are either Indians nor Burmese, they are just Konyaks, and they have their own king, to which every visitor has to pay respect once in the village.
Their idea of independence and lack of political affiliation is made clear also through the Angh’s house, split in half between India and Myanmar.
The king has a different wife in each of the villages he rules, but only one of them is the queen, the one who will give birth to the heir and successor. The sons who came from the other wives will be Anghs as well, governing over the Morungs, the districts in which the village is divided.
The Anghs are the only men wearing the colored band on the ankle. Every Morung is also a dorm where every male Konyak will sleep before reaching manhood, to get a deep knowledge of communal life.
As fascinating as all this can be, there is something else making Longwa a unique place in the world, different than anywhere else. And it is that group of tattooed old men I had seen along the road. Looking at it today, Longwa seems to have many of the things you can find everywhere else, boys and girls listen to music from their smartphones and have fashionable haircuts. But a few dozens of years ago everything looked very different.
The Existence of Airplanes
“We first heard about the existence of airplanes during the Second World War, when some of them were flying over the village to go towards the battle.” This is one of the most disturbing things anybody ever told me.
We were lucky enough to have met a man able to translate the Konyak dialect, the only language spoken by the oldest inhabitants of Longwa, into English.
The man we were talking to had a fully tattooed face and chest, and a thick piece of bamboo expanding his left earlobe. He was crouching on the floor and whispering, with his eyes looking somewhere else as if we weren’t worth enough for them.
He was one of the about thirty former Konyak headhunters, the last one of them to still dress up in the traditional way. He was wearing just a long piece of fabric on his private area, and he was completely naked beyond that.
Without looking away, he went on telling us that while the world was fighting its biggest war ever, and the airplanes flew over Nagaland, Konyaks were fighting with the neighboring tribes, in their smaller but not less important war.
Konyaks from Longwa are a population of warriors, whose dignity had only a few years ago a direct proportion with the number of severed heads they were able to take home from the battle, to be hung next to the door.
Exactly where the skulls of the animals look at all the visitors now. After the first head was cut off, the head hunter got his first tattoo, made following the traditional techniques in a ceremony involving the whole village. The number of tattoos increased with the victories in battle, and of the severed heads.
Reverence and Fear
You cannot help but feel a kind of reverence and fear at the same time, sitting next to a man almost completely covered with tattoos.
His past is not so far, after all, and this is made even clearer from the movement of his body and the tone of his voice. His words were unintelligible but they clearly those of a warrior.
And when he told us that, years before, the last of the neutral villages chose to make Longwa an ally after seeing their envoy with his guts out of the body, he almost showed a scary nostalgia.
Despite being so proud, these men are only about thirty. The abolition of headhunting was followed by the disappearing of tattoos, ear horns, and bone necklaces.
Most of the houses are still traditional, with a different fireplace for men and women, both built on the floor and surrounded by shelves where the meat is smoked. But at the same time, one can see a lot of concrete houses, with electricity and satellite dishes.
No More Headhunters
And even if Konyaks are still a lot, they look almost the same as any other Asian population by now. And when there will be no more headhunters, the tradition will disappear as well, and Longwa will maybe become a village as many, bearer of a past that still exists only in museums.
I will never find out if being there and talking to them is a reason for this change as well or just an effect, but the change is happening and it cannot be stopped. And it would even be pretentious, willing to stop progress just to keep a tradition that we like alive.
Whichever the answer is, to have been able to walk those paths, drink tea with those people, get inside their houses and talk to them was like walking the pages of a history book, or maybe those of a legend, the legend of Nagaland head hunters.
Manuel D’Antonio was born in 1987, grew up in the central Italy region of Abruzzo, Italy. He spent my first 25 years between my native city, Avezzano, and Rome. I eventually left this country as well, starting an around the world trip that gave birth to the project Snapshots (snapshotstravel.com), to write stories about those humans who find their unicity in their own differences.