he Last of the Tattooed Headhunters
The Konyak tribe, Nagaland, India
“In all, I took eight heads,” said the 98-year-old village chief, "but the one I remember best is the first, I was 20 years old. My grandfather was beheaded in the fields by the men from the neighbouring village. I was very attached to him and I was determined to bring back a head to maintain the honour of our family. Of course, you never go hunting alone. You have to be at least with ten to ambush. Before leaving, the shaman blessed us with sacred songs. We left before dawn and reached the enemy village when the sun was barely up. We waited silently until around noon when our prey appeared to cultivate his fields. I crawled towards one of the men and carefully adjusted my flintlock rifle. I saw him fall so I ran to the body with my machete and slit his neck. I threw his head into a basket and we fled at full speed. The enemy pursued us by throwing arrows and javelins, but they did not dare to approach our village.
That night, there was a big party, with songs, dances. Everyone was drinking rice beer. Chickens and a pig were killed for grilling. I brought a part to the tattoo artist to make me my big tattoo on the face. All the girls gathered around the fire. The custom is that we offer betel leaves to the one we want. I approached her, whereas she had always ignored me before. I asked her: "Do you want to marry me? My heart cannot forget you. Let's stay together for life. "Of course, my love," she replied. We stayed together for a year, and then one day, in a field, they cut off her head. I cried and cried," sobs the old chief.
Chingong Rokkam, 84 years, Chingsa paan, Longwa village.
Penshi, 79 years, Poreen paan, Longwa village
The inter-tribal war turned the nagas inwards. "We were like frogs in a well," was how an old tribal chief said it. "We barely knew that there were other frogs in other wells - except our immediate neighbors, and they were all our enemies." Among the Konyak tribe alone there are 28 different dialects, many of which are not mutually understandable. Apart from outsiders, but also from their own people, the Nagas were among the last of the Indian peoples to come to the attention of Europeans. It was not until the nineteenth century that British officials began to become aware of the violent tribal world on the edge of their map. It was not long before missionaries sent letters to England about the savage headhunters in the naga hills whose "cruel spears were adorned with the hair of the heads of innocent old men and women who had been explicitly killed for this purpose."
Around the 1870s, missionaries began forming outposts in the naga hills, opening schools, translating their texts into the many different naga dialects, and reporting that the nagas were beginning to abandon ‘the miserable worship patterns handed down to them by their ancestors.’ By the First World War, the missionaries had opened about 200 schools, trained more than 5,000 students, and about 2 percent of the population were converted to Christianity. Mission letters at home began to sound slightly more optimistic; "Once civilized and Christianized, the Nagas will become a manly and worthy people," yet there was also some concern when Naga recruits in the British army began to collect German heads in the trenches of Flanders.
It was the second world war that changed everything for the Nagas. In 1944, three Japanese divisions pushed through Burma and entered India through the naga hills. In the supply of allied troops there were roads and runways and more missionaries. The proportion of Christians among the naga population rose from 17.9 percent on the eve of the Second World War to 88.6 percent in 1971.
In thirty years the nagas underwent a hyper development of a species that had lasted a thousand years in Europe. Paraffin lamps replaced torches; matches replace flints; guns replace spears and machetes; doctors prescribing penicillin replace shamans polishing the skulls. In the 1960s and 1970s, tribal uprisings were brutally crushed by the army of recently independent India that had just lost a war to China.
Around the turn of the millennium, only 0.3 percent of the nagas still practiced traditional religious practice and illiteracy had fallen sharply. Meanwhile, the independence fighters were driven across the Burmese border and the dissatisfied younger generation of nagas showed just as much resistance, not by taking up arms, but instead of looking at the 'Hindu West' to focus on the east and adopt a modern K-pop style.
Headhunting was the practice of taking and preserving a decapitated head. The Konyak belief was that the skull of a person has all the soul force of that being. This soul force is strongly affiliated with prosperity and fertility and is used for the benefit of the village, personal life, and crops. The human skull contains the strongest soul force. all skulls were kept and decorated at designated places. animal skulls gained by hunting or slaughtered during festivities such as mithuns, buffaloes, deers, monkeys and boars were kept at the house of individuals while skulls of the enemy were kept in the angh’s house and paans.
Another belief of the Konyaks was that by owning another person’s skull, the hunter has secured the services of the victim, who becomes his slave in the afterlife. Head taking was considered valuable due to the status and power associated with it. The head taker was bestowed with the stature of a great warrior and this social standing was announced through full facial and body tattoos.
Penji Shakam, 97 jaar, Yungen Paan, Longwa dorp
Gannyem Amepa, 98 jaar, Kongynyu Paan, Sheanghah Chingnyu dorp
Manpei, 95 jaar, Goching Paan, Sheanghah Chingnyu dorp
he tradition of tattooing
The tradition of tattooing defines the Konyak people and their culture. The Konyak tribe is known as the ‘face- tattoo tribe’ to the outside world. The prominent facial tattoo of the Konyak male is an iconic representation of indigenous tattoo culture. started as a form to beautify and ornament the body, tattooing created a unique distinction and identification of a tribe, clan, and status in society. It displayed the difference between a warrior and a common man, a person of aristocratic clan from other clans, and an unmarried girl from a woman who is betrothed.
Tattooing was done to celebrate the cycle of life of coming of age, accompanied by specific rituals and ceremonies. Tattoos for the Konyak people distinguished members of a particular group, village, clan or individual. It was a mark of valour and triumph in warfare. while this art was at its peak, the people went about bare which made tattoos prominent. There were no Konyak people seen without the permanent indelible patterns imprinted on their bodies.
Chingham Chatrahpa, 75 years, Salim Paan, Chen Loisshu Village
Wangkah Wangshu, 85 years, Boha Paan, Hungphoi village
Chingkei Sokompa, 85 yeras, Salim Paan, Chen Loishu village
The land of the northern Konyaks is known as ‘The Land of the anghs’. The angh is the monarchical head of the hereditary system. Every village has an angh but the nine Pongvin anghs, who are also known as angh- tak, are the most powerful of all anghs as their lineage is considered to be of blue blood. The Pongvin anghs have extended their power and control over numerous villages in their direct vicinity.
Angh of Chen Wetnyu village.
In the administered areas brought under control of the British, the practice of headhunting was officially prohibited in 1935. Later this ban spread to all other areas too. The arrival of Christianity and the conversions that took place around the mid-1940s relegated tattooing as a heathen practice and associated it with paganism. The headhunting ban, conversion to Christianity, education and contact with the outside world, influenced the Konyaks to adapt to modern lifestyles.
The indigenous self-embodied art of tattooing defined the Konyak people. This was a cultural practice practiced for generations. However, no society remains static. Cross-cultural connections with outsiders in the early 1930s and the advent of Christianity in the mid- 1940s made it hard for the Konyak people to remain geographically and politically isolated. The traditional practice of tattooing therefore dwindled and gradually faded out due to several reasons.
he oral tradition
The Konyaks transmitted their culture orally from generation to generation through folktales, songs, and poems. Knowledge was passed from father to son on the ethics of manhood and lifestyle in society. Mothers passed on their crafts and skills to daughters. social institutions like the paan (men’s club) and yho (women’s club) functioned as mediums to impart oral traditions. as the Konyaks had never known a script, this was the only way of communicating and passing on knowledge.
Ümai nang gaijih ohah te ka ei,
nang ka pe samten me ko yoa shon phü nang, oeihsileyakmalongtumütahrao,
Muhi lei rha konang mai yoa phong pe ju.
‘My lover, which field will you be going to work tomorrow?
I will follow you wherever you go and watch you from afar,
Please do not mistake me for a wild animal rustling in the bushes,
For it is I, your love, watching you.’
Weching Yanna from Wakching Village wrote this love song for his future wife, to make it easier for her to leave her parents' house. Konyak Love Song
Leye MonyU, 68 years, shayu paan, Changlangshu village.
he Last of the Tattooed Headhunters
The great-granddaughter of a great warrior follows in the footsteps of her great-grandfather in a final attempt to document the culture of her tribe. A journey deep into the culture of the Konyak tribe viewed through the rich tattoo tradition.
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