The fearsome Konyaks, once famous for headhunting & facial tattoos, belong to one of the major Naga tribes. They are easily distinguishable from the other tribes by their pierced ears and tattoos all over their faces, hands, chests, arms, and calves.
Headhunters inhabit the remote corner of north east India in the Mon District of Nagaland. Nagaland is a permit protected state bordering Myanmar. Each of the Naga tribe speak different dialects.
The konyak men were infamous for killing the opposing warriors in inter-village conflicts and getting the severed heads of enemies as trophies through the 19th century till as late as 1969. It was believed that by taking the head of an enemy you would gain some of his power and soul. Heads were usually hung in the ‘Baan’ (a communal house) accompanied by rituals and ceremonies after the warfare.
Warriors were rewarded with a facial tattoo for bringing the head of an enemy. Elaborate tattoos on face and body was artistically done by women using the traditional hand tapping method with bamboo needles.
Men wore a neck chain with bronze head pendants indicating the number of enemy heads they got. Their headgear was decorated with wild-boar teeth and white-black hornbill feathers, they have big pierced ears with animal horns. Their weapon was primarily a spear decorated with red-black hair and they carried a machete with a long handle.
Konyaks had little contact with the outside world & were the last among the Naga tribes to accept Christianity. The British banned headhunting in 1930’s but the practice continued until 1969. With the conversion to Christianity, the age old ritual of headhunting along with other tribal culture slowly faded away.
These are the last generation of headhunters who are over 85 years, and with them gone in a few years, there won’t be any living accounts of headhunting. The last surviving head-hunters I met in this trip were welcoming to visitors but expected a tip for photographing them.
I’m happy to have met & photographed the last few headhunters still alive.
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