THE HEADHUNTERS OF LONGWA
Conversing with a nonagenarian is sleep-inducing until the moment you ask about his good old fighting days, when the geriatric warrior suddenly comes alive; the years dissolve, eyes gleam, clarity returns and tales of the good life pour as if it was all yesterday. I was in Longwa, a small village on Indo-burma border in Nagaland and conversing with a headhunter, who suddenly got into his warrior mode, stabbing the air with his spear. ‘I killed 10 men’ he recalled, with obvious pride. He then patted his necklace, which has metal carved human skulls on it and showed me the machete he used to cut off their heads.
‘It is a hard job to cleave a human head off its body. It comes with practice,’ he added. With every new head on his belt, the tattoos on his body grew bolder. The Chaita, or the queen of the clan
was entrusted with the job of tattooing the warriors. The headhunters weren’t cannibals, they just believed in active defence to protect their lands. And nothing can be more effective than cutting off your enemy’s head and exhibiting it in your village. The Naga ended headhunting in the 1960s with the advent of Christianity. It’s five decades but the legend still lives, relived in the spontaneous performances of the headhunters and their tattoos. And the black inked tattoos though faded now, still shine as a mark of invincibility.
A Naga warrior had to go through a long and painful process to get one’s face tattooed. ‘It was painful, it was more like dying every day, for two weeks’ he said. The old eyes became teary as he remembered.
A barb was dipped in black pigment and then hammered onto the skin for a face tattoo. But the pain was worth it if it made
him look more ferocious and attractive.
‘And what about the women? Did they also have tattoos?’ I asked like a curious cat.
He chuckled at my question. ‘They used to have tattoos on their legs up to their knees, those were rings. The first ring would be tattooed when a girl reached puberty to mark that she is ready to be taken, and then a series of rings up to the knee upon marriage, to signify that she is taken.’ I took leave of the fierce old warrior to hike up a steep path, smack onto the Indian border, to stay at the Angh’s house (territory chieftain), whose half house is in India and the other half in Myanmar. It is said ‘Angh eats in India and sleeps in Myanmar’. He sat near a fire on a mud floor, smoking opium, and above him were skulls of mithun and antelopes, hunted by his ancestors, serving as trophies of their valour and prowess. Opium is another
inseparable part of the culture of Longwa and I soon joined them for some more conversation over smoke and grass. ‘I have heard there are skulls in some villages,’ I asked. ‘You are sitting on them,’ came his prompt reply. For a second, I shuddered and my guide had to jolt me back to reality. The skulls had been buried under the meeting room when the village adopted Christianity. Some skulls have been kept at Shengha Chingyu as exhibition for tourists.
The Konyaks were pretty different from other tribes, they were apparently absolute rulers. Unlike the more democratic Nagamese tribes like Angami or Ao, Konyaks ruled vast swathes of land, and were always looking to seize more. They didn’t just fight with each other but also extended their territory all the way down into the plains of Upper Assam, when the Ahom rule in Assam was failing. And one thing that aided their conquests was their dexterity in making guns, which one can still find the Konyak males carrying around with them. The chieftain’s place is an important place for tourists, quite evident from the villagers selling their souvenirs outside his hut. Konyaks are famous for their bead art and metal carvings, and here you can get a skull necklace or a necklace with boar’s teeth or an art-piece fashioned on a thigh bone with some delicate carving
on it and of course, an opium pipe or knife.
Longwa is the gateway to a historical chapter that might get buried with the old headhunters. I asked my guide “Do you think visitors will come here after all the headhunters, who are in their eighties and nineties, are gone?” He was stumped. Much of their tribal history will be lost with the death of these headhunters.
But they say they will live on through their children. I looked out at the beautiful rolling hills, the inquisitive faces and the mud huts and smiled at the headhunters’ optimism.
FAST FACTS: To reach:
You will have to take a shared cab from Mon to Longwa. The haggard hill town of Mon merely serves as an access
point for the many Konyak villages in the area. Of the numerous tribal villages in the area, the most popular is Longwa, about 35km from Mon, where the headman’s longhouse spectacularly straddles the India–myanmar border and contains a fascinating range of weapons, dinosaurlike totems and a WWII metal aircraft seat salvaged from debris scattered in nearby jungles. You can spend some time at a local house here and watch the men lazing and smoking opium while women toil in nearby fields. Several tattooed former headhunters can be photographed for a fairly standard ₹100 fee. Tribal jewellery, carved masks and other collectibles (₹200 to ₹1000) can also be bought from many households. In the high season, the village charges a per person entry fee of ₹200.
Other villages that can be visited from Mon include Old Mon (5km), with countless animal skulls adorning the walls of the headman’s house; Singha Chingnyu (20km), which has a huge longhouse decorated with animal skulls and three stuffed tigers; and Shangnyu (25km), with a friendly headman and a wooden shrine full of fertility references. Mon has only two hotels to speak of. The only decent hotel in Mon is the scrappy but friendly Helsa Cottage run by the influential, affable Aunty. Running water and electricity are seldom your companions here, but the food is tasty. Aunty also co-manages the Helsa Resort, slightly out of town en route to Longwa, which has six traditional thatched Konyak huts with springy
In a village home
An elder and the chief (Angh) of Longwa - on the border with Myanmar
Tribesmen share opium
Having a drink in Longwa
The main street was recently built in Longwa
An elder takes a hit to chase his troubles away
Longwa tribesmen prepare for a smoke
Opium smoker Stirring opium on a spoon
Longwa village overlooking the hills
Man with face tattoos Tribal chief
Young girls from Longwa village taking the day’s collection from the fields back to the village
The former headhunters now only dress for show
Longwa is on the Indo-burma border
Children minding small kids Mother with child
Selling Naga Sovenuirs
A tribal elder
A former headhunter
Inside the house of the Longwa village chief The chief’s house, where he resides with his 60 wives
The previous king with his wives
Memorial to fallen warriors in Longwa
Showing off hunting skills
Konyak wth gun