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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

Woman cook­ing

Tribes­men share opium

Head­hunter eat­ing

Vil­lage camp­fire

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

Opium den

Tribal mask

Face tat­toos

Longwa vil­lage over­look­ing the hills

Longwa hut

Vil­lage life

Sharp­en­ing tools

Man with face tat­toos Tribal chief

Young girls from Longwa vil­lage tak­ing the day’s col­lec­tion from the fields back to the vil­lage

Car­ry­ing fire­wood

Weav­ing bas­kets

Konyak woman

Konyak el­der

The for­mer headhunters now only dress for show

Longwa is on the Indo-burma bor­der

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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

Burial me­galith­stones

Show­ing off hunt­ing skills

Konyak wth gun

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