Konyaks- The Last Tattooed Headhunters of Nagaland

Konyaks

Konyak Naga tribe are settled in over hundred villages in Nagaland’s Mon district and also in Arunachal’s Tirap and Changlang districts. The Konyaks are Nagaland’s traditional hunters and warriors. The Konyaks are distinguished from other Naga tribes by their facial and hand tattoos; facial tattoos were earned for taking an enemy’s head. They are skilled artisans who specialise in firearms and handicrafts such as basket making, bamboo work, and weaving.

The Konyaks were the most feared of all the tribes who lived in what is now Nagaland. They all practiced headhunting, with young Konyak boys performing a rite of passage by decapitating members of rival tribes. They were divided into several groups, each with its own language and distinctive facial tattoos. They were also one of the most isolated tribes in the region, which is not surprising.

Mon

They are known as headhunters in NorthEast India. In the past, they were known for their love of war and frequently attacked nearby villages of other tribes, taking the heads of the enemies as trophies to hang in the Murong (a communal house). The number of heads represented the strength of a warrior and the tribe, and it became a collective emblem. With the exception of these behaviors, tribal members live in a very disciplined community with strict duties and responsibilities for each individual.

The prominent and iconic facial tattoo of Konyak men represents this unique cultural practice that distinguishes the Konyaks from the rest of the world. Various other tattoo design patterns on the bodies of both men and women are a direct visual representation of this unique traditional practice.

headhunters of nagaland
Credit: Peter Bos

Every Konyak village is ruled by a single king who is known as an “Angh“, who obviously has the most and largest skulls on display. In order to maintain his social and military supremacy, this main king may have 3 to 6 other sub-kings, depending on the size of the village. Each sub-king governs a different section of the village and reports to the main king. Because of the clear blue beads on their legs, all kings are easily identified. They are more powerful and respected the more blue beads layers they wear. In the past, kings would collect bribes from conquered villages all over, even up to 50 kilometres away, by beating drums on massive carved dead trees to send messages from village to village.

In the past, killing an enemy and bringing the head was a sign of bravery and pride. Their forefathers believed that the human skull contained some magical power. Previously, a warrior who entered the village with the captured enemy’s head received a hero’s welcome. The villagers, both men and women, used to give the hero a ceremonial welcome. The skull was tied to the log drum, and the dancing and merriment continued all night.

Konyak1

Many Konyak men have a voracious opium smoking addiction. Opium was introduced into the Naga hills in order to subdue the tribes and distract the Konyaks from amassing heads, particularly British ones. The old men of the hill villages still wear bronze trophies around their necks, small symbolic heads that show how many enemy skulls have been counted. One little bronze head almost always means at least one real head; two almost always means much more than two, and three almost always means quite a few. These warriors’ sons and nephews are now full-time opium smokers.

That began to change as the British Raj expanded beyond Assam’s tea estates. Missionaries began establishing schools in the region in the 1870s, and thousands converted to Christianity over the next several decades. The Konyaks were among the last to leave. In their eagerness to “civilise,” missionaries scorned the tribes’ ancient customs and traditions, labeling them heathen. The British Raj outlawed headhunting in 1935; by the 1960s, younger generations began to adopt modern ways, and tattooing’s distinct culture began to fade as well.

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