I n the dense darkness of a typical Naga home, made of woven bamboo and dried leaves, devoid of windows and electricity, it is hard to see 82-year old Chopa. His face tattoo blends him into the surroundings, but his eyes light up when I inquire about how he felt the first time he sliced off a human head. I can see the flames from the fireplace dancing in his eyes.
The heads were brought back in specially made cane baskets, and dangled from rooftops like fluttering flags – a display of might, a mark of honour and heroism.
Chopa is a headhunter from the fierce Konyak tribe of Nagaland. Though I don’t understand the language he is speaking, I can see the pride on his face, his small chest puffed up, his fists clenched, the timbre of his voice rising. “My knees are a bit weak, but even today, I’m not scared of anyone. Let’s see who dares!” he says, waving his fists animatedly, ready to leap from his low chair.
He disappears into a shadowy corner of the room and emerges in warrior garb, a primitive rifle in one hand, a machete they call A tao in another. He begins a low, stealthy walk in the vast living room, as if he is trudging in the forest on his way to a battle. He moves carefully, using the tao to chop through the imaginary foliage and make his way towards his target. He loads the rifle and takes aim. Bam! And then, he raises the tao to perform the finale. One clean swish and the enemy’s detached head is in his hand. It is a vivid demonstration of his hunting conquest.
The experience is surreal. It began when I made my way to this remote village on the northeastern edge of Nagaland, a back-breaking, gruelling eleven-hour journey from Dimapur. Longwa sits in the cloud-shrouded Naga Hills, where India meets Myanmar. In fact, the village is without a border, and part of it lies in Myanmar. The homes here are mostly without electricity, their interiors decorated with deer skulls and wild cow horns. The fireplaces turn into opium dens on demand. The phone network is sparse, and people carry locally made rifles like I carry my mobile. You casually run into tattoo-faced warriors on the streets, and hear stories about their personal, handpicked skull collections over black tea.
A headhunter’s bravado is inked on his body. Those who claimed up to five heads were marked on their face. Those who came back with more than five were bestowed a tattoo on the neck as well. Anyone who participated in a battle, but didn’t manage a kill, was branded with a V-shaped tattoo on the chest. Chopa had come back with only two heads in his basket, so his neck is bare. Ruf, an Italian fellowtraveller, eagerly shows Chopa a tattoo on his shoulder. Chopa’s immediate response is, “What did you kill to deserve that?” “A mosquito,” Ruf says. The intensity of the conversation dissipates, and Chopa is laughing the hardest amongst us.
It is believed that there are only about 25 of the erstwhile headhunters like Chopa still living in Longwa, and perhaps a handful more in the surrounding villages of Hongphoi, Chui and Shianghachingnyu. There are a total of 16 distinct Naga tribes in the Indian northeast, and for centuries, they were engaged in battles with one another. Longwa’s creaky-boned, 80-something warriors have a swagger from the glorious title of being undefeated among these tribes. When they were young, Chopa and his brethren were trained in Morongs, or schools of warfare, for little boys. At the ripe age of 17, they were ready for war, raring to show their prowess and patriotism for the Angh, their king.
Penche, 84, another senior hunter from Longwa, was sent to battle at the age of 20. He tells me his first kill was in his debut battle. He shows me his tattoo-less chest with pride. He had three kills in three battles over two years, making it a somewhat successful career. He still remembers one of the men he hacked – he was weaving a basket when he attacked him. Tribal battles were fought for primeval reasons – disputes over land, cattle, food, and (no prizes for guessing this) women. A fellow-villager’s fight would become the community’s battle. The Konyaks were an aggressive tribe, always looking to seize more land. Villages that surrendered to them would pay tax to their Angh. The heads from battles, however, were for private possession. They could be of men, women and even children; there was no discrimination when it came to a Naga war. The heads were brought back in specially made cane baskets, and dangled from rooftops like fluttering flags – a display of might, a mark of honour and heroism.
Penche,84, with grandchildren
The fierce reputation of Longwa inhabitants kept outsiders at bay for centuries. Christian missionaries first arrived here in the late 19th century, and they looked down upon headhunting. The British finally banned the practice in the 1930s, though it probably continued for some more time. In their zeal to `civilise’, the missionaries discouraged the tribe’s ancient customs and traditions, labelling them heathen. They brought with them the trappings of modernity – education, medicines and religion that espoused peace. In time, the Angh conceded. And, after the initial protests, the tribes gave in.
“Perhaps it was a good thing,” says Penche pensively, when I ask him about giving up headhunting. “Now, it’s easy to move about without the fear of being attacked. And, there is education and progress.” By the 1960s, Nagaland had turned completely Christian, and the missionaries had convinced the headhunters to bury the heads, the weapons and quite literally, the hatchet. Penche’s prized heads lie deep in the forest in the Myanmar side of the village. He adds, with a hint of a smile, “I know exactly where I buried them.”
Headhunters wearing traditional hand made tribal necklaces in the Konyak King’s village, Longwa, Nagaland
Tomwa, 79, another old headhunter tells me “Oh, I kept my gun and tao.” He is a handsome man, and age has done little to fray his flirty charm. He reveals that girls used to fight to sit next to him, and cautiously glances towards his second wife. I’m not surprised – the headhunters look rather charismatic. Apart from the distinct face tattoo, they wear a fancy headdress embellished with boar teeth and bear hair. Antelope horns pierce their ears. Colourfully beaded neckpieces hold metal heads, representing the number of heads they claimed. And, if that’s not enough, they sport a cool hairdo, which these days would be described as a man-bun.
Interestingly, it was the tribe’s queen who marked the tattoo on each warrior. She designed the tattoo pattern for her legion, the same for every man, worn like an army uniform. Tattoos were administered with jungle thorn arranged as per design and dipped in bark ink, lightly tapped on the skin with a wooden stick. Many a brave warrior would flee the tattoo session in excruciating pain, before returning the next day to finish the face art.
The tattoos are fast fading on the ageing, wrinkling faces, but the memories of the headhunting days are still fresh. I find it is fascinating that most of them know nothing of the country beyond Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh. Many don’t even know ‘India’. They’ve never heard the name Narendra Modi. They don’t read, write or own a TV. They are now doting granddaddies and loving husbands, who miss being warriors.
Tomwa with his rifle
“We don’t know what it’s like to be a warrior,” says Penche’s 33- year old grandson Penkhao, who is wearing a sweatshirt and a beret over his close-shave haircut. “We are just like you,” he says in perfect English. No new tattoo has been administered for over half a century, as the next generation of Konyaks have turned into farmers, teachers and craftsmen. The young Nagas have acquired new identities. It is not uncommon to hear international pop songs playing on their phones, or to see them singing gospels to dexterous guitar play. They want development and the good life as much as the rest of the world. A few decades from now, the headhunters will only be legends in the pages of history, and Longwa will be one more chaste Christian village.
Tomwa is in an unusually cheerful mood; we’ve spent a few hours chatting over tea and Old Monk. We even have a shooting face-off, him with his rifle and me with my camera. We go over the photographs on my camera’s playback screen, and he chooses a picture of the both of us that he wants a print of. His wish is to put it up on his wall. As I leave with a promise, a realisation dawns on me. My head will be dangling in this Konyak warrior’s home after all.