Nagaland, Indian Wild Wild East!

As I said in my previous post, Nagaland was one of the destinations in my recent journey through Northeastern India.  Nagaland is the home of the Naga tribes, a group of over 16 tribes, long feared for their fierceness in war – both against one another and against the rest of the world.  The Naga tribes were known to practice headhunting and did so until fairly recently (the last recorded occurrence was in 1963, the year Nagaland acquired statehood status).  The taking of an enemy’s head was considered a sign of strength and the tribe with the largest number of enemy skulls was considered the most powerful. Interestingly, it was not the government ban on headhunting that put an end to this tradition but rather the activities of Christian missionaries. Now with over 90% of the Naga considering themselves Christians, the various tribes are united under one faith, and as such, do not see the need for tribal wars any longer. We visitors hoped that the same applied to us.

Today the south of the Nagaland state is fairly developed, much more so than the far north where, as regular readers of this blog will have guessed, was the focus of our travel. After a stop at the Nagaland border to show our entry documents, we discovered Northern Nagaland, a rugged country with amazing hills and valleys, home to many villages where inhabitants continue to live a fairly traditional hunting and farming lifestyle.  We continued our way to the district of Mon, home of the largest Naga tribe, the Konyaks, just few miles away from the border with Myanmar.

We first visited with a number of elders.  Although now dressed in modern clothes, it is easy to see why Konyak men may have inspired fear from their enemies, as they are extensively tattooed, both on their face and their bodies.  The traditional tattoos on their face give them raccoon–like eyes as the tattoo circles the eyes like ski goggles.  The older males also wear large earrings traditionally made of boar horn but which are now sometimes substituted with anything of similar sizes like bamboo plugs or old bullet casings.  They also wear bead necklaces and some of the men sport a yanra, a pendant representing severed heads.  These yanra originally denoted the number of human heads a warrior had taken. Women are mainly adorned with bright orange bead necklaces and big earrings, both in the traditional ear lobe and, for some, also in the upper part of their ears.  Looking like small antennas, I was told that these “upper” earrings are made of porcupine thorns, which are dyed red or orange.

The lifestyle in Northern Nagaland is harsh and demanding.  Men still go hunting regularly and both men and women can be seen carrying large bamboo baskets on their back as they navigate steep hills.  A typical Naga house has bamboo walls, a thatched roof, and essentially consists of one large room with a cooking station in the middle.  Skulls of various animals are likely to be found hanging from the ceiling, an indication of their well-deserved pride in their hunting skills.

They were plenty of youngsters around when we visited the various Konyak villages.  The young ones appear to be slowly adopting a more modern way of life, yet, they are still contributing to the work of the family. Every boy and girl we saw, even very small ones, was carrying a younger child on his or her back.

Konyaks are ruled by hereditary chiefs known as Anghs.  The Angh’s house is the largest in the village and we were allowed to visit two of them. In the village of Shangha Chingnyu, the Angh’s house was beautifully decorated with the horns of wild water buffalo, which we were told are more dangerous than tigers or wild elephants.  The Angh’s (chief) agreed to be photographed in his house wearing what seems to be the fashion for Angh’s, a cowboy-style hat. He also kindly introduced us to his three wives; despite their Christian faith, polygamy seems to be the way of life for Anghs (the Angh in a nearby village we visited is rumored to have 60 wives, though we did not meet any of them). In Shangha Chingnyu, we were also shown the village “hidden” collection of genuine skulls (amusingly, the current location of the “collection” allowed me to capture a beautiful church in the background.)

One of the highlights of our visit was to be able to witness the Konyaks getting ready for their main festival, Aoling.   For the occasion, men and boys wear colorful shawls and traditional headwear decorated with feathers and dance carrying a spear or a gun while chanting. The women were busy with the preparation for the upcoming festival, but we were able to look on as one group was rehearsing their traditional dance.

Meet some members of the Konyak tribe,

France

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17 Responses

    1. Luis,

      Thanks so much for visiting the blog and for sharing. Yes, Nagaland is a special place. I am very impressed by your work in the area. The need is certainly there and obviously your efforts are greatly appreciated by all involved. I think getting the Assam riffles involved in the construction of dormitories is a brilliant move. I am also impressed that you made the journey as I now know that this is not an easy place to visit. Warm regards, France

  1. France, lovely pictures. Earlier this year I spent a fortnight in remote parts of Nagaland and Manipur. We are sponsoring 150 kids in those areas to go to school. Your pictures brought back memories. We are doing a lot of work in these areas to connect them with the rest of India. We have also got the Assam Rifles yo help build some of the dormitories for the kids and this helps reduce the tension between the tribals and the army. I will send you some pictures of the tribal reception we had and the skulls we saw! It was an American missionary who brought Christianity to this area somewhere in the mid 19th century. He was allegedly on his way to China and came to Nagaland instead.

    1. Luis,

      Thanks so much for visiting the blog and for sharing. Yes, Nagaland is a special place. I am very impressed by your work in the area. The need is certainly there and obviously your efforts are greatly appreciated by all involved. I think getting the Assam riffles involved in the construction of dormitories is a brilliant move. I am also impressed that you made the journey as I now know that this is not an easy place to visit. Warm regards, France

    1. Thanks Lisa, I like these as well. Interesting that you picked two vertical images as your favorites. It was a special time but not an easy time.

  2. France, your images are stunning! Am I correct in assuming that you captured these on a Nevada trip?

    1. Bob, Thanks for visiting the blog. Yes, it was a trip with Nevada. The previous post on the Atapani tribe described the first part of the trip. All the best, France

  3. I’ve met someone from Nagaland when travelling in a train in India. His name was LS Konyak, I wonder if he belonged to the same tribe. He invited me to visit him in springtime in April for some annual festival but I couldn’t make it.

    These people from Nagaland were by far much more humble and charitable despite their economic status compared to everyone else that was travelling in the train from the “plains” of india.

    He wanted to add me on Facebook 🙂

    1. I am sure your friend belongs to the Konyak tribe as it is typical for people to use the tribe name as a surname. He was probably inviting you to the Aoling festival which is the one they were getting ready for when I visited the area. I absolutely agree with you that the people of Nagaland are welcoming and caring. Hope you added him on Facebook. Thanks for visiting the blog. Happy travels, France

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