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,