Nagaland, one of the « Seven Sisters » of Northeast India, is a Permit Protected state bordering Burma where live 20 different Nagas tribes of mixed origin, cultures, and very different physiques and appearances. The Konyaks are one of them.
The Konyaks people traditionally have a strong warrior tradition and are mostly famous because they were still headhunting until the late 1960′s-70′S. This is the reason why their villages are only situated on hilltops, in order to prevent attacks from other tribes.
It’s not difficult to recognise the last living Konyak headhunters. As an honourary mark, a young man would receive a prominent facial tattoo when he managed to take an enemy’s head. It was believed that by taking the head of an enemy as trophy, you would gain some of his power and soul. Those enemies’s heads were then hanged on the sacred ritual tree at the entrance of every villages. This was a common practice until Christianisation reached them and turn those violent rituals into dust.
Christian missionaries and British colonialists convinced or forced the Konyaks to Christianity, in order to make them giving up the habit of cutting off human heads, hence conquer them easily. The Konyak tribe resisted christianization and modernization for longer than most other Nagas tribes because wars and headhunting were an essential part of their ritual life in the past. Despite that, Christianism reached them and headhunting was no longer practised.
The Konyaks hunted human skulls because they believed only these could guarantee the fertility of their fields and people. This belief has not ended but today the skulls have generally been substituted by wooden heads, and the rituals still persist.
Some rather recent head hunts have been unoficcialy reported. When meeting the members of this tribe you can sometimes easily feel the violent past in their blood, which makes you realise how not far away from now it actually is.. Still don’t mess with them. Period.
Konyaks people used tattoos to indicate status just as other people might use ornaments or textiles. For example, Konyak Naga girls wore a tattoo on the back of the knee if they were married, as in Western cultures a finger-ring usually makes this statement. The chest tattoo is another typical traditional tattoo, which was a high social privilege and could only be worn by the best and bravest warriors of all, which make the few still alive even more difficult to meet.
Their specific traditional headhunters war hats were made of hunted wild pigs horns, hornbill feathers and wild bear or goat hair. Konyaks used a traditional basket specifically made to carry and bring back human heads from war. It was decorated with monkey skulls, wild pigs horns and sometimes hornbill beaks.
The majestic hornbill is a Nagaland emblem which represents loyalty, because of the female bird staying in the high nest and relying on her male to feed her. In the past, the right to use hornbill feathers had to be earned, feathers were not for sale, and only those that excelled in warfare received the honor to decorate themselves with the feathers. The Nagas tribes recently realized the damages they have done on the specie, so they stopped hunting them and they now protect them instead. It could be already too late thou to avoid total extinction.
The hornbill was unfortunately not the only victim of the Konyaks traditions and way of living. The Konyaks platation system, as most the Nagas tribes, is the slash-and-burn cultivation. As its name can tell, this type of cultivation destroys the jungle and its entire biotope, forcing big wild animals, such as bears, panthers and tigers which used to live in this area, to totally disappear. The smaller animals, as wild pigs, monkeys and birds, have now to hide even further into the jungle, far from any human contact. The hunters complain about that because it makes them walk way further to get any decent catch. Konyaks use to keep animal skulls from those hunts into their homes to protect the people living inside from the evil spirits from the jungle. The amount of skulls displayed, inside and outside the house, reveals the social status of the owner. The more and bigger skulls, the highest the social status.
Every Konyak village is ruled by one king, who obviously displays the more and biggest skulls. This main king can have from 3 to 6 other sub-kings, according to the village size, in order to maintain his social and war supremacy. Every sub-king is in charge of a different part of the village and reports to the main king. All kings are easily recognisable because of the clear blue beads on their legs. The more blue beads layers they wear, the most powerful and respected they are. In the past, kings used to get bribes from the conquered villages all around, even sometimes 50km away from their own village, beating drums on huge carved dead trees to pass messages from villages to villages.
You should also keep in mind that Konyaks only wear clothes since very recently and used to walk and fight naked. Only a few elderly people still live traditionally naked, and wear clothes only occasionally to avoid shocking the youngest, influenced and attracted by the modern world.
On this trip I was lucky to meet several old warriors. It won’t be more than a decade or two before there is not a single one left, so it was an honor and a privilege to meet some of them.
Here is a selection of photographs from my solo reportage there.
(Click on the pictures to see them full size. Then use the arrows keys or your mouse wheel to go to the next one.)