Amidst the mighty mountains, wispy clouds and vast expanses of emerald forests that overrun Nagaland, reside sixteen major indigenous tribes and their varying cultures and traditions. And what’s even more interesting is that these tribes are seemingly incongruous to the rapidly modernising country that they are a part of. Perhaps the most intriguing and ‘vicious’ of these tribes are the Konyaks, the largest of the lot, recognised by most for their tattooed faces and a history of fierce headhunting. As a tribe of mighty warriors, headhunting was a matter of pride and held an important place in their culture. In the years of great inter-tribal warfare, the Konyaks thrived as they raided neighbouring villages, took over land and brought back heads of their victims as trophies.
These headhunters have a rich cultural heritage and legacy, one that has been misunderstood by outsiders who view their tattoos, the animal skins, their hair and the horns they adorn themselves with as barbaric and savage. If you look close enough, you realise that this tribe’s ‘brutish’ practices are deeply rooted in their traditions and culture, with tattoos worn as badges of honour, markers of different stages of womanhood, a rite of passage and a symbol of societal respect.
The practice of headhunting was banned and given up in 1962, with last reported cases in the region documented between 1963 and 1969, but the rituals have remained the same. The only difference is that wooden heads and animal skulls have taken the place of human ones. Today, most of the fully tattooed men and women—and erstwhile headhunters—are in their late 80s and 90s. With modernisation creeping into this once isolated region, their cultural legacy is slowly dying out, and the younger generation is leaving its native land for neighbouring big cities and urban life.
Photographer Trupal Pandyarecognised the urgent need to document this culture that seems to be on the verge of disappearing, he travelled to the northeast frontier of India. His interest in the Konyak warriors was accelerated by his fascination for different cultures and tribes around the world, having growing up in an incredibly diverse place like India. We got the chance to speak to Pandya, who gave us incredible insight into what life is like today for an ex-headhunter in an increasingly multicultural world amidst fast-paced globalisation.
One could assume that it would have been pretty daunting to spend a week living with and photographing a primarily isolated community whose notorious reputation precedes it. But it was quite the contrary, as Pandya tells us: “My experience was quite surreal, we were received with a lot of warmth.” This only goes to show how popular misconceptions can so often be far from the truth. “Longwa village is situated on a hill with India on one side and Myanmar on the other. We had to go up and down the hill to visit the different homes of the headhunters, so we would do that all day—meeting new people and exploring new spaces. An important aspect to me while photographing is to be one with the people that I’m photographing. The first day that I was there, I did not photograph them, and instead waited until they had accepted me and understood why I was there. This also meant that I was living in their houses, sleeping where they slept, and eating what they ate. Overall, it was a very positive experience, they were an extremely friendly and welcoming community.”
Life is very different now for the Konyak Nagas, explained Pandya. Today, headhunting elders spend most of their time socialising and smoking opium. “For a very long time, they lived a very secluded life because Konyak was a self-sufficient community making its own food, clothes and weapons. They are not very happy about the changing culture. We often heard complaints about how technology has changed everything in their society. But there are always two sides to a story—while the older generation is more resistant to change, the younger generation is looking forward to their increasing opportunities by becoming connected with cities like Mon and Dimapur.”
As we heard about this tribe’s evolution, we couldn’t help but wonder if opening up to the rest of the world—namely Indian society—has been beneficial for the community, or has the tribe’s unique culture been lost in assimilation? For Pandya, it’s a little bit of both, and not just for the Konyaks. “This is a consistent problem with all the tribes I have photographed around the globe. While it is true that we might see it as a loss of a culture, for them it is just a change that is making them better and smarter. Change has been the constant in civilisations and cultures for thousands of years. In my opinion, opening up to the rest of the world has profited the community, but that has come with a price. Pandya makes a poignant and apt observation of not just the Konyaks and Nagaland, but of society as a whole, which is in a constant state of transition. Maintaining a balance between evolving and modernising on one hand, and holding onto our historical roots with the other becomes more difficult as time goes on, especially so in India, which plays host to countless ethnic groups of mixed origins, beliefs and practices.”
Addressing one of the biggest misconceptions people have about this tribe and their ‘brutal’ practice of headhunting, we wondered if someone who has spent so much time with this community could clarify. Pandya asked the same question to a headhunter on his visit, and the answer he was given is as follows: “These days you say you don’t have any head hunting but you kill thousands of people a day. We killed four-five people a month for our rights. Now you kill thousands and still consider that headhunting was bad.”
“I think it was a very honest and important part of their culture,” the photographer tells us, “It wasn’t done as a recreational activity but had a lot of religious and cultural significance. It was a right of passage for them—a way to prove themselves in society. I think this statement someone made would explain it the best: what money is for you is what heads were to us.”
We’ve posted below photographs taken by Trupal Pandya during his time spent with who are now the last headhunters of Nagaland. While some of his photography might lack a more natural touch that would show the organic daily lives of this community, it showcases something different altogether. What’s perfectly captured in his images is a meeting of the past and present, the traditional and the modern, as we get to see Konyaks in their personal and private spaces, tattooed and decorated in traditional headgear and jewellery, while some also sport suit jackets, fedoras and guns.
Words: Sara Hussain