Progress and tradition among the Nagaland head hunters

Progress and tradition among the Nagaland head hunters

The sun was about to disappear behind the head of the mountain, giving the sky a pink-orange color, when a man wearing a uniform waived us to stop. We had been on that jeep for so long we weren’t able to count the hours, and a new police checkpoint could have been an excuse to stretch my leg. After all, there were no more than 8 seats on that car, 9 if you are willing to squeeze, but every law in India can be easily bypassed, and this includes physics. So, 10 people plus the driver were sitting on our jeep, meaning a total of 11 people with baggage.

I had spent the previous hours with the cheeks over half of a backseat that had lost any kind of softness, with the window handle embedded in my quadriceps, and my other limbs set up in an apparently impossible way. We were all getting so used to that position to start believing we were born with our arms and legs in that position. But the sight of the hand of the soldier was for us a bolt from the blue, an awakening of our sleeping freedom, a reminder to never lose your hope.

I was also sure I was going to be the first of the passengers to be asked something. I was in a place so remote to see just a few hundreds of tourists every year, most of them being Indians. A western tourist was almost an event to remember for Nagaland people, and this was true for the soldiers of the checkpoint as well. As I anticipated, one of them came towards my window and asked me to get off the car, making me rediscover the pleasure of blood circulation. The actual check was mostly a formality, and it went on only for a few seconds.

I still did not know, but that would have been the last checkpoint, at least for the next few days. It took three days, moving from a Nagaland city to the other, checkpoint after checkpoint, to get there. This small state in Northeast India, bordering with Myanmar, chose to open to tourism only a few months ago, and it still is a sensitive area. In a place like this, common ideas such as time and space, which should be common everywhere in the world, get a totally different meaning. You need days to move through a few miles, and every time reference is just approximate. So, even if the driver kept repeating that we almost made it to Longwa village, we were waiting to see it with our own eyes.

This time it seemed the driver was right, and right after the creation of a new human tetris, the car was ready to drive the last piece of road before the centre of the village. It took just a handful of metres to completely reconsider what happened in the previous minutes. If I was sure that the soldiers just checked our identities, I was now believing that they took us instead in a completely different reality.

We had met just a bunch of cars on the road, but at that point our jeep was the only motorized vehicle on it. This doesn’t mean the road was empty, though. There were actually plenty of men and women walking on it, before disappearing on paths descending to the valley or climbing the mountain. Men and women weren’t mixing, the village followed traditional rules and the duties of the ones and the others were very different. While women were carrying wicker baskets loaded with wood on their shoulders, men were armed with either a long hunting rifle or a sharp rectangular blade tied to a bamboo stick.

The features of their faces seemed from South America more than from Asia, some of them were wearing birds feathers on their head, almost every woman had a coloured band to tie their long black hair. Men’s bearing was proud, many of them were walking alone, some had a coloured band around the ankle, as to show a distinguishing mark. Some, the oldest, had a tattooed face.

Almost all the houses in the village were bamboo huts covered by a pitched thatched roof. Many of them had skulls of animals, such as buffaloes, goats or muttons, next to the entrance door. The structure of the village seemed not to follow any rule. The houses were literally built on the mountainside, on which paths men, women and children walked nimbly. Farm animals were wandering all around. They didn’t bother anyone. Nobody bothered them.

I was immediately and completely hooked by that place; it was immensely fascinating. Right after I got off the jeep and walked in awe the main road of the village, I understood I reached a unique place, one of those there are only a few left in the world.

Longwa is the main village of the Konyak, one of the sixteen tribes living in Nagaland. They live in about sixty villages along the border between India e Myanmar, on both sides. The system on which the village is based is quite ancient, as it is everything about it. There is no known starting date, though, since habits and traditions are verbally spread, and something get always lost on the way.

Longwa, as well as every other Konyak village, is ruled by an actual village chief called Angh. Even in 2019, in an area of the world that was closed in itself for most of its history, Konyak people seem not caring about what happened around them. They don’t feel they are neither Indians nor Burmese, they are just Konyaks, and they have their own king, to which every visitor has to pay respect once in the village. Their idea of independence and lack of political affiliation is made clear also through the Angh’s house, split in half between India and Myanmar.

The king has a different wife in each of the villages he rules, but only one of them is the queen, the one who will give birth to the heir and successor. The sons who came from the other wives will be Anghs as well, governing over the Morungs, the districts in which the village is divided. The Anghs are the only men wearing the coloured band on the ankle. Every Morung is also a dorm where every male Konyak will sleep before reaching manhood, so to get a deep knowledge of communal life.

As fascinating as all this can be, there is something else making Longwa a unique place in the world, different than anywhere else. And it is that group of tattooed old men I had seen along the road. Looking at it today, Longwa seem to have many of the things you can find everywhere else, boys and girls listen to music from their smartphones and have fashionable haircuts. But a few dozens of years ago everything looked very different.

 “We first heard about the existence of airplanes during the Second World War, when some of them were flying over the village to go towards the battle”. This is one of the of the most disturbing things anybody ever told me. We were lucky enough to have met a man able to translate Konyak dialect, the only language spoken by the oldest inhabitants of Longwa, into English. The man we were talking to had a fully tattooed face and chest, and a thick piece of bamboo expanding his left earlobe. He was crouching on the floor and whispering, with his eyes looking somewhere else, as if we weren’t worth enough for them. 

He was one of the about thirty former Konyak head hunters, the last one of them to still dress up in the traditional way. He was wearing just a long piece of fabric on his private area, and he was completely naked beyond that. Without looking away, he went on telling us that while the world was fighting its biggest war ever, and the airplanes flew over Nagaland, Konyaks were fighting with the neighboring tribes, in their smaller but not less important war. 

Konyaks from Longwa are a population of warriors, whose dignity had only a few years ago a direct proportion with the number of severed heads they were able to take home from the battle, to be hung next to the door. Exactly where the skulls of the animals look at all the visitors now. After the first head cut off, the head hunter got his first tattoo, made following the traditional techniques in a ceremony engaging the whole village. The number of tattoos increased with the increasing of the victories in battle, and of the severed heads.

You cannot help but feel a kind of reverence and fear at the same time, sitting next to a man almost completely covered of tattoos. His past is not so far, after all, and this is made even clearer from the movement of his body and the tone of his voice. His words are unintelligible but are clearly those of a warrior. And when he tells us that, years before, the last of the neutral villages chose to make Longwa an ally after seeing their envoy with his guts out of the body, he almost shows a scary nostalgia.

Despite being so proud, these men are only about thirty. The abolition of head hunting was followed by the disappearing of tattoos, ear horns and bone necklaces. Most of the houses are still traditional, with a different fireplace for men and women, both built on the floor and surmounted by shelves where the meat is smoked. But at the same time one can see a lot of concrete houses, with electricity and a satellite dish.

And even if Konyaks are still a lot, they look almost the same of any other Asian population by now. And when there will be no more head hunters, the tradition will disappear as well, and Longwa will maybe become a village as many, bearer of a past that still exists only in museums. I will never find out if being there and talking to them is a reason for this change as well, or just an effect, but the change is happening and it cannot be arrested. And it would even be pretentious, willing to stop progress just to keep a tradition that we like alive.

Whichever the answer is, have been able to walk those paths, drink tea with those people, get inside their houses and talk to them, it was like walking the pages of a history book, or maybe those of a legend, the legend of Nagaland head hunters.


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