Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Last Living Head Hunters

One of the last living head-hunters of Nagaland, Longwa Village

In pre-colonial times the Naga peoples did not share the sense of common identity that they do today. Rather the individuals' identities were vested entirely in the different Naga tribes - instance the Ao, Sumi, Angami and Phom tribes - which often waged war upon each other as well as on the more peaceful peoples of Assam. A peculiar aspect of Naga tribal warfare was the brutal and feared concept of head hunting. It was believed that by taking the head of your slain enemy as a trophy you would gain some of his power and spirit.

Headhunting is obviously no longer practised in Nagaland. The British preferred to leave the Nagas to their internal warfare, but as raids on their Assamese tea plantations increase they saw no choice but to invade. The British who were usually not very focused on missionary causes as colonial masters, saw the spread of Christianity as a tool to control this unruly lot. The idea worked and over time as Christianity spread, the old cultural practices, including head hunting, fell increasingly into disfavour.

These days head-hunting is no longer practised. But it has been less than 50 years since the last head was taken in the early 1960s, which means that you can still meet living head hunters in Nagaland.

Former head-hunter, now makes a living by selling carved wooden figures

The Konyak tribe resisted christianization and modernization for longer than most other tribes, so their homeland in Northern Nagaland is probably the best place to meet these living and breathing relics of the past.It is not difficult to recognise the head hunters; as an honourary mark a young man would receive a prominent facial tattoo when he managed to take an enemy's head.

This boy will be growing up to a very different life than what hsi grandfather had

Old guy but this one without a tattoo. Perhaps he did not participate in any wars or perhaps he just wasn't successful enough to earn his facial tattoo

On this trip we were lucky to meet several of these old warriors in the villages of Longwa and Shangnyu. It won't be more than a decade or two before there is not a single one left, so it was a privilege to meet and talk to some of these people. Especially one of them told us very vividly of their battles, speer techniques and war cries. Even though he is now thin and weak from old age, I still wouldn't like to go into battle against him!

Warrior with weapons in the traditional loin cloth. This is the one who told and showed us how they would set the enemys huts on fire and then wait outside to pierce them with the spears when they would come running out

Some have adopted less traditional dressing habits

Opium smoker


Tamara said...

first picture is amazing!

Arun said...

Very interesting. 1960 is not really far back in the past! The first picture is excellent. Great details and perfect lighting.

indicaspecies said...

Lovely post. Thanks for sharing.

miripiri said...

Great pictures! I would love to hear some of the stories that these men shared with you! What an interesting experience that must have been.

Esben said...

Thanks all for your comments.

miripiri, yes this was a very special experience and a big part of the reason why I wanted to go to Northern Nagaland - before it's too late to meet this remarkable people.

Aman said...

U got great pics of my people! These old people are disappearing... I really appreciate your work. Thanks!