Sinlung /
23 September 2014

India’s Last Surviving Headhunters

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe

The largest tribe in Nagaland

The remote village of Longwa, with Myanmar’s dense forests on one side and India’s rich agricultural lands on the other, is home to the fierce Konyak Naga tribe. The largest of 16 tribes living in the remote northeastern Indian state of Nagaland, the Konyaks were warriors with brutal pasts, using inter-village fights to accede land and ascertain power. As such, Konyak villages are situated on ridge tops, so they can easily monitor and identify an enemy attack.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe

The last generation

From the tribe’s conception centuries ago, until the gruesome practice was banned in 1940s, the Konyaks were fierce headhunters. Killing and severing an enemy’s head was considered a rite of passage for young boys, and success was rewarded with a prestigious facial tattoo. With the last headhunting case in Nagaland reported in 1969, older tribesmen like Pangshong (pictured) belong to the last generation with these striking facial tattoos.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe
Skulls of battles past

Bones of buffaloes, deer, boars, hornbills and mithun (a bovine species found in northeast India) decorate the walls of every Konyak house – prizes from generations of hunting. During the tribe’s headhunting days, the skulls of captured enemies were also prominently displayed, but once headhunting was abolished, the skulls were removed from the village and buried.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Spacious living quarters

Konyak huts are made primarily out of bamboo. They are spacious, with several partitions forming huge rooms for various purposes including cooking, dining, sleeping and storage. Vegetables, corn and meat are stored above the fireplace, in the centre of the house. Rice, the staple food of the Konyaks Nagas, is usually stored in huge bamboo containers at the back of the house. Pictured here, a Konyak woman named Wanlem breaks the rice by beating it with a wooden log, readying it for a traditional sticky rice dish.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe
One tribe, two countries

Longwa was established long before the borders were drawn between India and Myanmar in 1970. Not knowing how to divide the community between two countries, officials decided that the border would pass through the village and leave the tribe undisturbed. Today, Longwa straddles the international border, with one side of the border pillar containing messaging written in Burmese, and the other side written in Hindi.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe International housing

The border even cuts through the village chief’s house, prompting the joke that he dines in India and sleeps in Myanmar.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Family gatherings

Konyaks are still ruled by hereditary chieftains, locally known as “Angh”, and one or several villages can come under each chieftain’s rule. The practice of polygamy is prevalent among the Anghs and the chief of Longwa has several children from many wives. Pictured here, several of the tribe’s children gather around the fire.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Changing beliefs

Konyaks were animists, worshipping elements of nature, until Christian missionaries arrived in the late 19th Century. By the late 20th Century, more than 90% in the state had accepted Christianity as their religion. Today, most of the villages in Nagaland have at least one Christian church. The church in Longwa is located in a vast field atop the ridge, right below the village chief’s house.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Weekly traditions

Women wearing traditional Naga skirts return from church on a Sunday morning.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe
A disappearing culture

A group of Konyak elders gather around the kitchen fire, chewing on betelnut, roasting corn and sharing a light moment. With the invasion of Christianity, many of the tribe’s traditional practices, such as training young boys as warriors and educating them about the tribe’s beliefs in dedicated community buildings called Morungs, have nearly disappeared.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Decorative trophies

The practice of wearing colourful beaded jewellery is also declining. In the past, both men and women would wear elaborate necklaces and bracelets. Brass faces were used in some of the men’s necklaces to signify the number of enemy heads severed.

Longwa, Myanmar, Konyak Naga tribe Change creeps in

Sheltered from the reaches of modern civilization, Longwa is a picturesque collection of thatch-roofed wooden houses. But the occasional tin roofs and concrete constructions are tell-tale signs that change is creeping into this rustic corner. What remains of this inevitable marriage between past and present is yet to be seen.


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