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Posted at: Jul 10, 2016, 2:11 AM; last updated: Jul 10, 2016, 2:11 AM (IST)

In the land of headhunters

Marks of invincibility shine through face tattoos and metal-carved skull necklaces of the tribals of Longwa in Nagaland

Aakash Mehrotra

I am in Longwa, a small village on the Indo-Burma border in Nagaland and conversing with a nonagenarian headhunter, who has suddenly revealed his warrior mode, stabbing the air with his spear. ‘I killed 10 men’ he recalled, with an obvious pride. He then adorned his necklace, which has metal-carved human skulls on it and showed me the machete he used to cut off the heads.

‘It is a hard job to cleave a human head off his body. It comes with practice.’ he added. With every new head, the tattoos on his body would grow bolder. The Chaita or the queen of the clan was entrusted with the job of tattooing the warriors. The headhunters weren’t cannibals, they just believed in good offence to protect their lands. And nothing can be more offensive than cutting off your enemy’s head and exhibit that in your village. The Naga ended headhunting in the 1960s after the village adopted Christianity. Five decades; but the legend still lives, firing in the spontaneous performances of the headhunters and their tattoos. And these black-inked face tattoos (that gets your attention), though faded now, still shine as a mark of invincibility.

A warrior had to go through a long and painful process to get one’s face tattooed.

‘It was painful, it was more like dying every day, for two weeks’ he said. A barb was dipped in black pigment and then hammered onto the skin for a face tattoo. But the pain does, what it is meant for, make the warrior look more ferocious.

‘And what about women? Did they also have tattoos?’ I asked.

He chuckled at my question. He said, “They used to have tattoos on their legs up to their knees, those were rings, a ring would be marked when a girl reached her puberty to mark that she is ready to be taken and then a series of rings up to knee upon marriage, to signify that she is taken.” The old eyes became teary as he recalled.

I took leave from a fierce warrior to hike up a steep way, right smack on the National border to be at the Angh’s house (territory chieftain), whose half house is in India and the other half in Myanmar. It is said ‘Angh eats in India and sleeps in Myanmar’. He sat near a fire on a mud floor, smoking opium, above him were skulls of mithun and antelopes, hunted by his ancestors, serving as trophies of their valour and prowess. Opium is another inseparable part of the culture of Longwa and I soon joined their company for some more conversation over smoke and grass.

“I have heard there are skulls in some village,” I asked.

“You are sitting on them,” came his prompt reply. For a second, I shuddered and my guide had to jolt me. The skulls had been buried under the meeting room when the village adopted Christianity. Some skulls have been kept at Shengha Chingyu for exhibition to tourists. The konyaks were pretty different from other tribes, they were apparently absolute rulers. Unlike the more democratic Nagamese tribes like Angami or Ao, Konyaks ruled vast swathes of land, and were always in look to siege more. They didn’t just fight with each other but also extended their territory all the way down into the plains of Upper Assam when the Ahom rule in Assam was falling. And one thing that aided their conquests was their dexterity in making guns, which one can still find the konyak males carrying with them.

That the chieftain’s place is an important tourists point was evident from the villagers selling their souvenirs, infront of his hut. Souvenirs, yes, Konyaks are famous for their bead art and metal carving, and here you can get a skull necklace or a necklace with boar’s teeth or an art-piece fashioned on a thigh bone with some delicate carving on it.

Longwa is a gateway to a historical chapter that might get buried with the old headhunters. A tale’s slow death. A magnificent chapter of the tribal history will be lost with the death of these headhunters. One hopes the cultural heritage of the Konyaks comes to the rescue of tourism in these — one of the remotest villages of India.


Factfile

To reach

You will have to take a shared cab from Mon district in Nagaland to reach Longwa, which is 42 km from Mon. You can take an overnight bus from Kohima or use the Jorhat route to reach Mon. Jorhat route is relatively shorter, but you would require to change bus at Sonari, Assam and board another bus or shared jeep, available at Nagaland border to reach Mon. Nearest railhead and airport is Dibrugarh, you can hire a cab from there and come straight to Longwa.


Stay

Mon has only two hotels to speak of (cost INR 1000). You can also opt to stay at Longwa at a guest house; the amenities are very basic or opt for a homestay in Longwa. 

Guide

It is always better to take a guide for more in-depth accounts. One can do without a guide too, if a good background research of the place is done. 

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