The Fading Tattoo Traditions of India’s Last Headhunters

An ancient warrior tribe once gave its men tattoos in exchange for enemy heads. These photos reveal the last of these once-fearsome warriors.

The earliest memories Kanato Chophy associates with tattoos are that of violence – scenes of the Indian army personnel targeting young men with tattoos, and dragging them out of their houses in the middle of the night. These nights were punctuated with the sound of gunfire rippling through the air and wails of helpless mothers. 

“The stereotypical assumption by the [Indian] State was that anyone sporting a tattoo was an insurgent and a rebel,” said Chophy, an anthropologist by training and a researcher in northeast India studies at Utkal University. “It didn’t matter if the tattoos were traditional. Even those wearing leather jackets, which had pictures of [American rock bands] Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, were detained.”

India’s northeast region, comprising eight states, has a history of violent conflicts between the army and insurgents who demand self-rule from the central government. The demographic composition of one of the region’s states, Nagaland, primarily includes the Nagas, a tribe with numerous ethnic subgroups also found across neighbouring Myanmar. One of these subgroups is the Konyaks, who are often considered the last headhunters of the region. 

The Konyaks used to be headhunters, and their tattooing culture is closely linked to that way of life, which is now banned. Photo: Tania Chatterjee

The practice of headhunting is unique to the Konyaks. They were feared as aggressive warriors and would infamously resolve conflicts by beheading their enemies and taking their skulls back home in a basket designed specifically for the purpose. These trophies would then be displayed in their village’s community halls and their own homes with pride. 

They are also known for their tattoos.

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“The Konyak tattoos closely denoted various stages of their lives,” explained Chophy,  who is a Sumi Naga, one of the Naga tribes in the state. “They marked various stages of manhood, expressed their animistic relationship with nature, and more importantly, headhunting.” 

In her book The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, Phejin Konyak, the great-granddaughter of a prominent tattooed headhunter, writes that headhunting and the ritual of tattooing are historically linked. After every war, the warrior, upon returning with the skull trophies, would be decorated with aubergine-coloured diamond and lozenge markings hand-tapped across his body. These tattoos were drawn using the ink of the red cedar tree, while palm spikes were used as tattooing combs. She also writes how, for the men, it was considered unmanly to even squeal when their bodies acted as the canvas for these sharp tattooing tools.  

The Konyak tattoos were drawn using the ink of the red cedar tree, while palm spikes were used as tattooing combs. Photo: Tania Chatterjee

The face tattoos were reserved for these fearsome warriors, specifically those coming back home from raids or conquests with human heads. Only a few of these one-time headhunters are still alive. “These people are the last bearers of this tradition, and when they die it will be gone forever,” Phejin Konyak told CNN

The Indian government officially put a ban on headhunting in 1960 – also the time when Nagas across the eight states had largely embraced Christianity. American Baptist missionaries aggressively advocated Christianity in the region since the early 19th century, aided by the ruling British colonialists. The British and the missionaries looked down upon headhunting and saw Konyaks as “heathens,” banning the practice in 1935. The advent of Western religion improved literacy rates in the region, but in their zeal to “civilise,” the missionaries discouraged several ancient traditions, including tattooing. 

One of the last few remaining Konyaks with face tattoos. Photo: Tania Chatterjee

“Christianity emphasises turning the other cheek and not pursuing revenge,” said Chophy, who is a Christian. “We don’t engage in blood feud because the belief is that Christ has forgiven our sins. The Konyaks were blanched into a completely new mindset, and this immensely contributed to them moving away from headhunting and tattooing.” 

Tania Chatterjee, a photographer based in New Delhi, visited Nagaland in April to document the annual Aoling festival, a harvest season celebrated by the Konyaks. She agrees with Chophy’s assessment of the dying tattooing traditions. 

The Aoling Monyu Festival is the annual 'Spring Festival' of the Konyaks, the once feared headhunting tribe who reside in the Mon district of Nagaland. Photo: Tania Chatterjee​

“When I met the young Konyaks of a village called Longwa, none of them had any tattoos,” she told VICE. “Almost all of them had converted to Christianity, and there were churches dotting almost every village.” 

The way Chatterjee sees it, this “modernisation” immensely contributed to the fading of tattoo traditions. “I met the granddaughter of the village’s king and found out that she was actually pursuing a course in nursing from Nagaland’s capital city of Kohima,” she said. Most of the youngsters Chatterjee spoke to expressed their fears of getting discriminated against by the city folk if they had tattoos. For the young, moving to the cities was the only option for quality education or for making money. It’s seen as a ticket out of their villages, its bad roads, and lack of civic amenities. 

Scenes from the The Aoling Monyu Festival, the annual 'Spring Festival' of the Konyaks. The younger generations do not sport face or even body tattoos since these are often stigmatised in bigger "modern" cities.Photo: Tania Chatterjee​

Nagaland, and most of northeast India, still has poor connectivity and crumbling infrastructure, despite being at a geographically sensitive location along the national border. 

When Chatterjee travelled to the remote Mon district, situated along the Nagaland-Myanmar border, she encountered the last remnants of the tattooing and headhunting culture. She witnessed the traditional Konyak tattoos on the freckled skin of the village elders, with designs depicting the nature they live amid, such as trees, fishes, and rivers crisscrossing in fading lines across their bare torsos. 

“When I photographed them in their community halls, surrounded by trophies of the past, I knew I would never get a chance like this to document this dying culture,” said Chatterjee. “Most of them were so old they barely had teeth, and couldn’t even converse with my translator.” 

Most young Konyaks have converted to Christianity and no longer sport tattoos that are stigmatised in urban India, which means that in a decade or so, there might be no living Konyak sporting traditional tattoos. Photo: Tania Chatterjee​

Moba Langfhoang, a 35-year-old Konyak working as a government employee in Nagaland, doesn’t look back on Konyak tattoos with the wistful nostalgia that others might have. “My grandmother had a tattoo on her chin and her neck that marked various stages of her womanhood. But now all her tattoos are fading,” Langfhoang told VICE. His grandparents are one of the last few surviving elders of the tribe to still have tattoos. 

“We can’t relate to the importance these tattoos had for our elders because we have grown up in an environment where tattoos and headhunting didn’t exist,” Langfhoang added. “Those tattoos narrated their story and wars, not ours. There is no point in hanging on to something just for the sake of it.”  

“These people are the last bearers of this tradition, and when they die it will be gone forever." Photo: Tania Chatterjee

However, Mo Naga, a 36-year-old Uipo Naga tattoo artist based in the Tengnoupal district of the northeastern state of Manipur, harbours ambitious dreams for the revival of Konyak tattoos. “It doesn’t matter if headhunting is banned,” he told VICE. “Our tattoos were a product of more than just that. Just because a white man tells us that headhunting must be banned and anything related to it, will we lose our tradition? These tattoos express our way of life. They form our language.” 

Mo Naga learning how to tattoo using indigenous techniques from a village elder. Photo courtesy Mo Naga

Mo Naga explains how one of the tattoos he recently worked on for a fellow member of his tribe captured their village’s relationship with a special breed of catfish that flows in a stream cutting through their village. Another tattoo expressed the symbiotic relationship between plants, animals, and the indigenous tribes, in keeping with the animistic beliefs of the Konyaks. 

A traditional Konyak tattoo on a Konyak woman. Photo courtesy Mo Naga

“We are not trained to see these things,” said Mo Naga. “Because our minds are sadly only conditioned to read English alphabets. My work is also about decolonisation. We need to see our culture through the eyes of our ancestors, not Christianity.”

According to Chophy, the choice of embracing tattoos must be left to the discretion of individual Konyaks. “Some of them might want to move out to the cities, while others may want to preserve it. We don’t get to judge their choices or have a say in it.” 

Mo Naga, for his part, has set his sights on getting the Konyak tattoos acknowledged on a global scale. He is already working on establishing a “tattoo village” in his hometown that can act as a crucible for further development of the tattoo culture, and education to demystify and preserve it. 

Mo Naga has set his sights on getting the Konyak tattoos acknowledged on a global scale and is working on establishing a “tattoo village." Photo courtesy Mo Naga

“I want our Konyak tattoos to be part of UNESCO’s list of Intangible Heritage. Our lives are beautiful and filled with enough stories and lessons to last a lifetime.” 

Follow Arman Khan on Instagram.

Tagged:

tradition, TRIBES, Tattoos, Life, konyak nagas

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