Face to Face with the last Headhunters of Nagaland
Since being captivated by exotic portraits of the headhunters of Nagaland in magazines I’d always dreamed of witnessing this intriguing, exotic and oh so different way of life for myself but honestly never really believed that it would happen – the remote tribal state of Nagaland in North East India is off the beaten track to say the least and the thought of meeting tribal people, who until recently severed off the heads of enemies and intruders and proudly displayed them outside their houses, was frankly a little daunting!
In April 2016 my dream came true as I travelled to Nagaland with awesome local guide Sange from Holiday Scout on my 2nd trip to North East India – a region that I’ve really fallen in love with. (See more about my other experiences in North East India here) I was really in for a treat because not only did I get to meet the last of the headhunters but the visit was also timed to coincide with the Aoling Festival – their New Year celebrations!
The Konyak Tribe – Better known as the Headhunters!
North East India is home to many intriguing tribal people and cultures but perhaps the most fascinating are the Konyak Tribe, better known as the headhunters, the largest of 17 officially recognized tribes in Nagaland and infamous due to their tradition of head hunting.
Until as recently as 1969 the Konyak tribe had a reputation of being fierce warriors who often attacked nearby villages of other tribes and took great pride in taking the heads of opposing warriors as trophies to hang in the Morung (a communal house).
For the headhunters, the taking of a head was a great honour and symbol of courage and the number of heads taken indicated the power of a warrior as well the whole tribe and becomes a collective totem.
The headhunters traditionally have a very distinctive look, with colourful tribal beaded jewellery, exotic accessories and colourful intricately woven shawls. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the head hunter’s appearance are the facial and hand tattoos that were earned for taking an enemy’s head.
Until the 19th century the Naga people had very little contact with the outside world, even with the rest of India, and they fiercely fought against occupation by the British. However, eventually British rule came to Nagaland and with it Christian missionaries who converted 95% of Nagas to Christianity and signalled the start of big changes in the lives of the tribal people who traditionally lived in warring tribal villages and followed ‘Donyi-Polo’ an animist faith that translates a worship of the sun and moon.
My Adventure into Nagaland
My journey to one of the final frontiers of India began in Dibrugarh in Assam (the nearest airport to the Mon region where the headhunters tribes live) From Dibrugarh our adventure to Nagaland began with a long journey across typical Assamese countryside of rolling green fields and tea plantations, clay and bamboo houses and white sari clad girls on bicycles lead us to the Nagaland border.
As soon as we rumbled across a rickety bridge and entered the dusty border crossing I felt like I had left India and entered another world – a jungly wild west where anything could happen! While waiting for our documents to be checked a man with a large gun who seemed to be high insisted on having his photo taken with me, despite photography being prohibited at the border crossing I thought it best not to refuse!
Welcome to Nagaland!
We bumped out way along dusty tracks, over shaky wooden bridges and through lush vegetation that reminded me more of South East Asia than India past wooden and bamboo houses, rustic villages with concrete 1950’s style churches that were a result of Christian missionaries.
By nightfall we reached the town of Mon which was to be our base in the Ahng Region, the land of the Headhunters, because this was where the only hotels were. It’s easier to visit Nagaland than it used to be as foreigners are no longer required to have a Protected Area Permit to visit but still need to register at the police station.
With the formalities complete we checked into the Paramount Guest House which looked a little ominous from the outside but I was assured that this was the best of only 3 accommodation options in town and despite being basic it was clean and comfortable enough, the staff was super helpful and the electricity worked about 50% of the time which is a big achievement in this remote and rustic region!
Celebrating the Aoling Festival in Wakching
The following morning after a few more hours across bumpy tracks we made it to the village of Wakching where a huge crowd had gathered in the center of the village to celebrate the Aoling festival. The people in Nagaland look very different from those in the rest of India and I loved how the women carried their babies on their backs wrapped up in shawls as they peered from the steps of the imposing white church which faced the Morung, the traditional community hall for the Konyak tribal people.
The Aoling Festival is the biggest festival for the Konyak tribe as is held every year in the first week of April to celebrate the New Year but exact dates can change. Finding out what celebrations and rituals were taking place and where was a complex investigation verging on complete mystery even for the local people but our guide Sange with his connections managed to get the lowdown.
Visiting Nagaland at this time means that you can see tribal people all dressed up in their traditional clothes and jewellery and also witness traditional tribal dances being performed as well as other rituals including animal sacrifices.
The Aoling celebrations were a riot of colour, costumes and laughter – most of the participants were high on paan or opium and genuinely welcomed me into their homes.
No doubt this is the best time to visit Nagaland if you are interested in tribal culture and what sets the Aoling Festival apart from the more famous Hornbill Festival (held in December in Kohima, the capital of Nagaland) is that the Hornbill Festival is arranged by the government as a tourist event whereas the Aoling Festival is totally traditional and authentic and in fact I only saw about 6 other tourists the whole time I was in Nagaland!
Longwa – a headhunter village perched on the border of India and Myanmar
Next day we drove even deeper into the hills of Nagaland, right up to the border with Myanmar (Burma), as we visited the captivating headhunter village of Longwa. Witnessing the Aoling Festival celebrations was a real treat but I also just fell in love with this tribal village and loved just seeing the Konyak people go about their daily lives.
Longwa is perched on a luscious, forested ridge between India and Myanmar. It was almost like stepping back in time as I explored the wooden houses and witnessed a way of life so removed and so different from the modern world yet also so inspiring and almost idyllic.
With the help of my guide Sange from Holiday Scout I set out to explore the village, most people were happy to have their photo taken and to show us around their houses that were made from wood with huge thatched roofs. Inside was dark, gloomy and suffocating smoky. The houses are huge and hold large extended family members who sat around the large hearth in the middle of the house while outside animal skulls now take the place of where the headhunters would once have proudly displayed human heads.
I climbed right to the top of the village and looking down over the gorgeous rolling scenery and forest hillsides all around I realised how meaningless borders are – the people, houses and scenery on the Myanmar side really looked no different to that on the Indian side despite a marker telling me that one side was India and one side was Burma.
The Konyak tribe reside both in India and in Myanmar and are allowed to hunt and pass freely between the two countries within their traditional tribal lands and its refreshing that there are no barriers separating the two countries here
Meeting the Headhunter King of Longwa
The fusion of Christianity with the traditional tribal cultures and beliefs is an interesting, slightly bizarre mix. The center of Longwa village is dominated by an admittedly rather ugly church where the tribal people dressed in colourful sarongs created a serene sound as they sang hymns for the Sunday service.
Just above the church lives the king of the Konyak tribe who, due to the unique position of the village, is said to wake up in Myanmar and have breakfast in India. A new house was in the process of being built but for now the King resides in a somewhat makeshift hut surrounded by other men of the village and a cloud of thick smoke from the opium pipes.
The king greeted us briefly but looked quite spaced out so instead a older man from Calcutta who had been staying there in the King’s hut for months explained more to us about the village until an inebriated man started some kind of tribal song which seemed to keep everyone entertained for a while until the next pipe.
As I emerged from the gloom and smoke of the hut I saw that outside the villagers had heard that some tourists were around and had set up a makeshift market spreading blankets on the ground to display colourful tribal jewellery and hand carved wooden opium pipes for sale.
The last head hunters
To be honest meeting the king was a little disappointing, he was young and had only been King for less than a year since his father had passed away so he didn’t look like the kind of fierce, exotic, tattooed headhunter warrior that I’d imagined. Fortunately though as we drove back towards Mon I got my chance to meet one of the last remaining head hunter kings in another village who was much more like the kind of warrior king I had dreamed of with his facial tattoos, spear, tribal clothing, necklace adorned with 5 small golden heads, red hat adorned with fur, hornbill feathers and wild board canine teeth and what looked like more animal teeth through his ears.
Visiting Nagaland feels like stepping back in time but even here the modern world is starting to reach even these most remote communities. Head hunting is now a thing of the past and although younger people celebrate their heritage at times like the Aoling festival the ‘real’ headhunters are becoming rare. These fascinating people with their unique history and culture really won’t be around for much longer – it was a dream come true to be able to meet these people – the last remaining headhunters of Nagaland and I felt so humbled at the warm welcome I received from people who once had such a fierce some reputation.
If your dream is to meet the headhunters you need to go now before they are gone!
How to visit Nagaland
Nagaland is a state in the remote region of North East India. Traveling here independently can be difficult due to a lack of public transport and tourism infrastructure. Also if you are traveling without a local guide you may not find the local people to be so welcoming. I took a special festival tour . with awesome local tour operator Holiday Scout. This amazing tour included not only the Aoling Festival in Nagaland but also the Mopin Festival in Arunachal Pradesh as well as visiting the Apatani Tribe in the beautiful Ziro Valley and getting up close with endangered rhinos at Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
For more stories from North East India read about:
Liked this? Pin Me! 🙂
My experiences in North East India: