Friday, January 20, 2017

Last legacy of Headhunters in Nagaland

nagaland village mon traditional house

One mid-monsoon afternoon, after my Deutsche examination, I went out for much anticipated journey to north-eastern part of India. My journey was principally focused to Nagaland, a land of tribes, weird foods, legends, and conception, sometimes fabled to a point that outside so called civilized people take a backseat when going to the region.

My journey to Mon, a district town bordering with Burma was a hectic one. Nothing went smooth as soon as I crossed the Tizit town. Nagaland police drilled me for almost 40 minutes, checking all my papers, even my laptop and field notes. As I moved to the district, I was again checked, and this time Army (Assam Riffles) sniffed me hard. Earlier I was in Kohima, though a cool place to live in for a while, I saw security guards watched heavily laced with advanced guns from posts.

A typical Nagaland village house
It took more than 3 hours to reach Mon from Sonari, a small town in Assam, bordering with Nagaland. Sonary is a beautiful place with lush green sweeping tea gardens and small houses. I loved all of those scenes, those thatched tin roof, greenery and people around. The winding road, the villages, small patches of tea garden, forests everything put a very different, sometimes a little uncanny feeling in my mind. 

Nagaland, as it’s been portrayed to the outside world, something a unique identity whether their lifestyle, food and culture, I saw a certain glimpses through my journey. There are more than 35 existing tribes in the state; some are also present majorly in Manipur and Burma. There are principally three tribes who are in the mainstream: Sumi or Sema (mostly dominated in Dimapur region), snake eating Angami tribes are mostly confined to Kohima villages and famous Konyak, the legendary headhunter tribe. There are other prominent tribes like Ao, Chang, Lotha, Mao, Zeme and other spread over Manipur and Burma.

An old Konyak woman selling vegetables & Herbs
I was not much aware about headhunters but during my stay in Meghalaya, I was told by a guy about Konyak tribe and last remaining lineage of this tribe living in Mon. situated on the very border between India and the tribal parts of Burma, Longwa, a small village, earlier dominated by headhunters, still reflects the old charm. This small village is no more an obscure one; tourists throng to this village and everything is so expensive. There are a few places to stay and even a homestay where you can experience the beauty of Naga people in their own way. Travelers from distant land come to visit the village as headhunting legends and stories are indeed fascinating. There are a few men, very old ones whole still wear animal horns through their ears, brass skulls and tattoos on their chest, and some rare facial tattoos. 

Morungs are still found in Mon. These are old customary schools where children are taught survival skills and hunting practices. I never saw even a bird in the whole forests of Mon. An old temple priest, who lived there for 22 years, jokingly said that Nagas ate everything, not even spared worms. Longwa, the main attraction of travelers is perched on a ridge on the Indian-Burma border. It’s around 40 km from Mon town, and shared taxis are there to take you to the village.

Before Mon, I was in Kohima, but Mon was something that put a deep impression in mind. It’s culturally fascinating place where you witness old thatched traditional houses, people with old way of living, opium smoking tribes, houses decorated with animal skulls and famed tattoos. 

History of Headhunters

Till 1930, most of the remote regions in Nagaland were totally in oblivion, even not mentioned in maps. Headhunters were the main tribes or as a local said to me, all Nagas came through headhunter lineage. They remained remotely in villages and natural barricades, forests and fast rivers protected them. They fought with their enemies who were neighboring villages. Head hunting was sort of a culture than fight. Naga women ridiculed men who didn’t have face tattoos or even chest tattoos. Chest tattoos signify a person trained in headhunting. 

konyak headhunter
An old Konyak (trained in Headhunting)
Their main occupation was farming, principally rice farming. Sometimes they invaded villages, taking lands, taking heads of people, not even spared women and children. One village was connected with another through bamboo bridges, quite fragile and easily destroyed in hostile situations.

To protect their lands from enemies, Nagas covered forests with men traps. These were bamboo spiked that pierced the feet, sometimes they attacked with poison arrows, and rare occasion they plowed large pit with pointed spikes. Till 1936, Nagaland large regions were not mapped in British map, and then British came to this place with full army and arms.

This was a significant time, a momentary change for Nagas when they first saw cars, ammunition and white people. However, they remained what they were, and headhunting still continued as a traditional heritage of Nagas, particularly Konyak tribe. 

opium smoking in Mon
Opium smoking 
Headhunting was a cultural phenomenon rather a pure conflicting subject. Hunters were trained for the skill to chop of the heads and brought to the villages and ceremonial dance performed by the hunter. Skulls were being used to decorate their houses, not just animals but men, women, and children. These skulls were then fed with rice beer. This ritual was the central focal point of village life so that spirits revisit the village, giving the strength and vitality.

The last headhunting was officially stopped in 1970 as the central government totally abandoned this ancient culture as barbaric and criminal. Unofficially headhunting was continued till 80s but it was completely obliterated when Indian Army posted they camps in different regions of Nagaland. 

Important Facts about Mon Town

Lau Pani (local beer)
Mon town has a special charm. It is a small place with a few shops and food joints. There are some vegetarian food joints where you can get snacks etc. The villages are adjacent to the town, so you can easily get into those villages and see the local life. However, it is advised to take a local guy who know things better. It is also for safety reasons.

Accommodation & Food

Hotels are expensive. There are three hotels, and all of them are almost Rs. 1000 or more. The facility is basic and food is ordinary. But you don’t have any choice but to stay in Mon. if you can reach Mon in the afternoon, you can hire a taxi and go straight into Longwa and stay there.

I had a special experience, worth mentioning here. I didn’t anticipate the bills of hotels, so I was heavily disappointed but suddenly a teenage boy from bus who was a Bengali asked me what happened. I told him it was pretty difficult to stay for me here because of the cost. We went together to a hotel named Sunrise Hotel, next the State Bank of India. The owner was a Bengali too, but he said rooms were filled. So, we went to another one, which was again Rs. 1200. I was deeply thwarted but Rajat (the teenage boy) asked me whether I was comfortable to stay in a temple. I readily agreed, and we went to the temple located inside the premise of Assam Riffles. 

The temple priest was too reluctant to take me in. I finally said whether he took me in or I would go to the forest and stayed there for a night. Then I comforted him by saying I would go to the police station and stamped all my documents. I went to the police station, stamped my documents and then came back to the temple. He unenthusiastically asked for Rs. 200 for the stay that includes my dinner. Well, I think I was purely lucky in this case.

General Warning

The town virtually standstills after 5 pm, and it is not advisable to roam around the streets or villages. There are good people but there are bad people as well, particularly the opium stuff destroys the youth and men, so many of them looking for easy money to smoke some pure opium. This is not just a scare mongering but a real fact, so don’t just show your bravery in Mon after 5 pm.

Accommodation in Longwa

You can go to Longwa but there is nothing out there. The main attraction is Angh (king) house that is half in India and half in Burma. There are no headhunters left; at least I haven’t found any. However, you can see the village with skulls and other decorative stuff. Also, you can find some nice souvenirs. You can stay in Longwa, but the stay is expensive. 

If you plan to visit Longwa, it is better to note down the timing of bus and shared taxis. There is one bus going to the place in the morning and come back in the evening. There are two shared taxis, one in the morning and another one in the afternoon (2pm). You can obviously hire own taxis readily available in Mon but these are expensive. They charge you anything between Rs. 3000 to Rs. 4000 for to and fro from Mon to Longwa.

Insurgency in Mon

There are some problems in this part of Nagaland. Although things are now peaceful, insurgency is still there. Apparently there is a pressure for villagers to join the insurgents, else there will be reprisals against that village. The insurgents are dominated by ENPO (Eastern Nagaland Peoples Organisation). They have raised the demand of separate Eastern Nagaland or Frontier Nagaland. The eastern region, basically Konyak region is considered the most backward place in Nagaland so they demand their own independence.

Young Konyak woman eating breakfast (beef & rice)
It is safe and quite calm but it is advisable to take a local while roaming around those villages. There are army posted everywhere in this region but things are still lukewarm, and people are not happy with lack of business, jobs and taxes levied on them by the government.

For Intrepid Travelers

Houses decorated with animal skulls
A female Christian named Yahoi who has a developed a strange cult in this region. The women has been making many prophecies, encouraging followers to practice naked worship in Church. The village that you may interest is Wangti, but it’s quite far from Mon, so if you are really interested in visiting this place, you can find it out.

Important Contacts

You can contact Longsha, a Konyak Naga who knows fairly good amount of the culture and traditions. He is a local guy there and professional guide to foreign tourists. He speaks good English and has a car. He is a busy man, so contact him in advance. 

+91 9436433504 / 8974390751 or

You can contact another person, a local who I befriended during my journey and he took me to the nearby village. I had a great experience with some people there. If you contact him, tell him my name (Shubhajit), he might recognize me.

Mr. Chahland, 9862841861.

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  • shubhammansingka says:
    June 6, 2016 at 9:26 PM

    Best thing I've read today. Amazing work brother.


  • Akshaya Ghosh says:
    June 22, 2016 at 2:39 AM

    Quite informative

  • mithun says:
    August 26, 2016 at 7:02 AM

    i like this blog. and article :)

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