The last Konyak headhunters of Nagaland
When it was done, it was done using a handcrafted comb. Needles made from rattan palm spikes were bound together using plant fibres to make these tattooing combs. The body of a Konyak would become a human canvas, across which intricate motifs were laboriously hand-tapped, using an ink made from the resin of a Toona ciliata tree (commonly known as red cedar).
The day a tribe member was inked was a day of celebration. A pig or a cow would be slaughtered. Traditional sticky red rice would be prepared and rice beer would be served generously. “When an adolescent got his first chest or face tattoo, he laid stretched on his back on the floor,” writes Phejin Konyak in her book, Konyaks: The Last Of The Tattooed Headhunters, published in December by Roli Books—an exquisite anthropological offering on the lesser-known Konyak Naga tribe. “His parents and friends squatted around him, holding his limbs to keep him still. A piece of rag was inserted into the mouth to suppress his groans from the pain, for it was considered unmanly to squeal.”
The Konyaks, an isolated ethnic group defined culturally by their headhunting practice and elaborate facial tattoos, reside in the forest interiors of Nagaland. When they used to attack the villages of rival tribes, it was tradition to rip off their victims’ heads. Those who returned home with the heads would be revered as warriors. It was believed that human heads exuded a mystical force that would bring prosperity and benefit local crops.
Headhunting and the ritual of tattooing were inextricably linked. After every raid, a warrior was decorated with diamond or lozenge markings on his body—in the colour of aubergine. He would be tattooed first on the face, neck, and then other body parts. “The different tattoos worn by a person conveyed his/her status, position, stage of life and achievements in Konyak society,” explains Phejin on email. There were idiosyncratic designs for those belonging to the aristocratic class, warriors, wedded and unwedded women. It was the women who were skilled in the art of tattooing. “For the men, the tattoos defined their rites of passage from boyhood to manhood, and their achievements in battle. For the woman, it defined her cycle of life of having passed from one stage of life to the other,” adds Phejin. The women had tattoos mostly on the legs and arms—the designs being less complicated in form than those on the men. “The age when the girls began tattooing was around 8-10 years, while it was around 13-15 years for the males,” says Phejin.
“Coming in contact with the outside world and their subsequent exposure brought about changes in Konyak society,” she says. By the late 1800s, missionaries had already begun establishing schools and spreading Christianity across the land. The British banned headhunting in 1935—a move that proved fatal to the customary inking ritual.“It was the advent of Christianity which had a big influence on the old tradition—it was regarded as heathen. Today, almost 98% of the Konyak community has converted to Christianity.”
Phejin is both outsider and insider. Her great-grandfather, Ahon, was a celebrated Konyak warrior. In 1918, he was appointed a dobashi (interpreter) for the British in the Mokokchung subdivision of Assam’s Naga Hills district. “His silent wish was to bring peace to his land,” says Phejin. So, he travelled from village to village with British ethnographer J.H. Hutton, “after which the missionaries came along, and with that so did Christianity. Although he helped bring peace, ironically, (the expedition) also brought about the end of the old ways and the tattooing tradition.”
Confronted with the ephemerality of the centuries-old tradition, Phejin took it upon herself to document her tribe’s history, and the last members familiar with the headhunting customs.
The trigger for this was a desultory visit to the Indian Museum in Kolkata in August 2014, when Phejin casually struck up a conversation with then museum director B. Venugopal. She spoke about her tribe, its folklore and its rich tattooing tradition. “After listening to my stories, he asked me to give a lecture at the museum on it. This pushed me to start documenting the tattoo tradition extensively,” recalls Phejin. Thus began an arduous three-year journey: Phejin travelled to remote Naga villages, pitched at the edge of the map, collecting intimate stories, poems and folklore.
The text is interspersed with powerful, mesmerizing images of the old tribespeople—the last repositories of a rich culture—photographed by Peter Bos (who joined the project in 2015). Bos recalls: “When I was in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, I researched on the North-East. But it was difficult to gather good information on the region, especially the Mon district in Nagaland (where the Konyaks live). The stories and appearance of the old tattooed warriors drew me to the tribe. I knew that first-hand information was only available locally, so I dived in.”
There is a telling degree of intimacy in the pictures—each image has life; each face has a memorable expression. It relays the trust and friendship Bos managed to establish with the Konyaks. “Since I was travelling with Phejin, there was no language barrier,” Bos says on email. “We always sat with them around their fires in their homes, talking about their past and experiences. After some time, knowing the sincerity of our goals, the old men and women felt at ease, and were willing to stand in front of my camera.”
This book serves as a legacy. Several of the Konyaks photographed are dead. “The Konyaks themselves don’t realize how vulnerable our old traditional culture is, but one of the tattooed old men handed me cash he had earned from selling his cardamom harvest. He wanted to support our work. We were very touched by his intention, but couldn’t take his money,” Phejin says. As a tribute, however, the old man’s image became the cover of the book.
In the future, Phejin and Bos intend to publish this book in the Konyak language and work on an illustrated version for the children of the community.
The writer tweets at @radhika_iy