What I discovered when I visited Nagaland to document its famous headhunters tribe - Elle India

What I discovered when I visited Nagaland to document its famous headhunters tribe

"The tattooed faces of the Konyaks, along with other aspects of their tribal identity and warrior history set them apart"

BY Nirvair Singh Rai | August 28th, 2019

In early June, two friends and I set off for Nagaland to document its Konyak tribe, famously known as the last living headhunters. 

As a photographer my job usually takes me places, but this was the first time I was going to come face-to-face with such a remote tribe—one that lived so deep within the hills of the northeast that it was totally cut off from modern life. After a long plane ride to Dimapur from Mumbai via Kolkata, we hopped into our taxi and began our journey through the lush countryside. 

A towering palm tree, engulfed by an amaltas (laburnum)

Along the way, we passed through many small villages that reminded me of the paintings my brother and I would draw as children—green hills, a blazing sunset, birds, and a hut with a well-lit door waiting to welcome you.

Deer feeding on blooming white flowers

After hours on the road, passing gentle-faced men, and women in neat white red-bordered saris, we reached Sonari near the border of Assam and Nagaland. I saw many frames that would make for beautiful photographs, and I stopped to shoot whenever I could—a herd of deer feasting on white flowers, women in the tea fields gracefully throwing buds into their conical baskets…

In alert tribal, a hunter waiting for his prey

We stopped for masala fish before proceeding through even more dense forest—a maze of trees that grew so close that they seemed to almost be wrapped in an embrace. Lulled by the heady scent of the wildflowers that filtered in through the windows, we soon drifted into a sweet sleep, only to finally wake up in Longwa village, the home of the headhunters. 

The Konyaks are a unique community, known for their fierce history of headhunting rival tribes whenever there was a conflict: they would cut the heads off their victims as trophies. 

A Konyak tribesman wearing handcrafted metal jewellery made of skulls, the primary motif of his tribe

And though this practice has been discontinued by the Indian government, its stories live on in everyday life, with the skull being a repeated motif seen everywhere from metal jewellery and wooden carvings to home decor. 

I’ve always believed that remote tribes, so far removed from our city ways, need to be respected for their centuries-old customs and traditions. And so, I found myself wondering about the hostility and multiple interventions they have faced from the outside world—from people like us telling them what to do and how to behave. But it is ultimately us city folk who come here fascinated by their rituals and try to document them for who they are. 

A local from Longwa village

The tattooed faces of the Konyaks, along with other aspects of their tribal identity and warrior history set them apart, but as I began to interact with them, I discovered that in reality they are much like us—they laugh and sing, and strive to protect their families and community.

Sadly, very soon, the last living Konyaks who actively participated in headhunts will no longer be around. And while there are some among the younger lot who have witnessed headhunts, most only hear of them through stories—their colourful oral history that will continue to be passed on to future generations.

Just one example of the many dazzling contrasts in colour to be seen in the valleys around Longwa

The slow pace of life here was calming. Things came from the forest and went back to it; almost everything was made of baby bamboo, even the utensils, with which we were served generous helpings of rice, boiled potatoes and dollops of traditional pickle. 

We spent four days learning the ways of the headhunters—they taught us hunting and carving, and even parted with the secret recipe of their pickle. I had no wish to return home, but after four days it was time to say goodbye—my friends and I had made plans to visit Kaziranga as well, as it was too close to skip. On our way to the wildlife park, bright yellow amaltas (laburnum) trees made way for us. We spotted multiple elephants and their mahouts, and a cobra slithering across the road. 

Konyaks at the boundary of Longwa

After being in the mountains of the northeast and having lived with the Konyaks and finding common ground despite our language and lifestyle differences, I was sad to return to city life. My visit had left me full of gratitude and love, and I was truly humbled by their hospitality. It had been a respectful exchange of cultures, and I promised myself I would return again soon.

Photographs: Nirvair Singh Rai