“I was the last man to cut our enemy’s head off and bring it back,” said Chinkhum, an 82-year-old Konyak warrior from Mon district in Nagaland.
Chinkhum sat inside his hut in the picturesque village of Longwa. “I am the last head hunter,” he told photographer Fanil Pandya. The last beheading, he said, had been over a land dispute.
Another tribesman, Panhpa claimed to have beheaded five men in his lifetime. “I have no regrets about it,” said the 80-year-old.
Until the 1940s, the Konyak tribe’s defining characteristic was the practice of headhunting to acquire land and power. The last incident was reported in the 1970s.
With the prominent black tattoos adorning their faces, it is not difficult to identify the last few headhunters still alive in Longwa.
The tattoos were made by a woman named Naokhe, who would tattoo a young man’s face after he had brought home his first head, a rite of passage for the Konyaks. Now a 60-year-old, Naokhe has not drawn a tattoo in almost 26 years.
“I’m not sure if I will ever be able to do it again,” she said.
The Konyak tribe stopped the practice of head-hunting when British missionaries brought Christianity to Nagaland. Despite this, one cannot ignore the spiritual significance of hunting human heads, for the Konyaks. “In earlier times we use hang the heads of our enemies on the walls of our morung [communal houses], but now we are not allowed so we only put the skulls of animals we kill to provide for our family,” said 76-year-old Luhpong Wang.
According to Pandya, during the tribe’s headhunting days, the skulls of captured enemies were prominently displayed, but once headhunting was abolished, the skulls were removed from the village and buried. Now, the bones of buffaloes, deer, boars and hornbills decorate the walls of every Konyak house instead.
As part of a long-term project, Pandya has been documenting the ethnic tribes native to Africa, Ethiopia and India. The Baroda photographer’s aim is to document the lifestyle and traditions of these tribes before they completely disappear. His work on the Naga Konyak tribe is a part of this series.
An exhibition of his photographs, titled Headhunters, will be on display at Delhi’s Egg Art Studio
“The Konyak tribe is becoming smaller,” said Pandya. “It is the same story everywhere. The younger generation is slowly discarding traditions and leaving their village in search of better opportunities in cities like Kolkata, Delhi and other metros. Two decades from now, they might be extinct.”
It was in the December of 2015 that Pandya first visited Longwa. The journey to the last village in India situated on the porous border into Myanmar was a long and harrowing one.
The invisible border between India and Myanmar cuts through the village of Longwa and the Konyaks are free to move between the two countries, to farm or to visit other Konyak villages.
“Borders don’t mean anything to us,” said Wanching, an 80-year-old whose home is in India, but who farms in Myanmar. “We don’t live in Myanmar or on Indian land, we live on our own land. The borders cannot stop us.”
“On the first look, Longwa village looks like a picturesque village tucked away in the remote hills of Nagaland, sheltered from modernisation,” said Pandya. “But on closer inspection it is clear that this little paradise too has not been spared, mobile phones and TV sets are eating up the social life of these close-knit tribes. The occasional satellite antenna on top of houses and dust-covered motorbikes are telltale signs of change, which will slowly swallow this part of the world. What will remain of this unavoidable fusion between past and present is yet to be realised.”
“At first encounter the Konyaks can be extremely aggressive towards outsiders,” said Pandya. Upon his arrival in Longwa, he was whisked off immediately and presented before the leader of the village. It was only once he’d had a conversation with the leader, that he was was permitted to enter a headhunter’s house, where he stayed for the next few days, accompanied by a translator.
“We don’t like outsiders, when they come here they bring things which do not belong here,” said Chahlem, 80, to Pandya. “The things they bring to the village create greed and jealousy. In earlier times a person earned respect based on what he had done for community or how many wars he had fought. But now things like mobile phones, motorbikes and clothes earn respect.”
Some of the biggest problems faced by the Konyaks today include the inaccessibility to ambulances and opium-addiction. “The Konyak elders suggest that their community has been made dependent on opium to avoid conflict,” said Pandya. “Since colonial rule, the fierce and aggressive Konyaks have been made dependent on this extremely addictive drug. One of them said to me, ‘every man needs something to get on with life. For me its opium. If I quit now, my thoughts might just kill me.’”
Pandya followed a few rules on his first visit to Longwa: do not take a picture on the first day and don’t turn down a cup of tea when offered. “The Konyaks are basically a social group,” he said. “They sit around the morung and talk and will ask you questions about your life and then offer information about themselves. It’s only when they feel comfortable with you being around, that the camera comes out.”
Headhunters manages to capture the grace and power embodied by each Konyak that Pandya photographs. In his arresting portraits, Pandya lets his subject take centre stage. Their history and tradition is explicit in their clothes, where they sit, whether they have decided to hold a gun in their hand or a cup of tea. Some sit inside their houses wearing elaborate jewellery with animal skulls as a backdrop, others sit under the vast skies looking out at the hills.
The series of head-shots done in black and white, are Pandya’s tribute to the Konyak’s belief that the power of a living being lies in his head. The close-up photographs of tattooed faces, wrinkled almost like crushed paper create a powerful visual.
This is not the first time photographers, bloggers and documentary film-makers have documented the Konyaks. One of the first accounts about them was published by the Austrian ethnologist, Christoph Von Furer-Haimendorf. His book, Naked Nagas, was published in 1978. Haimendorf even went on to make a documentary on the tribe. The film was aired on the BBC channel. More recently, photographers like Jeff Bauche too have travelled to Nagaland’s Mon district for this purpose.
Headhunters will be on display at Egg Art Studio, New Delhi, from December 20 to January 19.