Inside India #39: The Headhunters of Nagaland

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

Nagaland is located in Northeast India, bordering Myanmar (formerly Burma) to the east and the tea state of Assam to the west. It is one of India’s smallest states, with a population of barely two million, largely Christian; it is also one of the country’s most politically volatile regions.

Nagaland became the 16th state of India on 1 December 1963 and has been consistently wracked by insurgency, inter-ethnic conflict, and political violence, originally stemming from a Naga call for independence from the state of Assam.

Supposedly descended from the Mongols, the Naganese settled as a series of tribes in eastern India from the twelfth century onwards, only coming together in modern times around a desire to establish a collective identity within the new India created by Partition and the advent of Independence in 1947.

Picture attribution: Avantikac98 CC 4.0

Of the many tribes that inhabit the forested state, the Konyak warrior tribe hold a special place in Indian folklore. Known for their ferocity and penchant for engaging in war with rival tribes, they become infamous for their headhunting prowess, routinely beheading enemies and returning with the severed heads as trophies that they then carried into future battles.

It was believed by the Nagas that these heads exuded a spiritual force that benefited crops and brought prosperity to the village. The decapitated heads also served as intriguing home décor, proudly displayed on the walls and doorways of Naga longhouses.

Europeans first encountering this fierce Naga tribe were fascinated by this macabre practise, writing of “skull houses”. Commentators also noted that each man in the village was expected to contribute to the grisly collection – any man unable to take a head in battle was considered lacking in courage, an unworthy warrior.

In much the same way that modern gang members in Latin America and inner city Los Angeles use tattoos to display the status of their ‘kills’, the Konyak warriors used patterned body tattoos to mark their skill in battle. Face tattoos, however, were reserved for those who had returned with enemy heads, hand-tapped into the skin using sharpened rattan canes and tree sap pigment.

The arrival of Christian missionaries in the region during the second half of the 19th century gradually began to erode the Konyak’s warrior ideology. As the British pacified the area and intertribal conflict declined, the need for battle also waned.

In 1935, the British officially banned the taking of heads with the Indian government following suit, post-Independence, in 1960, though the tradition lingered on for a few years in remote hilltop villages. By the mid 2010s the last generation of Naga headhunters were gradually dying out.

With them dies their ancient tradition. 

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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