Of head hunters and tribal chiefs
5th April 2003


The stone slab is covered with about 200 skulls, prized trophies of the once dreaded Konyak headhunters of Nagaland. The Angh, the hereditary and the revered king of Langmeang village, greets me warmly outside the Morung. This huge shed-kike hut with slopping roofs and huge wooden pillars carved with fingers of animals was the traditional men’s dormitory.
Shingwang, our interpreter and guide, picks up one skull, “These are some of the heads that these people hunted.” He holds out to me and I gulp, but examine it with a, “Sure, I can handle this” expression. He laughs, “He can’t bite. He’s been dead for about a 10o years. The Konayak traditional belief was that the soul of a person lives in the nape of the neck, while the spiritual being remained in the skull and was a source of fertile potency. Power was acquired by beheading enemies.
The Angh now introduces me to two village elders who have heavily tattooed faces and beaded necklaces with wooden skull pendants, the marks of a headhunter of yore. They demonstrate how “headhunting” once was and stealthily creep towards me. One has a spear in his hand, and the other; a hatchet. Suddenly they pounce and begin slamming their weapons into the ground while letting out bloodcurdling screams, “aaiieeou!” they now tuck the imaginary heads into their traditional cane headhunting baskets and trot off!
Shingwang relates, “About 60-70 years ago, the Tribal Council decided on a head hunting expedition, as the previous year had been bad for the crops. A group of men went to a neighboring village and cam back with 20 heads. A huge celebration was organized, where they did the traditional headhunting dance.” Headhunting was the way of life here, until the American missionaries began conversions in the 19th century. Today, 95 per cent of Konayak are Christians and Shingwang tells me, “We are happy that our headhunting days are over.”
For a people with such a fierce past, I find the Konayak to be surprisingly gentle. Over the past two weeks, I have witnesses an amazing sense of togetherness and community harmony. This fact is strongly brought home to me at the village of Wakching.
There was a fire in Wakching, three days ago and about 200 houses have been gutted. We head out to Wakching and present the Angh with some rations for disaster relief. Inside the Morung, huge quantities if energy supplies have found their way from all over the district, including rice, tea, blankets, clothes and even utensils. In addition, loads of men from neighboring villages have rushed here, to help. As I look at the site, which was burnt down, I find that the entire hill face is in different stages of reconstruction. Shingwang tells me, “Within a week, all 200 homes will be rebuilt and their owners reinstated by the people of neighboring villages.” All of this, without any compulsion! I am completely astounded by this amazing sense of community service!
My next stop is the village of Chui where Shingwang introduces me to W. Konayak of the Congress Party, who tells me, “The administration of Konayak village would be impossible without the guidance of the Angh, as he still commands our respect and loyalty. In fact, even the Indian constitution recognises our customary law and the Tribal Council. In the glow of the fire, he looks formidable. Long goats’ horns adorn his ears and dark tattoos design his face. His red cane helmet is adorned with ivory tusks and hornbill feathers. The Tribal Council is the heart of their legal system, where all problems are discussed, argued and resolved, swiftly and justly. “Even if someone is killed, we don’t go to the police. We come here and the Tribal Council will decide the matter, within a day. The decision of the Angh is final. He is our Supreme Court”, says W. Konayak.
In the past, the tribal councils were marked by the smoking of opium from handmade bamboo pipes. Opium was believed to cure malaria and stomach problems, and is now used as pain relief, but at the high price of rapid addiction. But today, in celebration of Aoling, I am invited to smoke the peace pipe with them! I squat beside the Angh’s son, who patiently teaches me to draw in the smoke and follow it with a swig of black tea. I manage after a few drags and get a round of applause, from some very amused and boisterous men!
  • Government permits are required to visit this area. it is best to contact the office of the District Commissioner in Mon to organize an official escort. Prior permission of village Anghs is required before visiting any Konayak village.
  • Since Nagaland is a ‘sensitive’ state, it is best to restrict visits here to Kohima, a four hour drive from Dimapur, which is accessible by air and rail.
  • For further information, contact Nagaland House, 29, Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi. Tel: 23794680