On the trail of head-hunters
22nd March 2003


THE NIGHT was cold and dark, yet I saw them. Stealthily creeping through the gate, with spears and daos gleaming in their hands, the men wore loincloths and tattoos and carried cane baskets adorned with monkey skulls. They spot me and abandon their stealth tactics. With a blood-curdling “Aaaoouh!” they charge towards me, even as I was cower in absolute terror. My head is slashed in an instant and tucked into the basket, “Blood on the dance floor”, sings Michael Jackson…
Hold on! Hold on! It’s just a bad dream. I look accusingly at the book by my bedside. The Naked Nagas by Prof. Heimendorf (1939) is an absorbing account of his earliest encounters with the head-hunters of Nagaland and a reliable document on their unique culture. Of the 16 tribes living in Nagaland, the Konyak used to be the fiercest of them all.
Today, 70 years later, things have changed, as I was to discover during my two-week filming stint with the Konyak. We were based in the picturesque north eastern district of Mon, an eight-hour drive from Kohima, the capital. The advent of the British Raj in the 1830s brought technology and roads into this final frontier. The American missionaries followed and as a result of their work, the animistic Konyak are .95 percent Christian today. Head hunting is now a part of history.
Nagaland remains predominantly an agrarian economy, with about 70 percent of the people living in traditional villages strategically located on hilltops. We had planned to film in the village of Wanching and the two-hour drive turned out to be delightful. Vistas of gently rolling hills and subtropical be vegetation pass by. Our guide, Pong Tao, who’s a scripture teacher at Mon, along with Sting, playing on the tape deck.  He laughs at my dream, “Yes that’s just the way they would have done it s hundred years ago. Even today you will meet old head-hunters who remember this. You’ll recognize them because their faces are tattooed.”
Traditionally, the Konyak believed that the soul of a person lives in the nape of the neck, while the spiritual being, a source of fertile potency, was in the skull and that it could be transmitted to others. The means of acquiring such power was to behead one’s enemies. Warfare and head-hunting were sacred ritual practices to ensure bountiful harvests, reinvigorate villages, enhance prestige, and be endowed with fertility.
Situated at a height of 1,000 meters, Wanching has about 400 huts, clustered together, built with bamboo and masses of palm fronds. The village slows down time to the more leisurely pace of yesterday. As Pong Tao walked me through the narrow village lanes, we were followed by groups of curious, giggling children. Women in long skirts and cotton blouses gracefully walked by with long conical baskets of wood, strapped from the top of their heads. An elderly woman, who was grinding tea leaves with her feet, hurriedly put a blouse on and smiled at me with black teeth. Pong explained: “Our grandmothers still don’t like to wear tops; they never wore any when they were young. And in those days, black teeth were signs of beauty, so they used to blacken them with coal, which was also hygienic.”
As is customary, we pay our respects to the angh, the hereditary king of Wanching. I’m warmly welcomed with a betel nut in a paan Khem angh was dressed in full ceremonial regalia – an electric blue kilt and jewellery of beads and cowry shells. Boar tusks and horn bill feathers adorned his cane helmet. Thenga, his wife, was wearing long brass earrings, loads of beaded necklaces and bracelets, a wraparound skirt and blouses.
The Angh is highly revered. “My people are simple and hardworking Khem Ang told me “Our lifestyle is very different from yours, but we’re quite happy here.” Quite so, I think observing the glowing faces and easy laughter all around me, as Pong Tao walks me to the morung, a huge wooden hut-like structure with a slanting roof and heavily carved portals. This was where young unmarried men used to spend the night, guarding the village, and learning about their ancestry, rituals customs and duties.
As we approach Pong Tao’s crowded morung, I hear strange staccato beats. Inside, about 20 young men are lined on both sides of a huge log hollowed out at the centre. They were drumming it with small wooden pestles.
This is the lokong, whose beats were used to communicate news of important events – from feasts to the arrival of visitors and even fire hazards. Today, the lokong is used symbolically at ceremonies, reverberating with the sounds of other day.