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The Headhunters of Longwa

Inscribed with tattoos and equipped with sharp weapons, the Longwas of Nagaland have preserved their tradition in this rapidly evolving world, writes Aakash Mehrotra.

 Agencies |  2017-10-07 14:13:35.0

Conversing with a nonagenarian is sleep-inducing, until the moment you ask about his good old fighting days, then the geriatric warrior suddenly comes alive; the years dissolve, eyes gleam, clarity returns and tales of the good life pour as if it was all yesterday. I was in Longwa, a small village on Indo-Burma border in Nagaland and conversing with a headhunter, who suddenly got into his warrior mode, stabbing the air with his spear. 'I killed 10 men' he recalled, with obvious pride. He then patted his necklace, which has metal carved human skulls on it and showed me the machete he used to cut off their heads.

'It is a hard job to cleave a human head off its body. It comes with practice,' he added. With every new head on his belt, the tattoos on his body grew bolder. The Chaita, or the queen of the clan was entrusted with the job of tattooing the warriors. The headhunters weren't cannibals, they just believed in active defence to protect their lands. And nothing can be more effective than cutting off your enemy's head and exhibiting it in your village. The Naga ended headhunting in the 1960s with the advent of Christianity. It's five decades but the legend still lives, relived in the spontaneous performances of the headhunters and their tattoos. A Naga warrior had to go through a long and painful process to get their face tattooed. 'It was painful, it was more like dying every day, for two weeks' he said. The old eyes became teary as he remembered.
A barb was dipped in black pigment and then hammered onto the skin for a face tattoo. But the pain was worth it if it made him look more ferocious and attractive.
'The women had tattoos on their legs up to their knees, those were rings. The first ring would be tattooed when a girl reached puberty to mark that she is ready to be taken, and then a series of rings up to the knee upon marriage, to signify that she is taken.' I took leave of the fierce old warrior to hike up a steep path, smack onto the Indian border, to stay at the Angh's house (territory chieftain), whose half house is in India and the other half in Myanmar. It is said 'Angh eats in India and sleeps in Myanmar'. He sat near a fire on a mud floor, smoking opium, and above him were skulls of mithun and antelopes, hunted by his ancestors, serving as trophies of their valour and prowess. Opium is another inseparable part of the culture of Longwa and I soon joined them for some more conversation over smoke and grass. 'I have heard there are skulls in some villages,' I asked. 'You are sitting on them,' came his prompt reply. For a second, I shuddered and my guide had to jolt me back to reality. The skulls had been buried under the meeting room when the village adopted Christianity.
The Konyaks were pretty different from other tribes, they were apparently absolute rulers. Unlike the more democratic Nagamese tribes like Angami or Ao, Konyaks ruled vast swathes of land, and were always looking to seize more. They didn't just fight with each other but also extended their territory all the way down into the plains of Upper Assam, when the Ahom rule in Assam was failing. And one thing that aided their conquests was their dexterity in making guns, which one can still find the Konyak males carrying around with them. Konyaks are famous for their bead art and metal carvings, and here you can get a skull necklace or a necklace with boar's teeth or an art-piece fashioned on a thigh bone with some delicate carving on it and of course, an opium pipe or knife.
Longwa is the gateway to a historical chapter that might get buried with the old headhunters. Much of their tribal history will be lost with the death of these headhunters. But they say, they will live on through their children. I looked out at the beautiful rolling hills, the inquisitive faces and the mud huts and smiled at the headhunters' optimism.
To reach: You will have to take a shared cab from Mon to Longwa. The haggard hill town of Mon merely serves as an access point for the many Konyak villages in the area. Of the numerous tribal villages in the area, the most popular is Longwa, about 35km from Mon, where the headman's longhouse spectacularly straddles the India–Myanmar border and contains a fascinating range of weapons, dinosaur-like totems and a WWII metal aircraft seat salvaged from debris scattered in nearby jungles. Several tattooed former headhunters can be photographed for a fairly standard ₹100 fee. Tribal jewellery, carved masks and other collectibles (₹200 to ₹1000) can also be bought from many households. In the high season, the village charges a per person entry fee of ₹200.
Other villages that can be visited from Mon include Old Mon (5km), with countless animal skulls adorning the walls of the headman's house; Singha Chingnyu (20km), which has a huge longhouse decorated with animal skulls and three stuffed tigers; and Shangnyu (25km), with a friendly headman and a wooden shrine full of fertility references. Mon has only two hotels to speak of. The only decent hotel in Mon is the scrappy but friendly Helsa Cottage run by the influential, affable Aunty. Running water and electricity are seldom your companions here, but the food is tasty. Aunty also co-manages the Helsa Resort, slightly out of town en route to Longwa, which has six traditional thatched Konyak huts with springy bamboo floors, sparse furnishings and hot water by the bucket. You can also opt to stay at a Longwa guesthouse; the amenities are very basic or opt for a homestay in Longwa, specially at the Chief's house (cost INR 1000).
Guide services: It is always better to take a guide for comfort and in-depth knowledge. You can contact Mr Longshaw +918974390751 for guiding services.
Travel Tips: Present the King with a gift on arrival, a bottle of rum or whisky. Nagaland is dry so only home-brewed liqour is available. Ask the tribals politely if you can join in their hunting (with very old rifles and gunpowder!) or fishing (with electricity!). Shared 4WDs bounce painfully to Dimapur on an awful road (₹380, 12 hours, 3pm) and Sonari in Assam (₹90, 6am and 9am), where you can change for Jorhat. No public transport leaves Mon on the weekend. There's an SBI ATM in town which rarely works. Everything shuts down after dark and few people speak English. Avoid stoned men. Don't try the Bhut jalokia chilly. Combine your trip with the Aoling festival (April first week). Konyaks will perform in their tribal wear.

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