Cover Story: The Headhunters of Longwa

ISSUE NO.1 | The Nagas | July 2017

COVER STORY

The Headhunters of Longwa

Longwa, 26.6654° N, 95.1883° E

Nagaland, India

 
 

The tattooed men of the village of Longwa are the last of the real headhunters alive. This practice was banned by the Indian Government in 1991. But since some of them are still alive, so are their stories. For Cover Story, we reach this village and track their story before it is too late.

A dry piece of cloth contained irregular spots of a dried brown-coloured solution. A man smeared the cloth in a medium sized metal spoon and held it over a small fire till it dissolved and the liquid boiled in the spoon. Then an organic fibre was soaked in that dark red liquid and he fixed the fibre on the neck of a wooden pipe. Then he brought a piece of charcoal near the neck of the pipe and “Sssss…”, went the drag. The opium rushed in and the eyelids rushed down till they closed. Then I looked back to Long Shaw who had been waiting resume his story.

“They think these headhunters just kill. They don’t just kill. They kill for a reason. And no, it has not fully ended yet. If someday there appears a reason to carry out headhunting, the Konyaks will and must do it again.” said Long Shaw in a strong tone as we shared a hot cup of tea in the chilling cold night in his old home, constructed out of mud, wood and palm leaves. The opium session still went on. They would carry on till it was 7 in the evening while it was only 5:30. “If it is your first time, one bad drag can kill you.” said Long Shaw, causing a subtle laughter among the smokers sitting at a distance. And it is true. If it is not a habit, it is deadly. If it is, it is the warmest loving devil. Opium was brought into Nagaland by the British during their reign. Since it was brought through Burma, the Konyaks became the first receivers. The Konyaks were also the one of the fiercest of warriors among the Nagas. Since all the Naga tribes rose to revolt against British occupation, opium resulted to be the best calming agent to suppress their aggression and let the colonizers sleep in peace. Since then, the smuggling in of opium to this village has never stopped.

 

This was the village of Longwa, a remote village in northeastern Nagaland belonging to the Konyak tribe. This village is situated high above in the Northern Naga hills located half in India and the other in Myanmar (Burma). The popular tale that hovers around the atmosphere of this village goes back to the time when Burma achieved independence. So as soon as it did, half of Longwa’s people woke up as Burmese citizens while the others remained Indians. The Konyaks have been fighting for their own independence not only from India since 1947, but also from the state of Myanmar, as they owe their loyalty to the Ang of Longwa who is regarded as the king of the Konyaks controlling the highest number of villages: 4 in India and 32 in Burma. Since this tribe has originated in Arunachal Pradesh, they claim no ancestral ties with the state of Nagaland and as no cultural ties lie with India, they believe their demand for a different country is reasonable. What could be called the “Midtown Road” of this village is the top of a wall made out of the hill that pretty much looks like a natural separation between the two countries. The headhunting characteristic is the main attraction towards this poorest district of Nagaland although that interest is most likely to be regretted as one avails the Sonari road to Mon town. And just like every unsought, unexplored place connects itself through bad roads and dangers, the beauty of Longwa would negate that regret.

 

Being the only outsiders in Mon town back then, our arrival seemed to have been known all over the town in a matter of hours for which we were summoned at the police station to make an entry in the register of “foreigners”. The strangest justification behind demanding a hundred rupees for every person was “personal security” and that “an Indian must not be harassed” although that very demand proved them wrong. Christmas had led to a distortion in every schedule everywhere in the state which was why we reached the village significantly late and also having spent too much.

Nagaland and the rest of the world know the Konyaks, the largest tribe in Nagaland, as headhunters. It was an ancient tradition that Long Shaw claims hardly leaves room for dishonesty or ignobility because “They kill for a reason.” When the village has a new king or “Ang”, his first priority became a queen who needed to be earned from another village. If there appeared another king who had had interest in the same lady, the two villages went to war. Another reason was land. Nagaland has seventeen major tribes who have had a history of conflicts and wars because of land. According to Long Shaw, the last headhunting took place in the year 1990 between the Changs and the Konyaks based on where the village of Taupu would belong. The Changs surrendered after the death of 70 people from both the sides and the Konyaks have owned that land ever since the end of the war. The whole region had become too eager for the war and nothing could stop it from happening. Long Shaw proudly says that even today, if the Konyaks have such a reason where the solution could only be a war among tribes to protect the heritage of the Konyaks, even one true Konyak would not hesitate to have one. “You see, the modern world’s war is not a face-to-face thing. You go behind backs, you betray, you play dirty games and then win. Is that really winning? In a war of headhunting, we looked at one another before we killed and there was no complexity, no politics. The village fought for power and superiority which is the conclusion of every small and big war out there. The Konyaks just did it clean.” Another interesting culture among the headhunters is to have tattoos. To track this, we visited a morung. A morung is a youth dormitory which every village has. In our world, we call it “school”. For the Konyaks, the morung-period is regarded as an important phase in a young person’s life as this period would keep them away from their families to prepare them to face the world. Acculturation was also a reason why adolescent boys and girls went to a morung. The elders of the village would spread their knowledge about the history, culture and traditions of their tribe and village and would advise them on how to lead a proper life being a Konyak. Folk music and dance were also a part of this education. The Konyaks believe this unwritten history would pass on from generation to generation irrespective of the fact that their language has no script. This absence of a script has also proved to be a fatal risk when American Christian missionaries arrived. Today, their language is written in Latin script using English alphabets.

The most important education for men in these morungs was to prepare them for headhunting and to make them warriors, their true identity as Konyaks. So when a man actively participates in headhunting, he gets tattoos on his chest. If he successfully hunted a head and brought the head to the village, he tattooed his face and if he hunted more than five heads, he also added tattoos on his neck. These “tattooed men”, as even the people of Longwa call them, have become very few in number. The tattoo culture has faded with the eradication of headhunting with the arrival of Christian missionaries who, by providing them food, clothes, medicines, and biblical and moral reasons not to kill, have buried every human skull to the ground and has put an end to this culture. The Konyaks of Longwa previously believed in Hachinyu, a female devil and Yuanpa, their God. Through massive charity work and social service, Christian missionaries have ended these ancient tribal beliefs. The Baptist churches have taken over the morungs and the young generation listens to more stories from the bible than about their village from their elders. For the ones who had converted against their will, do not practice Christianity, thus still believing in their old God and devil, but can never raise a voice because of this religious monotony all over Nagaland.

Nagaland has witnessed enormous transcendence in its history. The reels of present roll even faster. The arrival of missionaries and the presence of the Indian armed forces have led to a stop to the ‘violent’ factor in their traditions although philosophically, there exists a silent reluctance to switch to modernity from ancient traditions. A certain section of older generation still clings to their belief that they were never a part of India and that revolution ought to prevail while it is a matter of discomfort to them that three decades of peace have caused a transition in the younger generation’s way of living as modernization swallows anachronistic tribal customs and peace and freedom kills the urge to revolt and disturb.

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