Connecting Regions of Asia.

With The Last Headhunters

10

It took two days of rides on cabs, trains, hitchhiking on pickup trucks and jolting on state transport buses with dubious suspension to get from Guwahati to Mon, Nagaland in the northeastern corner of the state, next to Myanmar. Patchy internet and the inability to rely on Google maps due to a blanket internet ban in the region during the civil protests of 2019, made the journey to Mon somewhat of a quest. When I finally found myself in this small town on a sunny Sunday afternoon in December, it felt like no mean feat.

Mon was the last pitstop in my journey to the village of Longwa, long associated with the fabled Konyak tribe, and home to the last headhunters of this warrior clan. Reaching the village was another adventure as the largely Catholic state of Nagaland completely shuts down on Sundays and I could do little to make my driver eschew his god-given day of rest. Finally, a young man called Taka and his auto-rickshaw came to my aid and non-existent roads and a less than trusty chariot notwithstanding, we were on our way. The two-hour journey expanded into five as our vehicle stopped and sputtered over a rocky road. And yet, it was memorable to say the least. For here I was on a rickety auto rickshaw, driving through a dense jungle inhabited by wild boars and bears, with no cell phone connectivity, and on my way to meet the last surviving headhunters of this country.

Perched on the border of India and Myanmar, Longwa extends into both territories. Its population consists of 700-odd households, all held together by faith and history and ruled by the Angh or the chieftain, who also rules over 100 other villages. Part of his power in these parts meant that this tiny village had stellar 4G connectivity even while bigger villages in the state remained off the grid.

I reached at around 9pm to a village in slumber. Everyone had gone to bed two hours ago. Finding the way to my host Longsha’s house was assisted by the fact that it was the only house with a light flickering in the window. This beautiful Naga-style thatched roof house with frescos on the walls and old statues in niches was the perfect place for a photographer to seek safe haven.

The Konyaks: One people, two nations

My routine was set for the next two weeks. Mornings started early at 5am with the crowing of the roosters. I’d finish a quick breakfast comprising tea and meat and rice and head out with Pohi, my hostess, on treks through the jungles of Longwa to meet the Konyak headhunters, and document their lives. Afternoons were spent attending lunch invitations thanks to the generosity of the Konyak people. Evenings were spent in the army barracks with the officers of the Assam Rifles, sampling the best of the army canteen offerings and listening to old stories of the Burmese junta militants and the fierce history of Longwa.

The Konyaks of Longwa are some of the most fascinating people I’ve met on my travels. Oft overshadowed by the fame of their mythical headhunter forefathers, their culture many a time gets reduced to that one footnote. They’re the only Indian tribe to have legal dual citizenship of both India and Myanmar and a lot of them even vote in both elections. The international border runs exactly down the middle… the chief’s house at the center of the village has its kitchen in India and bedroom in Myanmar.

When I asked Longsha how the drawing of the international border right through their village affected the lives of the locals, he laughed. He said that since no one had consulted them before splitting their village in two, it was only fair that the Konyaks also continue to live life and move around as before, without consulting anyone.

Longwa: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Although most of the tribe has now converted to Catholicism, the remnants of their earlier nature worship continues. The Konyaks used to pray to the sun and the forests, and the tradition of headhunting and collecting enemy skulls was the norm. The elders still wear brass skull necklaces, with each skull symbolizing the heads they’ve cut in their lifetime. I saw an old man with six! Apart from showing superiority over the defeated enemy, headhunting was also believed to boost the agricultural yield. However, the rise of Christianity in the region brought the tradition of headhunting to an end in the 1960s.

Late one evening, I sat with Longsha near a fire. He was a very charismatic man, and as someone with political aspirations, was well versed with the issues and ways of his people. We spoke about the aspirations of the younger Konyaks and their desire for better education and healthcare. Plumbing and better access came second. Over a discussion that lasted many cups of tea and countless cigarettes, we talked about the future of this village set outside of time. This was a village where people didn’t feel like they were looking at the rest of the world through a keyhole and a place that had the same fighting chance to survive in this country, as everyone else. Despite being cut off from the mainland, despite being exoticised and relegated as curious relics from a distant past, Longsha’s voice rang deep with hope when he spoke of Longwa’s future.

The embers from the fire cast a faint orange glow on the hornbill beaks, deer skulls, and weapons that lined the walls of Longsha’s house. An old but working rifle hung in a corner next to old black and white photographs of his family. The simple decor literally spanned centuries of change. This was much like the story of the village itself—straddling time with one foot in the past, the other in the future.

Courtesy – cntraveller.in/

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