Off Their Heads

Nagaland, by most Indian’s standards, is considered the most backward part of the country. The Mon valley, by most Naga standards, is considered the most backward part of the state. For me, coming from a rather backward part of the North East of England, it would probably seem quite normal. Headhunting only ceased here less than 20 years ago, the people eat anything they can get their hands on and it’s in the back arse of nowhere near the Indo-Burnese border. Backward it may be, I was going there…

We spent one night in Mon town, which is the jump off point for the surrounding Konyak tribal villages. The word Konyak derives from Koanyak, which means ‘blackhead’ or ‘human’. The next morning we headed up to the village of Longwa, which is curiously situated on a ridge, half in India and half in Burma…

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When we arrived in Longwa, I was pleasantly surprised to see the house we would be staying in, had its own giant log drum and some pretty creepy wood carvings in the entrance way. What I wasn’t surprised at is that it was also an opium den. The opium seeds were brought here by the British during the Raj to subdue the Konyaks and prevent them from hunting heads, particularly British ones, now a lot of the young lads are addicted to the stuff. Watching people smoke opium is like going to see a 3D movie, fascinating a first, but soon becomes very repetitive…

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Opium session – in 4D

Howay Mon, is also known as ‘The Land of the Anghs’. Angh translates as king and 9 of these regal figures are still in place throughout the valley’s villages. We went along to visit the king of Longwa at his palace, known as a longhouse. The current king is young and modern, not exactly how I’d imaged. His father, the old king, was in the middle of a full blown opium session out the back with the village elders. The former king has some 18 wives and around 50 children, no wonder he has a र500 a day opium habit. His Royal Highness was for some reason, sporting a bizarre leopard print cowboy hat, that I assume he’d been given by another traveller, or was a massive Boy George fan. This was the perfect opportunity to pull out my plastic thumb and perform the illusion of the ‘disappearing’ hanky. I felt like the royal court jester and the look on the the stoned Konyak’s faces was truly priceless…

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The Longhouse

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The current king – Absolute British

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King George

Back in the UK we were given a ‘love lock’ courtesy of Daniel Clark. We could have locked it onto a lovers bridge while we were in Vilnius or Saint Petersburg, but instead decided to give it to the old angh to attach onto his smoking box, and then threw the key into Burma. So every time he goes into his opium stash, he’ll think of the strange white man who performed a cheap magic trick…

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Don’t look too enthusiastic

Headhunting is the practice of removing an enemy’s head, which some believe carries magical powers in its skull. To come back from battle with a head was a sign of pride and courage, a warrior would certainly receive a hero’s welcoming back in his village. The Nagas were know for being fearless and ferocious soldiers, and because of this some were even recruited to fight alongside the British. In Nagaland headhunting was rife, even though it was outlawed in 1935, it still continued for years and I was told the last recorded occurrence happened as recently as 1999. A headhunter can be distinguished from his tattoos…

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If a man participated in headhunting but failed to return with one, then they received chest tattoos, like this gentleman

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If you successfully returned with a head, you were granted a full facial tattoo, some are more prominent that others, this man had hunted two heads

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You become an experienced hunter by slaying six or more heads and you have your facial tattoo extended to the neck. This fine chap, Ahon, was one off with five

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A Konyak man in his traditional clothes. When I shook his hand he grumbled ‘Wohka’. Yep that’s me, Gary Wokha…

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Bone earpiece

 

It was strange coming face to face with someone who had murdered and decapitated another human being, but intriguing. With the help of our guide/translator, Longsha, I was able to step into the house of an old headhunter called Penche, to ask a few questions. Walking into the dark, typical Konyak house, we awoke Panche from his sleep, surrounded by buffalo and monkey skulls with old school spears and swords hanging up near his bonfire, it felt like we were venturing into an ancient warriors cave…

How many heads have you hunted? (this was the first question to ask any hunter we met, an icebreaker if you will)

Three.

How did people react, knowing you were a headhunter?

They treated me well, the young boys looked up to you with respect, not like now, all they’re interested in is smoking opium. I was incredibly popular with the ladies as well.

It was the British who brought opium into Nagaland, how were they perceived back then?

The first time I saw a white man I was a young boy, then there was a 20 year gap till I saw another. I heard from my older relatives that the presence of a white man was not good, some were killed, but eventually we accepted them. If you had stepped into a Konyak house back then like you have today, you would have your head cut off.

How does it feel to kill another man? Do you feel bad in hindsight?

It felt good, I enjoyed it, It made people respect me and I have no regrets.

Ok…Do you know where the United Kingdom is? Say, in comparison to Longwa, if I showed you a world map?

As far as I’m concerned, it could be at the end of the Earth, I’ve never left the Mon valley and the rest of the world doesn’t exist. (Interesting answer, could it be that he believes the Earth is flat?)

I’ve heard that Monkey is a delicacy in Mon, I would like to try Barbecued primate, do you know where I can get some?

(laugh) If you had of came here a few years back, I would have given you some, I used to eat Monkey everyday, now it is the rainy season so they’re difficult to catch.

Are there any questions you’d like to ask us?

Does headhunting take place in your village?

Defiantly not (I proceeded to tell him a little about how it was once used as a form of punishment and guy Fawkes’ beheading). Anything else?

Are you all men or all women?

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Inside Panche’s house

So there you have it, an interview with Panche, we left his domain amazed by what we’d heard. The youngest headhunter in the valley is around the age of 65, these men won’t be around forever, and soon they’ll just be another piece of cultural history, dead and buried like their enemy’s skulls. I was honoured to meet the last of the headhunters, even if one of them couldn’t tell if I was Gary or Gabby…

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Categories: India | Tags: , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Off Their Heads

  1. This is really great!

  2. travellinfool

    Great read, great photos, the king had that same hat and miserable face on when we were there too

  3. Haha. This king has become so popular in the offbeat travel circuit., but always high. Was nice reading your interview.

    • Thanks for reading. I actually met someone who works for greener pastures in Dibrugarh. I was given your contact details from Ataan in Charrapunji. I needed help to arrange a visit to the Tai Phake tribe but it wasn’t possible. Instead you suggested that I visited Majuli island which I did. Isn’t it funny how now you have stumbled across my blog!

      • Hi Gary. Come to think about it, I think it was me you met. I do remember now about our conversation on Majuli. Do keep up the great work with the blog. Really interesting to learn your perspective. Cheers! Vaivhav.

  4. Hi, loved your blog. I too have started a blog and plan to travel and blog about the same.I’ve been researching on Nagaland over the past one month. It’s been an uphill task because my requirements were very specific on certain places and nothing could be found on the internet. I too have contacted Longshaw and will be reaching Imphal in Jan ’16. He told me to go straight to Mon as the best of Nagaland can be seen there. Do you know what will be the cost of bus / shared taxi from Kohima to Mon? What are the timings of the bus from Kohima to Mon? What was your itinerary like in Nagaland? This will be my first solo trip so am a little apprehensive. Your blog has been most helpful, thanks for a lovely post.

    • Thanks for reading. Updates from Africa to follow shortly. In Nagaland my trip was only Mon town and Longwa where I done a home stay with Longsha, my Indian visa was running out so could’nt visit anywhere else in Nagaland. I can’t comment on the bus from Kohima as I travelled to Mon from Sibsagar in Assam. Kohima to Mon is quite far so I’d image that it would be a full day travel, maybe 10 hours. The roads in North East India are terrible !

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