Fierce Head Hunters of Nagaland before 1960

by Oct 6, 2023


Nagaland is a state in the northeastern part of India, bordering Myanmar. This land of lush green hills with vibrant tribal cultures, also known for its rich heritage and diverse traditions.

According to Nagaland government, it is home to 17 different tribes, each with their own culture, language, and traditions. Among the most captivating aspects of the cultural tapestry are “Head Hunters of Nagaland”.

The diverse topography of the north-eastern state, with its dense forests and hilly terrain, played a big role in shaping the way of life of these tribes.

Head Hunting Tribes of Nagaland

According to NavrangIndia, Angami, Ao, Lotha, Rengma, Noctes, Wanchos, Konyak, and Tirap were the known head hunters. Out of them, the most fascinating and feared tribe in Nagaland is a Konyak tribe.

The Konyaks were infamous for head-hunting. They would raid the villages of enemy and take the heads of their victim. The Konyak Tribe used to take pride in severing the heads of their opponent warriors as trophies.

They believed that the human skull contained the life force and power of the person. So by taking it, they would gain prosperity, fertility and glory for their clan.

They were to display those skulls as trophies in their huts or hung on trees outside their villages. The head hunters also tattooed their faces and chests as a mark of their bravery and status.

Head Hunters of Nagaland
Men from Naga Tribe in Nagaland

The Indian government banned head-hunting in 1960 CE, but some of the old warriors who took part in this ritual are still alive today.

They live in remote villages like Longwa. The international border between India and Myanmar divided this village. They still wear their traditional costumes, ornaments and weapons.

The head hunters share their stories of head hunting with visitors. They have also embraced Christianity, which was brought by missionaries in the 19th century.

In this chapter, we will explore the history, culture and lifestyle of the head hunters of Nagaland, India. So, if you are busy, then you can bookmark page and revisit at your convenience.

History of Head Hunting

Konyak Tribe Men with Hunted Buffalo
Konyak Tribe Men and Skulls of Hunted Buffalo in his Lifetime

The Konyaks are believed to be descendants of migrants from either Mongolia or southern China, who settled in the Naga hills around the 13th century.

They had no tribal identity and interacted with outsiders as “Nagas”. The British colonialists coined this term.

They lived in autonomous villages, each ruled by a hereditary chief called Angh. They often fought with each other over land, resources, and women.

The British tried to subdue the Nagas for over 50 years, but failed to conquer them completely. They signed a treaty with some of the Naga chiefs in 1929, granting them autonomy within India. However, some Nagas resisted British rule and demanded independence.

After India gained independence from Britain in 1947, some Nagas continued to fight for a separate nation. The Naga rebels engaged in a violent conflict with the Indian army, which lasted until 1997, when a ceasefire was declared.

The Rituals and Ceremonies of Head Hunters of Nagaland

Head Hunting practice of Head Hunters of Nagaland

Head Hunters of Nagaland with his Hunted Heads
Head Hunters of Nagaland

Headhunting was not a random act of violence, but a ritualized process. It was an integral part of their rituals and traditions. The tribes had specific ceremonies and rituals associated with headhunting. It involves the participation of warriors, elders, and shamans.

Head-hunting had deep-rooted cultural and religious significance and was often linked to beliefs related to fertility, protection from enemies, and the acquisition of power.

Their belief was getting heads of their enemies would calm their ancestral spirit and ensure the well-being of the community. They also believed that the skulls had the soul and power of the person. So drinking blood or eating flesh from the head, they could transfer that power to themselves.

The head hunters would carry their trophies in baskets made of bamboo and animal skin, and display them proudly in their homes or outside their villages.

The head hunters also used head hunting as a rite of passage for young men. To become a warrior and earn respect in the society, a young man had to prove his courage and skill by killing an enemy and bringing back his head.

A wife of the chief, who was the only person allowed to perform this ritual, would then tattoo him on his face and chest. The tattoos were a sign of honor and identity for the head hunters.

Gradual Decline in Head Hunting since 19th Century

The arrival of the British in Nagaland and the spread of Christianity played a pivotal role in the decline of headhunting. Missionaries actively discouraged the practice, labeling it as wild. They also played a role in converting many Nagas to Christianity, which discouraged head hunting as a sin.

During period conflict with the Indian army, the Indian government imposed laws and penalties to stop this practice. It gradually abolished head-hunting. By 1960, the Indian government officially banned head hunting in Nagaland.

Modernization and Changing Values

As Nagaland modernized and adopted democratic governance, headhunting lost its relevance. Younger generations are moving away from this violent tradition in favor of more peaceful pursuits.

The Role of Head Hunters of the Konyak Warrior Tribe

Prestige of the Warrior

Warriors who succeeded in headhunting were highly respected in their communities. The number of heads collected determined the prestige of a warrior, and each head brought honor to the family of warrior and tribe.

The Fear Factor

Headhunting served as a psychological weapon. The mere presence of these warriors, adorned with the skulls of their enemies, struck fear into the hearts of potential opponent.

Culture and Lifestyle of Head Hunters

Despite the ban on head hunting, some of the old warriors who participated in this practice are still alive today. They are mostly in their 80s or 90s, and live in remote villages like Longwa, Shiyong or Mon.

Head hunters still wear their traditional clothes, which consist of a loincloth made of animal skin or cloth. A jacket made of woven bamboo or cotton, a hornbill feather on their head. Their earrings made of animal horns or bones, necklaces made of brass or beads, and bracelets made of shells or ivory. They also carry their weapons, such as knives (Daws), spears (Khaos), axes (Kheis) or guns (Kheks).

Head Hunting Naga Tribe doing Traditional Dance near to their Spacious Huts
Head Hunting Naga Tribe doing Traditional Dance near to their Spacious Huts

The head hunters live in spacious huts made of bamboo and wood, with separate sections for cooking, dining, sleeping and storing. Buffalo horns or animal skulls were used to decorate walls in the past. Some huts also have human skulls hanging from the ceiling or outside the door. These skulls are relics from their head hunting days, which they have preserved as souvenirs or sacred objects.

The head hunters follow a simple lifestyle based on agriculture and animal husbandry. They grow rice, millet, maize, vegetables and fruits in their fields, and raise pigs, chickens, cows and buffaloes in their farms. In the forest, they hunt animals like deers, boars, monkeys, or bears. They eat meat, rice, vegetables and fruits, and drink rice, wine or tea.

TravelTriangle reports that Zutho is a fermented rice beer that is popular in the North-Eastern states of India, Nagaland included. Smoking opium is also a part of their routine. It either grown in their gardens or bought from the market.

The head hunters have a strong sense of community and relationship. Their clans consist of a group of families that are related by blood or marriage. They respect their elders and follow their advice.

Preservation of Cultural Heritage

Efforts to Preserve Traditions

Even though headhunting has stopped now, Naga tribes have tried hard to keep their cultural heritage alive.

They celebrate various festivals throughout the year. Following festivals are celebrated in Nagaland:

  • Hornbill (Festival of Festivals)
  • Aoling (the spring festival)
  • Lao-ong Mo (the harvest festival) or Monyu (the new year festival)

At festivals, visitors can witness traditional dances, songs, games, and rituals to honor their ancestors, gods, and nature.

Naga Tribesmen performing Traditional Dance
Traditional dance of Nagaland being performed by Naga tribesmen in their traditional attire during Hornbill Festival in Nagaland, India

Museum Exhibits

Nagaland has museums with headhunting artifacts, such as weapons, clothing, and detailed ritual descriptions.

The head hunters have also adopted Christianity as their religion, but they still retain some of their animist beliefs and practices. They believe in a supreme god called Wangwan, who created the world and everything in it.

Their belief system includes spirits of ancestors, nature, and animals, which have the power to either help or harm them. They worship these spirits by offering sacrifices, prayers, and offerings. They also consult shamans or witch doctors, who can communicate with the spirits and heal diseases.

Tourism and Conservation of Head Hunters of Nagaland

The head hunters of Nagaland are one of the unique and fascinating tribes in the world. They have a rich and diverse culture, history and lifestyle that attracts many tourists and researchers. However, they are also facing many challenges and threats to their existence.

One of the major challenges is the loss of their traditional culture and identity. Modernization, education, and globalization are affecting upcoming new generations. It is causing young Nagas to move to cities or other countries for better opportunities. They are adopting new lifestyles, languages and values that differ from their ancestral ones. They are also losing interest in their customs, traditions and rituals that were once integral to their culture.

Another challenge is the environmental degradation and exploitation of their natural resources. The Nagas are entirely depending on nature for their livelihood. But because of deforestation, mining, logging and farming, many of the forests, rivers and lands are being destroyed or polluted. This affects their food security, health and well-being. It also threatens their biodiversity and wildlife, which are part of their culture and spirituality.

To address these challenges, the government, NGOs and local communities have taken some initiatives. In these initiatives, they preserving and promoting the culture and heritage of the head hunters. Some of these initiatives are:

  • Creating museums, cultural centers and festivals that showcase the history, art and crafts of the head hunters.
  • Giving training and support to head hunters to improve their skills in fields like weaving, carving, painting, or music.
  • Encouraging eco-tourism and community-based tourism involving the participation and benefit of the head hunters.
  • Educating the public and raising awareness about the value and importance of culture and environment of the head hunters.
  • Documenting and recording the stories, legends and oral traditions of the head hunters before they get lost or forgotten.
  • The head hunters of Nagaland are a living testimony of a bygone era of human history. They are a remarkable example of human diversity, resilience and adaptation. Courage, honor, and respect for nature are among the many lessons they can teach us. We should appreciate and protect them for their contribution to humanity’s cultural heritage.

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