At the beginning of April I traveled to remote Nagaland and stood face to face with the last – and now very old – tattooed fighters of the Konyak tribe, who just a few decades ago cut off the heads of their enemies, and then cut them off as trophies in there to put down a house.
A VISIT TO THE KONYAKS, THE TATTOOED HEADHUNTERS OF INDIA
Seventeen different tribes live in Nagaland, in the far northeast of India, of which the Konyak tribe – also known as “the face-tattooed head hunters” – is the largest and best known, or perhaps rather notorious.
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Until 1969, the Konyaks were known as cruel and barbaric fighters, who feared nothing and knew no compassion. They regularly attacked villages of other tribes and then took home the heads of their enemies as trophies. For the Konyaks, beheading the enemy was something to be proud of, because it showed that you were a strong and courageous warrior. Each warrior therefore wore chains with one or more brass heads, symbolizing the number of men he had beheaded.
In addition to their characteristic clothing and jewelery – for which teeth, fur and bones from tigers and bears, among others, have been used – you can recognize the Konyaks by their tattooed faces and bodies. These tattoos were mainly used as status symbols or to celebrate certain milestones. The prestigious facial tattoo was only put on by fighters and the type of tattoo you received depended on what you contributed to the fight – if you beheaded someone, you would get a larger and more detailed tattoo. The tattoos were only allowed to be put by the woman of the tribal chief, and putting a face tattoo often took fifteen to twenty hours.
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In the mid-nineteenth century, the English – who ruled in India at the time – also brought Nagaland under control and brought the indigenous tribes into contact with the Christian faith. In the century that followed, more and more Nagas converted to Christianity and the Konyaks followed in the mid-twentieth century. The tribe stopped decapitating their enemies and under pressure from the church and out of regret for their actions, they decided to bury all human skulls.
With the end of the violent wars, the symbolic tattoos also came to an end. That means that the last generation of tattooed fighters is now at least 70 to 80 years old and that, unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before this fascinating and unique culture disappears.
These photos were made in the village of Hongphoi, Nagaland.