The Konyaks are known for their fierce headhunting history, which continued until 1960.
Found in large numbers in Nagaland, India, the former warriors are recognised by their facial tattoos and the animal skin, hair and horns which are ceremoniously draped over their bodies.
The Konyak woman too acquired tattoos as she made her way through the various phases of life — puberty, motherhood et al.
Made of up several groups, each differentiated by language and distinctive facial tattoos, they all practised headhunting—decapitating members of rival tribes being a rite of passage for young Konyak boys. Not surprisingly, they were also one of the most isolated tribes in the region.
That began to change as the British Raj began looking beyond the tea estates of Assam. In the 1870s, missionaries began setting up schools in the region and, over the following decades, thousands converted to Christianity.
The Konyaks of Nagaland are most famous for being a headhunting tribe, the last surviving ones which implies a violence that probably affects the way these people channel society.
The Konyaks were among the last.
In their zeal to “civilise,” the missionaries roundly discouraged the tribes’ ancient customs and traditions, labelling them heathen. The British Raj banned headhunting in 1935; by the 1960s, younger generations began to adopt modern ways and the unique culture of tattooing, too, began to fade.
It’s this disappearing heritage that Phejin Konyak, the great-grand-daughter of a Konyak headhunter, wanted to document in her new book, The Konyaks Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, published by Roli Books. For centuries, the tribe has passed on its stories orally to younger generations, but as its oldest members passed away, Phejin feared their history was at the risk of being lost forever.
So, over the past three years, she travelled from village to village in Nagaland’s Mon district, speaking to the elderly members of the Konyak tribe and recording their personal stories, songs, poems, and folktales. With the help of photographer Peter Bos, she also documented their unique facial and body tattoos, each one signifying the tribe, clan, and status in society of every member.
Related: Facts about head-hunting tradition in Nagaland
“Life, headhunting, and tattooing were seamlessly interconnected in the Konyak culture…Now the old warriors and their wives are the last remaining tangible proof of what was once a living tradition,” Phejin writes in the introduction to the book.
Customs and beliefs, found in the rich oral traditions of the tribe and in their tattooing patterns, that underpin the Konyak community are collected and compiled by Phejin in the book.
It all began with a conversation I had with the director of the Indian Museum of Kolkata, B Venugopal, back in 2014. I was curious as to why the museum did not house many arts and artefacts from Nagaland, particularly those of the Konyaks.
I thought it was important for them to display our culture if they wanted people to know about us. He asked me to present a lecture on the Konyaks at the museum. While, initially, I was reluctant, he remained adamant. I researched for the lecture and then kept going back to the region to find more stories. Eventually, I thought I should collate all of it in one place.
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Headhunting and the tradition of tattooing were intrinsically linked to one another, and the abolition of the practice of headhunting in 1935, rang the death knell of the ritual of tattooing as well.
It was the advent of the missionaries, the book informs its reader, in the late 19th century, that pushed the traditions further into obscurity.
Everything that is good, also has a downside. While Christianity, and the work of the missionaries, gave us access to education and empowered us with a language that allowed us to come in contact with the outside world, it failed to enforce the need to preserve our own culture.
The Konyaks seeks more fervently to document what is left of the older traditions, before it all recedes into collective amnesia.