1 Voodoozshura

Konyak Tribe Essays On Love

Last of the headhunters: Amazing images document the tattoo-adorned faces of historic warriors whose fierce tribal existence will soon disappear forever

  • These stunning photos taken by photographer Jean-Christian Cottu document the faces of the Konyak people
  • The pictures were taken in the Mon district of Nagaland, north east India, where the former headhunters live
  • Konyak tribes have a strong warrior tradition and are known for their fierce headhunting history

By Aidan Mcgloin

Published: 17:07 GMT, 24 May 2014 | Updated: 13:54 GMT, 26 May 2014

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. Here, Aidan McGloin describes how he and photographer Jean-Christian Cottu travelled to the remote Mon district to get to know the people behind the tribal exterior.

'In ten or perhaps 15 years, most if not all of these former Konyak headhuntersand their wives will be dead. Their faded tattoo-adorned faces will be buried beneathChristian headstones in hilltop villages in the remote Mon district of Nagaland in north eastIndia.

With their demise, the living memories of their unique cultural existence will disappearfor eternity.

These stunning photos, featured in the series Nagaland, were taken by photographer Jean-Christian Cottu, who travelled to the remote Mon district of Nagaland, north east India, to document the Konyak people. Many members of the tribe do not know their exact ages and do not have a birth certificate. Pictured here are Ginwang, 95, left, and Phongwang, 84, right

These elderly men and women have lived through a time when tribal warfarestill resolved certain territorial conflicts. Their backs, torsos and facial tattoos bear witnessto mortal combat and the customary headhunting.

They were born into and inherited astrong tribal identity, which extended to the physical boundaries of their lands. They willdie having intermittent access to limited aspects of modernity and having partiallyembraced a Baptist-based Christianity.

Jean-Christian Cottu’s photographs provide a visual record of thesepeople. These are not anonymous, stolen images, as is too often the case. Importance isrightly given to the names, ages, and villages of origin of these people.

These images are byno means the only record of these former warriors and their families, but by taking a mobilephoto studio, Jean-Christian wanted to go beyond the superficial cliché and insteadcapture the human dignity of these disappearing people.

The elderly men and women were born into and inherited a strong tribal identity and also embrace a strong Baptist-based Christianity, something which started to change the way the tribe operated. Pictured here are Phamman, 78, left and Pulei, 95, right

The former warriors are differentiated from other Nagas by the tattoos which are drawn all over their faces. Other symbols of the Konyak warriors are big pierced ears made ​​of animal horns and war hats made of hunted wild pigs horns, hornbill feathers and wild bear or goat hair. Pictured here are Wangjin, 92, left and Manbang, 78, right

Each photograph is the result ofa material exchange, in the form of a printed copy of their photograph or a monetary one,in the form of a few hundred rupees, and on occasions both.

But the encounters were not merely restricted to nominal transactions. Ourmutual curiosity was rewarded with undeniable human exchanges between us and somefrank interviews.

These elderly people have had a long, unscripted past. They are livingthrough a challenging present and face a diminishing curtailed future.

The Konyak warrior tribe is one of the many Naga tribes known for their fierce headhunting history and hunting skills and trophies won through hunting are worn as part of their costume, as shown above. Pictured here are Jaiyang, 90, left and Bawang, also said to be 90, right

These images and text attempt in a limited way to explain who the Konyak people we met are andto reveal a fraction of their respective stories.

When Jean-Christian asked me to accompany him on this project, I agreed to give a hand with the lighting and translate, on condition that Iwould also interview the people that he intended to photograph. I wanted to complementhis images with some words.

So that those whowould appreciate the beauty and poignancy of these photos might also have their curiosityrewarded with additional information about these unique people.

By observing theirinteractions with Jean-Christian’s mobile photo studio and by interviewing the Konyakpeople I was hoping to discover something about their identity, their way of life and howthe recent generations have coped with change.

For the most part I relied on our guide Anyang to interpret my questions and theirresponses.'

The Konyak tribes have traditionally had a strong warrior tradition and are mostly famous because they were still headhunting until the end of 1960. But there are now young members being born into the community, left, who will lead the tribe in a new direction. Pictured here are Jaylen, nine and Wangnea, one, left, and Princess Lemam, 16

The elderly men and women pictured by the photographer lived through a time when tribal warfare still resolved territorial conflict. They often wear a necklace with bronze faces, reflecting the number of heads they have cut. Pictured here are Gokpol, 88, left and Konwang, 76, right

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Of all the tribes that lived in the hills of what is now Nagaland, the Konyaks were particularly feared.

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 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.

“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.

Interspersed with stark portraits of the last remaining tattooed headhunters are detailed accounts of the significance of each kind of tattoo, and essays on the social, cultural, and religious norms of the Konyak people, the majority of whom now identify as Baptist Christians.

But since Phejin herself comes from the community, even its history of headhunting is treated with sensitivity, recognised as a way of life for her ancestors.

“The Konyak belief was that the skull of a person has all the soul force of that being. This soul force is strongly affiliated with prosperity and fertility and is used for the benefit of the village, personal life, and crops,” she explains in the book.

But Phejin doesn’t entirely blame the foreign missionaries for sparking the beginning of the end of the tribal culture. In an interview with historian William Dalrymple, who wrote the foreword for the book, she confesses her mixed feelings about their effect on the community, acknowledging that it was their schools that helped improve literacy rates in the region.

“But I just wish that some of the Baptist missionaries had thought a little more deeply about the effects of their actions. They taught that the new religion was a rebirth, and nothing of the old ways should remain with (a) person who is born again. With these they discarded so much of our culture—just carelessly tossed it in a dustbin,” Phejin tells Dalrymple.

Here’s a selection of photos of the last surviving tattooed headhunters of the Konyak tribe:

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