Among The Headhunters

Text: Shahwar Hussain       
Photographs: Anuj Singh

Published in Backroads USA

If you want to see old warriors with fearsome tattoos on their faces and bodies, you better hurry and visit the district of Mon in Nagaland in North East India, because in a few years time they will disappear forever. The invasion of alien culture have resulted in a lot of indigenous culture and tradition being wiped out or corrupted to a very large extent. This, in a way is inevitable but the Konyak Nagas, the warrior tribe of Nagaland has managed to hold on to much of their age old customs and traditions.

The Konyaks are known for their erstwhile headhunting tradition that was practiced sporadically till a few decades back. A man, who could bring the heads of his victims during the ‘wars’ with the other tribes, was entitled to have tattoos on his face and chest. The more heads the warrior collected, the higher his esteem in the society.  Almost all the tattooed worriers are on the wrong side of 50 or are very close to that mark and since head hunting is a thing of the past, nobody is allowed to have tattoos on their faces anymore.

When Anuj and I were preparing for our motorcycle trip through Nagaland and the North East in general, a lot of people, mostly armchair adventurers, bombarded us with unsolicited advice. And they had hardly any good things to say – terrorism, extremists, bullets fly thick and fast, floods, strikes and the region is the back of beyond. Well, the fact remains that the North East is as safe or as dangerous as any other place in the country. There are remote places alright but the region suffers overwhelmingly from ignorance. Like the people who showered me with advice have never ever been to the North East. It is all hearsay.  

Motorcycling is the best way to see these so-called ‘back of beyond’ places because it allows you the freedom to go to places where a car normally would not go. The dirt tracks that trails off the highway leads to very interesting places where you can see unadulterated village life in all its rustic glory. Although remote, the North East offers amazing visuals, cultural diversity and exciting motorcycling opportunities. We rode two 225cc, Hero Honda Karizma motorcycles, which, after a little bit of modifications performed amazingly well in the tough terrain.

Even though we started early, getting out of Guwahati in Assam and on to the highway that leads to Upper Assam and on to Nagaland was an absolute nightmare. Extensive road constructions have resulted in major traffic jams and the moon craters on the road did not help matters in any way. It is just a few kilometer stretch but it drains you proper. But we opened the throttle wide as soon as we got out of the jam. The wide highway runs through lush green fields, perfectly manicured tea gardens on hilly stretches and through some protected forest areas. Since it had rained the previous day, the greenery looked all the more amazing. It’s a great feeling to ride side by side in the wide road that runs straight through green fields and gently curls through the mountain. 

As we entered the Kaziranga National Park area, we had one eye on the marshland. Elephants, rhinos and deer often feed in these mash and as we waited in the watch shed and lazily rolled a smoke, we were rewarded for our patience with the sight of a herd of elephants lead by a huge tusker and a lone rhino as they amble seemingly aimlessly.  Kaziranga attracts a huge number of tourists and over the years, a lot of restaurants and guesthouses have sprung up all along the highway where the food and accommodations are very reasonably priced. Many old Assam type bungalows have been converted into guesthouses and it is such a pleasure staying in these and eating the local dishes.

Stopping every few kilometers, we managed to reach Sonari late evening and checked into a small hotel named Seven Sisters Hotel And Bar. The unusually strong sun had exhausted us and we hit the bed immediately, least bothered that our legs hung outside the bed.

Although we did not see any of the seven sisters, we found that the food was cheap and very good and the beer was chilled. Anuj has this amazing ability to strike up a funny conversation with just about anybody and the owner of the hotel was so taken in by him that he waived off the charges for breakfast and two beers. We were traveling on a shoestring budget and any concession was more than welcome.

Mon Town is at a distance of around 60 kms from Sonari in Assam and it took us all of four hours to reach there because every few kilometers we would stop to take in the beauty of the land and chat up with the friendly people in the small settlements along the way. The motorcycles were great attention grabbers wherever we stopped because the locals hardly see any motorcycle mounted tourists.

I have been to Mon quite a few years back and I realized that nothing much has changed except for the fact there were quite a lot of vehicles on the road. It is like any other small town – crowded and so we decided to ride another 35kms to the village of Sayeang and stayed at the Sayeang Tea Estate with Phejin Konyak who lets out her house for home stays. Since there are few hotels in the town you can count on home stays in the villages and enjoy the local food. Naga people are a friendly lot and you will definitely find some one who would take you in.

Sayeang and the nearby legendary village of Wakching look quite prosperous with concrete houses slowly replacing the traditional thatch houses. But tradition always pulls strongly at ones heart and I have seen owners of many concrete houses maintain a traditional hut, even if it is a small one, in their courtyard.

After spending a couple of days in Sayeang , we rode 45 kms south of Mon Town to the village of Langmeng via the legendary village of Chui and Aboi. 45 kms is not a great distance but it takes time as the roads are narrow with deadly drops on one side and the first mistake might very well be the last. It is said that the Angh (the village chief) of Chui village is the most powerful among all the Anghs in the Konyak society. A few years back, the Angh had 66 human skulls in his huge house but they have been relocated to some other place that was not disclosed to us.  It is the custom to pay a visit to the Angh before visiting anybody else in the village and we duly paid our respects to the Angh of Langmeng.  He is a young man and had inherited the Anghship from his father.
He took us to a ‘morung’ or dormitory in the village and in one corner of the huge structure, in the hollow of a tree were 55 human skulls…trophies from a battle. The skulls are not allowed to be taken out of the morung and it was an eerie feeling to shoot them in the dark room and in firelight. I guess the spirits of these dead men did not mind being photographed because nothing untoward happened to us during the rest of the journey.

Most of the villages in Mon had their own collection of skulls but many of them were destroyed because the church thinks that it is uncivilized and barbaric to display them. But the Angh of Langmen certainly has other ideas, as he wants to preserve and showcase the tribal heritage to the world, which I feel is a good thing to do.  

In the years past, the young boys of a village had to stay in the morung for three years where they learned about life, their responsibilities towards the society and the art of warfare. They were considered warriors only after they graduate from the morung. Although the tradition is not followed in true earnest these days, there is no denying the fact that the morung holds immense importance in a Konyak society. Anybody who breaks the sanctity of the morung or disobeys its bidding is punished and fined. Each and every morung has a huge log drum which is played only by a designated person and on specific occasions.

We have heard so much about a village named Longwa that we decide that we should visit it. Longwa turned out to be the most interesting village in Mon and the six days that we spent were simply not enough. It is 42 kms from Mon Town and a friend assured us that it would take no more than one and a half hour to reach. We were game but we certainly did not bargain for the terrible road conditions due to the heavy overnight rain…infact there was no road. The mud was slippery and deep but the Karizmas performed outstandingly throughout except for that one time when the muddy surface offered no traction whatsoever and I had a mighty fall. Caked in mud and my pride hurt, I was struggling to lift up the heavily loaded bike when a young fellow waved gaily as he rode past me in a bicycle with not a speck of mud on him and a large sack of rice behind. Talk about rubbing insult to injury.

It was lush green allaround. Wild bamboo and banana trees cover the slopes and there are large alder, teak and mulberry plantations owned by some villagers. Everything looked serene but it did nothing to calm my aching arm muscles. I had to struggle hard to keep the bike upright as the rear kept sliding and had a mind of its own.  After riding like what seemed an eternity, we passed the villages of Tang and Pomching. We stopped a number of times for tea or to rest and every time we asked how far it was to Longwa, we got the same answer – 20 km. After it happened for the fourth time I decided that I would not ask the distance anymore. We finally reached the village after four and a half hours of riding and headed straight for the Angh’s residence.

I have never seen another thatched house larger than the Angh’s. A two-room apartment would easily fit into one corner of the sitting room! The fire in the sitting room never goes out in an Angh’s house and as we sat round the fire, excited questions flew at us thick and fast. Monetarily, the Angh is not a rich man but he has vast authority over the society. And if you are thinking that the chief’s house will have decorations and expensive furniture, you are mistaken. The only decorations are animal skulls. The bamboo walls of the sitting room are decorated with skulls of really huge mithuns (bisons), deer, wild boars, buffalos, hornbills and a huge and shiny elephant tusk.

Among the Angh’s closest friends was an old warrior with tattoos on his face and chest and his ear was pierced with huge goat horns. Longwa has no electricity and the glow from the fire lit up the old warrior’s face in a weird and fearsome manner. He is a real character and you can use a 1GB memory card on him and still want to shoot some more. I wonder if this old warrior ever slept. Every night I saw him smoking opium when I dozed off and he would be there in the same place smoking opium when I awoke early next morning.  He spoke just once in six days and that was to proudly say that he had collected five heads…and we sure believed him. The other old warriors who gathered in the Angh’s house gave a grand display about how they collected heads in the battles, complete with shrill war cries and gunfire.  

Konyaks love to smoke opium and although the student’s body has banned it, the Angh and his old friends still smoke it.  They smoke the opium in unique bamboo pipes. I had four drags that made me see multi coloured stars and duly crashed out nice and proper. I had a nice sleep and in the morning I discovered that I had slept in Myanmar! Half of the Angh’s house lies in Myanmar and the other half in India. His jurisdiction runs over 50 villages inside Myanmar and we accompanied him on a day’s trek inside Myanmar through dense tropical forest to visit some villages.

Traditionally, an Angh has many wives and the present Angh’s father has twenty. ‘I have only two at the moment’ said the young Angh with a wink. The Anghship is hereditary and the eldest son becomes the Angh after the father decides to retire.

Nagaland has a large number of primary schools and it is a lovely sight to see little kids with bright handloom bags make their way to the school. But not every child can make it to school as we found some very young girls filling water in bamboos to carry them home. Allover the northeast, the children are made to realize their responsibilities and you can find a little girl or a boy carrying a younger sibling on the back. All these schools teach in English medium and it took us by surprise when we came across a school in the village where the Myanmar script was followed. Lazar, a teacher in the school said that since many people from the village goes to Myanmar for work, so teaching the Myanmar script makes sense. But does it really?

I have every reason to believe that Nagaland has the highest number of muzzle loading rifles in the country. These guns are not like the ornamental ones like in Rajasthan. They are simple ones and are regularly used.

It is believed that the Konyaks had invented gunpowder long before the British had landed in India. And they are master craftsmen too. Almost every single house has some fantastic old wooden sculptures and beautiful metal ornaments that reminded me of the comic-‘Tintin In America’. These artifacts are priceless museum pieces and even these will disappear after a few years. Unscrupulous antique dealers are sweeping the villages off all such artifacts. 

These craftsmen make fabulously finished flintlock muzzle loaders that look like they have come straight out of a Robinson Crusoe movie. It has been a long time since I fired a muzzle loader and I fired at will in the jungles. A man proudly showed me an immaculate replica of a Winchester .22 repeater rifle that he had made himself. And it was a dead shot too.

We wanted to spend a few more days but ran dangerously low on fuel and there was no way that we could have made the return journey to Mon through that treacherous road. Major R. Singh of the Assam Rifles regiment posted in the village gave us 10 liters of petrol on a returnable basis, which we duly did later. Returnable, because it is only once a week that a helicopter delivers supplies to the regiment.

After five days we bid goodbye to the Angh and all the friends and they ensured that we left with a heavy stomach. But that day we traveled all of 1.5 kms. A little bit of rain and a friend’s old mother persuaded us to unpack our bags in their house on the edge of the village. My friend Longshah was blessed with a son and was supposed to be baptized the next day and we were the honoured guests in the feast.  But the feast never happened as the baby passed away in the evening due to some complications.

After the funeral early next morning, we left with a heavy heart but again the road cheered us as we met and made friends with some lovely people along the way to Mon and on to Sonari. 

If you are anywhere in Nagaland in the first week of April, head straight for Mon for the Konyak festival of Aoling. Warriors, old and young in traditional regalia and war paints perform mind-blowing war dances. Gunfire and war cries fill the air as the warriors go on a mock headhunting expedition and the pulling of the huge log drum from the forest to a morung is a ceremony that simply can’t be missed. Stay in the village during the festival and you will never forget the amazing spectacle. The war cries, drum beats, the dances and the warm tribal welcome will stay with you long after you return to your cut throat world of competition and pollution in the big cities   

Travel is the mother of all education and it becomes all the more interesting when you learn the lessons from the seats of a motorcycle.