The Mon District of Nagaland is one of the remotest parts of eastern India and I was in Longwa village, straddling both India and Myanmar’s borders.
The land belongs to the fierce Konyak tribe. The hillsides are green but not with dense forests. Slash and burn agriculture has led to the growth of only a scant grass and stunted bush growth cover. Men leave early morning bearing their satchels and the fierce dao to hunt whatever they are able to find in the hills where wildlife has been hunted to near extinction. Women rise early and leave to forage, collecting ears of corn and some root vegetables and greens. The children mill around, the older ones carrying their younger siblings in slings over their shoulders.
There are 16 tribes in Nagaland. The Konyak Nagas of Mon district and of Longwa were feared and respected headhunters – warriors who would take severed heads as trophies of war and symbols of prestige in their communities. Longwa was one of the last villages to give up headhunting, rumoured to be as late as 1982.
In Konyak culture, bringing back the head of the enemy was simultaneously a rite of passage, a proof of masculinity, of valor and dominance and a token of prestige. In those bygone days, heads played the same role that money does today, and taking enemy heads earned a Konyak warrior a position of respect within society. The more heads he took, the higher his standing and wealth grew and, hence, the more eligible he became to choose a wife.
Each headhunter would also be rewarded with a tattoo, determined by specific rules regarding where and what the tattoo would be. A warrior’s tattoos symbolized his accomplishments. If he brought home a body part of the enemy his reward was a tattoo on his body. If he severed a head, he earned the privilege of getting one on his face. And after a warrior had taken five heads, he could have his neck tattooed with the prestigious “spider web” design.
Today, with headhunting a thing of the past, elder tribesmen are the only ones left wearing these amazing tattoos and I was going to meet one of them. Dirk the German houseguest and Longsha’s father also accompanied us.
I met Tomwang in the late afternoon as light was falling. I was thrilled to meet him and slightly scared at the same time. Longsha told me he was one of the last surviving headhunters and therefore highly respected in the village. This meeting was what I had travelled solo for, through all these thousands of kilometers to the extreme end of India.
Tomwang is a tall man very lithe in his gait. He sat on a wooden bench in the main hall in Longsha’s hut. My eyes were drawn to the necklace around his neck from which five brass heads were dangling, and his head seemed to be shaven till I noticed that his hair was tied back into a bun and the tusk of a wild boar held it in place. His face was lined with tattoos that had faded to an ashy grey with the passing years and he smiled at me with tobacco-stained teeth. I held out my hand and shook his. With Longshaa translating, I introduced myself.
We sat down and Tomwang wondered if Dirk was my husband, because he was surprised to see me unaccompanied so far from home. Laughing, I showed Tomwang pictures of my my daughter and my husband from my phone. He took the phone in his hand and peered closely at the pictures, nodding.
“Did he get a thrill killing men?” I asked.
“Killing an enemy made me so happy, never have I been happier. The whole village was happy. I killed my first man when I was 30 years old. He was from Langkho village. I am now 80 years old. My last kill was when I was 57 years. He was also a Konyak but from Shenghah village. I killed him with my spear and then chopped his head off with my dao”.
I asked, “Which time was better, those days or now?”
“The old days of course, I have no interest in knowing what is happening in these days. Nowadays your current generation kills innocent people, but in our days there was always a reason for killing men”.
Tomwang had killed five men in his time and participated in many other hunts. The villagers had rewarded him with a brass head every time he took a head. He held out his necklace proudly so that I could admire the five brass heads strung together. He also received a facial tattoo for each instance, and I bent down close to his face to examine his tattoos. Black inked parallel lines marked every inch of his face moving from his forehead, across his cheeks and around his mouth. I marvelled at how much pain he must have borne to get this marks of distinction. In his ear lobes were deer horns. His hair was sparse and was pulled back into a small bun behind his head held together by strips of deer hide. Longsha also told me that both Tomwang and his father had V shaped chest tattoos representing the stripes of a tiger. His father had never managed to kill a man but he had brought back from the hunt the hands of the enemy hence the chest tattoo.
I then requested Dirk to show his tattoos to Tomwang and see his reaction. Dirk obliged and all the men including Tomwang marvelled at the darkly inked word ‘Psychobilly’ across his abdomen referring to a genre of music. I could see that Tomwang was perplexed at the idea that someone could get inked for aesthetic reasons instead of earning a tattoo, and the more Dirk tried to explain that this was to show his love for music the more confused Tomwang became. To myself I mused on the cultural differences that both brought together and separated two similarly tattooed people; which should give pause to many of us who feel that getting a tattoo is a new-age trend.
I gathered my notebook and camera and prepared to say goodbye to Tomwang. He had given me a glimpse into his past which he was so proud of and I felt privileged to have had this opportunity to meet him.