The Nagas are a people of Mongoloid stock, with numerous tribes who share similar cultures and traditions inhabiting the mountainous region of the Indian state of Nagaland, with a substantial presence in Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, plus small populations in Assam and north-west Myanmar, too.
A territory dominated by cloud-enshrouded hills and the violent reputation of the inhabitants helped keep outsiders away for centuries, until the arrival of British colonialists. Even now the roads are so bad that it takes hours to travel a few miles. Naga villages today don’t look very different to two centuries ago: they are still characterised by thatch-roofed bamboo longhouses built on the hilltops, even if the odd tin roof and concrete construction represent a concession to slow progress.
The last living Naga headhunters are now more than 80 years old and inherited a strong tribal identity. The traditional practice of headhunting, which ended in the late 1960s, was used to resolve certain territorial conflicts and formed part of a survival strategy in a land ruled by warrior clans. The custom of killing the enemy and preserving the heads as trophies was considered a matter of courage and pride. The ritual marked the passage to adulthood and was intrinsically linked with fertility: according to the Nagas’ animist beliefs, the human skull possessed a life force that could ensure the prosperity of crops, animals and tribal clans, and which could be harnessed by cutting off and keeping the head. The heads were offered to the chief and, once the flesh had decomposed, they were preserved in the morungs (traditional Naga huts). Headhunters can still be found wearing brass heads round their neck, in lieu of the heads they had taken in the past.
Prestigious tattoos were awarded to warriors coming back from successful raids, marking a progression within the hierarchy. According to anthropologists different tattoo patterns were drawn on the back, torso and face depending on the the tribe and number of heads severed. Tattooing wasn’t a practice reserved only for Naga headhunters: tattooing of women, for instance, was common in all Nocte villages.
Konyak warriors from Nagaland used to have tattoos inked all over their faces. Other symbols of the Konyak include them piercing their ears with big pieces of animal horns and wearing war headdresses crafted from wild pigs’ horns, hornbill feathers and bearskin or goat hair. The majestic hornbill is a Nagaland emblem representing loyalty, as the female bird stays in the high nest, relying on her male to feed her. In the past, the right to use hornbill feathers had to be earned, and only those that excelled in warfare received the honour to decorate themselves so. The Konyak suffer from an opium addiction that began with the Raj: they boil and smoke opium, sucking from bamboo pipes in their longhouses along the porous border with Myanmar, one of the world’s top opium producers.
Every Naga village today has a church. Christian missionaries, mostly Baptists, first came to north-east India in the 1830s, accepted by the British as potential pacifiers of a population organised into clans with no broad tribal identities: according to their traditions, each village worked as an independent republic. The development of a “Naga” identity began with the conversion to Christianity, with the natives persuaded by foreign promises of education, medicine and a religion condemning war. As a result, headhunting gradually declined and traditions were in part destroyed. Dancing and drum-playing were banned, traditional relics and clothes burned, and skulls, formerly on prominent display, buried. Today, more than 95% of Naga people identify as Christians, mostly Baptist. English is now the common language, but the radical change endured by the population in the last two centuries provoked an identity crisis that continues to this day.
Naga heritage is celebrated during colourful festivals: Loku, in Arunachal Pradesh, is the main festival of the Nocte, when the Chalo folk dance plays an important part during the celebrations; Hornbill is the Nagaland state government's ten-day festival organised every December, when Naga tribes converge wearing their traditional costumes and finery for tourists.
The Nagas today are living through another phase of change. The last living headhunters will disappear within the next few decades, taking with them some of their unwritten history. Internal conflicts still aren’t completely resolved and the now-ubiquitous Christianity and some aspects of modernity, including television and mobile phones, have entered the Nagas’ daily life, marking the beginning of a new era.