Nagaland and it's headhunters

Posted by Tamsin Wilde on

Nagaland is an Indian state known for being mainly mountainous, located in the far north-east of the country, and makes up part of India’s border with Myanmar. With its largest city being Dimapur, and state capital of Kohima, Nagaland is home to a population of nearly 2 million people. Nagaland is known as one of India’s “Seven Sister States” due to the distinct cultural differences from the rest of India. The area is around one sixth rainforest, and home to Elephants, Tigers (wild, not kept by Joe Exotic), Leopards, Bears, Monkeys, Buffalo – Nagaland has them all. The longtail feathers of Great Indian Hornbill are treasured in this region for their use in traditional ceremonial dress – this can be seen in full feathered glory during the Hornbill festival held in December near the capital Kohima.

Nagaland and it's people

The earliest known references to Nagaland are found within the Indian epic, Mahābhārata, wherein several characters are referred to as members of the Naga people. Where the name ‘Naga’ came from is long disputed, with some suggesting it derives from the Nāga, a race of large serpentine creatures from Hinduism and Buddhism, and can be seen adorning temples, and now and again, there’s an actual Nāga sighting – seriously, have a Google, Nāgas are cool. Others suggest the name derives from Noga – meaning ‘hill people in the plains of Assam’, but other still suggest it’s from ‘Nanga’ meaning naked – however, the name was given to the Naga people by outsiders.

The Naga people are an Indo-Asiatic people who form around 16 tribes as well as multiple subtribes each with their own distinct name. These tribes all have their own specific geographic distribution and although they do share many cultural traits, they have maintained a high degree of isolation (even before Coronavirus) and are legendary for their headhunting. The Nagas customs and myths have a remarkable kinship with those of the Iban of Sarawak and the Bugis of Indonesia to the south-east.

The largest tribe within Nagaland is the Konyaks, who are followed in size by the Aos, Tangkhuls, Semas then the Angamis. Other tribes include the Lothas, Sangtams, Phoms, Changs and Khiemnungams – to name a few. Although they lack a common language, the Naga people have around 60 spoken dialects that all belong to the Sino-Tibetan language family, but intertribal conversation is usually carried out with broken Assamese, with many Nagas speaking Hindi and English. Before the arrival of the British Raj,  Nagaland was administered as part of Manipur, so with permission of the Manipuri king, the East India Company explored deep inside the Naga hills for trade routes and physical resources they could no doubt acquire with standard “East India Company” bullying and backhanded bribes (we’ve all seen Taboo – we know they were terrible), but I digress, during this time the British also brought with them many Assamese and Bengali traders to the region, from whom the Naga eventually adopted their dialect called Nagamese, which unsurprisingly is a mix of both Assamese and Bengali dialects.


These tribes have a colourful and vibrant history known for their fierce independence and love of freedom. Traditionally, Naga tribes are Animist, within the sphere of Tibetan Buddhism’s influence, however, back in 1949 the Naga chose to embrace the British Baptist missionaries teachings – with around 90% of Naga tribes within Nagaland choosing to adopt the Baptist faith, finding the Baptist views on freedom and independence gelled well with their own and in turn moulded Nagaland’s culture in a unique way in comparison to the rest of India who’s cultural shaping force has come from Hinduism, Islam and/or Buddhism. Before the adoption of Christianity, Naga tribes were around 95% animist, enthusiastically polygamous and remarkable to the outside world for the near nakedness of its women and the sheer fierceness of its men.

Nagaland early history consists of the customs and economic activities of the various tribes in the region, with these tribes having socio-economic and political links with tribes in Assam and Myanmar, where even today a large population of Naga people inhabit Assam. In 1816, the area, along with neighbours in Assam came under the direct rule of Myanmar, with this period being known for its oppressive rule and the turmoil it created both in Assam and Nagaland. When the British East India Company, took control of Assam in 1826, they steadily spread their domain over modern Nagaland as well, as they were terrible, money grabbing bastards. Then the missionaries came, disrespecting the faith of others and converting them to their own beliefs making Nagaland into the largest Baptist state in the world.

Nagaland also played a central role in many battles of WW2, with its capital city, Kohima serving as one of the final points where British and Indian forces were able to turn back the Japanese movement into South Asia. The military cemetery records the deaths of those who fought in the Battle of Kohima in 1944. One grave marker honours the uncertain remains of Private Thomas Collins, from Barkingside in Essex. The remains are uncertain, as the fighting at Kohima was so intense that the bodies were mixed into a mash of bloody, tropical ooze. One moment this 21 year old man would be leaving Barkingside on the train, probably his first trip abroad – then drilled, dressed in Khaki, gun over his shoulder and packed off to die in this beautiful yet improbably remote corner of the British empire, with countless others in a sea of blood.

When India gained its independence in 1947, Nagaland remained part of Assam, so nationalist activities rose amongst the Naga tribes as they began to demand a political union of their ancestral and native groups. Focusing on damaging government and civil infrastructure, as well as attacking government officials and Indians from other states, in 1955 the Union government sent the army in to attempt to restore order. In 1957, the government began talks with the representatives of the tribes, meaning the Naga Hills district of Assam and the Tuensang frontier were united into a single political entity, becoming a union territory directly administered by the central government with a large degree of autonomy. The tribes thought this was bullshit and swiftly agitation and violence increased across the state, including civil disobedience, attacks on government and army institutions and refusal to pay taxes.

A further political accord was reached in July of 1960 which stated Nagaland should become a constituent and self-governing state in the Indian Union. Statehood was officially granted in 1963, and first state level elections were held in 1964. Resistance still remained at this point but most insurgencies were quelled in the early 1980s, however, it all kicked off again in the late 90s culminating with the Prime Minister, Mr Gujral announcing the national government declared a ceasefire in 1997 after talks with the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN). Agreeing on cessation of operations from August 1st, 1997 lasting for 3 months. Since then, it’s been extended but there is still resistance related conflict in the region largely due to the belief of the tribal groups that they are under the dominion of Indian imperialism. Naga independence movements and guerrilla armies, split today into warring factions, have been fighting for freedom and a greater Nagaland that would unite all the Naga tribes – around 4 million people – in a land of their own, Nagalim, or Greater Nagaland. To date, over 200,000 Nagas have been killed, along with many Indian soldiers. However, India is unlikely to let Nagaland go.

Tribal traditions

Tribal and clan traditions and loyalties play an important part of life for the Naga people, and each vary. Tribal organisation varies from the autocratic Angs (Chiefs) of the Konyak tribe and hereditary chieftainships of the Semas and Changs to the democratic structures of the Angamis. Within a Naga village, a prominent institution is the Morung, which is a communal house or dormitory for young and unmarried men where skulls and other trophies are hung. The pillars are carved with representations of animals, humans and other figures.

Within Naga culture, women hold a relatively high and honourable position in Naga society, working on the fields on equal terms with men and have considerable influence in the tribal councils – which within Nagaland, each tribe has a hierarchy of councils (at the village, range and tribal levels) which deal with disputes involving breaches of customary laws and usages so influence is important.

A central feature of Naga life is the Feast of Merit, a series of ceremonies culminating in the sacrifice of a mithan (a domesticated guar). Different tribes have their own gennas, or festivals and their music, song, dance and folklore all express an exuberant concern for life. The rich folklore of Nagaland is passed down through the generations through word of mouth, and music is an integral part of life as it’s folk songs eulogize ancestors, tell the stories and brave deeds of warriors and traditional heroes, as well as immortalizing ancient and tragic love stories in poetic songs. Gospel songs play a large part since the area’s conversion to Christianity. The tribes can be distinguished by their intricately designed costumes, jewellery and beads they adorn. Traditional attire consists of multicoloured spears and daos decorated with dyed goat hair, headgear made of finely woven bamboo interlaced with orchid stems, adorned with items like boar’s teeth, hornbill feathers or ivory. In the headhunting days, these items would have to be earned through acts of valour to be able to wear them.


The ancient practice of ‘headhunting’ involves the preservation of a person’s head – after killing him, so we’re not talking medical preservation, we’re talking getting a machete, cutting it off and taking it home as a trophy. Naga people were known as the most enthusiastic head-hunters, and though officially banned decades ago, the practice continues in remote and warring areas.

For the Naga head-hunters, the taking of a head was a great honour and a symbol of courage, and the number of heads taken indicate not only the power of the warrior, but they also showed the power of the whole tribe as they become a collective totem within the Morung or skull house.

The head-hunters have a very distinctive look, with colourful and intricately woven shawls, beaded jewellery decorated with bones and teeth as well as ivory armbands and the like, giving them a vibrant, powerful appearance.

Until 1969, the Konyak tribe had a reputation of being fierce warriors who often attacked nearby villages of other tribes and took great pride in taking the heads of opposing warriors as trophies to hang in the Morung.

With no qualms about taking the heads of their victims, the Konyaks focused on their deep-rooted beliefs that a human skull is the seat of power for the life force behind the prosperity of their crops, clans and animals. The occasional capture of a human skull was a necessary part for everyday events, like marriage, not just for killing enemies. It was at the heart of Naga society, and without taking a head, no young man could fully graduate to adulthood and be eligible to marry a high-status woman. So, inter-tribal violence was therefore institutionalised, and as one anthropologist wrote, “A Naga village could not remain even ideally at peace, as long as there prevailed the belief that the occasional capture of a human head was essential for maintaining the fertility of the crops and the wellbeing of the community”.

Once young boys had passed their rite of passage by severing the head of an enemy, they would then return home where they would show off their hunted heads, hanging by their topknots. The women served them rice wine. Around them would hang elephant hide shields, spears, rice baskets, tridents, ivory tusks and huge ceremonial gongs of beaten brass. After the flesh and hair had been boiled off, the skulls were displayed prominently on a flat stone outside the hunter’s house, and their success was then rewarded with tattoos on the warriors face and chest. These skulls would also be displayed in the skull house – but these have now been locked up. The outside walls of the village were decorated with the vast horns of the mithun, or wild oxen the Konyak had hunted.

Mostly unknown today, the last major outbreak of headhunting is reported to have been in 1990, following a land dispute between two tribes. Unfortunately, the forests have now mainly been cleared, longhouses, skull houses and Morungs have been torn down. As Nagaland now has one of the largest and most pious evangelical Christian populations in South Asia, these buildings have now mainly been replaced by churches, and tribes that would once compete to have the most heads, now compete on the size of their churches, with most agreeing this is progress. Chief Chen-O Khuzuthrupa of the Konyak tribe, who was 98 at the time, so being born in 1918, took 8 heads himself – the first at age 28, said on the matter;

“Change is probably for the better. When you look back, you feel nostalgia, and ache for those things which are gone. We had very solid customs and traditions. Our population was closely knit — there was always someone to help, and no one starved to death. Now people are like birds: they fly from one place to another. But I don’t know. Probably those old customs just don’t meet the requirements of today. I feel optimistic that most of these changes are ultimately for the good.”

However, Chief Chen-O also stated, shrugging his shoulders, “I am just sad that when the missionaries came, anything that was non-western was called non-Christian, and so [seen as] savage”. I agree with his view here – a society where women had an equal role in society as men, where they respected their land and culture…. Yeah…. Really savage. The Christians caused the loss of so much Naga culture, there will likely be no more head-hunters in a decade. The Christians told the Naga tribes to throw out everything integral to Naga culture, not just the headhunting, but their art and tattooing, as well as making them bury their log drums and burn the mithun-horn trophies therefore destroying such important parts of their cultural identity.


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