The headhunters of Nagaland are no more. The days of battle glory are long gone. Yet the intangible heritage that any tradition represents needs to be preserved, if not in reality, then in the form of exhibits, pictures, records and such like.
Towards this end, the Indian Museum in Kolkata is organising an exhibition-cum-demonstration titled ‘The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters: The Konyaks,’ from September 6 to September 13.
The Konyak Naga tribe is the largest of the 16 tribes living in the state of Nagaland. From the tribe’s conception centuries ago, until the gruesome practice was banned in 1940s, the Konyaks were fierce headhunters. The last headhunting case in Nagaland was reported in 1969. The Konyak believed (only men were headhunters) that when they collected the skull of an enemy they could in turn harness the life force and soul that once dwelled inside of its original ‘owner’. However, unlike what most people in the outside world perceive, headhunting was done only as vengeance for the loss of a loved one, for dispute over property, or over territorial encroachment or fishing rights. It was never practiced taking heads randomly.
With the banning of headhunting, certain cultural practices associated with it are also disappearing. The practices of tattooing the bodies and wearing colourful beaded jewellery are two such declining practices.
A distinctive feature of the Konyaks is the tattoos that they adorn their faces and bodies with. Facial and chest tattoos were given to Konyak men after they presented the head of an enemy to the leader of the tribe. The Konyak women, however, would receive decorative tattoo designs (primarily on their legs) to signify various advancements in life.
In the past, both men and women also wore elaborate necklaces and bracelets. The men’s often had brass faces to signify the number of enemy heads severed.
Since tattoos and Konyaks are inseparable, a major part of the exhibition will focus on tattoos.
The events at the Indian Museum
The exhibition and other events at the Indian Museum are aimed at documenting the traditions of past generations of Konyaks like headhunting, as well as preserving and educating people about the practices like tattooing.
Phejin Konyak, a descendant of the tattooed headhunters of the Konyak tribe, is a well-known researcher on the Konyak tribe. She has worked relentlessly for conserving the vanishing art, and would be present during the exhibition. According to her, the last study on the tribe happened in 1936 by Professor Hainendors of Austria. That is why she felt the urgency to record everything about my tribe before it is too late.
There will also be an exhibition of photographs by renowned Dutch photographer Peter Bos, a collaborator in the research of Phejin Konyak.
Further, there will be a workshop on tattooing by Mo Naga of Headhunter's Ink studio in Dimapur, Nagaland. Mo Naga has put immense efforts to revive traditional Naga tattoo, which are now recognised both nationally and internationally.
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