Wangyel, an 80-year-old headhunter of the Konyak Naga tribe, known for their warrior tradition of beheading enemies for land and power upto the ’60s, sits at a table at home in his native village Longwa, Nagaland. He displays his prized possessions, which belonged to his son, who was beheaded in a tribal war a few years ago. The showcase includes a gun, a knife and a medallion with four heads. It’s a testimony to the number of men his son had beheaded much like himself, showing off a similar one on the chain he wears. Wangyel spoke at length about how brave his son was, revealing his emotional side to photographer Fanil Pandya, a far cry from the powerful headhunter that he once was.
Wangyel’s portrait is one among the 18 photographs of Baroda-based Pandya’s latest exhibition “Headhunters”, showing at Egg Art Studio, Delhi. He belongs to the last generation of India’s headhunters with their tattoo-adorned faces and bodies draped in animal skin and horn accessories. One of Wangyel’s quotes reads: “We knew our enemy and why we were going to behead them, but most of the young men in the army don’t even know the cause of a war that they are part of.”
Pandya chose to focus on the headhunters after photographing tribesmen in South East Asia, Africa, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for a long-term project. “They hold no remorse about their headhunting practices as they believe it is their way of solving problems,” says the 32-year-old.
Another frame captures headhunter Chahlem, 80, sitting on bare ground, as he looks towards the mountains. His grim expression shows his evident dislike for outsiders, who lure away the village youth with material things. “The elderly do not like the change because they feel it brings unhappiness among the youth. Whenever someone brings a bike into the village, everyone else wishes for the same. Earlier, a person was respected because of his contribution to the community and the number of wars he had fought,” says Pandya.
Standing against the backdrop of dead animal skulls, 76-year-old Luhpong Wang recalls how in earlier days, the heads of their enemies were hung on the walls of their communal houses. Their headhunting practice was abolished when Christian missionaries reached them. Now they only hang skulls of animals they have hunted.
Pandya’s first encounter with the tribe was in December 2015. He would join them in their daily ritual of gathering around a bonfire, listening to their stories. Most of them had turned to agriculture. Initially, they told Pandya that he would have to delete all his photos. “I had to convince them that at 80, they were the last generation of headhunters in the country. There was no other way the next generation would get to know about them, since their children had moved to cities. They have no books or literature of their own. It’s only these photos and documentation that will carry forward their legacy.”
The exhibition is on till January 19