Believed to hold the soul force of the being, the Konyak man would have to bring the decapitated head of his “enemy” back from the affray, to be revered as a warrior among his people. The deed, considered among the Konyak tribe of the Mon district of Nagaland, to be a “coming of age” or a rite of passage that would usher him into manhood, would earn him tattoos on his body, particularly his neck and face. The Konyak woman too acquired tattoos as she made her way through the various phases of life — puberty, motherhood et al.
Carried out primarily by female tattoo artists, known as Anghyas, the art was passed onto the young women of the tribe by their mothers and included mainly the techniques of hand-tapping and hammering using a comb made by bunching together sharp rattan needles using plant fibres. The myriad, intricate patterns, charted using the indelible ink extracted from the resin of the red cedar, on the Konyak body, symbolised the stature of the member, for it served as evidence of his or her achievements.
Along with marking the rank or status of the member, the inking was also carried out as a practice for beautification and the tattoos were believed to ensure a safe passage into the afterlife. “It was believed that tattoos made the deceased recognisable to the ancestors in the afterlife,” writes Phejin Konyak, the granddaughter of a celebrated Konyak warrior, in the ethnographic account of the tribe, titled, The Konyaks: The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, published by Roli Books.
Customs and beliefs, found in the rich oral traditions of the tribe and in their tattooing patterns, that underpin the Konyak community are collected and compiled by Phejin in the book. These are accompanied by detailed visual accounts by Dutch photographer Peter Bos; his photographs only augments the comprehensive text to reflect deeply on the tribe’s now fading traditions.
“It all began with a conversation I had with the director of the Indian Museum of Kolkata, B Venugopal, back in 2014. I was curious as to why the museum did not house many arts and artefacts from Nagaland, particularly those of the Konyaks. I thought it was important for them to display our culture if they wanted people to know about us. He asked me to present a lecture on the Konyaks at the museum. While, initially, I was reluctant, he remained adamant. I researched for the lecture and then kept going back to the region to find more stories. Eventually, I thought I should collate all of it in one place,” says Phejin, who trudged rough terrains, walked from village to village, carrying her own ration, to interview the Konyaks.
“There are no pukka roads between these villages, so we had to walk. Plus, these people are very poor, some without access to the very basics. So, we decided to carry our own ration so as to not impose on them,” she adds.
Headhunting and the tradition of tattooing were intrinsically linked to one another, and the abolition of the practice of headhunting in 1935, rang the death knell of the ritual of tattooing as well. It was the advent of the missionaries, the book informs its reader, in the late 19th century, that pushed the traditions further into obscurity. “Everything that is good, also has a downside. While Christianity, and the work of the missionaries, gave us access to education and empowered us with a language that allowed us to come in contact with the outside world, it failed to enforce the need to preserve our own culture,” rues Phejin.
Despite the rescission of the practice of headhunting, tattoos continue to mark the contours of the Konyak body. However, “more and more students are raising their voice against it as the tattoos make it difficult for the Konyaks to blend with the outside world. More importantly, it was considered imperative for men and women to have tattoos, which implies a lack of choice,” she explains, adding, “the tattoos that mark the rite of passage are still being done among the tribes. Every village has its own rites and rules but in our village, every five years, boys of a certain age, say when they turn 15 or 16, go through the rite of passage. As a result, the social structure remains the same but the initiation into adulthood happens differently. Instead of headhunting, they now go hunting or fishing to become a part of the paan (the men’s club).”
As rapid changes brought about by the various processes of modernisation engulf the Konyaks, Phejin seeks more fervently to document what is left of the older traditions, before it all recedes into collective amnesia. She now intends to publish the book in the Konyak language along with an illustrated version for the children of the tribe.