The head hunters of Nagaland

The North Eastern state of India – Nagaland, is home to some of the world’s last surviving head hunters. Nagas are an ethnic group conglomerating several tribes. Nagas never had a generic term for themselves. The “Naga” term was initially used by outsiders. A Naga used to identify himself by giving the name of his village. British Anthropologist, Verrier Elwin, noted that people calling themselves as Naga today were unaware of that term as late as 1954.

 From time immemorial, these tribes were constantly on war for supremacy. Nagas have more language diversity than any other ethnic group or state in India. Migration from other places to Nagaland and absorption of these migrants to various tribes are cited for the linguistic and cultural diversity of Nagaland which also resulted in inter-clan conflicts. These tribes exhibit very strong warrior tradition. Nagas had the tradition of bringing back the severed heads of the enemies after a conflict and storing them in the skull houses (Baan) each village or tribe had. Each man in the tribe was expected to contribute to the skull collection. After an inner tribe war, the winners came back home with bleeding heads of the vanquished. There were head hunters who took pleasure in collecting severed heads. Heads were hunted to win a girl’s love or severed heads were exchanged as gifts between friends.

Since 1839, British incursions into Nagaland, resulted in conflicts with the Naga People. By 1920, The British consolidated their position in Nagaland. Christianity first came to Nagaland in 1872 and the missionaries were successful in converting 95% of the Nagas to Christianity. The British abolished head hunting.

The Konyaks are the largest tribe among the Nagas. In the past, Konyaks were infamous for head hunting and keeping them as trophies, a practise they continued as late as the 1960’s. Konyaks have pierced ears; and tattoos all over their body. The facial tattoos were earned for taking the head of an enemy. Konyaks inhabit in the Mon District in Nagaland, also known as ‘The Land of The Anghs’. The tribe is still ruled by hereditary chieftains, locally known as “Angh”, and one or several villages can come under each chieftain’s rule.

Konyak men wear necklaces with bronze faces which represents the number of heads cut. A Konyak warrior is also distinguished by pierced ears made of animal horns and war hats made of hunted wild pig horns, hornbill feathers and wild bear or goat hair. The severed human heads are carried in a basket made in a traditional way decorated with monkey skulls.

Image Courtesy:  Yves Picq – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Financial Times published an Article “The Last of Nagaland’s head hunters” on September 30, 2016 by William Dalrymple. William Dalrymple describes the interaction he had with Konyak tribe chief Chen – o Kuzhutrupa as follows;

Chen – o Kuzhutrupa says,

 “I took eight heads in all, But the first was the one I’ll never forget. I was only 28 and when I came safely back, holding it in my hands, I can tell you — I had the pick of all the prettiest girls in our tribe!” His face broke into a broad smile.”


The older generation that experienced the days of head hunting still lives in those villages with their stories of valour and tribal rivalry. The tourists though small in numbers, visit the tribal villages for their narratives and to visualise the cultural antiquity not seen anywhere else in India. For each skull they brought in, the Konyak warrior will receive a tattoo on his face. The best and the bravest warriors with tattooed faces enjoyed high social privilege. It was believed that by taking head of an enemy as a trophy, they took the deceased’s power and soul. A good enough reason to slaughter as many possible.

Image Courtesy: Public Domain,

Nagaland has changed quite a lot from those days. The Christian missionaries have converted 95 percentage of the Nagas to Christianity. Along with Christianity, the cries for establishing a subltle Naga identity has also become stronger giving headache to the Indian Government. A separate Naga nation is one of their demands since the 1920’s. The Naga identity never existed before the introduction of Christianity as Nagas identified themselves to the villages they belonged. The skull houses and the wooden village barracks where Naga boys were trained to hunt, have all been torn down, and Baptist chapels erected in their place.

Conversion to Christianity is taken as a rebirth and a reborn Christian should discard everything that belonged to their original culture. As the Nagas toss away their distinct cultural identity, we are inching towards a world, where everything looks the same.

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