The Last Living Head Hunters

Trupal Pandya 01.jpg

A keen interest in documenting remote populations across the world took him to the Konyak tribe, known to be the largest of the 17 officially recognized tribes in Nagaland, a state in northeast India. Linguistically close to the Tibeto-Burman family, the tribes have been geographically isolated and thus been self reliant. “During the old times, our world was limited to our immediate neighbors, and everyone else was thus an enemy, not to be trusted,” shares an elder.

Steeped in pagan rituals before the advent of Christianity, the Konyak tribe still takes pride in its rich traditions—complete with headgear which is a prized possession of great honour, tattoos and heavy ornamentation sporting animal bones, monkey skulls, wood work and human heads. The tribe is popularly known as ‘Headhunters’—the conquest of an enemy had always involved a ceremonial decapitation and ‘heads’ were carried back home to be displayed as war trophies.

The purpose being anything but macabre—these trophies represented manhood and were believed to bestow the warrior with wealth and the strength of the vanquished soul. Belief goes that the head holds all spiritual divinity in a body, the capture of which is matter of prestige, serving a way to secure the victim as a slave in the afterlife. On coming of age, the men were required to hunt their first head following which they were allowed to pick a bride. While warriors received body tattoos for their skills and bravery, a face tattoo had to be earned through a headhunt during a raid or a skirmish with neighboring hostiles.The purpose being anything but macabre - these trophies represented manhood and were believed to bestow the warrior with wealth and the strength of the vanquished soul. Belief goes that the head holds all spiritual divinity in a body, the capture of which is matter of prestige, serving a way to secure the victim as a slave in the afterlife. On coming of age, the men were required to hunt their first head following which they were allowed to pick a bride. While warriors received body tattoos for their skills and bravery, a face tattoo had to be earned through a headhunt during a raid or a skirmish with neighboring hostiles.

Given the role of powerful totems, heads thus captured played role central to societal and worshipping practices of the tribes. From praying for favorable harvests to building a fierce reputation as tactical defense - headhunting played a definitive role until the late 1930s. A Naga village could thus seldom be at peace, since regular headhunting raids were believed to be required for the well being of the village. Though banned, the practice survived till the late 1960s. As an ode to the good faith in the practices of the yore, brass sculpted heads and monkey skulls now supplement the requirement of a human skull. Hunting always came naturally to the Nagas - homes and necklaces can be found to be adorned with hunting trophies. Owing to conservation of natural wealth, the government now asks them to step down from these practices

Time has not been kind to the region, and the tribes have struggled for identity amidst redrawn borders over the ages. Missionaries encouraged discontinuation of centuries old traditions, leading to trophy heads being buried, displays being locked up and horn ornaments being burned. Shamans have made way for doctors, folklore that has been verbally passed down has paved way for Bollywood music and Kanye West. What we encounter on our trips are the last cultural bastions, holding out against the impending destruction of what life used to be before the man from beyond first entered.

Trupal has forever ventured forth into territories which have prevailed, and into cultures that are fast vanishing. His work saw an evolution as the conversation with his subjects increased his focus on what he desired to represent. His earlier style reflected a stoic imagery, consistent with his sincere approach and an honest curiosity. It highlighted the human presence in an environment that has been untouched, that many do not know about. He soon chose to focus only on the human being, clearing out the surroundings -underlining how life force remains the same, no matter where the story stems from. “The background distracts us from what truly unifies you and me, the earthiness of humanity.”

His first interactions with the Konyaks were in absence of a camera, gaining slow access to their daily way of life without being a tourist seeking a ‘photo story’. Through a polaroid camera and over time, Trupal shared the joy of clicking images with members of the tribe, slowly ensuring an authentic response to the lens. “An honest photograph captures emotions,” he rightly states. A comfort that was introduced and his presence that was willingly assimilated led to Trupal clicking some of his best portraits till date.