The last of the Naga headhunters


18 Aug 2018

A recurring theme of our photographic explorations is vanishing cultures and ways of life. We don’t seek it out: it comes out and smacks us in the face as we enquire, poke, prod and weasel our way into villages and tribes in search of good stories and fine camera-fodder. And in particular, when we revisit a location and find that life has moved on, along with some of our subject material.

Nowhere is the clash of human progress and ancient ways of life more keenly felt than in Nagaland, India. When we last visited, I was immediately struck by parallels with sights we’d witnessed a few hundred kilometres south along the Patkai mountains, in amongst the tattooed mountain tribes of western Myanmar.

The Naga tribes are a mountain diaspora of some 66 groups, 17 inside Nagaland itself and some more assimilated into mainstream India than others. Speculation has it that they appeared in India around a thousand years ago, originating from Mongolia, China or some southeast Asian enclave. The Naga folk never quite managed to create their own country: they were natural marauders, attacking and pillaging other Naga tribes and invaders in raids and skirmishes that produced lots of bloody body parts and trophy human skulls. When the Brits came along and stuck their flag in Naga territory in the early 19th century, the tribespeople eagerly took on the European colonists.

Bringing home the heads of one’s enemies was a major prestige-winner, a rite of passage that earned coveted facial tattoos and other badges of male honour. Their temporary British overlords banned the practice, but it continued: the last human head trophy is said to have been taken in 1960.

In the photo set at the top of this article you’ll see men — rather old men — bearing the fierce ornamentation and face-marks of their battlefield successes, strength and virility. Behind this fading braggadocio, there is painfully little giving them social traction in the 21st century. Secessionist insurgencies have come and gone, and peace thankfully reigns with the tribal leadership settling pragmatically for a measure of autonomy as a state within a thriving India.

The Naga hunting grounds are beautiful, mountainous, verdantly forested — but as hunting grounds they’re depleted through generations of indiscriminate depredations and challenged by tough new government conservation laws.

The Naga hunting grounds are beautiful, mountainous, verdantly forested — but as hunting grounds they’re depleted through generations of indiscriminate depredations and challenged by tough new government conservation laws. The laws outlaw hunting but are widely flouted thanks to ownership of the Naga forests falling overwhelmingly into the hands of individuals or communities, outside the government’s direct control, and through cultural values that enshrine the right to take wildlife at will.

The real cultural threat, though, has little to do with politics and territory. As we see in so many other remote cultural outposts, the youngsters in these photos will almost certainly be charmed away from their families, villages and culture by the bright lights, smartphones and trendy lifestyles of the nearest cities — Kohima, Dimapur, or even the teeming metropolises of Kolkata and Delhi.

And the old men and women will fade away in a cloud of opium, a haze of cheap rum, and rheumy reminiscences by smoky campfires.

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