Tattoos

The Fading Tattoo Traditions of India’s Last Headhunters – VICE

Summary

The earliest memories Kanato Chophy associates with tattoos are that of violence – scenes of the Indian army personnel targeting young men with tattoos, and dragging them out of their houses in the middle of the night. These nights were punctuated with the sound of gunfire rippling through the air and wails of helpless mothers. 

“The stereotypical assumption by the [Indian] State was that anyone sporting a tattoo was an insurgent and a rebel,” said Chophy, an anthropologist by tr…….

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The earliest memories Kanato Chophy associates with tattoos are that of violence – scenes of the Indian army personnel targeting young men with tattoos, and dragging them out of their houses in the middle of the night. These nights were punctuated with the sound of gunfire rippling through the air and wails of helpless mothers. 

“The stereotypical assumption by the [Indian] State was that anyone sporting a tattoo was an insurgent and a rebel,” said Chophy, an anthropologist by training and a researcher in northeast India studies at Utkal University. “It didn’t matter if the tattoos were traditional. Even those wearing leather jackets, which had pictures of [American rock bands] Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, were detained.”

India’s northeast region, comprising eight states, has a history of violent conflicts between the army and insurgents who demand self-rule from the central government. The demographic composition of one of the region’s states, Nagaland, primarily includes the Nagas, a tribe with numerous ethnic subgroups also found across neighbouring Myanmar. One of these subgroups is the Konyaks, who are often considered the last headhunters of the region. 

The practice of headhunting is unique to the Konyaks. They were feared as aggressive warriors and would infamously resolve conflicts by beheading their enemies and taking their skulls back home in a basket designed specifically for the purpose. These trophies would then be displayed in their village’s community halls and their own homes with pride. 

They are also known for their tattoos.

“The Konyak tattoos closely denoted various stages of their lives,” explained Chophy,  who is a Sumi Naga, one of the Naga tribes in the state. “They marked various stages of manhood, expressed their animistic relationship with nature, and more importantly, headhunting.” 

In her book The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters, Phejin Konyak, the great-granddaughter of a prominent tattooed headhunter, writes that headhunting and the ritual of tattooing are historically linked. After every war, the warrior, upon returning with the skull trophies, would be decorated with aubergine-coloured diamond and lozenge markings hand-tapped across his body. These tattoos were drawn using the ink of the red cedar tree, while palm spikes were used as tattooing combs. She also writes how, for the men, it was considered unmanly to even squeal when their bodies acted as the canvas for these sharp tattooing tools.  

The face tattoos were reserved for these fearsome warriors, specifically those coming back home from raids or conquests with human heads. Only a few of these one-time headhunters are still alive. “These …….

Source: https://www.vice.com/en/article/qjb8bb/headhunters-tribe-nagaland-india-traditional-tattoo-tradition