Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

The remote North Eastern Indian state of Nagaland is an enigma. Shrouded in mystery and blessed with salubrious climate, gurgling streams, undulating mountains, dense forest and picture-perfect hill-top villages; it is home to the world’s last remaining head hunters – the ferocious Konyaks.

In a digitally connected world, even the remotest of places and destinations somehow pop up on our mobile screens and as a past native of North East, I find this thrilling to know that the outside world – the world of explorers, adventurers and people on the lookout for truly immersive cultural holidays have been showing a lot of interest on India’s North East.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

Although I have shifted my base to Kolkata, I was born and raised in India’s North East and I am flooded with enquiries from people in Metropolitan India about the region’s tourism hotspots and how best one could explore those virgin locales, which to my mind augurs well for the region’s tourism industry and its aspiration to be one of the world’s top bio-diversity and culture hotspot.

Let me take you to the 90’s era. My father was in the last phase of his stellar career as a bureaucrat with the Govt. of Assam and was posted in Diphu – the headquarters of the hill district of Karbi Anglong. Diphu was an ideal base from where you could explore the bewitching beauty of Nagaland, which is a neighbouring state.

Needless to say, some of my epic journeys deep inside the terrain of Nagaland was possible during that two year period from 1996-98. In those days, travelling in Nagaland wasn’t easy and the roads were in shambles. Covering a distance of 100 Kms. could take four to five hours. We would stay in hotels that were at best sketchy and for food, the roadside restaurants offered just basic food.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

Each day we would drive for 8+ hours and believe me, nowhere in the world have I seen nature’s beauty of such awesome magnitude. And, if you merge stunning landscape with equally remarkable tribal people that you meet on the way, your adventure does become adrenalin pumping.

While travelling in Nagaland and India’s North East, you need to have a good knowledgeable guide who knows the geography well. I was fortunate that my Dad’s 4X4 Gypsy driver – Talikaba, who was a man in his early 50’s and belonged to Nagaland’s Mon district – the bastion of the Konyak Naga.

I still vividly recall that 190 Kms. mountain drive from Diphu to Mon, through hairpin bends and it took us approximately 5+ hours to cover the distance. It was the first week of April and we coincided with our visit in time for the Aoleng festival, which basically is a harvest festival and villagers engage themselves in magical rituals, inclusive of animist ones like animal sacrifices to appease the Goddess of Harvest for a good yield.

These days though, Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival has gained worldwide attention, wherein all the Naga tribes and sub-tribes converge at the Kisama village once a year from Dec 1st to Dec 10th in a show of pomp, pageantry and bravado unmatched by any other festivals. The Aoling Festival on the other hand is a “Konyak Only” festival and non Konayk tribes aren’t allowed to participate.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

There has been a lot of research and publicity off late with regard to Naga head-hunters. In this regard, mention may be made of Peter Bos who has beautifully documented the Konyak head hunters in his book – “The Konyaks- Last of The Tattooed Headhunters”, wherein he has delved deep into the psyche of the Konyak tribe and highlights their fascinating customs, rituals, their animistic/shamanistic beliefs. In his own words –“These people are the last bearers of this tradition, and when they die it will be gone forever.”

As the world wakes up to discover the fascinating mystery laden tourism landscape of India’s North East, one indigenous adventurer – Oken Tayeng, Founder of Abor Country Travels & Expeditions has carved a niche for itself in India’s tourism roadmap by way of offering the region’s genuine tribal culture, anthropological diversity and the A to Z of exploring the region’s difficult mountainous terrain to today’s discerning world traveller.

Today, it’s largely due to people like Oken Tayeng and others that exploring the North East in uber luxury surroundings is possible – luxury tents, a bewildering variety of cuisines, a great collection of liquors, immersive culture tours and the ultimate thrill of riding on impeccable 4X4 wheel drives that take you deep inside India’s tribal bastion.

Oken being a homebred new generation explorer, it makes sense to be travelling with a guy who knows the culture and geography of the region by the tip of his fingers. He is particularly amazed at the manner in which Nagaland is gaining popularity and the burgeoning increase of today’s well-heeled high net worth individuals wanting to have a date with the ferocious Naga headhunters.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

Oken’s brainchild – Abor Country Expeditions have been curating high-end tribal vacations with such great flavour that it has earned him not just accolades, but also worldwide publicity in lifestyle publications that matter – Conde Nast Traveller, Travel + Leisure, Outlook Traveller, Wall Street, Salon Prive and what have you……

Being a past native of the region, I can vouch for the fact that creating itineraries for the discerning travellers isn’t an easy task – multitudes of ethnic tribes, the dangerous terrain, and dense rain forests make it a rather cumbersome task.

In Nagaland alone, by conservative estimates, there are close to 66 tribes. The major ones like the Konyak Nagas, Ao Nagas, Zeme Nagas, Phom Nagas, Chang Nagas, Rongmei Nagas, Maring Nagas etc….have all been allotted their own earmarked terrorises or districts. What makes the process even more complicated is the fact that from village to village the dialects change!

The Konyak Nagas being the last remaining headhunters amongst the tribes of Nagaland are concentrated in the Mon district of Nagaland. For the first time visitors visiting this district, a sense of awe, admiration and fear is predominant, what with all those tattooed half-naked bodies of men folks flaunting their bird feathers on their heads and prowling with rifle guns while women carrying wicker baskets on their backs, will I am sure unnerve the most level headed of travellers!

What an electrifying experience it is to traverse the Konyak village of Longwa, which is where the Konyak chieftain or Angh has his residence! A cluster of sixty Konyak villages dots the border of India and Myanmar.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

According to Oken Tayeng, the Konyaks rever “Anghship”, which literally means that the Konyaks follow the diktats of a hereditary chief who is referred to as Angh. It is customary of every Konyak village to have an Angh and needless to say the Angh’s residence is the beehive of activity in the village – debates are held and justice is delivered. The skulls that are embossed at the entrance of the Angh’s house denote the potency and leadership skills of the Angh.

If you have a longing to visit the Land of the Last Headhunters, Oken Tayeng’s Abor Country Expeditions is the right place to knock. With all the logistical support you might need in exploring such a remote place, Oken’s team of trusted guides and naturalists will ensure that you get what you deserve – the very best of the region’s fabled hospitality!

During a late afternoon siesta with Oken on the banks of the sparkling River Siyang that meanders through his Abor Country Resort, he was every bit buoyed by the fact that the demand for vacationing amongst his HNI clients in Nagaland was increasing with every passing day. And why not?

The Nagas are a breed apart and according to Oken, what mesmerises today’s traveller to embark on an epic journey to this land of headhunters is that the Nagas are not just brave but a colourful lot as well! Their society is well-grounded on the system of “Patrilineal Clans”. Where on earth will you find the status of an individual is measured in terms of war trophies and not on the wealth he has accumulated?

As a keen observer of all things North East, Oken is of the opinion that most Naga villages are at elevations that range between 900 to 1200 meters and this literally means that most village settlements are perched on hilltops, thereby creating an almost ethereal backdrop for visitors.
Oken’s Abor Country Expedition’s Naga Headhunter Trail takes you to Mon District, which happens to be the exclusive domain of the Konyak Nagas. Here, once you pitch your tent, allow yourself 3 to 4 Days minimum to have a first-person feel of the primitive traditions that still exist.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

You will always be escorted by a knowledgeable guide/naturalist who will take you around the village settlements, get you to communicate in sign language with the real headhunters, unravel the unknown significance of the Konyak Naga tattoos, the intricate craftsmanship of the tribe – War Hats, Hornbill Feathers, Wild Pig Horns, Basket Weaving and what have you……

Even today, visitors will come across Konyaks using their traditionally woven baskets that in the day’s of yore were meant to carry human heads from the combat zone. According to Oken Tayeng – “With the gradual tourism boom that the region is witnessing, it would be prudent to consider the Nagas not just as one single tribal entity but a group of well-knit tribes, each with its own diversity.”

Before I conclude, a call for action is a necessity. Please be informed that the North-East Himalayan Eco-System is one of the world’s most threatened ecological hotspots on Planet Earth. Out here in the shadowy contours of the Himalayas live some of the poorest inhabitants of the world. The huge pressure of population on land and the spiralling demand for fodder and fuel have already caused massive ecological imbalances.

In this region, although very exotic, the alarm bells are already ringing, particularly the rate at which the forest cover is dwindling. According to Sustainable Travel International –

“Tourism is responsible for roughly 8% of the world’s carbon emissions. From plane flights and boat rides to souvenirs and lodging, various activities contribute to tourism’s carbon footprint. The majority of this footprint is emitted by visitors from high-income countries, with U.S. travellers at the top of the list. As the number of people who can afford to travel grows, so will tourism’s environmental footprint”.

Nagaland Headhunters – Bravado & Beauty

It has been observed scientifically that emissions from lodgings – mega-hotels/resorts tend to be highest that offer modern hi-tech services, while the smaller ones like homestays and guest houses have lower levels of emissions.

When it comes to expedition-like journeys across India’s remotest state of Nagaland, it makes sense to travel with the right people. Abor Country River Camp isn’t just another eco-lodge & adventure company. It is one of the very few carbon-neutral tourism companies in this part of the woods – rooms are rugged with local vernacular bamboo and wood finish, food is farm to the table and even the drinking water is collected from the natural spring.

It is expected of today’s discerning traveller to leave a zero carbon footprint while travelling to a region of India, which is ecologically as well as anthropologically threatened.
Let your travel be one of faith, a faith in the revival of India’s INDIGENOUSITY! All else is secondary.

Images: Subhasish Chakraborty

Subhasish Chakraborty

Travel Journalist

Subhasish Chakraborty has been working as a Travel Journalist for the past two decades and has been editorially involved with numerous international In-Flight magazines of renowned airlines like Cathy Pacific, Dragon Air, Bhutan Airlines, Air Asia, Airport Authority of India and many more. He was also involved with the UNWTO (World Tourism Organization) as a Consultant.