Photo: A tattooed Naga elder

Past life: A tattooed Naga elder dons typical warrior garb, spear and all.

Photograph by Boyd Matson

By Boyd Matson

From the January/February 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Have you ever conversed with someone who is getting on in years, someone who has torn so many pages off the calendar that his recent history is a blur, rendering him barely able to remember what he had for breakfast that morning? But, when you ask him about the good old days, instantly the years dissolve, clarity returns, and he begins recounting some memorable event from his youth in vivid detail, faster than you can say “geriatric time machine”? That very scenario is the cause of my current dilemma.

I’m speaking with Lanang, a Naga who says he may be 90 but he’s not sure. When I ask about his headhunter days, however, I suddenly become a prop in an enthusiastic reenactment of tribal warfare. Lanang goes into full warrior mode, jumping around in a loincloth and stabbing the air in front of my chest with his spear—the same spear he used to kill three enemies in long-ago battles. He then shows me the machete he used to cut off their heads. Lanang was the real deal, a headhunter in Nagaland, a state in northeast India.

I’ve wanted to visit Nagaland for decades, ever since I heard stories about the tribal people who lived in this isolated, mountainous area of the country. But a strong separatist movement among the Naga people had made the region off limits: The Indian government wanted to both contain the struggle and keep outsiders from the conflict. About the only way to get an entry visa was to be a Baptist missionary. My take is that the government reasoned the missionaries could help persuade the headhunters to settle their disputes with something other than sharp machetes and spears.

Recently, India has been opening Nagaland to tourists. By the time I arrive, in 2010, it’s clear the missionaries have done their job well. There is a Baptist church in nearly every village I visit. More than 90 percent of local people report they are Christians, and most of those say they are Baptist, likely making Nagaland the most Baptist state in the world. That’s right: There may be a higher percentage of Baptists among the former headhunters of Nagaland than in the state of Mississippi. That doesn’t mean, however, that visiting Nagaland is anything like going to Mississippi, or anywhere else in the United States. Nagaland is still closer to what it has been than to what it will become; it’s still exotic to Western eyes. Here people do farmwork by hand. Women carry clay pots filled with burning coals so they can make a fire. In remote villages men sit around smoking opium.

The Naga weren’t cannibals and didn’t shrink heads. They were warriors who believed that the best way to win battles with neighboring tribes was to have a good offense. And what could be more offensive than cutting off your enemy’s head, then displaying it in your village?

The Naga ended headhunting in the early 1960s, but I wonder if Lanang knows what decade it is now. During his impromptu performance, his face takes on a wild flashback kind of expression, which has me worried he will try to recapture lost youth with one final grand decapitation—mine. Fortunately, my playful expressions of terror elicit a smile from him and remind him that we’re just joking around.

Naga warriors look like people you wouldn’t want to mess with, even when they’re not carrying spears or machetes. They often wear accessories, including necklaces and nose decorations made from animal tusks, teeth, and claws, which suggest some death-defying struggle with ferocious wild creatures. They add to the intimidating aura by wearing more tattoos, typically geometric patterns, than your average NBA multimillionaire. But it’s the face ink that really gets your attention, a mask of invincibility that says you’re staring at trouble. To me it also says, “That really had to hurt.”

So I ask Lanang, “Was the tattooing painful? Did you flinch?” My untattooed interpreter begins to answer without relaying the question. “He was a great warrior; it didn’t bother …” Interrupting his speculation, I say, “I want to hear Lanang’s answer.” I expect the years will have eliminated any bravado, and sure enough, Lanang’s laughter tells me I’m about to hear the truth.

“It was very painful,” he answers. “They dipped a barb in pigment and then hammered the point into my skin. The process took two weeks, and each day I thought I was going to die.” Not surprisingly, face tattooing, like headhunting, is a tradition no longer practiced.

From Lanang’s house we hike up a steep road to the highest point in the village of Longwa. Here, on the crest of the mountain, right smack on the national border, sits the longhouse of the chief, or angh. We enter through the front door, which is in India, and shake hands with Angh Ngo Wang in a room that lies in Myanmar (Burma). National borders don’t mean much to these members of the Konyak subtribe, who have relatives in both countries. Angh Wang squats near a fire on the dirt floor. His necklace sports five small brass heads representing, he tells me, the five heads his father and grandfather took during battles to defend their village.

“Where are those skulls today?” I ask.

“Under the floor of our meeting house, where we buried all of the skulls after we became Christians.” It’s a response that I’ll hear repeatedly in this tribal area. In only three villages do I actually see the skulls, the evidence of Nagaland’s violent history.

In the last village that I visit, I talk with another former headhunter, then return to our vehicle. That’s when I hear a familiar sound coming from a small hut. Not quite believing my ears, I ask my guide, “What is that music?”

“Do you happen to know the Gaither Vocal Band?”

“Yes, I do,” I reply. Bill Gaither’s group comes out of the Southern gospel tradition, playing music you might hear on a Sunday morning in small-town Mississippi. But hearing it on a Thursday morning in a village in remote Nagaland is a bit surprising. “The Gaither Vocal Band is very popular in Nagaland,” my guide explains. Gospel music and headhunters in the same village? What’s next?

In Nagaland you can still find a few men who were fierce headhunters. You can take their pictures, talk with them about the old traditions, and walk away with your own head still safely on your shoulders. But you may want to hurry. Changes are under way.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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