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Headhunter hospitality: A tribal homestay in Nagaland
Hanging out with the opium-smoking, formerly headhunting, mobile phone-toting Konyak people in northeast India
The largest out of 16 officially recognized tribes in Nagaland, the Konyak are known as 'those violent headhunters with tattooed faces.'
I was planning to stay with them for a week.
The journey to reach the Nyahnyu Konyak Village in Mon District in Nagaland was one of the most arduous trips I've taken.
An early morning flight from New Delhi via Kolkata took us to the far northeastern Indian state of Nagaland. We stepped out on the tarmac of the state's largest city, Dimapur, after six hours in the air.
That was just the beginning. In the city, we transferred to a jeep for a 10-hour road trip on twisting roads. We drove around boulders, had more than a few slippery turns, crossed shaky wooden bridges and faced the silence of the untamed jungles.
All of this just to reach notorious headhunters.
The bureaucracy was relatively easy to get around for this trip to Nagaland. Since 2011, the Indian government has exempted Nagaland visitors from having to apply for the difficult-to-get Protected Area Permit.
Tensions exist in the northeast of India between the states and the central government, as well as between the indigenous tribes. Fighting reduced in recent years, although tensions prevail.
The success of Nagaland as a tourist attraction, particularly during the December Hornbill festival, has also prompted the authorities to loosen border control. Nagaland has become the new tribal adventure destination of India.
"I took 10 heads"
Our local guide, Longshaw Wangnao, had arranged our stay with the Nyahnyu family of the Angh -- the hereditary chief, or the king.
The Angh rules over 75 villages, some of which are in Burma. He himself lives in Longwa, a Konyak village that is relatively more open to visitors, located at the Burmese border.
But Nyahnyu is one of the more remote Konyak villages and we were the first visitors there. A road leading to the site was only completed in recent years.
I had done my fair share of homework, read up on Nagaland in books, blogs and guides, but I still wasn't prepared for the sight I was greeted with: A bunch of men with amazingly inked faces huddled around a fire discussing village politics over a joint of opium.
These are Konyak warriors. Each of their tattoos was earned by taking a human head.
Headhunting has been banned by the government since the 1950s and the efforts of Christian missionaries have also helped curb the tradition. About 90 percent of the indigenous tribes have converted to Christianity. The Konyak at Nyahnyu believe in a mix of animism and Christ.
But these men were in a jovial mood and they started to boast about their past headhunting days when we asked about their tattoos.
Aulo Angh, father of the village chief, went into full warrior mode. He started stabbing in the air, screaming "I took 10 heads back in the old days and I was not scared of anything." Then he grinned widely at us.
Taking a head was believed to increase the fertility of the crops as well as of the warrior who took it.
According to Longshaw, you would only be spared from being headhunted if "you have eaten something from the house of a Konyak Naga or offered them a gift.
Thankfully, I chose a better time to be in Nyahnyu.
Skull beds and a TV set
Rural Nagaland remains mostly untouched by tour operators. At Nyahnyu, modernization in general is yet to set in.
Traditional longhouses made of wood with thatched roofs comprises the village. It felt like a last frontier with no electricity line or concrete houses. The only sign of modernization was a television set in the house of the chief's son, which acted as a symbolic showpiece.
There is a lone solar inverter, which some villagers use to charge their phones as, of course, mobile phone companies have managed to find their way here. One just has to climb a small hill to get network.
We became part of the extended family of the Angh. This meant partaking in their daily routine, fetching water in long bamboo pipes, helping the family in cooking, grinding rice and making jewelry from beads.
One of the major pastimes for Konyak men and women is smoking opium. Inside the longhouses I could find people sucking from bamboo pipes all day.
At night, the Angh had arranged for us to sleep in wonderful wooden beds. They had skull engravings, for sweet dreams.
There we were sleeping on skull beds with ex-headhunters for roommates. Not far from our longhouse was the burial site of the skulls of their enemies. When Konyak converted to Christianity, they were encouraged to bury the heads that were formerly on prominent display.
We thought a lot about human skulls during that week.
Konyak Naga speak a Tibeto-Burmese dialect and every village has a modified version of it. Now, some Konyak's also speak Nagamese, a mixture of Assamese and Naga, so language was a big barrier in communication for us.
By the end of our stay, we had mastered the art of facial and hand gesture to communicate with the Konyak when Longshaw was not around. The chief's son also spoke broken English, thanks to missionaries.
Most of my days were with the queen of the village, the Chatai. The matriarch in her late sixties holds the village together.
She explained to me that the invasion of Christianity has banned many of their rituals including tattooing. In earlier days, only the Chatai could work as the tattoo artist.
"I have tattooed more than 10 men," she said. "But now I wonder whether I can ever do it again."
Our stay ended with the harvest festival of Aoling. This surreal festival is when villagers turn up in their best traditional clothes.
In Nyahnyu, the Konyak have some traditional jewelry on all the time and most of the tattooed men wear a brass skull necklace denoting how many heads they have taken.
But for Aoling, the whole village busts out its finest, with elaborate headgear and heavy jewelry.
There is dancing, singing and a mega feast. Villagers shoot guns to express their joy for the harvest.
Getting there: Nyahnyu Village is a good place to be part of Konyak culture and tradition, a homestay can be arranged through Longshaw. Contact him at: email@example.com. With advanced notice, vegetarian food can be arranged.
When to visit Nagaland: It has never been easier to explore northeast India. Foreigners with an Indian visa (except citizens of China, Pakistan and Bangladesh) no longer need any special permit from the Ministry of Home Affairs for Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
Indians still need to get an Inner Line Permit, which can be obtained from the Deputy Resident Commissioner office either in New Delhi, Kolkata or Dimapur. See tourismnagaland.com.
Check with the Ministry of Home Affairs (+91 11 2309 2161/ 2309 2011) and Deputy Resident Commissioner of Nagaland in New Delhi (+91 11 2301 2296 / 2379 3673) on the security situation in Nagaland before embarking on a trip. Nagaland has a history of interfactional conflict though the situation has been mostly stable of late.
Best season to travel in Nagaland is between December to April with many festivals and favorable weather.
How to reach Nagaland: The best way to enter Nagaland is by air, there are direct flights to Dimapur from Kolkata and Guwahati. The only rail head in Nagaland is also at Dimapur.
To travel inside Nagaland, the easiest way is to hire a car and drive around. Though better avoid monsoon months of June to September.
Where to stay in Nagaland: The most charming place to stay at Dimapur would be a small guest house called Aier's enclave, www.aiersenclave.com.
In Kohima, Hotel Japfu could be a good bet (for reservations call: +0091 370 224 0211/ 224 0212).
Another great stay option could be at Tuophema, which is 41km north of Kohima, they have traditionally designed Angami Naga huts (call Kevi Kense: +0091 943 600 5002).
Festivals not to miss: There are more than 16 tribes in Nagaland and best way to see all of them in their traditional best would be at Hornbill festival held every December, www.hornbillfestival.com
Sekrenyi is another important festival of Angami Naga's celebrated in the month of February.
Aoling festival is a great window to Konyak Naga culture, it is held every year in the month of April.