When a Facial Tattoo was Reserved Only for Headhunters

Naga researcher Phejin Konyak says tattooing, prevalent as a tribal ritual since many centuries, is now completely abandoned by the Konyak tribe of Mon district due to the advent of modernisation

Published: 10th September 2015 10:44 AM  |   Last Updated: 10th September 2015 10:44 AM   |  A+A-


KOLKATA: Tattoos, an urban fad in the rest of India, have lost its age-old charm in Nagaland where getting oneself tattooed on the face was a symbol of being a ferocious headhunter warrior.

Naga researcher Phejin Konyak says tattooing, prevalent as a tribal ritual since many centuries, is now completely abandoned by the Konyak tribe of Mon district due to the advent of modernisation. "Tattoo was a tribal ritual meant to signify your achievements in life. Warriors were rewarded with a facial tattoo if they brought the head of an enemy. No one else was allowed to have tattoos on their face," she told PTI.

Tattoos on other parts of the body signified a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood while for the women it reflected their cycle of life events like marriage, becoming a mother, etc. Tattoos were so deeply rooted to headhunting and tribal culture that as headhunting got abolished and Christianity spread in the villages, the art also got lost.

"There are no traditional tattoo artists left now as no one hires them," Phejin, herself a member of the tribe points out. Along with Dutch photographer Peter Bos, she has documented the indigenous form of art as it fades away into the pages of history.

At the Indian Museum here, she has put up a photo exhibition on 'The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters: The Konyaks' depicting old tattoo designs on the bodies of former headhunters. "There are more than a hundred tattooed headhunters still left but they are very old and mostly in their eighties. They are the last remnants of the tattooed generation and we are documenting their lives,"  Konyak says.

The duo would soon be out with a series of three books on the subject. The art of tattoo making was passed on orally from generation to generation. Most of the artists were women who used the traditional hand-tapping method with bamboo needles for their craft.

An elaborate ritual, tattoos were made all over their body like face, neck, chest, arms, legs and even around the belly button of women. "Each tattoo has a name and they all have deeper meanings and the patterns remind us of folk tales. These designs distinguish one clan from another and also the hierarchy level in society," Bos, who has travelled the world capturing rare pictures of unique tribes, explains.

A particular tattoo design, for example, was the privilege of only the queen while another design signifying a tiger was the symbol of the chief of all the village chiefs. Commoners were not allowed to have the special tattoos on their bodies, he says.

Interestingly, the tattoo art is the same across the border in Myanmar as members of the same Konyak tribe reside on both sides. "We have travelled to the bordering villages as well where we found that the tattoo culture is just the same," he says.

Based on linguistic variations in the Konyak dialect, Phijen has found three distinct types of tattoo art prevalent among the tribe. Their exhibition will remain open till September 13 at the museum here. 

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