UKHRUL (MANIPUR): One needs a purpose to sleep alongside human skulls. For Sarimaya Awunga, a Naga, that purpose is preserving the history of his tribe. As the chieftain of Manipur’s Ukhrul village, Awunga safeguards the skulls of enemies—killed during “wars” fought between rival Naga villages or between Naga and non-Naga villages—to preserve the history of his tribe, Tangkhul Naga. Revered as trophies, the skulls remind people to this day of the warrior past of the tribesmen.
Awunga is the proud custodian of 19 skulls that he has kept inside a glass shelf at his house perched on a hill. They are being preserved at the house for generations.
In the olden days, headhunting was common among the Nagas during wars. Once the war was over, the decapitated heads of enemies would be carried away and usually, kept at the house of the village chief. Even when someone killed a person during a fight, the victor would chop off the other’s head and carry it home. The more the headcount, the greater the glory and prestige is.
Headhunting became a thing of the past with the advent of Christianity in the Northeast nearly 200 years ago. However, the Nagas are still holding on to tradition by preserving the skulls.
“I still remember the skulls being kept in a row by the side of ‘Raihai’ (warfare ritual stone at the village headman’s residence) during my childhood days. I don’t remember the exact number of them, but it must be around 100. We were warned by our parents not to go near the Raihai or the skulls. We just obeyed it. Later, I realised that the skulls are highly revered as they are of human beings, even though of the enemies. Skulls are kept as trophies; not as material trophies you win in tournaments, they involve human emotion,” Awunga tells The Sunday Standard.
The eldest in the family of a village chieftain automatically goes on to become the skulls’ custodian.
Awunga says every skull is woven with a story which is passed down from generation to generation, but it is closely guarded within the royal (village chief’s) family.
Ukhrul, originally called Hunphun and located 82 km from Manipur capital Imphal, is the largest village of the Tangkhuls and the largest scorer of the heads among the tribe. Over the years, many skulls have got destroyed in the absence of scientific preservation methods.
“We approached the state government on several occasions seeking help to preserve the skulls, but it instead requested us to hand them over to it. We cannot part with the skulls and we will keep them with us as long as they last. The skulls are the pride of my village as each of them has a story to tell. Protecting the stories and the skulls is my responsibility as the village chief,” Awunga says.
“Following our conversion to Christianity, the Christian missionaries had requested our great grandfather to either destroy or throw away the skulls as they are not a sign of love or forgiveness. But he refused to do so.”
Awunga’s wife Moonmaya is the village queen and ‘first lady’. She says, “It is taboo for women to touch the skulls. I don’t touch them respecting tradition.”
Sothing Shimray, a local, says it is a matter of pride for the village headman to preserve history. “I was told there were a lot of skulls till a few decades ago, but most of them got destroyed with the passage of time. Skulls are kept just like that, there is no scientific preservation,” he says. “We don’t want the skulls to decay. Our future generations must know our warrior past.”
Incidentally, Ukhrul is the birthplace of several Naga underground leaders, including Thuingaleng Muivah, general secretary of the National Socialist Council of Nagalim.