Konyaks, the tattooed Headhunters of Nagaland

Konyaks, the Tattooed Headhunters of Nagaland

Michael Mili

Konyak is a legendary tribal community living in the mountainous natural forest region of Nagaland, Northeast India. It is believed that the ancestors of the tribe came from Mongolia long ago. Konyaks were warriors with brutal pasts, using inter-village fights to accede land and ascertain power. As such, Konyak villages are situated on ridge tops, so they can easily monitor and identify an enemy attack. The Konyak tribe is known as the last headhunters and is famous for the facial tattoos of its warriors. The Konyaks hunted human skulls because they believed only these could guarantee the fertility of their fields and people. They were animists, worshipping elements of nature, until British missionaries arrived in the late 19th century. The Konyak tribe resisted Christianisation and modernization for longer than most other Naga tribes because wars and headhunting were an essential part of their ritual life in the past. In their custom, the killing of an enemy and bringing the head was indicative of “courage and pride”. The skin of the body was perforated and different designs were drawn on different parts of the body such as face, chin, bosom and knees. The British brought Opium into the Naga Hills to subdue the tribes and distract the Konyaks from accumulating heads, particularly British ones. Many Konyak men suffered and continues to suffer from a voracious addiction of opium smoking. 

Konyaks adorn many types of facial tattoos. They used tattoos to indicate status just as other people might use ornaments or textiles. For example, Konyak girls wear a tattoo on the back of the knee if they are married. The designs vary between villages and are closely linked to the dialects spoken by the sub-tribes. Some tribes have chest and back tattoos while others have leg tattoos. The chest tattoo is a unique traditional tattoo with a high social privilege and could be worn only by the best and bravest warriors. Their traditional war hats were made of hunted wild pig horns, hornbill feathers and wild bear or goat hairs. The majestic hornbill is a Nagaland emblem, which represents loyalty.  In the past, the right to use hornbill feathers had to be earned, feathers were not for sale, and only those that excelled in warfare received the honor to decorate themselves with the feathers.

The Konyak tribe maintains a simple but very disciplined community life with strict duties and responsibilities for every individual. Women in Nagaland have a “high position” in the family and in society compared to other places in India. They are extremely hard working, both at home and in the field where they spend most of the time. Traditionally, the husband is recognized as the head of the house and is responsible for its upkeep, its granaries, furnishings, purchase of metal, wooden implements and baskets. The preparation of food and the weaving of textiles are the responsibilities of Konyak wives.

Konyaks have a very strong relationship with nature. They have a culture of “asking permission” from a tree before felling it. Agriculture is the main occupation with rice, millet and taro potatoes the main staples. Tropical tuber crops play a crucial role in securing the food and nutritional security of the Konyaks, who live in very remote locales. Due to their high dry matter content, wide adaptability to soil and climatic conditions and ability to retain quality in semi-processed form for extended storage, tuber crops serve as “secondary staples” for the Konyaks. Besides being hard working and laborious, the Konyaks are also excellent and skilled craftsmen. They make exquisite bamboo and cane products, basketry, weaving, woodcarving, pottery and metal work. Like all tribes of Nagaland, the Konyaks are very fond of dance and music. Music forms an essential parts of their lives and is characterized by their folk tunes, accentuated by traditional instruments.

(Sources: Jeff Bauche, Sergio Carbajo, Wikipedia and Manik Sharma)


Michael Mili started his cartooning and illustration career at the young age of 15 years. He worked as the daily front-page pocket and political cartoonist for “The National Herald” (founded by Jawaharlal Nehru) and “The Sentinel”. Once dubbed as “The Youngest Professional Cartoonist of the Country”, Michael’s cartoons have appeared in more than 16 publications in India.