Tea, Tattoos, And Tradition: Exploring A Konyak Home

Phejin Konyak—whose ancestry traces back to headhunters—runs the one-of-a-kind Konyak Tea Retreat in Nagaland
Konyak Tea Retreat is lodged within the Sayeang Tea Estate
Konyak Tea Retreat is lodged within the Sayeang Tea EstatePhoto: Yapang Konyak

Tucked away in the village of Shiyong, about an hour and a half from Mon in Nagaland's northeast, lies the Konyak Tea Retreat. Lodged within the sprawling 250-acre Sayeang Tea Estate, a private tea plantation, it offers a unique glimpse into a world beyond the ordinary. While the farmhouse might seem familiar, its owner, Phejin Konyak, adds a distinctive touch.

Phejin is a member of the Konyak tribe, one of the last Naga groups to embrace Christianity. Headhunting, a practice that continued until the 1970s, is an inseparable part of their history. Konyaks believed the soul force resided in the human skull, making heads powerful trophies that could settle disputes and bring power to the village. Taking a head was a rite of passage for young men, a prerequisite for adulthood. Tattoos served not only as a mark of these achievements but also as a form of identity and a celebration of life stages.

Members of the Konyak tribe, one of the last Naga groups to embrace Christianity
Members of the Konyak tribe, one of the last Naga groups to embrace ChristianityAnita in travel/Shutterstock.com

Even more intriguing, Phejin is the great-granddaughter of Ahon, a tattooed headhunter who played a crucial role in J.H. Hutton's 1923 book "Diaries of Two Tours in the Naga Hills." Hutton, the first ethnographer to document the region during British rule, relied on Ahon's expertise as an interpreter. A glimpse of this rich heritage still lingers in Mon district. In the local market, you might encounter elders adorned with facial and body tattoos, colourful beads adorning their necks, and impressive animal tusks in their ears.

Phejin with an elder of the Konyak tribe
Phejin with an elder of the Konyak tribePhoto: Peter Bos

"In late 2014, I began hosting guests at my farm to raise money for researching my tribe's disappearing tattoo tradition. For almost four years, I travelled to Konyak villages in Nagaland, India, and Myanmar's Sagaing Region. In between these trips, I welcomed guests to the farm. Meeting people, learning about different cultures, and sharing my tribe's heritage became my passion," said Phejin, who has authored a book called, "The Konyaks: Last Of The Tattooed Headhunters" (2017).

Not Just A Homestay

At the Konyak Tea Retreat, two bedrooms, one with a double bed and the other with twins, offer comfortable sanctuaries after a day of exploring. Each comes with its ensuite bathroom. The interiors celebrate local heritage, with cane and wood furniture and tribal paintings. The heart of the farmhouse lies in the open kitchen. Here, conversation flows freely as meals are prepared. Open shelves with pots, kettles, and various utensils exude a rustic charm. Outside the kitchen is a garden and vegetable patch.

"My farmstay stands out for its setting amidst a bustling tea plantation. Here, guests find peace amid the lush greenery while immersing themselves in the daily life of the farm alongside locals," said Phejin.

"We hire local youths, often school dropouts, as cooks, cleaners, helpers, and gardeners. We showcase handmade crafts from local artisans—crafted from bamboo, wood, or tea—and offer guests the chance to purchase these items directly," she added.

Phejin finds solace in connecting with guests from all walks of life. "In my homestay," she said, "our guests become a part of our lives. We cook and share meals together and talk about our cultures, experiences, and interests. It's these personal connections that create lifelong friendships."

Challenges And Concerns

"Running a homestay isn't without its challenges," Phejin admitted. "Sometimes, guests arrive with preconceived notions and compare our facilities to what they're accustomed to in urban areas. We've had requests for things like McDonald's fries and KFC chicken for dinner, which are unavailable here."

Fortunately, these instances are rare. The vast majority of guests at Konyak Tea Retreat are open-minded and adaptable. Phejin thrives on creating a welcoming environment where guests can experience local delicacies and immerse themselves in the unique Konyak culture.

Connecting With Culture

Enthusiasts intrigued by tattoo customs and their artistic depth will find Phejin's perspectives enthralling
Enthusiasts intrigued by tattoo customs and their artistic depth will find Phejin's perspectives enthrallingDavid Evison/Shutterstock.com

If you are looking to delve deeper into the world of Konyak tattoos, Phejin has a wealth of knowledge on this vanishing art form. Those interested in tattoo traditions and their artistic significance will find her insights captivating. While the homestay doesn't offer tattoo services, her passion can provide a unique window into this aspect of Konyak heritage. "The tattoo practice," she explained, "was intricately linked to headhunting, a tradition that has ceased in recent decades. With these changes, the art of tattooing has sadly begun to fade." Phejin's mission is to document this vanishing art form, not just the visual elements but also the accompanying oral traditions before they are lost forever.

The Information

Address: Konyak Tea Retreat, Shiyong Village, Mon, Nagaland

Website: konyaktearetreat.com

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