When a book seeks to document a Nagaland tribe with a controversial history of headhunting, you immediately fear judgement in the subtext. The best part of The Konyaks then is that it is narrated by a descendant of the tribe. Phejin Konyak grew up observing the mesmerising facial and body tattoos on her grandfather and his friends in Mon district, and learning of their origins the hard way.
Phejin starts the book precariously with an introduction to the tribe, its history, festivals and feasts. She does not shy away from recounting the ostracism she and her siblings faced at boarding school due to their family background. But a pressing need to preserve her ancestors unique tattooing tradition leads her to an inevitable confrontation with their headhunting history. The Konyaks believe that the soul force of a living being lies in its skull. Hence, their practice of head-taking was inextricably linked to power struggles between warring villages. It was also a rite of passage for boys, the number of heads determining an individuals tattoo designs and, consequently, social status. Once Phejin confronts her demons, she delves deep into disturbing details of ritualistic ceremonies. The book is a gold mine for anyone wanting to study the tribe through an objective lens.
The volume chalks out the different tattoo groups, shen-tu (face tattoo), tangta-tu (body tattoo) and kong-tu (nose tattoo), and their folktales and songs. A tattoo, or tu, was drawn by pricking the skin with a rattan thorn the pigment used was tree sap known as ying tee collected from the kong tree (red cedar). While Phejin dissects the designs and the beliefs behind them in meticulous detail, Peter Bos does a spectacular job of photographing the fading ink under diffused light in the natives traditional houses. The haunting pictures alone are worth the cost of the book. The designs are further demystified with illustrations.
Anecdotes add life to the book. A particularly amusing one is that of the powerful Angh Chakwang of Longzang, whose headhunting prowess was such that his whole body had been covered with tattoos. Thus, this angh became the first warrior to get a penis tattoo, a task entrusted to 11 of his 30 wives.
The book ends, aptly, with a monologue by 70-year-old Honngo Wangshu, who calls himself the last of the tattooed headhunters. Drifting away from rural surroundings, Wangshu is photographed speaking to a congregation in a church, where he works as a deacon. He converted to Christianity and was baptised in 1978. It was the religions growing influence in the region, coupled with modern education and a resolution passed by the Konyak Students Union, that finally ended the rituals. Since the last tattoos were etched in the late 1970s, all the subjects are elderly. Quite literally, these individuals are the last of their kind, which makes this book an indispensable record of history