In Search of the Raw: A Journey into the Land of the Konyak Tribe

The Oxford dictionary describes raw as: 

  • (Of a material or substance) in its natural state; unprocessed
  • (Of a part of the body) red and painful, especially as the result of skin abrasion:

A Konyak elder with face and chest tattoo.

And this is precisely what I encountered when I visited the Konyak Tribe who live in the northeast of India, in the state of Nagaland.

The term ‘Konyak’ is believed to have been derived from the words ‘whao’ meaning ‘head’ and ‘nyak’ meaning ‘black’ which loosely translates to  ‘men with black hair’. But, this is not what the outside world know them for, what is synonymous with them is tattoos and headhunting. The Konyak tribe are of Mongoloid origin and before the advent of Christianity were believers of Animism.

Mon district where the Konyak can be found is extremely remote, the district lies on the border of Myanmar (Burma). An invisible international border runs between India and Myanmar and some villages are split; with some houses in India and the others in Myanmar.

Misty mornings at Chen Loisho

Typically the villages are nestled on hilltops; houses are made of solid teak wood and command a bird’s eye view of the valleys. The vegetation is dense with forest land and cultivable land interspersed. Geographically this region is known as the Patkai Range.

Headhunting was banned by the British and Christianity took roots. The local boys guided us to a secret cave where the heads were hidden, high on a cliff. Earlier the heads were displayed as trophies in the Morung or a  warriors house.

The Konyak tribe’s definitive and distinctive characteristic was their practice of headhunting, this practice of headhunting was to settle disputes of all kinds, animosity between one village and another. The trophies or heads were then displayed in the houses; a mark of pride, the more heads, the higher is ones standing in society.  With the advent of the Christianity and British rule in India, headhunting was outlawed. With this the art of tattooing was also abandoned.  

While walking around the village we chanced upon this elderly gentleman…. Raw to the core, he was without a shirt and  his body was a fresh canvas, the paint yet to dry.

Tattoos were a mark of a warrior, the rawness manifested by this act of pain and blood.  Tattoos were done by women on the face and chest of warriors, those that brought back a head of an enemy. The art of tattooing was done with rudimentary tools and natural dyes were used taking many many days to complete.

It was a coming of age, a kind of rite of passage.  

A Morung

A typical vegetable stall, notice the the girl on the back of the mother.

Fade to glory

Most of the houses have animal heads as decorations

Life revolves around the fireplace, a way for the family to bond

Patkai Hills

The Chairman’s parents, grateful for them for hosting us.We were strangers but they opened up their home for us.

Old man and his path

The Angh or the King and his wife. Each village had a king who oversaw the village

Chen Loisho lies in India and the border is this road and on the other side is Burma. But for the locals this is just a road to nowhere………


On a cold winter morning along with friend, I entered Nagaland armed with our Inner Line Permits (ILP), our visa to visit the hinterlands of Nagaland. We only had a few names and references of people in Mon district, but beyond that we were not sure where to find the “Tattooed Faces”

At Mon town the headquarters of the district we met the “Chairman” of Chen Loisho and sought his permission to visit his village.

Chen Loisho lies on the border of India and Burma, there are no hotels and without the permission of the Chairman, who actually is an elected headman of the village you are a non entity.

After a few rounds of strong black tea (Khalap), Konyak drink their tea very strong, the chairman heeded to our request and offered to host us at his ancestral home. He said that he would not be there, but, his father and mother would take care of us.

What awaited us was a journey into the raw…….the photos will speak for themselves.

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