Lonely Planet Writer

These are the last head-hunters of India’s Konyak tribe

Anyone who’s travelled around India knows that language, customs and even food vary wildly from state to state.

The older men of the Konyak tribe are heavily tattooed. Image by Omar Reda

Though some of this vast nation’s bustling urban regions are densely populated, others are remote, lush and mountainous. The north-eastern state of Nagaland is one such example. Bordering India’s eastern neighbour, Myanmar, Nagaland is home to 16 indigenous tribes, each with their own cultural practises and traditional way of life.

Most of the men Omar met are in their 70s. Image by Omar Reda

Photographer Omar Reda recently travelled to Nagaland, where he met and photographed older members of the Konyak tribe, once known for their ‘head-hunting’ traditions – that is, keeping the heads of their enemies as trophies. “The culture in Nagaland is so different from other Indian regions”, Omar begins. “It has its own unique identity, with its diversified tribes. The Konyaks’ reputation as head-hunters was a hook for me to go there. I made the right decision – I was honored to meet them.”

The men still enjoy a traditional way of life in Nagaland. Image by Omar Reda

As Omar explains, the tattooed men he photographed are part of a much older way of life; one that’s becoming more and more integrated into modern life. “The new generation is blending with modern / Western civilization”, he says. “The face-tattooed men are few, most of them are in their 70s now. I think within the coming decade, the tribe will be blended into modern society.” Were the men receptive to having their picture taken? “Most of them didn’t have a problem with it”, he says. “They’re friendly and hospitable despite their fierce reputation. But it was extremely hard to take their photos, as I had to respect their old age, and there was no common language between us.”

They were friendly despite their fierce reputation. Image by Omar Reda

For now, tribalism continues for the Konyaks, and Omar was lucky enough to catch a glimpse into their traditional way of life. “The chief of a clan (Anghs) still rules the village”, he explains. “Buffalo heads decorate many houses; signifying the number of feasts the owner has held.” And though head-hunting was once a part of their culture, Omar says the Konyaks have moved on from the practise. “Many senior men didn’t like to talk about this dark history, as they realized how bad it was. They’re not proud of it, but they are proud of being strong warriors.”