Remnants of a Rare tribe
As body art and tattoos sweep the Indian stylescape, a peep into the ancestral heritage of the headhunting tribe of Nagaland that has been practising the art since times immemorial
There’s never been a better time for body art, particularly tattoos and piercing, as individuality becomes the hallmark of modern style statements. But inking oneself is not new. Many tribes and cultures in India have for centuries practiced the art for spiritual and ornamental reasons, and the legacy lives on even today.
A much revered ‘needle man’ in India is Moranngam Khaling, also known as Mo Naga. His school, adjacent to a tattoo studio, is situated in Guwahati in Assam, India. He charges around Rs 1.2 lakh for a 10-week training course. This graduate from the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) might have shifted his base to New Delhi in India but he often interacts with the Headhunter tribes spread across in the northeastern region of the country to delve deeper into tribal style of needle work.
According to oral history and folklore, headhunters were believed to kill humans and bring home their heads as trophies. It is said that they would hang the head outside their huts to show their supremacy over others in the clan – however these myths remain unproven and hearsay. The hunters would also get tattoos inscribed on their chests, symbolising the souls of the dead. These designs included geometric patterns, dots, lines and spots. The custom was uncomplicated – the more the number of tattoos one sported, the more respect they commanded. For tribal women, tattoos denoted various stages of life, such as age and marriage, aside from being a mark of unerasable ornamentation.
While descendants of the Headhunter tribe still exist, hunting practices stand forbidden since the 1960s by law, so the modern members live peacefully, keeping their tattoo culture alive. “While they don’t hunt people anymore because the law doesn’t allow them to, once in a blue moon, they do kill a buffalo or any other big animal to keep the spirit alive,” says the tattoo artist. Isn’t it scary dealing with such a tribe? “Imagine, one day you wake up and are told that every tradition that you and your forefathers have grown up with, is suddenly illegal. So, they look at every outsider with suspicion and it is not very easy interacting with them. I am a Naga myself so they connect with me. Still, they don’t reveal much about their culture and this comes in between the knowledge gathering process,” says Khaling.