The Last of the Tattooed Headhunters – The KonyaksA tribal woman documents her own vanishing tattooing culture in this remarkable (forthcoming) book

The Konyak tribe from North East India, once fearsome headhunters is today celebrated for their rich and elaborate facial and body tattooing culture. This heritage is captured by Phejin Konyak, a tribal woman, who is the great granddaughter of a tattooed headhunter and warrior, Ahon Konyak. As an insider it makes it special and personal for her to retrace her forefather’s footsteps by documenting the tattooing culture of her tribe.

Headhunting and tattooing were seamlessly interconnected with life in the Konyak culture, but with the arrival of Christianity from 1940-70 these practices have slowly declined. The remaining warriors and their wives are the last tangible proof of this living tattoo art. Realizing how quickly this tradition was fading, Phejin Konyak and photographer Peter Bos, travelled from village to village to document the oral traditions of the tribe, gathering personal stories, studying the various tattoo designs and their meanings, indigenous methods of tattooing art and recording songs, poems, folktales and sayings.

Their first independently funded trip led them to villages in the remote corner of the Indo-Myanmar border. Carrying rations since most villages were not connected by road, and led by a local villager, Phejin and Peter trekked with backpacks through leech-infested forests.This was followed by several other arduous, information-gathering expeditions for nearly two years. One of the most touching and encouraging encounters during these trips was meeting a man with a neck tattoo in Chen Loishu village. Stirred by the researcher’s conviction, he offered to part fund the project from money earned from his cardamom crop.

Phejin’s great grandfather Ahon was the first interpreter to go on expeditions with the initial researchers who came to that part of the world. Phejin’s curiosity and appreciation of her great grandfather’s story gave her the drive to document her culture and to fight for the survival of her roots and cultural heritage.

‘I had to do something to prevent my culture from vanishing’ Phejin Konyak

“I have tattoos on my hands, back of hands, forearm and on the navel. Each one of them represents the Konyak designs and patterns, which carries certain significance and meanings. Tattoo and headhunting tradition for me signifies a way of life of my ancestors. The way life was then, but now we must adapt to the global world, yet not lose our ethnic identity. We must preserve and document our cultural and oral traditions.” Elaborates Phejin about her mix of modern and traditional tattoos.

‘The Book: “The last of the Tattooed Headhunters; The Konyaks”

The purpose of documenting the Konyak tattooing culture is to make it accessible to all.To do this three different paper version of books are being produced. First a coffee table book, richly illustrated, with photos, stories and songs and written in English language. Secondly, a similar book for the local community, written in Konyak language and thirdly an illustrated children’s book for the next generations of the Konyaks, which will be bilingual in English and in Konyak language.

Phejin Konyak & Peter Bos

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Photography by Peter Bos:

2 years ago

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