COVER IMAGE: Ta’kong, a tattooed Yonkon woman. Before any Yonkon man or woman could be tattooed, prayers were offered to the shrine of the guardian spirit of the village for good health, long life, and for the tattoos not to become infected. (*click on images below to enlarge)
I AM HERE IN THE FRONTIER TOWN of Khamti, standing on the banks of the mighty Chindwin River in northwest Myanmar. Any minute the ferry will arrive taking me across the swirling, muddy mass of water to the other side of the river where the road leads to the mountain homeland of the Naga people.
Now safely across, we load up our Toyota 4 X 4 with supplies and water, and drive a few miles up a winding road until we reach a small enclave of the Yonkon Naga. Less than ten years ago, these Yonkon people were living in remote villages near the Myanmar border with India. But with a lack of educational opportunities, employment, and medical facilities at home, many Yonkon moved closer to Khamti in search of new lives and futures.
Yonkon women wear some of the most distinctive tattoos among the Naga of Myanmar. Described as “tears,” they stretch down from the eyes towards the corners of the mouth. Yonkon tattoos were hand-tapped into the skin with local bush thorns by female tattooists. Tattoo pigment was produced from the juice of the lacquer tree. Tattooed Ta’Kong told me that the pattern protected women from evil spirits, and that her ancestors would recognize her in the afterlife.
After meeting with several Yonkon women, our journey resumed and it would be eight long hours before we reached the administrative capital of Lahe in the Naga foothills. It’s always been a dream of mine to visit here, especially the surrounding region. Until recently, the region was shut-off from outsiders except during Naga New Year celebrations. Naga villagers later told me that I was the first foreigner they had seen in many of their villages and certainly the first anthropologist to study their tattooing traditions.
In Lahe, we found an open-air diner, a truck stop really, that was serving local dishes for dinner. The simple bamboo shack had four tables and we could see our breath in the damp, cold air as we sipped hot fish soup and dined on steaming bamboo shoots, pork and chicken stir fry, and boiled beans. We washed down our meal with bottles of Myanmar lager and bedded down at a local hostel run by a local Naga leader down the street.
At 5:45AM the next morning, we arose for the next part of our trip: a journey to the villages of the Macham Naga in the mountains above Lahe. Most of the Naga villages surrounding Lahe as far as the Indian border are connected by motorcycle trails, because there are no roads for automobiles. So Chinese-made Kembo motorbikes are everywhere to be seen.
It rained heavily the night before and as we hit the trail to Lon Khin village we climb a long and slippery slope up the first mountain peak. The trail gradually narrows to one meter – the mountain on one side and a deep gorge on the other – and with one wrong turn certain death awaits in the valley below! We dodge farmers heading to their fields and herds of wild mithun (a kind of buffalo). And after two hours we finally reach our destination.
Here at Lon Khin we meet the village chief, a heavily tattooed man named U Hla Bu. Although many writers assume the bold neck and cheek tattoos of such men are marks of a headhunter, U Hla Bu assures us he has never fought in combat. Instead, he inherited the right to wear these tattoos from his father, another chief and notable warrior. The chief then displayed his right forearm which contained the small tattooed figure of a man. He explained that his father gave this mark to him and that it is a sign of leadership. U Hla Bu’s father had many such tattooed men on his body, and the more you possessed the higher your rank in Macham society. Macham shaman’s also bear similar tattoos which are usually placed on their leg.
The chief spoke about other tattooed men in the village, including warriors who had taken life as well as famous tiger hunters like U’lum.
In Macham culture, killing a human enemy was equated to killing a tiger. And so great warriors and great hunters could wear the same tattoos. U’lum was a member of a successful tiger hunting party. He was the first man to strike the tiger with his spear, so he earned the right to his neck tattoo. He never killed another man, but he told me he thought it was harder to kill a man than a tiger.
After eating lunch in Lon Khin, we hopped on our motos and headed to the next Macham Naga village up the trail – Kar Lay. Here, we met one of the last tattoo artists of the tribe, a woman named Ma Taw Pa who was nearly blind. She lamented that the Burmese government forbid hand-tapping over forty years ago. Then, Christian priests came in the 1980s followed by Buddhist monks and they also discouraged the ancient Naga custom. For these reasons, only those Macham tribespeople over 60 years of age wear tattoos today, including the incredibly marked elder U Shel Maw.
I had seen a photo of U Shel Maw published in the book The Naga of Burma (2005). There, he was described as a “headhunter” because of his neck tattoos. But I soon learned that this was not the truth. He said: “My father was a great Macham headhunter and warrior. And as his son, I was given the honor to carry on his prestige through the same tattoo patterns he once wore.”
THE MONTH FOR WAR & TATTOOING
I did meet one former Macham warrior who helped kill an enemy in battle. His name was U’chin and he was in his 80s. Around 1956, he and some friends traveled three days on foot to the Heimi Naga region in the east. Here the group fought in hand-to-hand combat and they were successful in taking the head and body parts of their victim. Upon their return to the village, a special ceremony was held to cleanse the blood of the victim from their bodies, which was believed to be polluting. An egg was placed in the mouth of the severed head as an offering to the spirit of the deceased so it would not cause harm. The taking of human heads was an important part of Myanmar Naga ceremonial life, because heads were believed to bring fertility to the crops, the village, and the men who took them. For their victory, all of the men in the war party were later given the distinctive neck and cheek tattoos of the Macham.
In the Macham and neighboring Yonkon region, April was the month for war and tattooing. During this month, the agricultural fields had been prepared for the growing season and the annual rains usually appeared at this time too. Because this was a critical time in the agricultural calendar, men were compelled to take human heads to increase the fertility of the fields. Also, since April was usually a rainy month and there was not much work to do around the village, it was a busy time for tattooing.
Daw Paa Taung Te, a tattooed Macham elder from San Tone village, told me that several girls would be tattooed at the same time in her village. At one time in the past, quite a few female tattooists lived here and they worked together to tattoo the faces and shoulders of their female clients. Although the shoulder patterns of all Macham women look the same across the region, certain small marks were added to the main design to identify the village a girl was from. Cultural tradition mandated that all of the tattooing had to be completed by the end of the month. All of the Macham men I spoke with said they would not marry a woman who was not tattooed.
A TATTOOED WARRIOR & VANISHING TRADITIONS
I met other tattooed warriors and tiger hunters from the Ponyo, Gongvan, and Khiamniungan Naga of Myanmar. Several of these warriors did not want to speak about their headhunting experiences but others did, including a tribal chief named U Pa Soe of the Khiamniungan.
Both forearms of U Pa Soe are tattooed and the work was done by a female tattooist. One arm is tattooed because he earned the honor for killing two tigers, and the other because he killed a human enemy around 1960. He did not receive the chest tattoos of a warrior he says, “because no one would see it, but everyone can see my forearm tattoos.”
He then recounted his war story to me.
“A man from a neighboring village stole a mithun (buffalo) from me. I asked him to repay me and he said: ‘go away or I will kill you!’ So the warriors in my village sought revenge and we decide to invade his village. Armed with spears, daos (machetes), shields, and crossbows with poisoned bolts we advanced to their village. If the crossbow bolts hit an enemy, the poison makes the victim sleepy and easier to kill. There is another kind of poison we use that makes a wound more septic. Also, before we invaded that village a shaman made a magical powder that makes it easier to kill the inhabitants,” he said.
“We invaded the village, set it on fire, and basically destroyed it. The survivors fled to another village and they eventually made peace with us by paying me several mithun in return. I killed that man who should have repaid me for stealing my buffalo, and for his offense the entire village suffered the consequences.”
Just as Naga tattooing is becoming rarer today in Myanmar so too are tigers. “When we kill a tiger, Chinese traders appear and offer upwards of $5,000 USD for its bones,” says a Wancho Naga hunter. And in a region where the gross annual family income is less than $500 USD, tigers are an attractive source of revenue, if one can be found. A Ponyo villager told me: “We still see their tracks in the forest but no one here in the village has taken one in several years.”
As tiger populations continue to plunge across the Naga region, new forms of tattooing among Naga youth have increased. For example, many young Naga travel to Myanmar’s large cities for work and here they acquire Western-style tattoos or other forms related to magical Buddhist or Shan traditions. With the increasing popularity of Western tattooing (e.g., the first Myanmar international tattoo convention was held in Yangon in 2014) and foreign tattoo styles, it is likely within the next generation that traditional Naga tattooing in Myanmar will be replaced, unless a tattooing revival takes place. Time will only tell…