LESS THAN FIFTY YEARS AGO NAGA WARRIORS of northeast India and neighboring Myanmar hunted for human heads in the mountainous terrain of their ancestral homelands. On my travels in this region I’ve met many inveterate warriors who can vividly remember those stressful and dangerous times like they were yesterday. Finding these men is not easy, but once located they stand out from the crowd because of the incredibly bold tattoos they wear across their bodies: symbols that bond them to tigers who are their powerful spirit companions, or special markings earned through their tiger-like combat skills, with designs inspired by the stripes on a tiger’s back or the patterns on its forehead.
TIGER AND LEOPARD MEN OF THE NAGA
There are over twenty Naga tribes in India and more than half of them tattooed. Naga tattooing is a visual language and if you know how to read this book of body art then you can begin to decipher the life history of the person before you. Sadly, however, tattooing is the most endangered of the Naga’s cultural practices. Today, traces of the indelible art can only be found on elders (many of whom are between eighty and one-hundred years of age) and on very old forms of sculpture that adorn men’s houses (morungs). Missionization, the cessation of tribal warfare and headhunting, the adoption of European dress and less permanent forms of body decoration all contributed to the decline of this once important custom that was intimately connected to rites of passage, social status, mythology, spirituality, religion, and therianthropy.
What is therianthropy I hear you ask? It is a concept whereby humans are believed to be able to transform themselves into other animals; powerful animals that serve as spiritual protectors and guides. In the Naga universe these beliefs are still strong and I have met several men, usually old chiefs (anghs) or great warriors, who have tigers and leopards as their “companions.” When these men sleep, their soul travels out of their bodies and into that of their animal familiar. They can see through the eyes of their tiger or leopard friend, hear and smell what their animal companions encounter on the trail, and in the headhunting era warriors could employ the help of their protector to track the movements of their enemies. Men who possessed these spiritual assistants would become tiger-like or leopard-like in their actions and rarely were they defeated in battle.
But there were risks associated with having an animal counterpart. If a soul-animal was wounded or killed, then the human linked with it would experience a similar fate. Also, if your animal companion had a very powerful spirit and you could not control it, then it was very likely that you would become insane.
Men who have these powerful spirit companions are oftentimes tattooed with symbols of their animal friends to permanently bond themselves to each other. These types of tattoos are extremely rare today and the only place to find them is in one of the most remote and wild corners of India, the Patkoi Range which borders Myanmar – the homeland of the Chen Naga.
MEETING THE CHEN TIGER MEN
The Chen region is extremely difficult to reach because road conditions are simply terrible! In the rainy season, the road is impassible and rock falls and landslides block traffic several times a year for months at a time. There are eight Chen villages in India and many more in Myanmar, and men are the primary gatekeepers and bearers of tattooing tradition here. Apart from tiger/leopard-man tattoos, Chen warriors who have killed more than two enemies are allowed to wear bold geometric designs that cover their upper chests and neck. The four elder men I met that were marked in this way (each also had dark goggle-like tattoos around their eyes indicating that they had participated in combat) were certainly considered to be great village heroes, but none of them had companion animals like other Chen men I would soon meet.
Before heading to Chen territory I had read about one famous Chen chief, Angh Tolei of Chen Wetnu village, who owned distinctive back tattoos that were associated with his animal familiar – a tiger. As we drove up the mountain to his home village, we asked several people if he was still alive but I was saddened to learn that he had apparently died just months before. Our guide, sensing my despair, then told us that there was another man marked in this way: a warrior from his home village of Chen Loisho just up the road. Energized by this news, we sped up the winding and twisting road in our SUV for another three hours until we approached the residence of Wengkang. Wengkang is perhaps one of only a handful of Naga men in India today who bears the symbolic tattoo of a tiger-man. Wengkang stated he was over 100 years of age (!), although he looked hardly over 80, and his back was covered with circular tattoos representing the fur coat of his animal familiar, the indomitable tiger, that according to mythology was born from the same primal mother as man. In fact, man and tiger are regarded as siblings and when some Naga kill a tiger in the jungle they say they killed a “brother.”
After a few hearty cups of rice beer (zu) and heaping plates of ginger rice and stewed pork at Wengkang’s house, we eventually made our way to Chen Wetnyu, since I wanted to pay my respects to the family of Angh Tolei who I had so very much wanted to meet. As I stepped into our truck, I began to think of all the many other tattooed elders I was not able to meet before they had passed into the afterlife and how much traditional tattoo knowledge was being lost worldwide before it could be recorded. But then I recalled something I had been told before: “expect the unexpected because life is never what it seems.”
The road from Loisho to Wetnyu is steep, abrupt, circuitous, and simply dangerous. Serious car sickness becomes a real possibility, but chewing local betel nut activated with lime is a great way to get through difficult moments like these. However, on this bumpy ride, when I spit out the blood-red residue it frequently misses its mark and by the time we reach our destination the back panel of the Landcruiser is splattered with the crimson liquid!
At Chen Wetnyu, we spot a hand-painted sign for the “Angh’s Residence.” As we enter this immense house, huge wooden beams carved in relief with all sorts of jungle animals greet us, each one painted in various shades of color. It is early morning and a group of men and women are gathered about the central hearth of the kitchen enjoying hot tea, biscuits, and their breakfast meal. Through my translator, I make the necessary introductions and explain the purpose of my journey as well as my regret at arriving too late to meet the venerable Tolei. To my surprise, the chief’s wife looked up at me from her steaming cup of brew and called out, “Tolei, you have visitors here!” Suddenly, a short man emerges from his bathroom to be confronted by several dumbfounded travelers who, until that moment, had been certain that the Chief was dead! Overjoyed, we interview Tolei and upon further questioning he reveals that his spirit-familiar was not, as I had read, a tiger. It was a leopard. He also explained that, although other animals can act as someone’s familiar (for example boars and wildcats), only tigers and leopards are associated with tattoos.
Near neighbors to the south of Chen territory, the Khiamniungen Naga also had tattoo traditions associated with tigers, but in a different way. Warriors who successfully brought back enemy heads were permitted to have their chest tattooed with what writers have variously described as “ostrich feathers,” a “V-shaped chest marking,” “fertility fountain,” or what the Khiamniungan call “tiger chest,” in reference to the belief they become “tiger-like” when hunting their enemy. After additional victories, tattoos of human figures could also be added to the chest (as they were among the Wancho, Lower Konyak, Chang, and Myanmar Naga groups). As more kills were tallied, tattooed human figures also came to adorn the arms, shoulders, calves, and back.
In 2008, I traveled to the Burmese border for the first time searching for fully tattooed Khiamniungan warriors in Noklak and Pangsha villages. Luckily, I was fortunate to meet a few of these respected men. Several years later, I traveled to a different and more remote valley searching for additional tattooed “heroes.” Here, I managed to meet Lonshei, a tattooed elder who was an incredible repository of traditional knowledge. He himself had killed two enemies in about 1960, and two anthropomorphs tattooed on his legs accounted for his victories. But I was curious to learn about the geometric tattoos on his arms, because I had not encountered much information about them in the old books that I’d read. Lonshei described a fascinating phenomenon. His village sits at the border of Khiamniungan Naga (east) and Yimchungru Naga (west) territory, and if a man killed an enemy from the villages to the west he was tattooed on his right arm. If he killed an enemy from villages to the east he was tattooed on the left. Of course, if he killed men on either side of his village, he was tattooed on both sides of his body. The motif appearing at the top of the arm represents the crossbow, a deadly weapon that was utilized in combat by the Khiamniungan, Chang, Tikhir, and Yimchungru – the bolts were often poisoned. Lonshei said that Khiamniungen warriors were always tattooed by women (a custom followed by most Naga groups) – young girls who were not of the same clan. An older woman, referred to as an “architect,” stenciled the designs on the body, but she would not perform the actual tattooing. If the architect was not paid, it was believed she would go blind, and the tattoo client paid whatever he could afford. Once the tattoos were laid on the skin, the client was compelled to restrict his diet for the next two days, making sure he did not ingest meat, curry, or fermented soybeans. Instead, only plain rice was taken.
YIMCHUNGRU AND TIKHIR TATTOOS
Meat taboos were also observed by the Yimchungru. I met the last great warrior of this tribe, a hero named Lakiumong who has twenty kills to his credit! Lakiumong, who passed away in 2016, did not receive any tattoos until after his tenth kill, at which time he was over 35 years of age. His ear ornaments and brass necklace also indicate that he is a proven headhunter. The necklace especially reinforces his status since the circular elements symbolize that he “circled the enemy like a tiger and killed it.”
The final leg of my Naga trip brought me to the Tikhir village of Shamatore. Here, only one man wore the chest tattoo reserved for great warriors, but I did learn other interesting details about other body markings. One man, Khungkiu, did not take enemy heads but he did sever the hands and legs of at least one enemy. He also went to war with a crossbow, and for these reasons he was tattooed with the crossbow symbol on his upper right arm. He noted that men of his tribe had to take a head to receive the V-shaped chest design. However, brave men could also earn the right to receive a chest tattoo if they had killed a tiger in hand-to-hand combat. In essence, a tiger was equated to two human kills and, like men, was hunted with a crossbow.
CHANGING TIMES, CHANGING MEANINGS
With the arrival of Christianity in the early 1940s, Naga tattooing soon ceased across this remote region of India. The era of inter-tribal warfare was over, and male prowess and rites of passage were no longer expressed with indelible markings. Instead, new opportunities for social achievement emerged through education and forms of wage-labor as the countryside slowly opened to the outside world. More and more villagers migrated to towns and cities in search of jobs and college educations, further dislocating them from ancient traditions like tattooing that formerly were an integral part of their cultural and spiritual identities.
Today, however, younger generations of Naga still have a keen interest in tattooing, albeit not typically in the tribal tattooing traditions of their ancestors, although a revival is underway.* Instead, Western-style tattoos – barbed-wire armbands, Batman symbols and other kitsch designs – have largely replaced timeworn patterns once associated with bravery and Naga identity. And Naga men no longer have tattoos linking them to their mythical brother, the tiger, who is himself nowadays nearly extinct in the Naga Hills of India.
For more information on the Naga warrior tradition and headhunting, please watch this recent BBC video.
*For important updates on the Naga tattoo revival, read more about Uipo Naga tattoo artist Mo Naga here.