With proud, wistful expressions, the elderly figures in Peter Bos’ portraits seem gentle enough — kind, even. But the men’s tattoos belie a darker truth: They were once fearsome headhunters whose facial markings symbolize the decapitation of their foes.
These are members of the Konyak tribe, a group of approximately 230,000 people living in the Indian state of Nagaland, close to the Myanmar border. Inhabiting remote hilltop villages, these agricultural communities often used patterned body markings to celebrate major milestones and rites of passage.
Face tattoos, however, were reserved for warriors — specifically those returning from conflicts or raids with enemy heads.
“I never felt intimidated or threatened — they were very warm,” recalled Bos, a Dutch portrait photographer, in a phone interview. “We think of headhunting as something evil or rough, but for them it was more just a way of living.
“We went into their houses, spent time with them and asked about their past — about their poems, sayings and songs — which made it easier for them to feel relaxed in front of the camera,” said Bos, who shot the aging headhunters over four visits to the region.
“But the old men were very fragile, and had a sadness in them.”
The tribesmen’s body art is slowly fading from sight, both literally and figuratively. Since Christian missionaries arrived in the region during the second half of the 19th century, headhunting and the accompanying tattoo ritual have been gradually consigned to history.
Both practices were effectively eliminated by the 1970s, according to Phejin Konyak, the great-granddaughter of a headhunter, who has spent almost four years documenting her tribe’s disappearing culture.
“Every tattoo pattern depicts someone’s status or cycle of life,” the 38-year-old said in a phone interview from Nagaland. “What I did was record all of the existing patterns, so they are not lost. (I also documented) the oral traditions, like songs and poems, to capture them at a moment when it’s all vanishing.
“These people are the last bearers of this tradition, and when they die it will be gone forever.”
A ‘living library’
Konyak’s research — which includes illustrations of tattoo designs and their meanings — appears alongside Bos’ photographs in the pair’s new book, “The Konyaks: Last of The Tattooed Headhunters.” The work also details the tribe’s customs, rituals and social structures, charting the arrival of British missionaries and the disappearance of animist beliefs and shamanism.
The author’s personal history informs her self-professed “mixed feelings” toward Christianity. Having left her 700-person village at the age of 4, Konyak was educated at a convent school in Dimapur, almost 300 kilometers away.
“Of course, it brought us education — and I wouldn’t have written this book if I didn’t get a modern education,” she said. “But in Nagaland the conversion to Christianity and the exposure to modernity has been very rapid. It just happened suddenly. We’ve gone from headhunting to iPads in the span of a few (decades).”
There is a certain irony to Konyak’s mission: Her great-grandfather, Ahon, reportedly helped end headhunting by working with the British to broker peace between warring tribes. But while the author welcomes the end of a violent practice, she fears that much else has also been swept away.
The fate of traditional tattoos, which were hand-tapped into the skin using sharpened rattan canes and tree sap pigment, is symptomatic of a wider cultural erosion, Konyak said.
“Even old folk songs … are seen as nothing important,” she added. “If only we could take the good things of the past and mix them with the new lifestyle.
“I think there should be a balance. We cannot remain isolated; we have to adapt to changing times. But if we lose our identity, then what’s the purpose?”
Konyak believes that there is “no chance” of her tribe’s lost traditions being revived, though she sees value in recording what she describes as a “living library.” In addition to producing an illustrated children’s version of the book, she is having her work translated into one of the tribe’s dialects (although because the Konyaks’ languages have no written form, this means painstakingly transliterating an oral dialect into Latin script).
“Preservation has to come internally, from within the local population,” she said. “Unless there’s a drive from within the tribe, then there’s little chance of (traditions surviving).”
For Bos, the juxtaposition of old and new provided rich visual material. Many of his subjects assumed traditional clothing — even inserting antlers or tusks into their ears — while others are pictured wearing sportswear or modern accessories.
The portraits were often shot inside traditional longhouses, which are made from bamboo, palm leaves and wood from the surrounding hills.
“Their longhouses are very beautiful,” he said. “They’re very dark inside, but they all have this hunting-trophy wall with all the skulls of animals. They keep all of the heads, apart from the (old) human ones that are not allowed by the church anymore. And the bamboo structures just make for a beautiful backdrop.”
Bos also captured everyday life in the region’s villages, which he visited for up to six weeks at a time. But it’s his portraits — which include his collaborator’s own great-aunt and great-uncle — that seem to embody the spirit of the book.
“They were still alive, but time had caught up with them,” he said of the elderly villagers.
“They were not really of this world anymore.”