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Head Hunting Trophies

December 11, 2011 2 min read

The British had banned head hunting during the days of the Raj and ordered that all trophies – such as skulls of enemy tribes – be destroyed.

Most tribes complied. But a few Naga tribes stashed their spoils away in secret spots.

Skulls of men captured in tribal wars were buried temporarily and were later recovered.

These are on display in the village community hall today – images of which are displayed below:

The Community Hall of the village

These may evoke a spectrum of reactions from people from other worlds – but it is important to remember the original purpose while viewing these as part of the history of a culture – that these were seen as rewards for the bravery & courage and were badges of triumph of good over evil (self = good, other = evil, as it is in every world).

The injury mark that was probably caused by a ‘dho’

Skull of a dwarf warrior (right) alongside the skull of an elephant and a bird

Kohima museum exhibit (from Wikipedia)

Notwithstanding the laws of the British rulers, this practice continued to prevail. Later efforts of Christian missionaries resulted in conversions and brought a gradual end to the ethnic culture and this practice was given up not through the power of the ruling sword but through changes in belief. Further modernisation in present day India presented interaction with the outside world. This brought opportunities that were infinitely broader than those available to their ancestors whose lives were limited to a geography of a few hundred kilometers resulting in inter-tribal fights for territory and other resources. And so the head hunting practice completely died out in the 20th century.


Just as I have no authority to judge a lion killing a deer, I have no authority or moral right to judge the rules that had evolved within a society that lived and thrived for centuries. I am an outsider whose comprehension of the inner workings – the logic, the social dynamics, the beliefs and the emotions – of that system will never be 100% complete.

As I mull over these peeps into lives that I will never live, I have to remind myself that curiosity and comprehension are the only valid lenses through which my mind should look at these traditions. No moral judgements and no prescription should be allowed to color my vision.

The Nagas who practiced these traditions a century ago  lived by a set of rules that were complete and internally consistent. And I am just a passer by in space and time – intrigued and in awe of a world beyond that is orthogonally different from the 2 or 3  worlds that I am used to.

My other articles on Arunachal Pradesh & Nagaland are linked below

Fierce Nocte Headhunters

Back to the Future – Tribal Life in Arunachal Pradesh

The Tribal Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

December 2011

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