They believed that a human skull contains the power for the life force behind the prosperity of their crops, clans, and animals.
“We competed with each other yelling, ‘the head is mine, the head is mine’. The person who took the head gained more power in our community.”
Tucked away in a remote corner of northeast India is the state of Nagaland. Thirteen distinct tribes of Naga people live there. The Nagas are a proud people who find themselves living within the borders of India; however, this doesn’t mean they can be associated historically, culturally, linguistically, or ethnically with other Indian races. In fact, Nagas do not consider Nagaland to be a part of India.
Since May 2014, India has been governed by a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a radical Hindu leader. Nearly 80% of Indians are Hindu, with just over 2% of India being Christian. In contrast, Nagaland is a predominately Christian region. As the level of intolerance towards Christians continues to increase and Christians are regularly being persecuted, this puts Nagaland in a precarious position.
When Christianity and Headhunting Collided
In the video below, some of the last surviving Naga headhunters describe how they once killed members of other tribes, a practice that ended when they converted to Christianity.
“When I went to war, I marked my enemies like a sniper, and when I got to them, I chopped their heads off with a knife,” says one.
Another man shares, “If I happened upon my enemy, it didn’t matter if the person was a man, woman, or a child, I chopped the head off. We competed with each other yelling, “the head is mine, the head is mine”. The person who took the head gained power in our community.”
After chopping off the head, we’ll get tattoo on our face. Because in those days, getting a tattoo on your head was part of the education
Christian missionaries were one group that overcame Naga resistance.
How did they turn this land of former headhunters into followers of Jesus Christ?
When western missionaries came into contact with the Nagas in the 1800s, they found a fearsome people who practiced head hunting. The practice of head hunting in Nagaland only started to subside after the Gospel took hold and Naga Christians learned of the value God places on human life. As tens of thousands of Nagas came into relationship with Christ in the 1960s, the practice of head hunting began to fade.
American Baptists came to northeastern India in the 1830s, accepted by the British as potential pacifiers of an unruly population.
The first American to risk his head in Naga territory itself, however, was New Yorker Edwin W. Clark. In 1872, after baptizing the first group of Nagas at a lowland mission, Clark moved to an Ao Naga village—and stayed there, with his wife, for nearly 40 years.
The Clarks opened a mission school that trained Nagas, mostly members of the Ao tribe, to evangelize in remote areas where foreigners were not welcome.
By the 1940s, nearly half the Naga population had converted, lured by the trappings of modernity—education, medicine, and a religion that espoused peace—even as missionaries sought to destroy their traditions.
Dancing and drum playing were banned, traditional relics and clothes burned—and skulls buried. The Baptists gave the disparate Naga tribes tribes a common bond and language, English, but the loss of traditional culture also provoked an identity crisis that continues to this day.
One of the last places to convert to Christianity was Shianghachingnyu, a hilltop village that, not by coincidence, boasts one of the last collections of hunted skulls.
The village chief, a legendary Naga of the Konyak tribe nicknamed Khaopa, refused to accept a religion that would force him to abandon Naga traditions and bury the skulls that symbolized his power.
Khaopa, who died in 2001, had hunted 36 heads himself; during his reign, his followers took 130 more. He held out against Christianity until 1992, converting only on the condition that his collection of skulls not be buried.
When I arrived at the village, a little boy listening to Blondie’s “The Tide Is High” on a tinny cell phone took me to meet Khaopa’s son, Aloh Ngowang, who’s the current chieftain. He was boiling a pot of larvae, a local snack, over an open fire. “My father,” he said, “always believed he should defend our traditions to the death.”
The skulls are kept, incongruously, in a small museum built in 2013 to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of Christianity to this remote district. Locked up in a closet, the bleached-white skulls stare out from wooden shelves, pegs through the eyeholes. Some are marred by bullet holes, others by machete cuts.
In the video below, Some of the last surviving Naga headhunters describe how they once killed members of other tribes, a practice that ended when they converted to Christianity.
Today these men are elderly, and their region in northern India, Nagaland, has a higher percentage of Baptists than the state of Mississippi.