Exploring Longwa Village and meeting the Konyak tribe in Nagaland
The Konyak village of Longwa close to the town of Mon, Nagaland, is a small hamlet on the border between India and Myanmar. The village is an enigma of sorts to us western travelers, consciously or unconsciously accustomed to categorizing people, places and everything else we come across on our travels.
The border village of Longwa lies in Nagaland, and thus ‘belongs’ to India, but the semi-existent border actually bisects the village, with the people of the Konyak tribe having special privileges and being allowed cross-border, unrestricted access to the corresponding Konyak areas in Myanmar. The logistics of getting from Assam to Longwa can be found in this post.
Nagaland, one of India’s Northeastern states (also known as the Seven Sisters), is very much a tribal region with several different communities inhabiting the area. The Konyak tribe is one of the largest in Nagaland, and as we found out at the Hornbill festival, amongst the most colorful tribes in the Northeast. They mostly live in and around the Mon district or the ‘The Land of the Anghs’. An Angh is a Konyak King who rules over the Konyak tribe.
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A Headhunting Legacy in Longwa Village near Mon, Nagaland
The Konyak tribe of Longwa is well-known in Northeast India for its headhunting legacy. Much like the other headhunting tribes we met in other parts of Asia, such as the ButBut tribe in Buscalan in the Philippines and some of the tribes in West Timor, Indonesia, the head-hunting days for the Konyak tribe are a thing of the (not so very distant) past.
Chopping off enemy’s heads was common practice for the men of the Konyak tribe in Longwa village, indeed an honourable feat which would be rewarded with a facial tattoo. Fast-forward half a century, and villagers sporting facial tattoos can still be spotted around Longwa village, although they are now enjoying retirement and look rather frail, and not half as fierce as you might expect.
The Konyak tribe in Longwa Village are God-Fearing Christians
Our local guide explained with obvious pride that nowadays Longwa is 100% Christian, a far cry from the village’s ancestral former headhunting legacy. Being in Longwa village on a Sunday meant we woke up just as soon as the whole village was getting ready to attend mass.
Christianity was introduced in Nagaland by missionaries in the 19th century and the state experienced the Christian revival movement in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Missionaries discouraged head-hunting and many villagers were compelled to bury their trophies, their enemies’ heads, which they had previously displayed with such pride, underground.
We decided to attend the service so that we could experience the local mass in Longwa village. We had never attended a Baptist mass before. Although the experience itself was interesting, it was evident that the main attractions at the church were Nikki and I, especially for the kids who glanced at us shyly every so often, and burst into fits of giggles every time we looked back, much to the displeasure of the adult congregation.
After mass, we enjoyed a chat with the locals, especially the preacher who happily informed that he knew exactly where our home country Malta is (he did!) because it was mentioned in the bible. After traveling around several parts of the world and meeting many people who had never heard of our little island, we were very happy to make the acquaintance of the preacher of this remote Konyak village of Longwa who described our island in so much accuracy!
Life on the Border
The Konyak village of Longwa literally straddles the countries of India and Myanmar. Many of the Konyak villagers we spoke to explained that they felt neither Indian nor Burmese but simply ‘Konyak’. Villagers have the freedom to cross the border as they please, with Burmese kids attending schools on the Indian side and vice versa.
There isn’t a true distinction between the two countries at this border. Locals pointed out other people strolling through Longwa village, who we assumed were people from the same village, and told us ‘look those people are from Myanmar’. We couldn’t tell the difference as the people shared similar facial traits as the Indian locals, and when we pointed this out, we were told ‘of course we are all of the Konyak tribe!’
One of the most fascinating aspects of this invisible border is the King (Chief Angh)’s House which literally sits on each side of the invisible line. The guesthouse we stayed at, directly facing the King’s House, is also located right on the border line. We thus got to sleep in India, but got to use the toilet in Myanmar! The Chief Angh is the head of several villages, some of which are located on the Myanmar side.
Opium is regularly smoked in The Konyak Village of Longwa
Sadly, many Longwa villagers are large consumers of opium and the village faces a huge drug addiction issue. Although it seems that opium is no longer cultivated in Longwa village, it is regularly smuggled (together with arms) across the border from Myanmar, where opium cultivation is pretty rampant.
Honestly, it was very difficult for us to reconcile the ex-headhunting, church-loving, opium addiction traits in some of the villagers. The colorful aspects of the Konyak villagers’ lifestyle seemed contradictory from our perspective, but everyone seemed to be managing their lives with relative ease.
Villagers will cook opium from morning till night in the floors of their dark, little huts, with little babies strapped to their backs. Truth be told, there’s not much else for the locals to do around the little village. Opium is consumed with the same dedication that hymns are sung out during Sunday’s mass at church.
The area around Mon, Nagaland shuts down on Sundays
Sunday is a Holy day in Longwa and in Mon, Nagaland as well as in other parts of Nagaland. This means that everything shuts down including shops, most transportation, and ATMs. There is no transportation running from Mon to Longwa on Sunday, so be sure to factor that in your plans. If you arrive in Mon on Saturday afternoon or on Sunday, you are going to have to wait till Monday to get to Longwa.
Be sure to withdraw any cash you might need in Mon but NOT on a Sunday. The ATMs stop working on Sundays!
Do I need a guide in Longwa Village?
Not really if you are happy to simply stroll around without interacting much with the locals, but that is not really the whole point of getting to Longwa! It will be difficult to meet the headhunters in Longwa village without a guide, since they tend to spend most of the day inside smoking opium, drinking tea or chatting. They will not see you without some form of introduction from a local, and most of the interesting characters would not be able to communicate in English either.
If you want to meet the King (who by the way looks like a perfectly regular local villager) you’re going to want to be introduced by a local too. A guide will help you understand and learn about the culture of the Konyak tribe, and explain all about the lifestyle in Longwa village.
A ‘guide’ of course, need not imply a certified tourist guide (we are not aware of any in Longwa village), but an English-speaking local who will show you around the place and answer your questions. Thanks to the same missionaries who converted the head-hunting Naga villagers to Baptist church-goers, English is widely spoken in Longwa village as well as in the entire state of Nagaland.
Ask your guesthouse owner to find a local to take you around the village and introduce you to the villagers. The guide will expect (and deserves) a tip. We gave ours Rs1000 (about €12.75) for showing us around the village and providing us with essential information during our two-day stay.
Meeting villagers of the Konyak tribe and other things to do in Longwa
One of the reasons we wanted to visit Longwa village was to visit some of the world’s last remaining headhunters. After visiting headhunting villages in Indonesia and in the Philippines, meeting the (ex) headhunters of Northeast India was high on our priority list (not that we have a fascination with headhunting or anything!)
The other reason was to experience a lifestyle (even if just for a short while) in a rural village hidden somewhere on the border of India and Myanmar, which is so far removed from our own, that it was absolutely surreal to be there.
So after hearing mass with the villagers, we went off with a our guide for a tour around little Longwa village, in the hope of meeting some older locals and hearing some interesting stories. Our guide, the cousin of the Nah-Mei (our guesthouse owner) took us to a little hut where two old and frail men were sitting around a little fire cooking opium.
From the tattoos on their faces, we could immediately identify them as being some of the headhunters we were looking for. We were not sure how they would react to our arrival, but they did not seem displeased to see us, and after an introduction, got back to their chatting (in Nagamese) and smoking.
The guide informed us that if we wanted to take photos of them and with them, we would need to give them a donation. We suggested Rs 500 (about €6.50) which they seemed rather pleased with, since they became a bit more jovial at that point on.
We understand that some travelers have an issue with paying for photos of indigenous tribes, feeling that they are forcing local people to ‘sell’ their heritage and their authenticity, but we tend to enjoy giving a donation to locals when we visit their homes and intrude upon their lives, when we observe and interact with them, even though they never make us feel unwelcome. The pictures are an added bonus.
One of the headhunters (who spoke no English) appeared to get angry at our guide at one point, which made us very worried, fearing that we might have unintentionally offended him in some way. Much to our relief, it turns out that he was telling off our guide for failing an important exam which would help him find a job in the city!
It was refreshing to see an elderly, tribal, opium-smoking headhunter recognise the importance of education, even though it was sad to understand that tribal villages provide a very uncertain future for the younger villagers.
Our guide took us to other parts of the village, where yet again we made the acquaintance of some other elderly headhunters and offered them a donation (Rs200 – about €2.50). We passed by village kids playing football (soccer) with a ball made out of an old sack, encountered lazy dogs and were almost chased away by some angry hens.
On our second day in Longwa village, our guide took us to a beautiful viewpoint from where we could observe the countless, rolling hills of Nagaland, marked by a stone pillar which denotes the border between India and Myanmar.
The huts in Longwa are decorated with several skulls and bones of different animals, the largest usually belonging to the mithun (buffalo). There are no human skulls hanging around nowadays! It is not unusual for the older villagers, in particular the headhunters, to wear ear and neck accessories made out of animal bones and feathers, although they are not worn on a daily basis.
The King’s House
The Chief Angh, head of some 30 Konyak villages or so, resides in a large longhouse in Longwa village. Part of his house is in India and part is in Myanmar, although this doesn’t feel as disconcerting as it sounds.
You should not visit the King’s house without having a local accompany you. Our guide took us in and showed us around. The first room in the house is decorated with huge skulls and bones, whilst the kitchen has a large furnace as it centre, typical of Northeastern Indian houses, except that this is much larger than any of the others we had previously seen.
The King himself is an unassuming, reserved man, who was in a hurry for mass, so we did not get to speak to him much. He seems to be highly respected by all the locals we met though!
Connectivity in Longwa Village
People who feel a need to be connected to the outside world, will be pleased to know that contrary to other reports, there’s a pretty decent Airtel connection (including 4G) in Longwa. The problem is that power cuts are very frequent and very sporadic, and sometimes very lengthy, with no connection being available at all during such outages. Otherwise, Airtel worked just fine, although Vodafone less so.
Where to stay in Mon, Nagaland (the gateway to the village)
Mon is the neighboring town closest to Longwa and the place where the sumo to Longwa departs from. You may be lucky enough to get a sumo directly to Longwa upon your arrival in Mon, but this is not always possible.
Accommodation options in Mon are rather lacking. We booked ‘Aunty’s’ (aka Paramount Guesthouse) via phone, but did not stay because eventually we were taken to Longwa by our guesthouse owner (who was in Mon at the time) as soon as we got to Mon.
We have no experience of staying at ‘Aunty’s’ but it seems to be one of the only options around, despite the somewhat negative reviews. Contact details – +9436433782. The price we were asked was Rs2500 (€32) for a double room, which is expensive even for Northeast India!
Where to stay in Longwa Village
There are only a handful of guesthouses in Longwa Village. We stayed at Traveller’s Inn and cannot recommend it enough, not only because it was perfectly comfortable, but also because Nah-Mei, our host, took excellent care of us during our stay in Longwa.
Accommodation is basic but includes a private bathroom, and a bucket of hot water will be provided on request. Contact details – +91 81189 88082. We paid Rs 1500 (about €19)/night for a room with a private bathroom. Food for the both of us for three days (breakfast, lunch and dinner) cost Rs2600 (€33) in total, which we felt was pretty reasonable given the quality and quantity!
What to eat in Longwa Village
There is nothing in Longwa village that mildly resembles a restaurant or a café or anything of the sort. Your host needs to prepare all of your meals and provide you with water, and it would be best to take some snacks with you in case you get peckish.
Nagamese cuisine consists of meats, rice, eggs and vegetable dishes accompanied (if requested) by the infamous king chilli, the world’s fourth hottest chilli. Nagaland is also known around other parts of India for its consumption of dogmeat and worms – we were told that Naga people will ‘literally eat anything’.
That is not entirely true. Although dogmeat is consumed, it is not a daily staple and we felt that Nagamese dishes in general, were like any others we had tried in Northeast India, just richer in flavor. I am not averse to eating dogmeat (more on that on another blog post) or worms, both of which I tried and enjoyed with gusto, though Nikki refused to speak to me for a couple of days after that.
Our host Nah-Mei served up some delicious meals (sans dogmeat or worms), consisting mostly of pork, chicken in banana leaves, eggs, yams, rice, the best daal ever, and vegetables. We usually had noodles (maggi) for lunch. We were wholly satisfied at every meal and each dish was great!
I also got to try a paste made out of dried fish and king chilli. Admittedly, it was not one of my wisest decisions and I had to deal with numb lips for quite a while!
Tips for visiting Longwa Village near Mon, Nagaland
- Take some warm clothes and a jacket, it can get rather chilly at night!
- Take some snacks with you – although you might find some snacks in the shacks around the village, they are rather limited, and none of the shacks are open for business on a Sunday!
- Carry cash, there are no banks or ATMs in Longwa. Those in Mon are closed on Sundays.
- Everything shuts down on Sundays in most of Nagaland including Mon and Longwa.
- Inform your host of any dietary restrictions. They will try their best to cater to your needs, although supplies may be limited.
- You will not always be connected, especially during power cuts. Do keep a torch and powerbank handy.
- Learn about local customs before getting to Longwa village – you do not want to cause offence to anybody.
- Plan your logistics in advance, especially if you’re limited with time because transport is very infrequent. Read our guide on how to get to Longwa Village.
- Together with Manipur and Mizoram, Nagaland is one of the dry states in Northeast India, and although foreigners seem to get a preferential treatment, checkpoints at the border are frequent. It is best not to carry alcohol around with you.