Kachin State/Sagaing Division, northern Burma — In the remote village of Cheme Khuk in Burma’s far north, I am talking to a man who must be one of the last ethnic Naga chief headhunters still alive today. Now in his 80s, he recalls an episode from the last great war, when he was a boy.
“I was in the jungle with my father and brothers,” the old chief says. “Suddenly, we saw a white man with short black hair. My father whispered, ‘It’s a beast, it’ll hurt us.’ We tied him up and he shouted. We carried him to the village.
“All we found in his bag was a single book. There was no gun. Then my father said, ‘He can’t do us any harm.’ We fed him. He got his strength back. We gave him some rice for the road and seven bells to pay for food along the way. He wanted to cook the rice in them. We explained that he shouldn’t do that.
“We escorted him to the border of our land and he vanished into the jungle, in the direction of India. We saved his life, and he was very grateful to us.”
Many more incidents of this kind occurred during World War II in the Patkai Hills on the border between Burma and India, inhabited to this day by the Naga people. One of the most extraordinary but little known campaigns of the war was conducted in the air over that territory. Burma was being fought over by the Allied powers and the Japanese, who had rapidly moved northward after taking Rangoon, pushing the British out to India.
Finally the counterattack went ahead, and the sky was cut across by British and American planes. The pilots performed incredible feats, landing on swampy ground in the middle of the jungle or daring to fly “the Hump,” one of the most dangerous flight paths over the Burmese Himalayas to China. Many of them crashed into the mountains. Wreckage is still lying in remote corners of the jungle, where Naga hunters sometimes find it. I heard they have even come across pilots’ skeletons, still in the cockpit.
If the Japanese had crossed the Naga Hills and conquered India, and if the Germans hadn’t been defeated at Stalingrad, Asia would have been taken over by the Axis powers. But thanks to men like the pilot who was saved by the Naga boy and his father, Burma was liberated from Japanese invaders.
Who was the pilot? Did he survive? What book was he reading? I’m still looking for him.
Search Through Nagaland
I had never seen such a wild place, neither in Africa nor in the Amazon, before traveling to the Patkai Hills, which are hundreds of kilometers of dense, majestic jungle that climb skyward up steep slopes. Here and there in the forest shadow hide Naga villages, lost in time.
I was traveling from Myitkyina, the state capital of Kachin State, with a government guide and permits that included a precise plan of my route. In the Kachin town of Shinbwayang, we rented off-road motorbikes and set off on a crazy ride across the mountains, driving along the legendary Ledo Road in a quest to find one of the last of the living Naga chief headhunters.
This road tells a story of human madness. When the Japanese took Rangoon, the only source of supplies for the Allies in China was India, but there were two mountain ranges, the Burmese Himalayas and the Patkai Hills, standing in the way. People died like flies while building the road, as it spans an area that is highly malarial. By the time they finished, the war was over, and today the steel bridges still hang undisturbed over winding rivers.
The road is now so overgrown with plants that it is essentially a narrow mule path winding across the lofty mountains. Only a few drivers from Shinbwayang are prepared to take on this sort of challenge. People hire them to transport goods all the way to the Indian border at the Pangsau Pass, which is where I was heading.
Traveling with my guide, I was unsure what I would find. We asked people where we could find an old Naga shaman, since many old shamans used to be chief headhunters. I lost hope after someone in a village told me the last shaman from Pangsau died two years ago.
In every place we stopped, the villagers appeared to have given up their traditional costumes. Nobody wore loinclothes with traditional bells. But their huts appeared to have hardly changed over the years, with one exception: These days, there are no longer small human skulls hanging on the outer walls.
Naga chief headhunters were legendary figures, inspiring terror among neighbouring tribes, travelers, missionaries and soldiers. My guide, a delegate of the tourism ministry, said the Naga stopped cutting off heads in the 1960s, when the military regime took control of their territory and made headhunting punishable by law. Christian missionaries had earlier campaigned against the practice.
However, I heard another version of the story as well. According to Shan people from nearby Hukawng Valley who venture into Naga territory in search of wild elephants, which they domesticate, headhunting is alive and well. “If you don’t warn them and you take away an elephant without their consent, they’ll cut off your head,” one Shan person warned.
From Naymung, in Sagaing Division, my guide and I set off westward along a new dirt road, which led to the town of Lahe. The government built the road two years ago, and it still isn’t ready to use: In many places, it’s like a mountain track. But thanks to its presence, new technology and western culture are rapidly infiltrating the hill tribes. Corporations and armed groups have their eyes on the valuable timber and natural resources here, and the government faces a major task of protecting this wildlife reserve and the dying local cultures.
Eventually, my guide and I reached another village, Cheme Khuk. My permits did not allow me to travel there officially, but I managed to convince some local authorities to let me visit. Nevertheless, they sent police officers on motorbikes to follow me.
The village, on a valley at the foot of a steep hill, looked utopian. Rows of huts were surrounded by waves of greenery. Suddenly, however, a disturbance broke the peace.
“Look over there, a naked man!” my guide yelled. “He saw us and ran into that hut.”
Separately, we saw a group of people coming toward us, walking single file in a line. They wore caps decorated with animal horns and they carried weapons. I was dumbstruck, as they stood there in front of us without saying a word or cracking a smile. They all had lips as black as coal from a root they chewed nonstop as a stimulant—quite distinct from the betel nut that is so popular elsewhere in Burma.
“Man, you’ve got incredible luck!” my guide told me. Much to my surprise, one of the men in line was an old Naga chief headhunter. He had traveled here with elders from a village deep inside the jungle, five days away on foot. The half-naked man who had run into the hut was the oldest Naga of them all.
“They came here to visit their sons and families. They’re spending a few weeks here and then going back again,” my guide said.
That evening we met for a communal supper at the home of the village’s Naga pastor. We sat around a bonfire, eating chicken and rice spiced with chilli while drinking green tea. The headhunter said he had not seen a foreigner since helping to rescue the pilot as a boy, though he had later visited a village where he saw foreigners on television.
Telling his story, he wore a tiger skin cap adorned with bird feathers and deer antlers. His nephew had given him the tiger skin. The world’s biggest so-called tiger conservation area, the Hukawng Valley Tiger Reserve, sits in Naga territory.
“Today there are fewer and fewer of them. The Lisu tribes hunt them for trade,” the headhunter told me, referring to another ethnic group.
“The Naga feel a spiritual tie with the tiger,” he added. ‘They believe tigers understand human speech. In each village there is someone with a tiger’s soul. Killing a tiger means his death, too.”
But if a particular tiger is attacking people or cattle, the Naga decide to hunt, often at night. After establishing its position, I was told, a large group of villagers and hunters encircle the animal, usually trapping it near a stream where they had earlier set a cage-like trap.
As they tighten the circle, getting closer and closer, the tiger may attempt to seek refuge in the cage, and when he does one of the most skilled hunters attacks. Spears were used in the old days, but guns are more common today. The man who kills the tiger is rewarded with half its jaw, while the other half goes to the owner of the cow that had been eaten by the tiger before its death.
The chief headhunter was also wearing bands of ivory drawn tight over his muscles. In the past, he said, the Naga also hunted elephants with heated spears. But only the elders ate the elephant and tiger meat. “The Naga never hunt for money, or for no reason,” he said.
When I finally built up the courage to ask about hunting human heads, his response made my cheeks flush.
“We fought most of our battles with the Kachin, who occupied our land,” he said. “To this day, there are heaps of boulders in the jungle where the biggest battle took place. We cut off as many heads as there are rocks.”
They set ambushes, he said. “We took knives and machetes into battle, and brought the cut-off heads back to the village. Then there was a big celebration.
“In one cauldron we boiled the human heads, and in another an ox for the feast. We hung the boiled, dried-out heads above the doors and on the walls of our houses. A captured head brought a Naga glory and respect.”
As we left the village at dawn, I asked one of the other Naga men what had become of all those heads from so many villages. Had they been buried?
“They started taking them away and throwing them into the jungle,” he said.
One day, perhaps somebody will come upon them.
Please contact the writer if you have information about the fate of the soldier in the headhunter’s story. This article was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.