The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland

Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 1/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya

The 'face tattoo tribe' is what the Konyaks are known to the outside world as. These tattoos are like the decorations on a uniform, helping to identify the distinguished warrior from the common man. For the men headhunting and tattooing were inseparable. Among the 16 tribes in Nagaland, Konyaks were feared and respected headhunters. As a young man's rite of passage to manhood, he would have to go on a hunt against the enemies of his village and bring back his enemy's severed head. The reward would be a facial tattoo and everlasting fame. The more the number of enemies killed more intricate would be the facial tattoos.

My interest lay in visiting the lone tattooist still alive in Lungwa. This was Lungwa's erstwhile First lady of sorts and she was one of the most respected and revered amongst the women.

The village Lungwa, sits atop a hill. Nearly all villages that I passed have this location. We entered a low circular hut, half set in Myanmar, with a small solar set provided by the Myanmar government in the courtyard. In the front room my host Longsha and his cousin who was accompanying us immediately sat down around the died out embers of a fire, rekindled it and embarked on the whole process of preparing an opium pipe. I was slowly coming to realize that smoking opium, was as routine as having a cup of tea. This was the protocol.

Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 2/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya

Having my guides occupied with the pipe, I ventured further into the house. Feeling my way ahead to the glowing embers of a fire, which I could see in the next room, I reached the centre and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a Gollum-like figure.

A waxy wrinkled figure of a woman, so tiny and so old that it seemed impossible that she was alive. She was sitting on her haunches knees drawn to her chest and claw-like hands clasped around them. Her shaved head bore a dusting of white stubble. Her ears were pierced with enormous metallic and wooden ear plugs. I approached her silently as we were the only people in the room and knowing no Nagamese touched her gently on her shoulder. She immediately stretched out her arm and felt for my face. I realised that she was nearly blind. Taking her gnarled fingers I placed them over my head. She felt my hair, my face and said something unintelligible to me. Hearing the commotion Longsha came in to the room. Translating on my behalf, Longsha told her that I had come from a far away land to pay my regards to her.

Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 3/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya

I asked, " How old is she?" She said, " I'm 93 years old but I will live to be a hundred". What an indomitable spirit, I was amazed. I was in the presence of royalty. Lovingly called Jatei by the villagers she was the previous Deputy Angh, Nyawang Hamren Wangham's wife. Her son is the current Angh but she was living with her grandson Akhah and his wife. Akhah spent his time hunting, fishing and farming. The villagers catered to her every need and she was highly respected. I looked around in the dim light looking for any human skulls but I only saw the usual heads of wild boar, buffalo, deer, mithun , monkey adorning the walls of the room. Whenever I tried to use the camera flash, Jatei would cover her eyes and stretch out her arms to shield herself from the harsh light. I understood that taking photographs in this dark room would be difficult.

Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 4/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya
Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 5/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya

Gentle prodding by Longsha and gradually the story unfurled.

"My name is Pangmin, I have tattooed 16 headhunters. I started tattooing when I was 18 years old and my last tattoo was done when I was 60. I learnt the art from my mother and I have passed down my skill to my eldest daughter Ngapon( Longsha's mother) but alas, no one wants to be tattooed any more. I have tattooed over 30 men and women in my time".

"So which time was better, those days or now? " I asked.

She says, " I have seen good days in those times but now I only want to rest".

"Why a tattoo?" I asked.

"We believe if we do not get tattoos then after death we do not get food and water in our afterlife. In the past too much of war and headhunting, forgetting these practices will bring us happiness".

"What did you use for making the tattoos"? I asked.

"Orange or lemon tree thorns for the needle and this was tied to a wooden mallet with cane vine, The pigment was made from the soot obtained by burning tree resin and mixing it with rice beer. It was kept in blackened bamboo containers. Girls would also get tattoos".

She hitched up her garment further up to show me her fading tattoos above and below her knees. I could see already see her inked arms. Apparently she had more tattoos on her thighs, navel and chest too.

"Can I see your tattoo implements"?

"They are lost, I don't remember where they are".

Photo of The Ancient Tattooist of Lungwa Village, Nagaland 6/6 by Sumita Bhattacharya

Pangmin's voice would fade in and out over the course of the conversation, and we'd have to nudge her slightly whenever she fell asleep. I could see that she was drifting in and out of memory, hovering between the past and present. Finally she put her head down, resting it on her drawn-up knees. I realised that our conversation had drawn to its close, and not wanting to disturb her well-earned rest I left this ancient woman to her reverie.


  • My journey dates:18.01.2016-21.1.20169 (Lungwa village)
  • Kohima- Mon Town. Through Assam highways, Jorhat-Sibsagar-Sonari-Mon town 368 kms. Lungwa is another 45 kms from Mon town.

People I am grateful to and without whose help, this trip would not have been possible-

  • India Trail- Rohan K Abraham and David Angami +918132917798; Supplied the Innova with Arun as its driver.
  • Longsha-+918974390751
  • Vincent Belho +919436001368 Great guy who referred India Trail to me.
  • Ms Lisapila Anar PRO Nagaland House, New Delhi helped me with recommending places to stay on a budget and obtaining the Inner Line Permit
  • Address-Nagaland House
    29, Aurangzeb Road, New Delhi, 110011 | Tel No: 011 23012296
    Fax:(011) 23794240
  • Mr Zoliana Chhakchhuak - Omega Travels,Mizoram (+919612951288) who I always go to in times of need regarding travel to the NE of India.

Trip first published on Here & Thereness