The Naga people of Assam, India, and western Myanmar have long been regarded as fearless warriors and bloodthirsty headhunters.
The Naga were so renowned for their proclivity for fighting that the British enlisted their help in guarding the evacuation road out of Burma to India during World War II. Their later participation in the Battle of Kohima, against the Japanese, is considered pivotal to the war in India, as well as a turning point in their own history.
Buffalo Teeth Necklace
This pectoral ornament hails from a Naga tribe and would have been a great symbol of power. The necklace is comprised of around 200 wild water buffalo teeth. Six tiers of teeth fill out the piece and are topped by glass beads, held together with a polished shell.
Each Naga tribe kept a house of skulls and battle trophies in the village, and the men of the village were expected to regularly contribute. Men who were lackluster in their bloodthirsty pursuits faced scorn, and would even be referred to as cows by the tribe. This cultural slur deepens the symbolism of the necklace.
Despite being the butt of Naga insults, wild water buffalo—also known as the Asiatic buffalo—is dangerous in its own right. They weigh in around 2,600 pounds and have sweeping crescent-shaped horns that can stretch six-and-a-half feet across.
Today, the wild water buffalo is highly endangered, and researchers estimate only a few dozen herds survive in Asia. Like the buffalo they hunted, headhunters in Naga are disappearing just as quickly. As recently as 1969, tribes were still attacking each other and displaying defeated warriors’ heads in their trophy houses.
It has been the work of Christian missionaries in the region since the British occupation of India that has led to their cultural shift away from headhunting and animist worship. Nevertheless, the state of Nagaland remains isolated, limiting tourism, and even requiring visitors check in to local police stations as they travel for everyone’s safety.