The Wancho People, Arunachal Pradesh, India

The Wancho, formally headhunters in the area that is now India and Myanmar, share a common history with many of the local tribes though they may be less well-known than groups such as the Konyaks. Much like their counterparts in Nagaland, they are now primarily an agricultural society in both India and Myanmar.

Few of the Wancho tattoo-faced headhunters remain alive, but they are proud to share their stories and traditions. While Christianity has taken place as the main religion of the area, the elders still hold the knowledge of their former way of life. The village queens retain the knowledge of the tattoo practice while the men retain the knowledge of past wars. Men would be tattooed as a coming of age and as a symbol of their feats in battle. Wancho women were also tattooed according to their status.

As many of the elders intoned, their practice will die with them. The introduction of Christianity brought a stop to the headhunting and animistic practices of their forefathers and continued integration into Indian society has cemented the fate of their former lifestyle. Whereas a man might make an animal sacrifice for the good of his village in the past, he now prays for a better life. While he may have gained great respect for taking a head and strengthening himself and his village in the past, now he gains that by getting an education and furthering his prospects. As one elder said, “I’m worried that I’m the last generation and my culture will be forgotten.”

Many challenges face the Wancho people today, including education, infrastructure, and insurgencies in the area. In fact, these insurgencies make them an extremely difficult group of people to visit as a foreigner. Even with the correct permissions and paperwork, we struggled in areas to gain access to the villages. In the end, escorts and meetings with local officials were necessary for our continued journey. These same issues face the Wancho people on a daily basis.

A portrait of a Wancho hunter with the skills of mithuns

A portrait of a Wancho Headhunter

An example tattoo tool made by a village queen

The beautiful mountains of the Wancho homelands

A portrait of a Wancho man

A mithun skill in a Wancho village

A wancho longhouse

A portrait of a Wancho man