The Konyak tribe, inhabiting the areas of Mon district, is one of the largest tribes in Nagaland. The Mon district covers an area of 1786 sq. km and is bound on the north by the Sibsagar district of Assam, on the south by the Tuensang district of Nagaland, Sagaing district of Myanmar on the east, and on the west by the Mokokchung district of Nagaland. To its northeast lies the Longding, Tirap and Changlang districts of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Wancho-Konyak that inhabit the Mon district of Nagaland are known as Lower Konyaks, and their language belongs to the Naga sub-branch of the Tibeto-Burman language family. The Konyak tribe comprises two groups- the ‘thendu’ and the ‘thenko’. This division was done based on facial tattoos- the ‘thendu’ group tattooed their faces, while the “thenko” group did not have tattoos. Today's geographical division of the Konyak settlements are such that Upper Konyaks came to be known as thenko (without tattoos), and Lower Konyaks as thendu (with tattoos).
Traditionally, every woman was in charge of weaving clothes for her family. Weaving was more than just a utilitarian activity because each motif had symbolic meanings that were intended to strengthen solidarity.
Spinning yarn entails taking a clump of fibres, separating some of them, and twisting them to form a thread. The weaver keeps pulling and twisting to make it longer or thicker. A neat production of skein rolls is only possible with the help of the gaichak (bamboo wheel). Yarn leis are wrapped around the wheel, and as the spinner slowly makes a skein, the wheel rotates. This allows the fabric to roll smoothly without becoming tangled, resulting in less waste.
Weaving is largely done by using a loin loom or back strap loom. Konyak women use two different methods, namely, plain-weave and those with supplementary-weft patterns. The loom is set up by attaching the loom bars to a wooden post affixed firmly to the wall or to a nye-tak khong (wooden-framed loom). The leather or bamboo back strap wraps around the weaver’s hip, ensuring the loom is sturdy. Tools such as shed sticks, heddle rod, batten or sword, a yarn bobbin, and a lower loom bar are also used. Additional yarn sticks of different colours are also kept ready to create any desired pattern.
Konyak women hand-make their dyes using a variety of natural ingredients. These ingredients are crushed, boiled, and the yarn is then submerged in the vat for an extended period to make the colours last longer. Black dye is made from Palm-Grass (Molineria Capitulata), Off-White from Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera), and yellow from Gatton Sunray Orchid or Turmeric.
The Konyak women have varying attires depending on the occasion and the wearer’s position in the society. The image above depicts a chief's daughter dressed in her traditional wedding attire, which she can also wear to a festival or ceremony.
The Nyeesa is a traditional wrap-around skirt worn by the Konyak women. A Nyeesa that is decorated with beads and coins is only worn by the women of the chief’s family. The commoner wears a similar Nyeesa in a much simpler pattern, without the elaborate embellishments. Nyikhex is another wrap around skirt that is worn by Konyak brides at their wedding.
The Newthow-nyeesa is a bodice usually worn by a Konyak girl. It is regarded as a holy or ceremonial dress, as girls are only allowed to use this bodice after having attained puberty. This garment was made of cotton in a plain weave and was usually off-white.
Shatni is a white shawl which is only worn by the women folk. A Shatni shawl was usually acquired as a wedding gift, presented to the bride by her parents. This gift was worn by the bride with care, as she would be buried in the same Shatni shawl when she died.
The traditional headdress for the chief’s daughter is known as Shoh Shan Okui Khasan. These are adorned with hornbill feathers and brightly coloured beads and were only worn by the Chief's family or warriors. Such accentuated headdresses were considered a status symbol and only worn by the tribe's bravest men.
The Konyak men have a much simpler attire compared to other Naga hill tribes. The wrap-around kilt and shawl, which are typically white, black, blue, and reddish-yellow in colour, are the traditional attire of Konyak tribesmen. These shawls are woven in three or four different pieces before being stitched together. It can then be embellished with conch shells, beads, cowries, and large white seashells, all of which add much flair to their outfit.
Paa pao nyi or nyelan means, ‘shawl for all men.’ This plain shawl is usually worn by the men while going to the Paa or Morung (dormitory for men).
Nyenyu-nyedup (meaning big shawl made of silk) and Chon-nye (shawl made of silk) are two Konyak shawls made of silk. Chong-nye has designs on both ends and is much shorter and may also be used as a stole. In contrast, nyenyu-nyedup is much longer and has a geometric design on one end. In the days of yore, these shawls were considered a societal symbol, as only the wealthy could afford them.
The Khiya-hit is the most common loincloth of the Konyak men. When a boy reaches the age of 16, the Konyaks hold a ceremony known as Khia-Tham, to commemorate his passage into adulthood. The Khiya-hit was decorated with several cowries and presented to the boy during this ceremony.
The pattern in the image above is called Haopu, which translates to ‘mature’ or ‘responsible’. The symbol indicates that the person has become responsible, matured, and can now stand against life’s challenges. The white stripes or Khakshupu symbolises simplicity, innocence, and integrity. Konyak shawls also feature a zigzag motif called Lungtatpu, which means ‘numbers.’ It is believed to represent long-term activities or future events. This symbol is also used to count the year of a person’s birth or age.
Konyak men are very fond of their Khohom (headdress). The Khohom is made from bamboo or rattan and decorated with wild boar’s tusks, animal hair, and hornbill feathers. This khohom serves various purposes, as it protects the head of the person during hunts and battles, is a marker of one’s clan or communal affiliation, and is also considered as a symbol of respect. Only the village chiefs and warriors wear the elaborate hornbill feather headdress. Because the feather could only be obtained through great hardship, its wearer had to embody qualities such as alertness, grandeur, loyalty, and strength.
Only after celebrating Khia-Tham (coming-of-age ceremony) is a boy permitted to wear the Khohom. Both the Konyak men and women wear headdresses of different shapes and designs. For daily use, they wear a conical bamboo headdress with minimal decorations.
In the olden days, along with the hornbill feather headdress, another marker of a Konyak warrior were his tattoos and cross marks on his shawl. These were indicative of the number of enemy heads he had taken. The cross-mark design, known as Kahta-Noksa (meaning human figure), was a symbol of success as it was associated with a man’s battle prowess.
The diamond motif seen above is called Mük , meaning ‘the eye.’ The emblem symbolised rest from fieldwork and the preservation of seeds for another year of cultivation. The arrow design is called Müktarpe, which means ‘target’ and symbolises destiny, goal, and focus.
A waistcoat or vest with two parallel bands is a favourite of the modern Konyak man. The designs and shapes are primarily geometrical, featuring common patterns like the lozenge, bands, stripes, cross marks, hourglass shapes, circles, arrows and squares. These motifs and patterns add to the distinctiveness of the Konyak Naga attires.
The state government and local communities have both launched campaigns to promote traditional knowledge. Many organisations, particularly those led by women, have established training centres in the Mon district to teach bead and textile making. The Konyak Nagas’ vibrant traditional textiles and ornaments form an integral part of their identity. These are also a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the indigenous tribes of Nagaland and North-East India.