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Audrey Wu / Her Campus Media Design Team

The Veiled Arts in India’s North East

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Delhi South chapter.

We’ve all grown up sitting near the window sill, waiting for an owl to deliver the much anticipated Hogwarts letter. A chance to enter the magical world of witchcraft, spell-crafting and to sit in those infamous Defence Against the Dark Arts lectures! Oh, what a dream that was! Regrettably, no alluring wizards nor any letter were awaiting us. However, for all the dreamers, the silver-lining remains that witchcraft is not necessarily fictional. It is practiced just next door! The northeastern part of India, though often brushed over, hides within itself a rich history of black magic and dubious practices. 

Although the Western culture has astutely managed to steal and claim indigenous customs as their own, one cannot deny the stretch and the influence of those customs across the northeastern part of our country. Labelled as ‘delusional’ and ‘old-fashioned’ by the British Colonials, the witchcraft practiced in Northeast India is one that is hidden from the common eye. One can owe this to the indifferent attitude Indians harbor towards the region and its culture. The lush, isolated region, has worshipped the art of black magic since time immemorial. For that matter, the region hasn’t limited itself to the left-hand path but has also exhibited traditions that include headhunting and cannibalism. 

Deep within the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, lies a region jammed with such practitioners. Mayong, a district enveloped by mysteries and rumors of witchcraft, has been known to practice black magic since before 1300. Blood-curdling tales about supernatural occurrences are recited to every visitor, perhaps to ignite a curious flame within their souls. Elders and children alike are acquainted with these stories and hold them to be true. The village is infiltrated with fortune-tellers, palm readers, doctors who allegedly own ghost assistants, magicians, and so forth. People who claim to reawaken the dead are often a usual sight on the eerie streets of Mayong. 

If one were to dig deeper to find the traces behind these tales, they would find themselves in 1337. Feasibly one of the most popular tales of the region, it is held that an army of 100,000 horsemen vanished into thin air while they were on their way to strike upon the Ahom kingdom of Assam. Furthermore, the prevalent tradition of Narbali (human sacrifice) practiced in the area further added to the terror and led people to inquire about the morality of these age-old practices. Narbali, though often considered a contested method, was performed as an exchange to gain access to black magic. The state archaeology department recently dug out samples of swords used for human sacrifice from this area. Though Narbali is not as widespread anymore, alternate forms like animal sacrifices, as in other Shakti states, still exist.

However, the story of Mayong is not the only one. Longwa, a secluded village in Nagaland has also buried its hands within the history of black magic, though in a vastly different manner. The Konyaks, a well-known headhunting tribe, carried out the tradition of headhunting until the 1960s. Though the tribe has died down over the years, one can still find old skulls ornamented in their houses. In the past, they used to inaugurate a member’s first decapitation by etching a tattoo upon them. These men bore paintings on their bodies as a token of their tenacity and loyalty to their ancestors. While it all may sound horrendous and cruel to people oblivious to their history, the Konyaks viewed it as a mere way of living. 

However, their way of living came to a sudden end in the 1960s with the wave of western influences which motivated residents to abandon traditional practices. This elimination of the Konyak practices was further escalated by the inrush of Christian missionaries in India. The government, siding with the missionaries, held the belief that these customs were detrimental to the functioning of a humane society and therefore, banned headhunting in 1960. This tide of modernity couldn’t wash over every part of Longwa, so consequently, some headhunters continued practicing their craft in secret. While the question of the morality of their actions is often deliberated upon, one thing is certain- Nagaland has acted as an abode to a myriad of inexplicable crafts.

It is to be noted, however, that Longwa and Mayong barely scratch the surface of the vast history of black magic in the northeastern part of our country. Ranging from ritualistic cannibalism in Assam to the notable witch doctors in Mayong, one would be flabbergasted at the sheer amount of information we are blind to, simply because the masses don’t consider the northeast to be enthralling enough. Though several governments have taken steps to combat this ignorance, the situation remains more or less the same. I believe it’s time we revamp our brains and begin educating ourselves about the fundamentals of this beautiful, yet ignored, region of our country. 

Sifat Keer

Delhi South '24

A literature geek whose only solace in life is dogs and listening to Taylor Swift's songs at 3 in the morning. Currently pursuing Political Science Honours from Lady Shri Ram College for Women.