Sunday Levity: Head-hunters favour Sikhs

The most prized of them all

There were significant numbers of expatriate Indians in colonial Burma, which for some time was made a province of India. The Chettiars of Tamil Nadu dominated trade and commerce in Rangoon. There were labourers from different parts of India working in the oil and other industries. And there were the soldiers from the British Indian Army who, before World War II, were often sent to pacify the tribal frontier. There was a demand for Indians.

The Was inhabit the barren hills between the Mekong and the Salween above the Shan State of Kentung. It is difficult now to appreciate the impression they made on the young British officers leading the columns sent to subjugate them: indeed, on anyone who ventured into their highlands. They were head-hunters.

The Chinese graded them into four classes in ascending order: those who decapitated indiscriminately, those who decapitated only people who offended against morals, those who bought devered heads (European heads cost more than local heads; most prized of all were Sikh heads with their magnificient beards and moustaches), and, the most civilized those who collected only the heads of buffalo and other large game.

They drank copiously of alcohol and ate dogs, believed that raw opium made them powerful and prevented fevers, and their body filth was ‘limited by the point beyond which extraneous matter refuses to adhere to the human body’ [Shelby Tucker/Burma: The Curse of Independence]