When one thinks of the state of Nagaland in North East India, what comes to mind are vivid images of the Hornbill festival. For the uninitiated traveler, the state may signify a minimally clad warrior-like population that is dangerous to interact with. Maybe it represents Naga king chilies and shawls that are so widely seen.
Stereotypes are best broken with travel. I traveled to Nagaland in the first week of December last year to explore the state and to witness its very popular Hornbill festival. I had heard and read about the festival, it was time to explore it.
Like all adventurous travelers, I have a penchant for exploring regions not very well defined and are a little out of bounds. It is only because of the Hornbill festival that Nagaland stands on the World tourism map today. I was curious to explore and see what makes this festival so unique and interesting. Here is a first-hand account for travelers looking to explore the beautiful state.
An introduction to the Tribes and Culture of Nagaland
Aptly titled the festival of festivals, the Hornbill festival runs from the 1st December, which also happens to be Nagaland Formation Day, for up to a week or ten days. Organized by the State Government, it is named after the exotic and endemic bird – Hornbill. This bird is the subject of folklore in this region.
Hornbill festival began in 2000 CE with an intention to promote the 16 indigenous tribes of Nagaland, their culture, and products to the rest of the World. Rather than promoting different regions of this hilly state, the festival brings all of them together on a single platform and let the world interact with them. Immensely successful, the festival is now known all over the World.
In fact, just the first two days of last year’s festival recorded a count of more than 60,000 visitors, including approximately 1000 foreign nationals. Although the majority of visitors are from within the state, there are a considerable amount of people that especially travel to Nagaland to witness this cultural extravaganza. Hornbill festival showcases the cultural ethos of not only Nagaland but its neighboring states as they all get a chance to exhibit their culture in front of a gigantic crowd that is genuinely interested in knowing more about the culture of North East India.
Where does the Hornbill festival take place?
Hornbill festival takes place at Kisama Heritage village, approximately 12 KMs from Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. For 10 days, it becomes home to 16 indigenous tribes of Nagaland and the tourists who come to see them.
The 16 tribes of Nagaland are:
The village is set up at the base of the towering Mt.Japfu and is divided into several different areas. Upon entrance, one can walk along the smooth concrete road leading to the village.
Read More – Apatani Tribe of Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh
Things to do at the Hornbill Fest
There are several interesting things to see and experience, here are some of them:
Exhibition cum display
What awaits you is a horticultural display of indigenous produce including many species of vegetables and fruits competing for a prize. At the Bamboo pavilion, one can see and buy local indigenous products from the various regions of the state. Visiting these stalls and learning more about their local products is an enriching experience indeed.
Nagaland produces several organic products such as juices, syrups, sauces, pickles, and condiments. Each region has its own variety of produce. Their staple ingredients including chilies and fermented soybean are representative of their culinary culture. You can purchase these products at the pavilion.
Some of these stalls have some exquisite artifacts of various Naga tribes. These include Naga jewelry made out of an eclectic variety of colorful beads, Naga shawls and stoles, traditional costumes of various tribes, cutlery made from bamboo, and many souvenirs to carry home.
Morungs – the center of Naga life
Further ahead, you are greeted with sights of Morungs or traditional male dormitory structures constructed at various levels throughout the village. Beautifully crafted Morungs belonging to each Naga tribe are tastefully decorated with artifacts representing the various clans.
The Morung tradition holds a special place in the state as it is known as the cultural and educational hub of Naga life. It is in these Morungs that youngsters, both men, and women were taught about Naga culture and warfare. They grow up learning not only how to cook and clean, but also learn the dignity of labor and life sustenance methods. They learn how to brew their own rice beer, folk songs, and dances, becoming a hotbed of Naga culture and tradition. The knowledge is seamlessly passed from one generation to another.
As a tourist, I was intrigued by these artificially constructed Naga Morungs, each resplendent with its own cultural heritage. Some Morungs house the traditional meat smoking chamber where age-old traditional cooking methods used by Naga tribes are on display. While witnessing these traditions, you feel transported to a previous era dominated by rural cultures.
Festival Arena – Main Attraction
The circular amphitheater or the festival arena as it is called is where all the festivities happen. Each tribe its own dialect, costume, and traditions get to display its identities to the World.
Performances range from the farming demonstration to traditional songs and dances of Naga tribes to displays of Naga history such as mock warrior hustles of tribes such as the Konyak Nagas best known for their history of headhunting. The Naga drum beats were traditionally used to relay messages far and wide to the neighboring villages. Each Naga tribe has a distinct rhythm while moving and humming along with the drum.
Several competitions, open to tourists, take place. Naga chilly eating and Pork fat eating competition leave the audience in splits and that is quite a sight to see. Tourists and photographers are enthralled by these magnificent performances. Evident from the photographs that are now spread all over the Internet.
During the last two days of the festival, a Christmas choral concert is organized. Talented local performers from North East India take the stage and bring in the Christmas flavor to the festival.
On the last day of the festival, a dance of unity is performed around a gigantic fire by all the tribes. They form a circle and move to the rhythm of a single song. This performance evokes feelings of friendship among the Naga tribes that segues to viewers.
Food – A Gastronomic delight
Nagaland is popular as a meat eater’s paradise. The faint-hearted need to accept that like every other region in the country that has its local cuisine. Naga food has its unique flavors and is made by using distinct cooking methods.
Smoking and Fermentation are two common methods for cooking and storing for later consumption. These techniques lend a very different flavor to the food. It can be described as pungent, smoky, and salty. Meats are mostly cooked with fermented yam, chilies, or soybean paste.
Vegetarian food is also widely available due to Nagaland’s rich green produce. Lentils are made with bamboo shoots and naga greens are boiled with salt and served with every meal for a burst of flavors to the palate.
These traditional Naga meals are available at various Morung stalls during the festival. Sample them as you walk around. We tried the local Naga thali with a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options including the very flavourful ‘galho’ which is a rice porridge made out of rice, lentils, and vegetables. We also tried Corn tea which is the starch of corn served as a hot edible drink in long bamboo glasses. This is consumed to stay warm as the freezing evening sets in.
Exotic recipes made from snails and woodworms that remind you of the popular TV show ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman’ are best left for more adventurous travelers. Local rice beer called ‘Zutho’ or ‘Thutse’ is available in plenty. This brew is symbolic of all hilly regions of India that cultivate rice where it is known by different names. We learned about the varieties of rice used to make this brew, and why this also becomes a substitute for a meal during poor harvest seasons. A trip to North East India and particularly Nagaland is incomplete without sampling its local drinks including the rice brew, juices, and wines made from fruits like wild apple, cherry, and banana.
Traditional Costumes of the tribes of Nagaland
A Celebration of Colour
Costumes worn by the various Naga tribes are colorful. Detailing on each garment and the accessories worn during the event keep their historical past in mind. Hornbill feathers used as accessories during performances to bones used as headgear, every tribe has its own costume.
The Naga shawls worn by each tribe has a different pattern. Further differentiated by the role of the person wearing the shawl in that community. The Ao Naga warrior shawl, for instance, known as ‘Tsungkotepsu’ has animal figures on them and a human head & spear depicting the ability of the wearer to hunt human heads. A lot can be understood about the social status of a person just by looking at the kind of shawl they are wearing. I found this to be a remarkable cultural and societal marker. Something that warrants a rather detailed study.
Naga tribals wear a lot of ornaments made out of coral beads, wood, silver, brass, ivory, and animal tusks. Some of the tribes known for their hunting history carry spears decorated with dyed animal hair such as goat and boar hair. However, these costumes are ceremonial in nature worn only during ceremonies and festivals. Otherwise, they are normally dressed like you and I would be.
World War II museum at Kisama heritage village
A museum worth visiting during your visit. Located within the Kisama heritage village, it houses several memorabilia reminiscent of the battle fought in Kohima during the second world war.
Weapons, ammunition, photographic displays, soldier uniforms, and model battlefields are kept on display. A World War II peace motor rally also happens during this festival. This event has seen a lot of participation in the previous years.
Beyond Hornbill Festival
Exploring the Kohima night market
Besides the festivities at the Kisama Heritage village, there are several interesting places to explore and things to see in Nagaland. We visited the Kohima Night Market during one of the festival days. We were surprised to see the fervor with which the entire market was buzzing. The Night Bazaar has a never-ending array of food stalls serving snacks and meals. A lot of stalls selling LED toys, eclectic masks and headgear, and costumes that feel like a wonderland for kids.
As you pass by stalls with people selling barbequed meats, hot chocolate with marshmallows, and fruit wines, you are reminded of night markets in South East Asian countries that come to life post-sunset. It is very easy to lose yourself among the sea of people that throng this market during the festival days. As a tourist, you will come out with a satiated appetite merely with the aroma of food wafting from the stalls even if you do not eat much.
Hornbill International Rock Music festival
I skipped the rock music festival this time, which now happens in Dimapur. Earlier it was held in Kohima. Music bands from the North East, Indian and International bands participate in this incredible stage fest. These bands compete amongst each other for the award. This includes big cash prizes sponsored by the Government and the Music Task Force (MTF) to promote music and tourism.
This year saw the performance of the famous KPop band from South Korea called Mont which left the audience spellbound. Tickets for attending this fest can be purchased at the venue itself. Music lovers keen to witness the music festival, stay put in Dimapur for a couple of days to attend the rock show. Then proceed to Kohima and Kisama for the Hornbill festival.
A walk-in village Jakhama
A village walk organized by Chalohoppo, our camp, and conducted by Kikosonu Richa (staff at camp) took us on a beautiful walk around Jakhama Village. The village was a walkable distance away from our Camp Yedikha. This walk turned out to be very insightful as we got to learn a lot in under a couple of hours. We learned about the Angami Naga tribe and village life, cultivation practices, cooking methods, and housing while stopping by at various points including a terrace for a nice rooftop view of the entire village.
During the walk, I prodded Kiko to tell me more about her community and life as a Naga rural woman. Although I found her to be very rooted in her culture and customs of village life, she was hopeful of more development in the state. She expressed a desire for Naga society to be more progressive. Its men to become less judgmental, more responsible, and lend a helping hand to the women.
I learned a lot from this immersive walk. It was a step beyond attending a commercial tourist festival. If you wish to take a stroll in typical Naga terraced fields, walk along the tiny lanes of an Angami village steeped in local history. A village walk in Jakhama may be a great option during your visit.
A local tour of Khonoma
Khonoma is the first green village in Asia. We were keen to explore this with our tour guide Neizo, a local boy. He told us about the history of the village, second world war memorials and made us taste local produce from the village. He also spoke about the self-sufficiency of Naga villages. These villages were originally maintained as single units protected from enemy attacks and were fortified from all sides using various kinds of material such as stones, bamboos, and pegs.
A local villager is often very closely attached to his land and is designated a village quarter (also known as a ‘khel’). Khels are independent of each other. Villagers must follow rules to avoid intermingling and allow other clans into the Khel. He walked us through vast expanses of terraced fields and farmland practicing Jhum cultivation. (where the land is burnt and cultivated for a couple of years. And then allowed to return to its original state). We also ate delicious organic lunch at Meru’s Homestay in Khonoma made out of locally grown ingredients. Khonoma is around 20 km from Kohima and is accessible by road.
Traveling to Nagaland for the festival
The average traveler thinks at least twice before visiting North East India. Because it is difficult to navigate without the proper information. The Government has taken measures to improve road conditions and internal highways in the state. Though the present conditions are not conducive to smooth internal road travel across the state.
However, it is not difficult to reach Nagaland to attend the festival. To reach Kisama Heritage Village, the convenient route is to land in Dimapur either by air or rail from Delhi/Guwahati and travel to Kohima by road the same day. We traveled from Delhi to Guwahati by air, followed by a train to Dimapur and a self-driven vehicle to Kisama.
Indian tourists need a permit known as an ILP (Inner Line Permit) to enter Nagaland. It can be booked online or obtained upon arrival in Dimapur. Foreigners no longer need a permit to enter the state. But they need to register their arrival at the local Police station within the first 24 hours.
Regular buses and shared taxis ply between Dimapur to Kohima and Kohima to Kisama. Getting to the festival venue from Dimapur can be managed without much of a hassle. This is one of the reasons why Kisama & the festival receives such huge tourist footfall even without good road conditions in the state.
Accommodation at Kohima
There are several stay options for tourists in and around Kisama Heritage Village. Such as guest houses, camps, and hotels. Hotels are more likely to be found in Kohima. While guest houses and camps spring up around the festival venue every year to accommodate the tourists. Pre-booking them is highly recommended. They remain booked during this time owing to the tourist rush.
We love adventurous experiences, so we stayed at Camp Yedikha. A camp run by Chalohoppo, a tour operator in North East India. It turned out to be a very satisfying experience that our daughter enjoyed. We also got to explore the neighboring villages of Jakhama and Khonoma with them.
The official website of Tourism Nagaland also gives out a lot of accommodation options. Note that traveling back and forth from Kohima to Kisama for the festival can be tiring. A good recommendation would be to stay close to the festival venue.
This is a guest post by Deenaz Raisinghani as part of the IndiTales Internship Program.
Deenaz Raisinghani is a media and communications professional. Currently working as a freelance travel writer. She has traveled across 14 countries with her family. She solo backpacked across Germany with her infant in 2016. Successfully followed it up with a trip to Cambodia with her kid. She is trying to encourage more Indian parents to take up backpack traveling with their children. Deenaz is married to an Indian Army officer and has a 3-year-old daughter. Follow her on her blog & Instagram.