When one thinks of the State of Nagaland, what comes to mind are vivid images of the Hornbill festival. For the uninitiated traveller, Nagaland may signify a minimally clad warrior-like population that is dangerous to interact with as Naga king chillies and shawls that are so widely marketed and sold across the world. However, these stereotypes are best broken with travel. The more a person learns from her firsthand encounters, the more she becomes aware of the true picture of any region. Giving this sentiment some serious thought, I travelled to Nagaland in the first week of December last year to explore the State and to witness the very popular Hornbill Festival. Until then, I had heard about the festival through word of mouth and had read about it in the media.
Like all adventurous travelers, I have a penchant for exploring regions which are 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. Thus, it becomes a case for curious exploration to try and see what makes this festival so unique and interesting. Here is a first-hand account of the Hornbill festival and beyond for travellers looking to explore the beautiful State.
Hornbill Festival – An introduction to the Tribes and Culture of Nagaland
Aptly titled the festival of festivals, the Hornbill Fest runs from the first day of December (Nagaland Formation Day) for upto a week or ten days. It is organized by the Government of Nagaland and the Department of Tourism, and is named after an exotic bird called the Hornbill, which is also native to Nagaland, and is the subject of many folklores in that region.
Hornbill Festival officially began in the year 2000 with a desire 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, a need was felt to bring all of them together in a single area for overall development and promotion of tourism. This initiative has resulted in immense success over the years, and now the festival is very popular all over the World. This festival showcases the cultural ethos of not only Nagaland, but its neighbouring states as they all get a chance to exhibit their identities in front of a gigantic crowd from India and outside that is genuinely interested in knowing more about the North Eastern region.
A Cultural Extravaganza That Will Appeal to All Your Senses
For 10 whole days, the Kisama Heritage village, approximately 12 kms from Kohima becomes home to 16 indigenous tribes of Nagaland. The village is set up at the base of the towering Mt. Japfu and is divided into several different areas. Here is a detailed list of what you should not miss out on at the Hornbill Fest:
Exhibition-cum-Display at the Hornbill festival: What awaits you is a horticultural display of indigenous produce (including giant species of vegetables and fruits competing for a prize), and a Bamboo Pavilion where one can see and buy local indigenous products from the various regions of Nagaland. The State produces several organic products such as juices, syrups, sauces, dried pickles and condiments and each region has their own variety of produce. Their staple ingredients including chillies and fermented soybean are representative of their culinary culture and these products are available to buy at the pavilion.
Besides the edible products, the stalls house some exquisite artifacts of various Naga tribes. These include Naga jewellery, Naga shawls and stoles, traditional costumes of various tribes, cutlery made from bamboo and souvenirs to carry home.
Morungs – the Centre of Naga life: After you satiate yourself with the incredible displays mentioned above and start walking further ahead, you are greeted with sights of Morungs or traditional male dormitory structures. Beautifully crafted Morungs belonging to each Naga tribe are tastefully decorated with artifacts representing the various clans.
The morung tradition holds a special place 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, and also the dignity of labour. They learnt craftsmanship and also how to brew their own rice beer. It is in these Morungs that they were taught sustenance methods as well as folk songs and dances, therefore becoming a hotbed of Naga culture and tradition.
As a tourist at the Hornbill festival, one is left intrigued by these artificially constructed Naga Morungs, each resplendent with its own cultural heritage. Several of these Morungs also house a traditional meat smoking chamber where age old traditional cooking methods used by Naga tribes are on display. While witnessing these traditions, one really feels as if they have been transported to a previous era dominated by rural cultures.
The Hornbill Festival Arena – The Main Attraction: The circular amphitheatre or the festival arena as it is called is where all the festivities happen. The 16 tribes of Nagaland are Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Dimasa, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchunger and Zeliang. Each tribe has its own dialect, costumes and traditions and gets to display these at the festival arena for the entire World to see.
Performances range from traditional song and dances of Naga tribes to displays of Naga history such as mock warrior hustles of tribes such as the Konyak Nagas (known for their history of headhunting). Also on display are ploughing or farming demonstrations accompanied by beautiful songs sung by the performers. The Naga drum beats were traditionally used to relay messages far and wide to the neighbouring villages and each Naga tribe has a distinct rhythm while moving and humming along with the drum.
Apart from the cultural displays, there are several competitions at the Hornbill festival that happen in the arena which are open to tourist participation. These competitions such as Naga chilly eating and Pork fat eating competitions leave the audience in splits and that is quite a sight to see. On the last day of the festival, a dance of unity is performed around a gigantic fire by all the tribes that form a circle and move to the rhythm of a single song. This performance evokes feelings of friendship among the Naga tribes and lends its vibe to its curious onlookers as well. During the last two days of the Hornbill festival, a Christmas choral concert is organized in the festival arena where talented local performers from North East India take the stage and bring in the Christmas flavor to the festival.
Food at the Hornbill - A Gastronomic delight: Nagaland is popularly known as a meat eater’s paradise. While the faint hearted need to accept that like every other region in the country that has its local cuisine, Naga food too has its unique flavours and is made by using distinct cooking methods. Smoking and fermentation are two methods through which food is cooked and stored for further consumption. These techniques lend a very different flavor to the food and it can be described as pungent, smoky and salty. Meats are mostly cooked with fermented yam, chillies or soybean paste. Vegetarian food is also widely available due to Nagaland’s rich green produce. Lentils are made with bamboo shoot, and naga greens are boiled with salt and served with every meal for a burst of flavours to the palate.
These traditional Naga meals are available at various Morung stalls during the festival and one can relish a varied sample while walking and stopping by at ones that interest them. We tried the local Naga thali with a mix of vegetarian and non-vegetarian options including the very flavourful ‘galho’ which is 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.
Also on offer are more exotic recipes made from snails and woodworms that remind you of the popular TV show ‘Bizarre foods with Andrew Zimmerman’ and are best left for more adventurous travellers. Apart from the food, the local rice beer called ‘Zutho’ or ‘Thutse’ is available in plenty. This brew, symbolic to all villages in hilly regions of India that cultivate rice, is known by different names. We learnt 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 Nagaland - A Celebration of Colour: What left an impression on travellers including us were the costumes worn by the various Naga tribes, full of colour and detailing. From the 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 have a different pattern and are 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 and spear depicting the ability of the wearer to hunt human heads. A lot can be understood about the social status of a person by just looking at the kind of shawl they are wearing. I found this to be a remarkable cultural and societal marker and something that warrants a rather detailed study.
Besides their garments, the 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. Something to note however, is that these costumes are ceremonial in nature, and are worn only during ceremonies and festivals such as the Hornbill festival. During other times of the year, they are as normally dressed as you and I would be.
World War II Museum at Hornbill: This is a museum worth visiting during the Hornbill festival as it is 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 which 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 if one has some extra time in Nagaland. We visited the Kohima Night Market during one of the festival nights and were surprised to see the fervor with which the entire market was buzzing and ready for tourists. As you pass by stalls with people selling eclectic led toys, 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. 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 (instead of Kohima during previous years). However, this is a must see as several music bands from the Northeast, other parts of the country and International bands participate in this incredible stage fest. These bands compete amongst each other for awards that include heavy cash prizes sponsored by the Government and the Music Task Force (MTF) to promote music and tourism.
Village walks in Jakhama and Khonoma
Jakhama village is located closer to the Kisama Heritage village (the venue of the festival) and is a great area to explore. If the thought of walking around gorgeous Naga terraced fields and villages steeped in local history excite you, this is a village you should definitely visit. We went there on a guided walking tour with our camp hosts at Chalohoppo, an eco-tour operator from the North East. The other village, more well-known but a little difficult to reach is Khonoma, the first green village of Asia. We were introduced to it by a local boy named Neizo who took us around the village and enlightened us about its history, the Second World War memorials and spoke to us about contemporary Naga life and politics. Later, we ate a delicious organic lunch at Meru’s Homestay in Khonoma made out of locally grown ingredients. Khonoma is around 20 kms from Kohima and is accessible by road.
(Deenaz Raisinghani is a media and communications professional, currently working as a freelance travel writer. Deenaz has traveled across 14 countries with her family. This article was first published in www.inditales.com and has been reproduced at the request of the writer.)