Always in search of the most authentic experiences and people in the most remote of regions, the unique and colorful Hornbill Festival in India’s little-known Nagaland region has been on my bucket list for the last 14 years. The festival showcases cultural displays from many of Nagaland’s vibrant tribes, with dancing, singing, competitions and more on the agenda for each of the ten fun-filled days at the start of December every year.
In December 2013, I was lucky enough to finally get a chance to experience the festival first-hand. The starting point for any journey to Nagaland is usually Calcutta in West Bengal. After a night at the Taj Bengal, I headed off to Kohima, flying from Calcutta to Dimapur (with a brief stop on the way in Dibrugarh), Nagaland’s largest city. From Dimapur, it was a scenic two-hour drive on winding roads to Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. Upon arrival, we transferred to the basic but comfortable Hotel Japfu, where I would be staying for the course of the festival. For those in search of more upscale accommodation, it is possible to stay at a luxury camp, akin to a high-end African camp, for around $1,200 per person per night.
Upon arrival, I was taken aback by how ‘un-Indian’ Nagaland is. Nagaland, you see, is a state tucked away in the far northeast corner of India, bordering Assam to the west, and Myanmar to the east, and I found its cool climate and mountainous landscape to far more closely resemble Myanmar and other parts of Southeast Asia than most parts of India (this also being the reason for Nagaland’s nickname as the Switzerland of the East) .
The first night of my arrival, we attended a rather unique theatrical production of Queen songs (yes, the British rock band), put on by local Naga performers. Here, I learned of Naga people’s love for rock music, and of their strong reputation throughout India for their musical talents. To my surprise, I learned there is even a Hornbill rock concert – not what I expected at all!
I was most excited for the festival to begin the next day. The enthusiasm with which the Naga tribes celebrate their festivals is legendary, and I was about to experience the vibrant, animated festival from up close, at the biggest festival of them all. I had read that since festivals are considered sacred in Nagaland, participation by the tribes in the Hornbill Festival is essential. Organized by the State Tourism and Art & Culture Departments, the Hornbill Festival’s aim is to revive and protect Nagaland’s rich culture. This is the chance for the Naga people to display their world-famous vibrant dances and songs praising the brave deeds of ancient warriors and heroes, as well as their own unique style of love, gospel, and folk songs.
Each year, 17 of Nagaland’s 66 tribes attend the Hornbill Festival in Kisama, at the Naga Heritage Village, which was purpose-built for hosting the festival. Kisama is just 12 km from the state capital, Kohima, which is well-known for the battle that took place there during WWII, as it was to signify a major turning point in the war, the Japanese losing their initiative to the Allies for the first time in Southeast Asia.
It was an early wake-up the next morning, as we headed to Kisima to attend the first day of the Hornbill Festival. The Heritage Village was an interesting set-up – each tribe had their own “local house,” from which they were to base themselves for the festival. Indeed, visiting each of the tribes at their houses was one of the highlights of my trip. The Naga people are extremely friendly, and though the language barrier makes communication difficult, they were more than happy to oblige when asked to pose for my photos. The main festival area is surrounded by bench seats and I observed many of the performances that took place throughout the day. Visitors also have the unique chance to sample the rich and exotic flavors of each tribe’s culinary specialities, ranging from chicken to insects. Nagas love their rice beer, which seemed to be the drink of choice – even over coffee in the early mornings! I have to say, I found the beer to be quite tasty. At one point, I was even able to bring wide grins to a group of Konyak men when we bought them a round of 25 beers (and this was at 10am!).
Each morning of the festival, the Nagas would line up on each side of the entrance waiting for the local VIPs and other guests to arrive as part of their welcome custom. For much of the first day, we watched the main performances as they happened, each tribe showing off their unique dances, customs, and songs, relaying the fascinating tales of their tribe’s history. Thereafter, I enjoyed more personal meetings with the various Naga tribes in their local houses, and visiting the areas that surrounded the festival.
The second day, we decided to step beyond the borders of Kohima and make our way to some local villages. I was disappointed to learn that Nagaland – once an Animist or polytheist culture – is now mostly Christian, and the only remaining Animist tribes are found in the very remote areas of Mon, or across the border in Myanmar. Though this wasn’t the fully authentic experience that I was hoping for, I still found the tribal culture fascinating, and the people, as I mentioned before, extremely friendly. I was even able to convince several locals to don their traditional dress for my camera, and some even invited me inside their homes.
In the afternoon, we headed back to the Hornbill Festival, where we would remain for the remainder of the day, as well as the following day, taking photos with the various tribes. Nagaland’s tribal culture is truly fascinating. Out of the 17 tribes that attended the festival, my favorites were the Yimchunger, who sport large horned headdresses, and the Konyak, who wear wild boar horns on their heads and are known for their artisan skills. Both are from the remote and difficult-to-access Mon area. Other tribes that attend the festival include the Ao, Angami, Sema and Rengma. The tribes of Nagaland were once known for their headhunting – it was a true honor for a Naga warrior to return from battle holding the decapitated head of an enemy soldier – but that practice has now been abolished, and indeed, the conversion to Christianity of most of the tribes has allowed the various groups to coexist in peace.
Besides dancing and singing, the festival also includes many other kinds of rich tribal traditions. Competitions are fierce but fun, and include chili eating, bamboo climbing, wrestling, and more.
The experiences I had at this vibrant, exciting festival will no doubt last a lifetime, and I am delighted to be able to finally check the Hornbill Festival off my life’s to-do list. My recommendation for those who are looking to get the most out of the festival would be for them to spend two full days at the festival itself, observing the action, and then head out into the more remote villages, like in the Mon region, to truly get a feel for the real way of Naga life. Indeed, for those with more time, I highly-recommend our 14-day “Flight of the Hornbill” itinerary, complete with private helicopter rides, safaris, and plush accommodations in luxury tented camps.