In the first week of December, when the weather is just right for travel in India, if you are looking for a unique culturally immersive experience, why not head to the little-known heritage village of Kisama in Nagaland? Visitors like you from across the world would be joining the many tribes of Nagaland, who assemble in all their regalia close to the capital Kohima to celebrate the ‘Festival of Festivals’ – the Hornbill Festival.
Photo by Eric Kilby
The festival owes its name to the Great Indian hornbill, the large and colorful bird easily identifiable by its substantial beak, which finds a place of pride in the art and folklore of the tribes of this region. Organized for the first time in 2000 by the Nagaland Government, the festival has gained devoted followers over the years, who descend on to this sleepy corner of the country to enjoy the many pleasures on offer at this lavish celebration of Naga culture.
Nagaland is home to many tribes, each with its own set of customs, which they proudly preserve to this day. The festival provides a valuable opportunity to understand each tribe’s distinct identity. Festivals are very important in the tribal culture here, with the Hornbill Festival being no different. Every tribe registers its strong presence at the festival displaying its traditional attire, rituals, music, art and food.
Beginning with a ceremony to propitiate the gods for a successful harvest – the local population is predominantly agrarian – the festival moves on to mock war drills. These tribes have a proud martial history and warriors from each tribe showcase their prowess through these drills and physically grueling games. Performers from each tribe have distinct clothing, headgear and make-up, each more stunning than the other, resulting in a mesmerizing riot of colors.
Photo by Traveloscopy
But, it is not all war at the Hornbill Festival. The tribes are renowned for their love of art and music, and the festival provides them with a chance to share their talent with the world. Colorful dance performances, by both men and women, are one of the highlights of the festival.
At other locations, you can indulge in some shopping at the bazaars filled with locally made textile and handicraft items. For the more discerning art lovers, there are tribal paintings and samples of other local artistic traditions on display.
If you are keen on getting to know the tribes more personally, you can meet them at tribal hutments known as morungs, replicas of their actual living quarters.
To get you even more involved in the festivities, the organizers host many fun contests. These can range from regular games that you come across at fairs across India, to downright unusual that can give you severe indigestion. How about a King Chili eating contest?
Which brings us to the food. If there is one thing here that you have to indulge in like there’s no tomorrow, it is the brilliant local food on offer. Naga tribes have developed their own cuisines over centuries, and the result is a mouthwatering ethnic smorgasbord quite unlike anywhere else in India. Whether it’s the tamer options like chicken and pork, or curious ones like bamboo shoots and even some insects, your adventurousness would not go unrewarded. And you can wash it all down with some divine rice beer.
As the sun goes down, festivities continue as firewood is lit up and traditional songs, handed down over generations, are performed at the concerts. Nagaland is also home to some of the country’s best rock bands, and the soulful fusion of modern music with the tribal songs might just turn you into a lifelong fan.
Photo by Homen Biswas
The Hornbill Festival also has an economic aspect – it not only raises the brand of the relatively virgin region but also gives a chance to many of these largely rural folk to earn money through the substantial tourist landfall.
Of course, what the tourist gains in return is so much more valuable. As if the experience over the 10-day festival is not enough, you also take back the learning that, despite inherent differences, fiercely independent, proudly martial people can live together, and with nature, in harmony.
Featured Photo by Vikramjit Kakati