Hornbill festival is the most popular festival in Nagaland, if not Northeast India. It is the best time to be in Nagaland and get introduced to all the tribes of Nagaland. This guide for the Hornbill festival will not only tell you about the things to do at the Hornbill festival but also give you practical tips about how to reach and where to stay when you plan a trip to the Hornbill festival in Nagaland.
Some things in life just work themselves out. Without you having to make an effort. The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland was one such event in our travel lives.
We were in Arunachal Pradesh, for the Basar Confluence. We knew that the Hornbill festival was a few days later but hadn’t really planned to attend it. When so many travellers we met in Arunachal mentioned they were heading for Hornbill, we were tempted.
The Hornbill Festival was in its eighteenth edition when we visited. And the last few years have seen the popularity of the Hornbill festival skyrocket. Which meant that finding a good place to stay would’ve been impossible. That’s when the superb guys at a local travel company, Holiday Scout came to our rescue. They sorted all our stay arrangements for the Hornbill festival. All we had to do was get there.
And that is how, just like that, the Hornbill festival, the most popular festival in Northeast India, happened for us.
Okay, so what exactly is the Hornbill festival?
- Hornbill Festival is a 10-day cultural extravaganza celebrating the age-old traditions of the 16 tribes of Nagaland through art, dance, music and food.
- It is organised by the State Government of Nagaland and is the oldest festival of its kind among all the states of Northeast India, having started in the year 2000.
Imagine hopping from the home of one tribe to the next. Imagine seeing a war dance followed by a harvest dance. All the while, holding your bamboo mugs, sipping the rice beer that’s just come out of these homes.
As you stroll on the festival grounds enveloped by this exotic old-world aura, you witness a way of life where once, nature ruled supreme. And pride was literally a matter of life and death!
All of this comes wonderfully, colourfully and rhythmically together at the Hornbill festival in Kisama, near Kohima the Nagaland capital.
Hornbill festival: When and Where is it?
- The Hornbill Festival is held every year from December 1 to December 10. This year, 2019, will be the 19th edition of the Hornbill festival.
- The festival grounds are in a village called Kisama, which is located at a distance of around 12 km from Kohima, the capital of Nagaland.
Where is Nagaland?
- Nagaland is one of the seven states in North East India, the part of India that is popularly referred to as the seven sisters.
- Nagaland shares borders with the other Northeastern states of Assam, Manipur and a small part fo Arunachal Pradesh. Nagaland also shares a large part of its border with Myanmar.
- Nagaland is home to 16 tribes, who till as recent as a few decades back were fierce warriors.
- Most of Nagaland is a punishing hilly terrain. It’s not uncommon, while travelling in Nagaland, for a distance of 100 km, to take around 8 hours!
How to reach Nagaland?
- You can fly into Dimapur, a city at the foothills in Nagaland, at the Assam-Nagaland border. It has a one-flight-a-day airport. Indigo operates daily flights from Dimapur to Kolkata. From Kolkata, you can fly to anywhere in India.
- Dimapur is also connected by train with major cities of Assam, like Guwahati and Dibrugarh. There are a number of trains from both these cities to Dimapur throughout the day.
- To travel to any place in Nagaland beyond Dimapur, you need an Inner Line Permit (ILP).
How do you obtain the ILP for Nagaland?
- To protect the identity of the many indigenous tribes of Nagaland it is mandatory for all tourists to obtain the Inner Line Permit (ILP).
- Just in time for the Hornbill Festival of 2019, a portal to obtain the ILP online has been set up. You can apply for the ILP for Nagaland online, at this website.
- If you are travelling for the Hornbill Festival with a company like the Holiday Scout, they will take care of the ILP for you.
How do you travel to the Hornbill Festival grounds?
- To attend the Hornbill Festival, you should first reach Kohima, the capital of Nagaland.
- How to reach Kohima, the capital of Nagaland?
The easiest way to reach Kohima is by a taxi or bus from Dimapur, the city at the foothills in Nagaland. Dimapur to Kohima is a distance of less than 100 km. But it could easily take over four hours to reach Kohima from Dimapur.
- Travelling from Kohima to Kisama:
Taxis are easily available throughout the day from Kohima to Kisama, especially during the days of the Hornbill festival. As soon as you reach Kohima you will see the friendly tourist police. They will help you with everything including getting a taxi from Kohima to the Hornbill festival grounds at Kisama.
Where to stay during the Hornbill Festival?
- The Hornbill Festival is the most popular time to visit Northeast India and the busiest tourist season for Nagaland.
- You can stay in Kohima but we warned that most hotels in and around Kohima will be booked out, way before the festival. Post the Hornbill Festival, we had stayed at the only hostel in Kohima, the Eco Stay hostel.
- We highly recommend leaving out the logistics to a local, responsible and efficient company like the Holiday Scout. The campsite that they arranged for us was the closest to the venue of the Hornbill festival.
- There are several other campsites further away from the Hornbill Festival grounds. The comfort and facilities that they provide depend largely on how much they charge. Most of the campsites are geared more or less towards young travellers.
- There is also the option to stay in homestays in the villages surrounding Kisama, where the Hornbill Festival is held. Kigwema is the nearest village to Kisama, at an easy walking distance. Jakhama is a little furtehr ahead. Staying at the homestays here means you can also spend time with the local families of Nagaland.
- 2-3 days is enough time to spend at the Hornbill festival, to get a good flavour and overview of the tribal culture in Nagaland.
What all should you do at the Hornbill festival?
1. Spend time at the Morungs
“Head to the Morungs before the event begins”, we were advised by the camp organisers. At that point, we had no idea what the Morungs were or what to expect on the festival grounds and around.
What are Morungs are what’s the purpose of these Naga Morungs?
- The Morungs used to be community spaces where young boys got together in the villages of Nagaland.
- Based on their age, batches of boys from the tribe would be recruited into the Morung.
- Here they would be taught the history and culture of the tribe and their village. This was when they learnt folk songs and dances. Folk tales and legends were also passed on to the next generation.
- It was in these Morungs that young boys became worthy Naga warriors. They learnt war techniques and practised these with their fellow Morung batchmates.
- While learning to be warriors, here in the Morungs they also had to take care of the elders.
- The Morungs had their own rules and any violations would be taken seriously. Punishment would be served.
“Make a worthy citizen of the village” is the true purpose of the morung in the Naga villages. We were impressed by how a system for teaching of these essential life skills was well thought out and integral to the traditional lives of the tribes here.
General construction of the Morungs at the Hornbill festival
- Spread out on three different levels are wooden house-like structures with massive roofs made of dried grass and leaves.
- In the front is an ample open space lined with bamboo benches. The entrance to each of these houses is decorated with symbols, some of which we recognised (replicas of animal skulls) and some we didn’t (fantasy creatures).
- A nameplate at the entrance announces the name of the tribe of Nagaland that the Morung belonged to – Ao, Chakesang, Rengma, Sangtam, Konyak and several others.
- Outside each of these Morungs are young boys and girls looking resplendent dressed in bright colours of their traditional attires.
2. Have conversations with the people of the different tribes in Nagaland
The first day of the Hornbill festival (while waiting for the inauguration) is the most relaxed time for everyone. The cultural performances are only in the evening and everyone is in an interactive mood. This is the best time to have conversations with all the tribes’ people – and there will be plenty of questions. So we asked them questions – about their lifestyle, their attires and of course about their headhunting days.
We suggest you too strike a conversation with them. Don’t just go around asking for them to pose and take their photos.
Morungs are also where the tribes practice their performances before performing on stage. The performance ground of the Hornbill festival is huge and the spectators sit around this ground, giving us a distant view of the performances.
The practice sessions are more intimate and give the viewers a closer look at the performances. You can also see the men and women preparing for the dance, a sort of “behind the scenes” perspective.
Does a mobile network work at the Hornbill Festival?
With so much happening at all the Morungs spread out on three levels, it’s hard to keep track of what’s happening where. Often, each of us would go off in different directions towards whatever exciting action caught our attention. It helped that Airtel 4G not just worked, but worked really well.
We could just call each other to inform them if something really interesting was happening in any particular Morung. Or if the performers were getting all prepped up, we could call each other a heads up that they should be at a particular Morung in a few minutes.
This way, we ensured we got to experience as much as we could at the Hornbill festival.
3. The Hornbill Festival is a great place to understand the culture of the different Naga tribes, all under one roof
There was a lot we learnt about their inherent warrior lineage and headhunting days at the Hornbill festival. The first indication of the warrior lifestyle of the Naga tribes were the panels at the entrance to the Morungs.
Meaning of the symbols on the Naga Morungs
- Carved out of wood, they had the sun and the moon at the top – Doni and Polo. This is what the tribes historically worshipped.
- On the side was a symbol depicting a woman’s breast. This stood for life and was believed to protect the family and help it prosper.
- Below these were several rectangular blocks which stood for the animals that the men in the family had hunted.
- A wild bull (widely known as mithun) skull meant that the family was well to do and owned several “mithuns”.
- In between were carved human skulls which stood for the human heads the men in the family had hunted.
The attire of the men was designed keeping their utility in wars in mind. Only the men fought wars, which is probably what made the men’s attire more striking than that of the Naga women.
Typical attire of the Naga warriors
- There were belts and hooks to carry the spear, sword, arrows and the dao – the machete, that always accompanies the men, even while just stepping out of their house.
- When the men went out to wars, their mothers and sisters would cut some of their tresses and these men would proudly attach them to their attire like a tail. The hair showed that these warriors came from families with a fine lineage.
- Just above this was a small basket. When a warrior had successfully hunted a head, he would cut the ears off and put it in these small baskets at the back to proclaim victory.
- The headgears were the most special part of the entire attire. It differentiated one tribe from the other.
- Some of these headgears were the heirlooms of the families. These had the real hornbill feathers. And only successful warriors were allowed to wear the headgear with a hornbill feather.
What does the name “Hornbill Festival” signify?
The hornbill is a revered bird across all tribes of Nagaland, featuring widely in their songs and legends. That’s how the Hornbill festival gets its name.
Sadly, excessive hunting has pushed the hornbill to near extinction in Nagaland. Exposure to the outside world (thanks, largely to the easy availability of the internet) has led to awareness and started a dialogue on conservation within the Naga tribes. Former hunters are turning into protectors. These efforts are slowly showing results with hornbill sightings in the wild being reported in the remote forests of Nagaland.
The headhunting is, of course, a banned practise now. In most tribes, this practice ended several generations back. But back then, headhunting was an important game and a matter of serious pride. A head hunter was the most respected member of the tribe.
Seeing how the youth of Nagaland is preserving their culture, at the Hornbill Festival
Listening to all of this from someone who seemed no different than us – a mobile phone carrying, fluent English speaking, mild toned bespectacled young man – made it even more impactful. Everything that we were being told seemed to come from a world we couldn’t really imagine.
Listening to these tales, it hit us hard how in just a matter of a few generations life had dramatically changed for the people of Nagaland! And yet, they knew so much more about their traditional way of life and their history than we did about ours. They could sing the old songs, do the old dances and cook the old cuisine! And the Hornbill festival was a wonderful means for us and anyone in the world to experience this ancient way of life.
4. Feast on traditional food of Nagaland
At the Hornbill Festival, the Morungs are also a place to sample the characteristic delectable Naga cuisine of the different tribes of Nagaland. A wood-fueled fire takes centre place inside the main room of the Morung – just as it does in their homes back in their villages. Slowly cooking on it and above are some fine pieces of meats. Smells of bamboo flavoured curries emanate from the room inside where women are busy cooking copious amounts of food.
Some of the delicacies of the Naga cuisine that we tasted at the Hornbill Festival
- Leaf cooked rice cakes, yam patties, roasted millets, boiled naga beans can all be had with the rice beer served in huge bamboo mugs.
- The staple food served at all the Morungs is the aromatic brown rice and slow-cooked pork accompanied with bamboo and beef pickles and of course the superhot Naga chilli chutneys.
- The pork preparation changes from tribe to tribe. The taste ranges from outright lip smacking to takes-getting-used-to. But the meat served is always the finest and the juiciest. These people know how to cook their meats and we did full justice to this knowledge by feasting in these Morungs each day of the festival.
- If you are a vegetarian or not fond of pork you could visit the Hortispace opposite the main venue grounds. Farmers from all across Nagaland display their produce at the Hortispace. Local tomatoes, tiny carrots along with a whole variety of lemons, you can taste a whole lot of fresh, local and organic produce. Oranges and pineapple are the fruits of the season during the Hornbill festival. More exotic are the wild mushrooms and persimmons. The most surprising fruit though was the local avocado.
5. Taste and buy the “forbidden” wines – doesn’t get more exotic than this
The local wines were a stand out for us at the Hornbill festivals. We saw the wines packaged like wines from any well-known winery at the Ao Morung. We didn’t know wines were made in Nagaland.
Having visited a few wineries in Nasik (where most of the wine in India is made), this got us really excited. We asked if the winemaker was around. The young girl at the Morung told us that he wasn’t at the Hornbill grounds, but would get in touch with him.
He came all the way from Kohima just to meet us. Making alcoholic beverages is banned in Nagaland so all the winemaking is sort of underground activity. The winemaker understandably didn’t want to be named. He has aptly called his venture Anonymous Wineries.
He explained the winemaking process in detail. These wines are made from the local wild fruits. The red wine, which we sampled, is made from wild fruits called mungmungthi. These trees grow tall and wild in the forests of the Wokha district. While 80% of the fruit is lost to wind, harvesting the remaining 20% is a matter of great skill as the fruit is extremely delicate.
It was a privilege getting to drink this wine after listening to its story from the winemaker himself. We loved the taste of this full-bodied wine which could easily give the finest wines in India a run for their money.
6. The Morungs is also where you can buy handicrafts typical to the tribes. Jewellery in bright hues, handwoven red shawls that you see a lot of tribesmen draped in as well as the pickles and chutneys.
7. Be enthralled by the cultural performances at the Hornbill festival
The Morungs had given us some insight into the lives of the Naga tribes. The dance performances introduced us to more aspects of traditional life in Nagaland.
Some of the cultural performances which wowed us at the Hornbill festival were
- The Angami tribe presented a friendly dance called the Pita. It’s a welcome dance they perform when they are hosting other tribes in their village. It’s a dance proclaiming friendship and a vow to be together in good and bad times. So the tribes were not only about war and hunting, after all, we realised.
- The Ao tribe performed a Hornbill dance where they imitate the hornbill flying from branch to branch. The hornbill would guide them when they went to the forest for wood. It would move from branch to branch and finally settle on one. That’s the only branch they would cut and get the wood of – if it was good enough for the hornbill to sit, it was good enough for them to use in their homes. What a wonderful story to pass down from generation to generation to teach conservation. Take only what’s needed and let nature guide you to what to take!
- There was the harvest dance and a victory dance. There was the pulling of the lockdrum used to announce victory in war or inform everyone of the death of a senior member of the village.
- There was a depiction of a typical summer feast thrown by the Shai – a rich man, to thank everyone who helped him in the farms. The performers stayed true to the act till the end, even taking a drunken exit from the venue!
- The Konyak tribe performed the high energy bamboo dance where two layers of bamboo are used to make squares and then moved rhythmically. The rhythm can be changed anytime without any warning. Members have to jump in and out of these squares without getting caught in the bamboo – something that requires a lot of concentration and agility. The other tribes seated around the performing ground made it even more challenging, doing everything they could to distract the performers.
- After the evening performances, we would head back to the Morungs. The temperature dips drastically after sundown and fires would be lit up all around the Morungs. All kinds of music including K-pop would start playing. The Morungs transformed into an open-air party with rice beer flowing freely.
What other places can you visit during the Hornbill Festival?
1. Kohima: Things to do in Kohima during your visit to the Hornbill Festival
- Kohima is the nearest city to the Hornbill Festival grounds and worth exploring during this visit to Nagaland. There are a number of really cool cafes in Kohima which are the regular hangouts of the local youth. Cafe hopping in Nagaland will give you a chance to taste the modern versions of the traditional Naga cuisine. You can sample the coffee made from the local beans, grown right here in Nagaland.
- A night street market is set up in Kohima during the days of the Hornbill festival. This open-air market is actually an extension of the Hornbill Festival. Even if you aren’t staying in Kohima, a visit to this market for a night is definitely recommended.
- Besides the cafes and the street market, the war cemetery and the museum in Kohima are worth visiting.
- A walk around the regular market streets tells a lot about the urban life in this otherwise hilly tribal state of Nagaland.
- Puliebadze is a nice little day trek from Kohima. You need to get yourself to the grounds of the medical college here. The trek starts from behind this college.
Khonoma is a perfect example of hunters turning conservationists and now working towards preserving the ecosystem of this part of the Eastern Himalayas. It’s a heritage village. An official guide, a local from Khonoma, can be hired as soon as you reach here. They will take you around the village, show you the real-life Morungs, explain the agricultural practices and even show you some of their textile and weaving heritage. Each tribe of Nagaland has its own weaving techniques using which they all make characteristic and brilliant warm shawls.
Khonoma also has homestays and is a good choice to spend the night in after the Hornbill Festival.
Where can you visit after the Hornbill Festival?
- Dzuko valley is close to Kisama and almost everyone who attends the Hornbill Festival also treks to the mesmerising Dzuko valley.
- If you have enough time, you can visit the now famous village named Longwa where the people of the Konyak tribe live. The leader of this village has half of his house in India and the other half in Myanmar!
- Our top recommendation would be to club a visit to Basar, in Arunachal Pradesh for the Basar Confluence with your visit to the Hornbill Festival.
- If you are returning via Assam, a visit to the fast vanishing Majuli Island will give you an experience of tribal life along the Brahmaputra river.
Why the success of the Hornbill Festival is important for tourism in Northeast India?
We had read many negative reports about the Hornbill festival before we got here. So much so, that we weren’t sure we wanted to attend the festival. Instead, we were pleasantly surprised to see a shining example of how to conduct a successful event year after year.
We saw the demography of the visitors at the Hornbill festival expanding. There were families and senior couples visiting the Hornbill festival. When we asked them if they were liking it they said they had thoroughly enjoyed the performances. What a wonderful thing, to have genuinely interested tourists. This is always a good thing for tourism in any region.
We heard complaints of Hornbill becoming too commercial and mainstream. An event could become commercial and still retain its true essence and we felt the Hornbill festival was doing it perfectly well. If was a wonderful platform for the folk performers to present their art before a global stage.
But the importance of the Hornbill festival goes beyond the ten days of the festival. Other regions in other states of Northeast India are drawing inspiration from the Hornbill festival and conducting their own regional festivals. Hornbill is a wonderful role model for them to follow.
A not-so-easily-accessible state of Nagaland gets known to a global audience, thanks to the Hornbill festival. More people from the rest of India visit Nagaland because of Hornbill. The Hornbill festival was the perfect event for us to get a vibrant snapshot of this wonderful state of Nagaland and all its tribes.