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Nagaland's Hornbill Festival - Smorgasbord of Colours and Experiences

by Arjun Mohinta!

All things Naga are celebrated and showcased at Kohima, the capital of Nagaland during the annual Hornbill Festival which is also called the ‘Festival of Festivals’. Named after the Great Indian Hornbill bird, which forms an intrinsic part of the folklore of the state’s indigenous tribes, it is a ten-day carnival of art, culture, food, music, adventure and warm Naga hospitality which is growing in stature every year. The rising profile of the event is borne by the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the latest edition with many high-profile visitors along with a large number of tourists arriving from all over the region, country and abroad. A visit to Nagaland was on Arjun Mohinta's bucket list!

Nagaland is an amalgam of diverse tribes who are known for their martial spirit, proud traditions, colourful dresses and rich music and culture. There are sixteen major tribes in Nagaland, each of whom celebrate their own unique customs and traditions in their respective festivals through the year, which has led to the state being referred to as the ‘Land of Festivals’. The Hornbill festival was established in 2000 by the efforts of prominent citizens in collaboration with the Government of Nagaland as a five-day pan-Naga event to bring together and showcase all the individual festivals on a common platform, promote the cultural heritage of the state, enhance inter-tribe interaction and put Nagaland on the tourist map. Since then, the festival has grown to a ten-day extravaganza, beginning on 1st December every year, Nagaland statehood day, with the scope and scale expanding every year and attracting thousands of visitors from all over the country and overseas.

The festival now has a permanent home at the Kisama Heritage Village, located 12 kms from Kohima which consists of a beautiful, central open-air amphitheatre where the cultural performances and various contests are held and ‘Morungs’ or traditional dormitory huts of the various tribes where each showcases its own food, music, culture and handicrafts.

 

            In addition to the charms of the festival itself, the excitement and mystique of the destination in the lush, green Naga hills in this far corner of the country bordering Myanmar has always evoked a sense of awe and wonder for visitors and added to the attraction of the event.

The cultural performances, dances and traditional sports performed by every tribe are an absolute visual treat with energetic moves, colourful costumes and extravagant headgear. Interestingly, each of the thousand-odd villages in the state gets an opportunity to perform at the festival by rotation and villages consider being selected in a particular year a matter of great pride spending months preparing and rehearsing for the event. The accompanying folk music touches visitor’s souls with tunes telling the tales of brave warriors long gone, immortal love stories and Christian gospel.    

 

            Visitor participation is encouraged through various exciting, entertaining and exotic competitions like Naga-chilli eating, pork eating, monolith pulling, traditional wrestling, greased bamboo-pole climbing, spear throwing, top spinning etc where everyone is welcome to sign up.

For those looking for something contemporary, there are daily rock and music concerts at Kohima’s Indira Gandhi stadium which hosts the Hornbill International Rock Contest, drawing huge crowds and the best emerging bands of the country and even some from abroad. The rock highlight of this year was Smokie, Live in Concert. Yes, you read that right, the British rockers from the 70s who belted out anthems like Living Next Door to Alice. They are senior citizens now but they still rocked the cold Kohima evening like few can! New music aficionados were not forgotten with an EDM/trance night drawing youngsters in droves while the old-school types were taken care of by daily auditorium performances of traditional Western music including a choir music competition and a piano concerto.

With associated events taking place alongside the festival including a car rally, motorcycle rally, mountain biking competition, an adventure trail, literature fest, world cinema fest, theatre fest, food fest and even a half-marathon there was something for everyone. The night carnival on Kohima’s main street was a welcome addition to the night-life of the town which usually wears a deserted look after sundown during normal times.

A thoughtful addition to Hornbill Festival 2014 was the option to volunteer at the festival and do a home-stay with a local family, a great way to experience Naga culture close-up and actually be a part of the event instead of just being a visitor.

No trip to Nagaland is complete without sampling the local fare which mainly consists of rice dishes accompanied by various meats available in curries, roasted, fried, smoked, dried, minced you name it! Washing down a hearty meal with the locally brewed rice-beer ‘Zutho’ and “Thutse’, a fermented natural alcohol, served in a hollowed-out bamboo mug is the perfect end to your Hornbill adventures.

A must-visit place while here is the famous Kohima War Cemetery, the location where the Japanese invasion of India during WW II was stopped and pushed back at the final ‘Battle of the Tennis Court’, so named as the battle ended at the tennis court of the Deputy Commissioner’s residence with soldiers from opposing sides lobbing grenades at each other over the net! This is hallowed ground with those immortal lines engraved in stone, ‘When you go home tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today’.

    With these poignant words, I, Arjun Mohinta bid adieu to this beautiful land and it’s amazing people. Till we meet again, I hear the hills whispering as I drive down into the plains of Assam.