Welcome to Nagaland's Hornbill Festival
January 1, 1970
by Additi Seth
A slight rough start to traveling is sometimes concerning – but it is better to look at it the other way round. I decided to end this roller-coaster of a year with a trip to the North East part of India – to Nagaland. 30th November I decided shall be the last of crap I take from 2016. And on the morning of 1st December, well before the crack of dawn, I was on my way to the favourite part of all my travels – the flight.
I was heading for the Hornbill Festival also referred to as the Festival of Festivals held every year in the first week of December at Nagaland’s Kisama Heritage Village. The festival showcases a melange culture, colors and traditions in hopes of reviving and bringing the same to the world map. It is visited by scores from across the world and holds a reputation that has kept it going for over 15 years now.
I somehow chose the very day when fog decided to be its dense best to start my travels, which ensured that all flights were delayed. And so there I was, spending over six hours at the Kolkata airport, instead of the two hours which I had anticipated would fly by with the help of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and gorging on Kolkata’s famous Flury’s cakes and coffee.
Getting to Kohima
The flight from Kolkata to Dimapur is a short one-hour journey – you may want to opt for the window seat for this one. As the plane begins to descend, the Naga Hills with clouds running through them are a treat to the eyes. The Dimapur airport is known to have been built during World War 2 – a tiny one that can take no more than 500 departing and 300 arriving passengers. Once landed, yours would be the only plane at the airport, surrounded by greenery that is North East India’s charm, and the Naga hills waiting to greet you.
My trip started from Dimapur with a group of friends – we drove straight towards Kohima which is about 2.5 hours from Dimapur, and a short ride to Kisama Heritage Village. On our way to Kohima we witnessed a gorgeous sunset amongst the hills that we had to stop for and take a moment to admire. A few clicks and all smiles later, we were back on the road. A couple kilometres short of Kohima, we joined the patiently waiting traffic caused due to a truck that was stuck given the lack of space on the hilly road. But that could not dampen the festive spirit of every ride that was on that road. We finally made it to Kohima and headed straight for the night market that is held here from 6pm to 9pm throughout the festival. Food is the main attraction of the night market together with tiny stalls selling tempting treats, homemade products, and people singing along to music filling the street. A sense of celebration runs through every person here.
Food at Kohima’s Night Market
We tried the job’s tears cereal drink – job’s tears is a kind of oat which is boiled and added with milk or water and can be sweet or savory depending on your choice. I tried the one with milk and sugar. Served in a traditional large mug and spoon made of bamboo, it tasted like any healthy cereal snack. We also managed to try snails at this market – the broth they were cooked in was mighty spicy but it tasted delicious with the snail. And when in Nagaland, one must try their local rice beer (Zutho), also served to us in a pint creatively made out of bamboo. Its fruity odor and slightly sour taste gives it a distinct flavor that lingers on for a bit.
“Hornbill Festival: The Festival of Festivals”
On our first morning, we started early and headed straight to Kisama Heritage Village for witnessing what is known as The Festival of Festivals in Nagaland. Starting with cultural dance performances, we later visited the native Morungs set up by different Naga tribes. We were welcomed by men and women dressed in their tribal gear bordering the road leading up to the site. Laughter, sounds and colors produced by their unique instruments and dances were echoed by the majestic mountains looking over the festivities.
Each state of North East India showcased its harvest dance in their traditional attires – a celebration of their culture and heritage. The native Morungs were huts occupied by different Naga tribes where one could walk in and learn about each tribe’s beliefs and practices – and try the food they eat. A beautiful way to learn about another culture.
The festival hosts events like greased bamboo climbing where members from each tribe contests to climb 15-20ft tall bamboo sticks that have been greased using pork fat. It is a spectacle in itself to see each participant trying different techniques, with their respective tribe members cheering them on. They also have a stone puling ceremony for which the road leading back to Kohima and Dimapur is blocked (we got caught in a 3 hour long traffic jam because of this so one must take it as a heads up). In this, about 6,000 members of the Angami community of Nagaland, dressed in their traditional attire, pulled the 22ft long stone weighing about hundreds of kilos, for a distance of 4 kilometers.
For your coffee fix… And local favorites
On our final visit to the Kisama village, we headed to the Nagaland coffee stall where the coffee was being grown, roasted and served fresh right in front of us. Great depth and flavour were made more memorable when enjoyed with the delicious profiteroles served here. We also tried the sticky rice flour pancakes, sour wild apple candy and fiery king chilli sauce – each unique to this part of the country – that left us speechless (quite literally, in case of the chilli sauce). One must also remember to pack in some deliciously sweet pineapples from here, which mostly cost a mere INR 20.
Where to stay?
There are many campsite facilities available in Kisama itself to make your stay more adventurous, with prices starting at INR 1700 per night. You could also find fairly cheap accommodation in Kohima which is only a 12 kilometer scenic drive to Kisama.
Despite all the traffic and delays here and there, the experience was worth it all. As with all of my travels, I end up meeting people somewhere through my journey who leave an impact on me. On my flight back to Kolkata from Dimapur, I was sandwiched between an English lady and an Italian man. The Italian was travelling with his family and was a delight to interact with, given his sense of humor. The English lady and I spoke almost throughout the one-hour long flight – she had traveled around India with a group of people from England and was now heading back. We exchanged travel stories and experiences – in the end she asked me a question that I already knew the answer to. But the fact that she asked me that question after only exchanging a few words on my travels is what left me wondering. “So are you happy living in Delhi, or have you caught the bug?” she asked – I paused, smiled with a steady gaze at the airplane wing, and said “I caught the bug.”