Nagaland comes alive during the famous Hornbill Festival. Otherwise considered a distant land for the outside world, Nagaland has achieved the spotlight in the tourist map of India due to the enormous popularity of the most renowned festival of the Northeast. This festival is the best introduction to the mosaic of rich Naga culture. It is a celebration of the indigenous warrior tribes of Nagaland. Started and organized by the State Tourism and Art & Culture Departments of Nagaland in 2000, the festival is celebrating its 19th year in December 2019. Also known as the “Festival of Festivals”, the Hornbill festival is a must-attend festival in the exotic land of Northeast.
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Hornbill Festival: What & Where
Hornbill festival is a celebration of every aspect of Naga cultural heritage. The festival is held from 1st to 10th December every year in the Kisama heritage village. The festival showcases tribal ethnicity, dance and music, and authentic food and provides a rare glimpse of the Naga way of life. Whether it is the heart-beating sound of musical instruments, traditional folk dance performances, Nagas adorning their colorful attires, life at Morungs, euphoric excitements in the air, or lip-smacking traditional delicacies, you will be awestruck at the grandeur of the festival. One of the highlights of the festival is the opening and closing ceremonies where all the tribes participate and perform in a show which is simply spectacular.
The tribal folk dancer’s performances are eye-arresting and watching their rituals in a most authentic setup is awe-inspiring. You can’t get closer than this to any tribal community like you do at the Hornbill festival. It gives you a rare opportunity to experience cultural magnetism from close quarters. The festival is named after the revered bird Hornbill which is unfortunately on the verge of extinction in Nagaland in the present scenario.
How to reach
The nearest airport and railway station is in Dimapur. It takes more than three hours to reach Kohima by road from Dimapur. You can opt for a shared taxi and it will cost you INR 300. Be ready for a bumpy ride due to bad road conditions throughout. From Kohima, you can take a private/shared taxi to Kisama (festival venue), located 12 km away from the city.
You can take a direct flight to Guwahati from any major city in India and take an early morning Shatabdi Express to Dimapur. It will take around four hours. You can opt for a private taxi or a shared jeep to reach Kohima. The road condition is not that great. So be ready for a bumpy and dusty road all along. It takes more than 3 hours to reach Kohima by road from Dimapur. The shared jeep will cost you INR 300.
ILP & PAP Permits for Hornbill Festival
The Indian Nationals need an Inner Line Permit. You can obtain it from the Office of Deputy Resident Commissioner in Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, and Shillong.
Duration: ILP is issued for 30 days only.
Foreign Nationals no longer require Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit Nagaland. However, they still need to register themselves at the local Foreigner Registration Office (FRO) of the districts they visit within 24 hours of arrival.
What must not be missed at the festival?
The Hornbill festival is not just a festival about tribal music and dance performances; rather it is a celebration of the Naga way of life. You experience varied cultural aspects of their rustic lifestyle. Whether it is the Eco-friendly huts, glimpses of primitive lifestyle, traditional cuisine, handicrafts, hand-made products or meaningful interaction with the tribal people, you get the real taste of Nagaland at the festival. If you are planning to attend the Hornbill festival 2019, don’t miss “A Complete Guide on Northeast”, which will help you plan your northeast sojourn and tells you everything about this offbeat land.
Here are some of the striking features of the Hornbill festival which should not be missed.
Spend time at the Morungs
I had no idea about the world of Morungs at the festival ground. It was during our dinner at the campsite that we were advised to visit Morungs early morning before the performances. Following the instructions, we arrived at the Morungs on the very first day of the festival. It was a sight to behold. I felt as if I had entered a different world altogether. Morungs are basically temporary settlements for the tribal communities where each community replicates its rustic lifestyle to give you glimpses of the same.
The Morungs are spread out on three different levels on a hilly terrain where each tribal community has its traditional hut made of wood, bamboo, and hay. They decorate the huts with dried vegetables, animal skulls, tribal hunting weapons, etc. Outside of the hut, there is an open space having bamboo benches and stalls where one can buy handicrafts, traditional jewelry, attires, decorative items made of wood and bamboo, pickles, and other eatables.
Once you step inside the Morung premises, there is a board describing briefly the tribal community, their origin, village, and also the culture, to give you a fair idea about them. The young girls and boys adorn the vibrant traditional attire, standing in front of the Morung to welcome visitors.
Once you step inside the Morung, you will see a central fireplace with the elders sitting around it and indulging in conversations. You will find dried meat on a large bamboo tray, hung over the fireplace. The dipping juice of the meat on the fire looks absolutely tempting. They cook their meals there. Most of the Morungs have a dedicated place where you can pay and order food and relish their traditional cuisine. The smoked-flavored meat dishes with red rice taste heavenly.
What you must do at Morungs
Strike a conversation
You must strike up a conversation with the tribal community to know more about them. This is a rare opportunity where you get to see their daily life and their culture up close. The tribal people are generally very welcoming and love interacting with tourists. You can ask them anything about their lifestyle, cultural heritage, ritual, food habits, etc. I would suggest visiting the Morungs early morning before their performances so that you can see their practice sessions at their respective Morungs.
The sessions are more informal and you will find them laughing, cracking jokes, and sipping local drinks. They are mostly in a jovial mood throughout. So, it is the best way to know more about them. I loved the idea of sitting with them around the fireplace and indulging in meaningful conversations. The younger generation will happily pose for your photograph in their candid best at the Morungs. But it is always advisable to ask for permission before capturing them into your lens.
Sample authentic local delicacies
Imagine seeing the juicy smoked pork dipping from the hung bamboo tray, the smell of the boiling curry, rice cooking in an earthen pot on fire by a motherly tribal woman, serving local Chhang in a bamboo tumbler. This is the usual scene inside a Morung of different tribes like Ao, Khiamniungan, Zeliang, Chakhesang, Chang, Konyak, etc. Most of the Morungs have food stalls where they serve their local cuisines. If you are a food explorer, this is the best opportunity to taste the best of tribal food. The palatable food gives you the best gastronomic experience. I remember having my meals at different Morungs only to sample various delicacies.
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You will easily get leafy rice cakes, roasted millets, and boiled eggs to have with rice beer. Apart from that, a variety of pork preparations, chicken with bamboo shoots, beef pickles, a wide variety of spicy chutney, and brown rice are there at respective Morungs. Though, each pork dish tastes distinctively different, yet delectable. If you are vegetarian, you can still relish regular food options available at the Hortispace opposite the main festival venue. You can have a taste of Naga coffee at the venue to keep yourself warm.
Evenings are spent mostly outside the Morungs around a fire with music and sipping Chhang on the freezing nights. We used to hop from one Morung to another in search of the best Chhang and food. After the performances, the tribal people at the Morungs are in the most relaxed and celebratory mood. The atmosphere is so thrilling that you will end up having the best time after sunset with the tribal people.
Tips for Photographers
1. Reach the Morungs early in the morning, around 8:30 am when the tribes get ready for their practice session at their respective Morungs. This way you can beat the usual crowd and get some fantastic frames without any photo bombings. Plus, you get the best lighting. In Kisama, the sun starts fading after 2 pm. So you can’t depend on afternoon light for portraits.
2. Always ask permission before you capture them. Generally, they are friendly with everyone and happily pose for the camera. But, it is always better to take permission.
- Don’t give them instructions for your photos. Capture them in their candid moments.
Don’t disturb their practice sessions. You can observe it from far and capture it.
Don’t just intrude their space by entering their Morungs during lunch and dinner time.
Respect their privacy.
Be polite with the tribal people when you interact with them for photographs.
7. Try to grab a seat in the inner circle of the festival ground for a better opportunity of capturing the performances. You get a clear view from there which helps you capture the dance moves better.
- Don’t visit the Morungs in groups because you will end up getting the same shots like others.
9. Be creative while capturing them into your lens. You can get really creative in composing your shots. Take your time and study the area first before you capture it.
10. Always show them the photographs you have taken of them. They feel good to see their faces in your camera. Not only does it build a great bond but you make them happy.
- Also, do carry extra battery and SD cards. You never know when you will run out of them.
Enjoy Folk Dance Performances
One of the most striking features of the Hornbill festival is the eclectic folk dance performances by the tribes. The amphitheater of the festival ground gets the crowd from different parts of India and abroad to witness the gala celebration of Naga culture. Each tribal community performs their folk dance while narrating the occasion on which they have come together to celebrate. It can be a war, harvest, and victory dance, or can be a performance depicting rituals. The well-choreographed and synchronized steps, colorful attires, attractive headgear and music, these dance performances introduce you to the world of myriad cultural extravaganza. It is a visual treat for everyone.
Not just folk dances from Nagaland, but you get to witness the diverse cultural representation across India. States like Manipur, Jharkhand, Kashmir, Punjab, Assam, etc., also perform their traditional cultural dance forms during the festival. My feet and hands started moving automatically as soon as the dancers from Assam started performing Bihu on the ground. My friends used to tease me whenever there was an announcement of Bihu dance.
I absolutely enjoyed the dramatic traditional dance performances from Manipur. The way performers play Dhol and flip it several times in the air was nothing less than a gala opera under the sky. The rhythmic performance of Punjab also made people grove with the loud beats.The energetic performances from other states were repeated after lunch at the amphitheater.
Attend Opening & Closing Ceremonies
If you are planning to attend Hornbill festival 2019, don’t miss the opening and closing ceremonies. The duration of the festival is 10 days. So, in case you are planning only a few days, plan either keeping in mind the opening ceremony or closing ceremony. It is a grand affair. The opening ceremony is graced by dignitaries like Central Ministers, Chief Minister, Cultural Minister of Nagaland and other prominent personalities from different parts of India. The festival ground gets jammed packed on the opening ceremony as the tribal communities perform and put forward their best performances for the dignitaries.
Each tribal community is introduced in a brief narration about them just before their performances. The sound of the folk musical instruments, the cheers of the crowd and well synchronized dance performances create the most beautiful environment all around. Generally it starts late evening and continues till night. The ball of energy on the ground is contagious.
Like the opening ceremony, the 10th day of Hornbill Festival is also a grand affair where all the tribal communities perform a unity dance around the huge bonfire placed in the center at the festival ground. The celebratory mood is on and the party goes on the whole night. The closing ceremony is a mega affair and an end to the 10 day-long celebrations of Naga culture, heritage and legacy.
If you love shopping local handicrafts, souvenirs, knifes, dao, fruits, food items like home-made pickles, jams, snacks, sweets, traditional Naga shawls, home décor items, traditional bags, scarves, key rings, fridge magnets, jewelry, etc., the festival ground has an array of shops selling everything you want.You can also buy colorful headgear and those long beat traditional necklaces. Don’t haggle too much with the locals there, because everything is hand-made and this is the time of the year when they earn a handsome amount from the tourists.
Travel Tips for Hornbill Festival
- First thing first. Book your tickets and accommodation well in advance as it gets sold out quickly. Considering the fact that the festival is the most popular one in Northeast India, people from across the globe gather here to see the majestic show of Naga Tribe.
- Kohima will be crowded due to the influx of tourists for the festival. It is advisable to opt for home stays or camp site around the festival venue. It can make your life pretty easy as you will not get stuck in the long traffic on the road from Kohima to Kisama.
- If you are camping, bring your own sleeping bag, a backpack for your personal belongings, a torch, a travel pillow, woolens and other necessary equipment. You can rent a camp at any campsite, but if you are not well equipped, you have to rent everything there.
- The nights are freezing cold. So, make sure that you carry enough heavy woolens, socks, gloves, caps, etc. Though, days are pretty pleasant otherwise.
- Don’t forget to pack comfortable sports shoes as you need to walk a lot each day around the festival ground.
- If you are not staying in a campsite and commuting daily from Kohima, you have to pay INR 20 for entry, INR 30 for camera and INR 70 for the video camera. Since I was staying at the festival premises in campsite, I didn’t pay anything.
- Be respectful towards the tribes and their culture. Don’t indulge in any kind of argument with them. Everybody has the right to follow their traditions, rituals, food habits and religion. You are there to experience it, not to judge them. Be mindful of that.
- Bring your own booz if you don’t want to try their rice beer. Alcohol is banned in these places since 1989. The best place to enjoy your drink is at your campsite with the bonfire. Meeting other travelers, signing songs, indulging in conversations around the fireplace, you will have the best time after the sunset. If not, then drink local beer with the tribes at Morungs.
Where to stay
Kisama is a pretty village, hardly 12 km away from the capital city of Nagaland. Though you will get a lot of home-stays in Kisama and surrounding villages during the festival, you can also opt for campsites around festival ground. I stayed in one of the campsites on the festival ground premises. Due to its location, I could enjoy the festival at ease. There are 4 different campsites around the festival venue. You can choose and book in advance.
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