The Hornbill Festival and More – Surprise and Delight in Nagaland!
By Donnie Sexton
Serendipity is a cherished gift when the best-laid travel plans morph into something unexpected yet awe-inspiring.
This is precisely how I ended up in a circle of the Angami tribesmen jiving to the beat of their native song and dance in Nagaland. In November, I was attending a tourism conference in Northeast (NE) India in the state of Manipur.
Made up of eight states, this easternmost region of India shares its borders with Bhutan, Tibet, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar. Not often on a traveler’s radar, I had a burning curiosity to explore the area, home to over 140 indigenous tribes.
Where There is a Will, There is a Way
I had read about the legendary Hornbill Festival in the NE Indian state of Nagaland. After seeing a video on the Festival during the conference, and knowing it would take place a few days after my meetings, a burning desire to find my way there welled up in me. A bit of research on the logistics predicted it was too messy and complicated, without advance planning.
With no accommodations available, a hodge-podge of flights to arrange, then finding a guide/driver made me give up. Enter a great friend, PK, owner of the Delhi-based travel agency, Indus Trips.
When I mentioned to him via text that I would have loved to see the Hornbill Festival, he said with great hesitancy, “If you really want to go, I will try and make it happen, but I can’t promise anything.” PK managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat, thanks to his local connections.
Challenges of Travel
Because of limited flights in Northeast India, I had to fly from the NE India city of Guhawati to Calcutta, then literally turn around and fly back to the town of Dimapur in Nagaland.
Here I was required to register with the government as a visitor. PK arranged for a car/driver and agreed to act as my guide, so we were off to Kohima, near to where the festival would take place.
The distance is roughly 44 miles, but due to most of the highway being under construction, we were in for a bone-jarring three-hour marathon over mostly dirt roads. Checking into the hotel late (two stars at best), then trying to find something to eat left me a bit weary. But no amount of inconvenience was going to stop me from attending the Festival.
Khonoma, Home of the Angami
We had arrived a day before the Festival opening. I was keen on making the most of my time by exploring the nearby town of Khonoma, home to the Angami people, and considered to be the first “green” village in India. The community is a mere 12 miles from Kohima, but due to a bumpy dirt road, travel time was over an hour as we journeyed deep into the forests of Nagaland.
What this village (population around 3000) had accomplished was remarkable, and sets a great example on how to be caretakers of this earth.
Historically, hunting had been a large part of the culture of the Angami tribe, but they would eventually agree to give it up for the good of their area and the protection of wildlife.
With the wisdom of village elders, a large chunk (20 sq. km) of the surrounding forest would be set aside as the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary in 1998. Interspersed within these protected areas are agricultural parcels in the form of terraced cultivation.
The Angami tribe set in motion “sustainability” for their people and their land long before the idea has become a “buzz” word in today’s world.
Eco-tourism at its Best
Today, the locals offer visitors a tour of Khonoma, explaining in English all they have done to warrant being the first “green” village, as well as detailing the region’s history with the British rule. There is a small fee for the tour, which helps to support the town.
As we walked, the daily life of the locals revealed itself — a mother bathing her kids in a tub of water, a community kitchen with a large kettle of stew brewing, an older gentleman weaving a basket, and an elderly couple soaking up the sun rays on their porch.
The villagers showed their appreciation for our visit with genuine smiles and small talk. At one point, we walked by the village’s central water system, a large cement tank with spigots of water flowing. Our guide insisted we take a drink of their pure, unfiltered water.
I cupped a handful to my mouth, swallowed, and then thought to myself, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Thankfully I didn’t bring home giardia as a souvenir. Eco-tourism was alive and well in Khonoma – I couldn’t help but wish to return someday for a homestay.
Mice for dinner!
On the return to Kohima, we made a stop at the local market, which usually lends itself to great photo ops and provides an insight into what the locals eat. I gathered the vendors don’t see many foreigners as I all eyes focused on me in fascination.
Past the colorful fruits and vegetables was a section for meat and fish, where my stomach started to do somersaults. Baskets of live silkworm larvae were in constant motion, as were the tubs of snake-like fish thrashing about. But it was the wire basket stuffed with wiggling snow-white mice that made me gag.
A nearby vendor, seeing my distressed look, pointed out that “mice are very tasty, and if you have troubles with your stomach, they will help.” I was having stomach issues alright, trying not to puke while I imagined eating fried mice! Gross! My adventurous spirit does extend to what I put in my mouth.
Opening Day of Hornbill Festival
The Hornbill Festival started on Dec. 1. I only had one day to attend the Festival so the plan was to arrive early to take it all in. The setup reminded me of a county fair. There was a building for arts and crafts, another for horticulture displays, food tents, and a sizable arena for opening ceremonies and demonstrations throughout the Festival.
Each of the 17 tribes had a distinctive camp that included space for dancing, a hut of sorts, and seating for guests and tribal folk. Some were also preparing and selling local food specialties, including roasted silkworm larvae.
Unique to each tribe was their traditional dress, customs, songs, and dances. It was pure joy to wander through the camps, and soak up the sounds and movements as they celebrated their culture. Observers were welcome to join in, which found me between two warriors trying to follow their dance movements as we moved in a circle.
As the sun set, the arena was the focus for the official opening that involved dignitary speeches, followed by an incredible cultural extravaganza of dancing, drumming, and singing by various indigenous groups.
Ten Days of Tribal Culture
The ten days of the Festival showcases daily concerts, an international film festival, village tours, and demonstrations of traditional handicrafts. Competitions include shot put, wrestling, angling, chili and pineapple eating, stilt bamboo walk racing, fire-making, and tug-of-war.
Over the years, the Hornbill Festival has grown into a well-organized expansive celebration of local culture, attracting visitors from around the world. The opening day had only whet my appetite for making a plan to return and doing a deep dive into the Festival. The set dates are December 1-10.
Mingling with 17 different tribes goes down in my book as one of my top ten travel experiences to date. Added to that was wandering the village of Khonoma, and seeing first-hand how a small group of villagers has made a sustainable dent in a country of 1.37 billion people.
Other communities in Northeast India are making similar strides, along with a very concerted effort across the entire region to halt the use of plastics. During my nine days in NE India, I never saw a plastic cup, straw, or was given any plastic utensils to use. As I boarded the plane for the long ride home, I was reminded again of how valuable travel is in terms of educating and enlightening a person. My affection for India continues to grow, enriched by what I discovered in Northeast India.
If the Hornbill Festival is on your to-do list, I suggest planning well in advance and I highly recommend Indus Trips for making all arrangements.