Hornbill Festival: A cultural cauldron

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Hornbill Festival (taken fron Nagaland Tourism site)

Nagaland hung in my mind like a dream. With all its history of cordite and crackle of gun, Nagaland is a compelling place, a cultural cauldron of 16 tribes and numerous sub-tribes, hiding the world of animism: head heading, feathered, bearded, horned with warrior mettle; in their sleek jeans and chic hairstyles. But the warrior in them rises, drums are beaten, alarms are sounded, feet tapped and war songs hummed, come every December. A festive air engulfs the capital city of Kohima, tribes assemble, melodious songs and the rhythmic thumping of feet becomes the constant backdrop to the otherwise quiet region, and a massive bonfire is arranged as festivity reaches a frenzied crescendo. The state celebrates the beloved ‘Hornbill Festival’ not just to mark the statehood but also to take pride in the cultural extravaganza Nagaland is.

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Konyak warriors performing their traditional dance

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Ao tribesman interacting with a guest

First the facts – Hornbill Festival is organised from December 1 to December 10 every year in Kisama Heritage Village, very close to capital city Kohima. The festivity and fervour of the festival is equally complemented with Night Bazaar in Kohima city. These 10 days are marked with assemblage of all 17 tribes and numerous sub-tribes and is a great window to gain insights of tribal rituals, cuisines, lifestyles and beliefs. And then there are endless activities – from local beverages and exciting cuisine, display of assorted traditional Naga culture in the form of dance and competition, a heritage motor car rally, Naga wrestling, a pork-fat greased pole climbing contest, great public art, exhibitions, handicrafts, fantastic momos and rice beer – a colourful cornucopia of all things Nagaland and North-East India. There is no dearth of options – guilt free shopping of Naga handloom and arts and endless moments of photography. For any traveler, Hornbill festival is like living a long nurtured dream. It’s like closing your eyes and be lost to the camaraderie and joy of the Naga people and opening your eyes to get astounded by the sheer amount of colours and sights of this enthralling festival.

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Women giving rice beer to male warriors

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A Naga dwelling

The festival itinerary is beautifully set. Tribal dances amaze you, the reds and oranges and yellows of tribal dress, with beatific tribal war masks, explode into a commanding unison, as they present their traditional dances. The evenings are usually set for the Hornbill Music Festival where artists collaborate to give away the most awes trucking songs and gala music and The Hornbill International Rock Contest and music festival, organized by the Music Task force.

To add more thrill to the festival, there is a World War 2 Car rally and also a Hornbill Motor Rally. There’s also a beauty pageant and literature festival. And for the daring travellers, the tenth day has a Naga chilly eating competition. Mind you Naga chillies are the hottest in the world and can literally take your senses away.

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Shop some Naga art in Hornbill Festival

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Woman selling machettes

The itinerary is well packed and however, little time you feel like spending in the festival, do pencil in some time to relish the Naga cuisines. Every tribe has a different preparation and often you will find these outside the tribal huts. They continuously cook the stuff that they make for themselves regularly at home. Try the various preparations of pork and beef and wash it down with some tasty rice beer. And for adventurous eaters, there are preparations of snails, worms and various insects. And food just doesn’t end with a walk around the Kisama village; head out to the Night Bazaar in Kohima for a range of exotic food to try.

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Collage of Naga cuisines

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Display at a Naga hut

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Undoubtedly a must try – Rice Beer

ao-tribesmanTo stay: – There are numerous small budget hotels in Kohima, you can also opt for staying in homestays. The official website of Nagaland tourism lists this information.

Food: – Try as much as you can, Naga food is mostly water based, hence light for belly and could keep you going for long. If you relish non-veg, you will love the chicken preparation of Angami tribes. Do try pork with bamboo shoots.

What else:- Read my blogs on Khanoma (20 kms from Kohima) and Longwa (village of the head-hunters) to explore more. Spend a day in Kohima for the local attractions.

Khonoma: The land out there…

This historic Angami – Naga village was the site of two ferocious Anglo – Naga war in 1879 – 80 and Indo-Naga war in 1956. Fondly tucked between towering mountain ridges, with emerald paddy fields carpeting the valley, Khonoma looks artistically traditional.

Ever heard of a village that twice, brought the British army juggernaut in the North East to a halt and forced the Indian Army to suspend its military operations (though for some time) in the 1950s, at the height of battle against insurgency in the state. This is Khonoma, some 20 Kms off Kohima, with a population of 3000, and a past dating back to centuries. Fondly tucked between two mountain ridges, with a liberating view of terraced paddy fields, forming a sea of yellow tufts in the valleys between the crotches of the mountain ranges.

 

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Battle lines are still drawn in Khonoma, but this time between sustainability and long held traditions. This story began two decades ago, with the slaughter of around 300 Blyth’s tragophan, a pheasant with stunning plumage and the state bird of Nagaland. This massacre made the village elders cognizant of impending eco-war and Khanoma’s conservation movement was born. Today, it is India’s only eco-village. Logging and hunting stands banned today, a herculean task considering hunting is a cultural right of the Nagas. In 1998, Khanoma village council reserved an area of 20 sq. Km as Tragophan Sanctuary, India’s one of the first community led sanctuary. Soon, the forests which had gone silent, was alive with the calls of Tragophan and other birds. But a ban on hunting in Nagaland, is a rich affair. There is increasing pressure from the youth to revive the hunting culture. They forced the council to open a hunting window in the last years. Hunting has revived but is limited and only to maintain the carrying capacity of the forests.

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Majuli: A disappearing island

Fondly tucked between the sister rivers Subansiri and Kherketia and nursed by the mighty Brahmaputra, lies a landscape of Majuli, simply inescapable from the eyes of intrepid travelers. It is an island of pristine sublimity, offering vistas of freedom wrapped in nature’s warm embrace, unlocking the hidden mysteries, exciting imaginations, swaying as the river swells, breathing in its vast openness and smiling at every bell that chimes in the satras. An expanse of land shaped by fortunes and fury of Brahmaputra, Majuli’s story is as sublime as the river it stands on. Several stories innocence, optimism and disenchantment, knitted as one, are played out on this land every day. A day is lived in the rituals and songs in satras, in the paddy fields, in the colourful tapestry of Assamese silk and breathes through the fisherman’s mesh. Life is quite simple here, yet elusive as the island is slowly disappearing, some inches every year, losing itself to the river that nurtures it, living its full circle of life. Already reduced to a third of its original size, it is predicted that Majuli will disappear within twenty years.

To get to this largest river island, a huge ferry is boarded from Jorhat in Upper Assam. A slow boat ride of two hours, is spent in breathing in the freshness and the rawness of the riverine landscape created by the mightiest of Indian rivers. And when you are in Majuli, ditch the vehicle or a guide to explore the island, hire a bicycle and cycle your way through the cultural ambiance of the island. Majuli is the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. Since 15th century, followers of Saint Srimanta Sankardeva have been building monasteries or satras here. Twenty satras stand today, with almost twice of the number lost to the river. These ancient buildings pulsate with dance, drama and songs and have to a great extent defined the lifestyle in Majuli. Houses in Majuli have a central space in their house, called Namghar (taken from the satras), where people gather, sing, dance and pray. That’s how most of the Majuli lives, draped in spirituality.

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Tales from a headhunters’ land

Conversing with a nonagenarian is like collecting some pages off the calendar or redrawing some history from a person who barely remembers what he had in the morning for breakfast. Indeed a tedious task. But, the moment you ask of his good old fighting days, the geriatric time machine turns a raconteur; the years dissolve and clarity returns and tales of old fights pour as if it was all yesterday. What a dilemma to see a person, who barely remembers his age or for that matter his name, but is eager to give an account of his fighting days, tales from his youth and all with exacting clarity.

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A headhunter – old but turned a raconteur when asked of his old, fighting days.

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Quiet mountains of Namchi

Think of Sikkim and the images of snow clad peaks, terraced rice fields, lushly forested hills, misty clouds setting in the deep valleys, whispering falls and mesmerizing cascades fall before your eyes. Sikkim is a painter’s dream – a beautiful landscape sketched by the creator. With these thoughts we set out for this land of peace and tranquillity. All along our way we were accompanied by the majestic River Teesta storming its way through the heavy boulders; its thunder cry noising out the traffic of NH 31 – the only road that connects Sikkim with the rest of the country. Our first tryst with Sikkim was very much like treading between the familiar and the alien. We were still to reach Gangtok but we could feel that connection with nature and the rhythm in the lives of people. Journey from Bagdogra to Gangtok covered a myriad of landscapes.

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Quiet mountains of South Sikkim

Think of Sikkim and the images of snow clad peaks, terraced rice fields, lushly forested hills, misty clouds setting in the deep valleys, whispering falls and mesmerizing cascades fall before your eyes. Sikkim is a painter’s dream – a beautiful landscape sketched by the creator. With these thoughts we set out for this land of peace and tranquillity. All along our way we were accompanied by the majestic River Teesta storming its way through the heavy boulders; its thunder cry noising out the traffic of NH 31 – the only road that connects Sikkim with the rest of the country. Our first tryst with Sikkim was very much like treading between the familiar and the alien. We were still to reach Gangtok but we could feel that connection with nature and the rhythm in the lives of people. Journey from Bagdogra to Gangtok covered a myriad of landscapes.

Mt. Kanchenjunga_Sikkim

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