A beautiful patchwork of the distinct cultures of 16 ethnic groups, the Hornbill Festival is a riveting introduction to Nagaland and its heritage, says Shashi Priya
December shrouds the forested ridges and hilltops of Kohima in mist, but its festive spirit shines bright to mark its brilliant presence. It is a month when tourist numbers swell not to enjoy Nagaland’s dazzling landscape but its annual jamboree – the Hornbill Festival, which brings together its adrenaline-induced tests of strength, quirks from its kitchen and tender tales of its art and music in a 10-day whirl, engaging around 16 tribes of Nagaland and thousands of visitors at the Kisama heritage village, situated on the outskirts of Kohima.
Caught in one such December frenzy, I found myself in a thatched-roof hut outfitted with wooden sculptures, trying to get used to the smell of fermented soybeans and bamboo shoots. While my olfactory nerves were busy befriending the aroma of unfamiliar local cuisine, my eyes were taking in every bit of the colourful patchwork of distinct tribal cultures.
Outside, a man draped in a black-and-red striped cloth was playfully jabbing his sixfoot- long spear at another like himself. Fifty years ago, this might have been a war-like scenario where one tribe’s win could have cost another quite a number of lives. But now, it is all about mock fights and fun. Today, the formidable spear, decorated with tufts of goat hair dyed red, had a different duty to perform: a ceremonial one, where it would be flaunted, along with a dao (an axe-like tool with a triangular blade) and a shield, to the howling of jilupentem, a traditional war dance.
Tales of the tribes
I was witnessing this side of Nagaland’s culture in a makeshift morung recreated for Hornbill, by every tribe. A morung can be loosely described as a boys’ hostel where youngsters are sent to learn the traditional ways of the tribe. At the festival grounds, every morung is a place where visitors can interact with members of the tribal community, sample their food and watch them practise their rituals. But that’s just one side of this ‘festival of festivals’, which puts on display the heritage and history of Nagaland’s tribes through an eclectic assortment of clothing, jewellery, weapons and ceremonial objects, dance, rituals and, of course, interesting anecdotes in broken or – at times – fluent English. Think hand-embroidered and handwoven shawls and wrap skirts, bracelets, chest and neck pieces, and elaborate ceremonial headgear made from metal, beads, feathers, animal bones and teeth, and an engaging conversation over black tea or moonshine (rice beer).
At first glance, the predominant features of the local gathering – the red and black hues, cowries, beads, coronets and kilts – look the same, but a closer view reveals the distinct features of each tribe’s ensemble. The Sema Nagas’ necklet, aminihu, consisting of pairs of boar tusks strung together with strings made of cane and fastened under a large conch shell button, with a red carnelian bead in the centre, is rarely worn by the Angamis. While the most prized neck-piece of the Ao women – the mesemyok – is made of brass bells, carnelian beads and spikes of conch shells, the most precious Angami necklace, tsubo, is made of glass of various colours, pearls and bone spacers engraved with geometrical patterns. The carnelian beads used by Angamis are usually faceted and hexagonal, whereas Semas wear them in the rectangular shape and Aos in ovoid.
But what’s a festival without a performance? Hornbill strikes the perfect balance between the two. While the objects on display showcasing the tribes’ history are extraordinarily beautiful, their performances are works of art in motion. Out in the open are the war log drums, blazing shotguns, backswords with bevels (dha), dao and spears to stage mock fights in full warrior costume. The shape, pattern and carvings on traditional Naga weapons differ from tribe to tribe. Most of the performances are accompanied by live music and rhythmic war cries.
In ancient times, war cries and different beats of drums were used as codes to send signals. In fact, colours, motifs and patterns on shawls and skirts, which also differ from one tribe to another, have their own stories to tell. They can be indicators of marital status or accomplishments. The stunning headhunting rituals of Konyaks of Mon, the elegant dance moves of Ao women of Mokokchung, the longest daos of Changs from Tuensang, the single-stringed musical instrument (tati) of Chakhesang Nagas of Phek and Angami Nagas of Kohima – made of dried bottle gourd – and the artistic dance of Zeliangs, are a few highlights.
At the beginning of the festival, when I had arrived at Kohima’s main market street on a cold December morning with just the fire of wanderlust to keep me company, I had expected this impromptu trip to counter every stressful minute spent fretting over a no-prior-hotelbooking gamble. And as I scanned various homes-turned-unnamed-lodges in Kohima that spring into action during Hornbill, I realised the vibe of this state is as warm and hospitable as it could be. All those adjective-laced descriptions tossed around by friends about the festival were true, but the bigger, and perhaps the better truth that I witnessed was the warm hospitality of the Nagas. Despite having no hotel reservation and the tourist rush of Hornbill, I saw not just the lodges, but also a string of dorms and double-room signs strewn across Kohima. “Every guest is welcome in Nagaland during a festival. We will make room for all of them,” said a local boy, who had offered to help me identify an affordable lodge to stay. The gamble paid off, and I found much more than I had expected in this beautiful state with beautiful people.
The author is a travel journalist and the views expressed in the article are her own