Hornbill Festival of Nagaland

The senior most Naga would wear the real-tiger claw necklace. (Sanjay_Austa)

The senior most Naga in a tribe distinguishes himself by wearing a tiger-claw necklace.

(The Article first appeared in Bangkok Post. Jan 2014. )

It finally took  a phone call to a Naga friend to get me a room in Kohima, Nagaland’s capital.  For the rest of the year the hotels in this troubled hill state in North East India are barely occupied  but  during the Hornbill festival you need reservation much in advance.

The weeklong Hornbill Festival does lend a bit of exotic charm to Kohima but otherwise you can confuse it with any other  Indian hill-station. There is the same stillness in the markets, the same unhurried movements of people and the same wretched congestion.

 Thankfully the festival is organized 10 kilometers away,  in the quieter  realms of  Kisama village. All the  16 major Naga tribes gather in an open air –amphitheater here and take turns to show off their traditional hunting, warring, dancing and agricultural skills. The audience is largely the local Naga people and an impressive collection of  journalists  and a modest   domestic and foreign tourists.

Traveling into Nagaland still requires the stamp of bureaucracy . You cannot enter Kohima unless you have the 10-day inner line permit given to you by the authorities at Dimapur. If you plan to travel beyond 10 days you need to apply for a 10 day extension from the Deputy commissioner of that area. Until 2011, foreigners required a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) and were required to travel in minimum groups of four. But now (barring tourists from Pakistan, Bangladesh and China) they only need to register themselves at the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) of the district they visit within 24 hours of their arrival.  The actual checking of the permit is relaxed during the festival and my taxi was  flagged in at the Dimapur  check post without as much as a once over.

After having gone past the various bureaucratic hoops the exotic celebrations of the 16 exotic tribes of Nagaland seem more enthralling. But eventually there are not many of us outsiders here despite  the scale and splendor of this festival. Such is the general perception of Nagaland as a troubled state with its history of insurgency that not many tourists think its worth the trouble.  Even I had not included Nagaland in my North East travel itinerary and needed to rely on repeated assurances of my friend in Nagaland to take the plunge.  But since the ceasefire between the Government of India and NSCN (I-M) in 2007 Nagaland has become a lot safer to travel. However it is still not safe to venture out after dark  as incidents of muggings are not rare.

This Naga however was apparently not too high in the pecking order and therefore he wears a wooden -tiger claw necklace.T (Sanjay_Austa)

This Naga however was apparently not too high in the pecking order and therefore he wears a wooden tiger-claw necklace.

The Hornbill Festival itself is an effort  not only to acquaint the world of the Naga’s  unique culture but also for the Nagas to learn about each other.  For so distinct are all the 16 Naga tribes from each other that before the British invaded Nagaland , each tribe was virtually its own nation without much knowledge of  the other tribes.  Each tribe has a separate festival of its own  . But in 2000 the Nagaland government  brought them all together under the Hornbill festival in which each tribe now participates enthusiastically.

The main attraction of the festival are the Naga dances where acts of war and hunting are simulated.  The Nagas have a colourful regalia and almost every Naga tribe has members adorning ornaments made of   animal body parts including the tiger.  I was surprised to see many Naga’s wearing tiger-claw necklaces in a government organized event such as this. But the Nagas have been traditional hunters and once  displaying tiger heads on the eves of their huts to mark their superiority in the tribe.   To display animal body parts on their person is a tradition they carry from their forefathers and it is intrinsic to their festivities.  Considering the sensitive nature of  politics in the state, the Indian Government chooses to turn a blind eye to what could have been a serious breach of wild-life norms in any other state.   The blatant use of animal body parts such as a tiger claws has the conservationist cringing but at the same time they are not alarmed,  “ It is difficult to implement the wild-life laws in states such as Nagaland. Though the tiger-claws and body parts of endangered animals is used in Naga festivals , Nagaland still has its habitat intact and unlike other states the animals are not poached for commercial purposes’’, says Ritwick Dutta,  a well known environmental lawyer.

The Hornbill from which the festival takes it name was killed to adorn the Naga head-gear but not many  Naga’s wear the feathers of this endangered bird anymore. They make  do with sloth -bear fur and artificial feathers.

Hornbill Festival, Nagaland, North East India, (Sanjay_Austa)

A Naga girl stands guard outside her tribe’s hut.

The Naga dancers themselves are not the Neanderthal me that every tourist would like them to be.  Most of them are educated and come to participate in their traditional tribal dance. Tali Longchar, a 33 yr old dancer is BA English from the  Ao tribe who  teaches English in  a school in Nagaland. Lobeno is a 23year old graduation student from Dimapur who aspires to be a writer some day.

Hornbill festival like most cultural festivals is  essentially manufactured exotica. It is a big draw for exotica seeking tourists and for lazy journalists like myself who get to see and photograph  Naga tribes in their tribal finery all under one roof without getting into the trouble of going into the hinterland where the real tribes actually live. That of course takes a lot of perseverance, time , sweat and given the condition in Nagaland some  degree of personal risk. Unfortunately I had stomach for none.

How to get their:

Dimapur has the state’s only Airport . On arrival one can proceed by road to Kohima 74 kilometers in the hills.  Kohimla is well connected by road to Assam,  Meghalaya and Manipur.

One Response to “Hornbill Festival of Nagaland”

  1. D. Sarkar says:

    Dear Sanjoy,

    Iam working with NBT, INDIA (publisher), They urgently require few photographs on tribal life in India, Can you provide us few or give us the mobile no. of the photographers who can supply us the same
    Debu Sarkar
    Dy Director (Art)

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