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Nagaland The Flight of the Hornbill

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There was pin drop silence in the stands as members of the head hunting tribe, their bodies decorated with elaborate tattoos, strode into the arena wearing no more than jockstraps. Even though the tribe had renounced their head hunting ways a long time ago, their reputation as fierce, give-no-quarters warriors preceded them. A shiver of apprehension rippled through the packed arena where the annual Hornbill Festival was being held at the Heritage Village 10 km away from Kohima, in Nagaland.

The leader of the troupe explained that they were going to play a little game where the contestants would attempt to feed each other… blindfolded. The result was hilarious as participants stumbled around stuffing sticky rice all over their partner’s body except the mouth. The once feared warriors had the stadium in splits of laughter.

That one moment captured the spirit of the Hornbill Festival: a cauldron filled with the state’s heritage and culture and spiced with a generous helping of good natured fun and laughter. Over a period of five days the festival (held every year in the first week of December) showcases the rich diversity of the proud Naga tribes that people the hilly terrain. Handsome young warriors and maidens with dewy complexions dressed in traditional costumes – richly plumed headgear, necklaces of animal fangs, war paint across their faces and bodies, menacing spears, sturdy shields – set the grounds alight with colourful song and dance performances. It is an endless parade of whooping chants, mock war games, hunting parties foraging through the forest, the simple yet essential tasks of tilling the fields, the initiation of a young lad into adulthood, mock wedding ceremonies, tribal games…

Next to the main arena is the Heritage Village museum and a food court where the aromas emanating from the smoky wood fire kitchens get one’s digestive juices flowing. However, be cautious; very, very cautious for Nagas have very exotic eating habits. They will eat almost anything – dogs, monkeys, frogs, bamboo grubs, silkworm lava, snails…. So play safe and stay with the vegetarian fare and maybe wash it down with light rice beer served in fresh bamboo shoots.

Back at the arena, the tribal dances eventually make way for a traditional Naga wrestling competition where sturdy well built men with toned muscles struggled to flip their opponent over Sumo-style. At dusk the Hornbill Festival moves into hip and happening gear as teenagers spilled off the stands and into the centre of the arena to cheer the first troupe of break dancers.

As the dancers spin on their heads and flayed their legs towards the heavens an elderly man looks on. His gentle eyes and ready smile softened the hard lines of his weather beaten faces. It is portrait of the Nagas: ancient and hardy as the hills around them yet tempered with the gentleness of earthy innocence.

Fact File
The Hornbill festival is held over a period of five days during the first week of December each year at the Heritage Village, 10 km outside Nagaland’s capital city of Khoima.

Dimapur, on the border with Assam is the main airport and railhead in Nagaland. From here one must drive up to Kohima (about 60 km).

By way of accommodation there are a number of private hotels in Kohima.

Indians need to carry special Inner Line Permits (relatively easy to obtain) to enter Nagaland. For more information visit the Nagaland Tourism website at: