‘Nagaland’s 10-day Hornbill Festival is a display of heritage and culture, bridging tradition and modernity’
It’s the thumping of drums that almost always has a hypnotic effect. It seeps into the body and resonates with the heartbeat. It is a bit disorienting at first and then becomes all-consuming, as the whole body pulsates and the blood seems to flow to the staccato rhythm. The sound seems to reverberate both within and without, echoing from the hills and ricocheting back. For ten days beginning December, it is as if the whole of the country’s Northeast marches to the beat of its collective heritage as the immensely popular Hornbill Festival gets underway.
Called the ‘festival of festivals,’ it is held from December 1 to 10 every year. It is named after the colourful and rare hornbill bird which is almost extinct in Nagaland, due to the strong ingrained culture of hunting in the Naga culture. But it is nevertheless an important part of the folklore of almost all the Naga tribes and hence has a huge cultural significance. The festival brings together the 16 main Naga tribes and is a showcase for everything local and Naga. It is a riot of colour, especially the deep ones – reds, maroons, blacks, dark oranges and yellows.
Much of the festival is held at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama near Kohima, which in itself is a beautiful setting. Designed to provide a glimpse of Nagaland in a nutshell, the village is set on sprawling grounds against a series of hills. At its heart are 16 morungs (traditional communal long houses where young boys lived), representing the 16 officially recognized tribes and built in such as way as to represent their location on a map of Nagaland. Each morung is different and distinct, incorporating all major Naga symbols – mithun heads and horns, spears, daos, hornbill, totem poles.
The festival brings together the 16 main Naga
tribes and is a showcase for everything local and Naga
When it started almost two decades ago, the festival was all about Naga traditional folk song and dance, dealing with subjects such as farming and war, and traditional games such as greased bamboo-pole climbing, but it has taken on many more dimensions over the years. Now, not only does it include such inherent things as sound of the log drums, singing of head hunting songs in ferocious traditional dresses, ritual dances, traditions, handicrafts and garments, food and but much more. Along with these are held colourful performances, sports, food fairs, games and ceremonies. There are also traditional arts such as painting, wood carving, and sculpture, along with songs, dances, fashion shows, beauty pageants, contests in archery and wrestling, and indigenous games.
Within the village premises is also a World War 11 Museum, a Bamboo Heritage Hall and Bamboo Pavilion where events are held, a kids carnival, a horti-scape involving local foliage and a stadium for live performances and concerts. Alongside, there are other events held such as the motor rally, a literary festival and a designers’ contest. For those looking to head out a little more, Kohima’s night market should do the trick with its bustling shops and array of items on offer.
In addition to all this, Hornbill Festival is also known for its contemporary music. Such has been its popularity that it is currently held as a separate event in Dimapur. The ten day Hornbill International Rock Concert sees the participation of bands from across the country culminating in one band being crowned each year. Winning bands have hailed from not only the region but as far away as Bangalore.
But for visitors, each day brings a heavy dose of Naga culture and heritage. It is common to see traditionally dressed Nagas performing traditional dances and singing folk songs, at once demonstrating their martial tradition coupled with grace, pride and quiet dignity. The riot of colour, the various costumes, the beating of a variety of drums and instruments, the rhythm of music, and the melange of dialects certainly provide a sensory overload. If it is tradition that dominates the day, it is the thumping, carnival like atmosphere that prevails at night, when everyone gathered, both locals and visitors, let down their hair and get into the fun and enjoyment. It is an experience that promises to linger long after the drums have gone silent and Kisama has been left far behind.
Words: Anita Rao Kashi