What started off as a relatively short-duration event has now grown into a ten-day extravaganza. The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland in India’s northeast has stormed the tourism circuit and continues to draw an ever-increasing number of tourists. Read on this essentials guide to plan your trip to Hornbill Festival.
Why Hornbill Festival?
Each tribe of Nagaland observes at least one festival of their own celebrated across the year. These are usually related to agricultural shifts like the sowing, harvest, or other seasons. But Hornbill festival is the massive combination of all these festivals, observed in one place at a single time – and that’s how the name “festival of festivals” comes about.
The Hornbill Festival of Nagaland is a display of unity amongst the various diverse tribes inhabiting the mountains and the plains of Nagaland, as well as the traditional and contemporary cultures of the Naga people.
Decode the Hornbill Festival with Morungs
Before you read any further about the festival, you need to understand the basic aspect of Morungs. Why? Because the moment you enter the festival site, you’d be surrounded by them.
A Morung is a traditional dormitory where the youth gathered and learned skills like the art of war, hunting, making weapons, and also all necessary virtues of humanity. The literal practice of the Morung has been done away with and the Morungs that you’d see during the festival are replicas of the actual Morungs of the past. That out of the way, please follow along for the rest of the details. 🙂
The heritage site hosts seventeen Morungs, representing different tribes of Nagaland. During the festival, among other things, each Morung (and thus each tribe) showcases their respective dance forms and folk songs, attires, traditional weapons, handicrafts, art, and accessories, and most importantly, sell their unique tribal cuisines.
Smaller details first
The Hornbill Festival owes the origin of its name to the Hornbill bird, found in certain parts of the country. The bird has a great significance in Nagaland and many art and crafts still revolve around it.
The Hornbill Festival is held annually from 1st to 10th of December in Kisama Heritage village, just off the capital city of Kohima. As you enter the heritage village, you’d notice an arched gate with “Window to Nagaland” written on it, and that is precisely what the festival is – it gives you a peek into the culture and history of the Nagas.
Here’s a fun fact. You’d notice some participants yell “battle cries” – a loud howling sound, much like an anxious-horse that, in most cases, starts with a high-pitched sound and ends with a low “hai”. I believe not many can make that sound perfectly – at least not me. 🙂
What to expect at The Hornbill Festival?
The festival includes an exhibition of various arts and crafts, flowers of various kinds, World War 2 museum (remember the legendary battle of Kohima?), display of artifacts and relics, paintings, food stalls, ornaments, and other accessory stalls, weaves stalls, among many other.
Listen to folk songs, witness Naga folk dances, and various competitive events such as king chili eating contest, oiled-bamboo climbing, the rock contest, stone pulling competition, best chef competition, shooting, half marathon, an entrepreneurship competition for college students, international photo festival ‘aka’ HIPFEST, and many more.
Top 10 Activities at The Hornbill Festival
Besides everything mentioned above, there are many other engaging activities that happen simultaneously during the festival, at the venue itself or at nearby venues. In other words, the entire area is buzzing with action and you have ten days to hop-in and out of various events. I’d list the top ten must-witness activities when you visit Hornbill.
Please note that the specifics of these events, especially those organized outside the Heritage venue, may differ in each version of the festival.
- Cock Fight Contest: Held at the main festival venue itself, this event is an imitation of a fight between fowls, whereby participants pull one of their legs up with one hand and ‘fight’ each other. If you fall or keep the other leg down, you lose. The last man standing, wins the game. It’s not as easy as it sounds. It requires a lot of strength, balance. and presence of mind.
- ‘Go-Cart’ Race: Names can mislead but this race offers an adrenaline rush like no other event. Our Go-Carts are smaller in size and made entirely with woods and sticks – even the wheels! The race seeks to promote traditional games. Most Nagas, including me, grew up racing with such carts – that is why most of us have scratch marks on our knees and elbows. The game is a symbol of strength, agility, and courage. Recently, the fun event has witnessed foreign (European) participants too.
- Tug of War: A crowd puller and one of the oldest games of the Nagas, focuses on strength, stamina and strategy. Sixteen tribes of Nagaland, dressed their own traditional war attires, participate in this event. You’d watch the Tug of War with bated breath as teams pull each other and their battle-like chorus fills the stadium. Winners are decided based on best-of-three criteria and some tests last more than a whopping 20 minutes!
- Strongest Man: Held in Kisama Heritage Village itself, this contest witnesses the strong and trained participants undergo grueling acts of squat lifts, farmers’ walks, power stairs, loading races, tire flips, stone pulls, and deadlifts, all using no ordinary weight.
- Pineapple Eating Contest: Nagaland produces one of the sweetest pineapples and these are just the ones that are used in the pineapple competition. In other words, unlike most competitions, here you don’t ‘struggle’ in the usual sense. 🙂 Sometimes, foreigners win this contest and take back sweet memories!
- Stilt Bamboo Race: More than 10 grown ass men get on bamboo stilts to look like cranes and race. It’s a test of strength, skill, balance, and flexibility. This is an indigenous game of the Nagas and I remember playing this as a kid. To fare well in such a race, I’d say one does need a fair amount of practice.
- Hornbill Motor Rally: The annual motor rally, with roaring engines, enthrall the visitors to Kohima, the capital district of Nagaland. The event spans three days with each day showcasing a distinct theme such as the off-road challenge or the WWII peace rally (to pay homage to the martyrs during the Battle of Kohima, 1944).
- Annual Hornbill Cycle rally: Some events carry attractive prizes. For instance, the Hornbill Cycle rally winner takes home some really cool BMX cycles. Sometimes, a high-visibility contest serves a public-awareness purpose too, such as “Go-Green”. This event is known to be held in Dimapur.
- Kohima Downhill Mountain Biking: As one of the most awaited events of the year, this race attracts participants from all over the country and also receives coverage from many parts of the world. On the tracks of a scenic forest, this race makes its way from the top of a mountain all the way to the valley through rough terrain.
- Hornbill Angling Festival: Held at Doyang river, Wokha and at Lavi Lake in Dimapur, over a hundred anglers tackle to win a cash prize going up to lacs of Indian Rupees. Speak of prizes!
How to get to the Hornbill Festival venue?
Please try to keep up – it can get a little tedious over here, especially when you are traveling on a budget. To get to Kohima, plan to reach Dimapur – by air or by train or by road. From Dimapur, you get reliable public transportation or even hire a private taxi.
Nagaland State Transport (NST) buses operate on reasonable fares. However, rates of public or shared cabs may fluctuate depending on weather, road conditions, demand, or just a mischievous cab driver. From a normal fare of INR 300, it can more than double. However, these rates affect not just for the tourists but the locals too…I know right.
Your journey ends in the middle of Kohima town. From where hop on a local bus (normally blue in color), pay about INR 10 and get to “BOC” or “PR Hill” junction. This is the last leg of your journey. Shared cabs from here will take you right to the Hornbill venue for around INR 300 or lower if you want to share the taxi with other people.
If you choose to go with guided tours, you could save yourself a lot of trouble by paying more. Here are some of the government-approved tour operators in Nagaland:
- Nagaland Hornbill Tours & Travels: Lerie, Kohima ([email protected])
- Alder Tours & Travels: Opp. 2nd World War Cemetary, Blue Bayou Building, Midland, Kohima ([email protected] / www.aldertoursntravels.com / www.nagalandtreks.com)
- Tribal Discovery Tours & Travels: Opp. Pentecostal Church, Purana Bazar, Dimapur ([email protected] / [email protected])
Note by Unakriti: Contact info provided by the author is reproduced as-is. Our attempts to contact these agencies failed.
Places to stay during Hornbill Festival
Okay, there are a few options – some popular, others not. When traveling to Nagaland to witness the Hornbill Festival, it helps to make prior arrangements.
Homestays are not very common as far as regular eyes, like mine, can see. I suppose these are arranged by tourist guides that do all the arrangements. I recommend you to stick to such packages if you are keen on homestays.
Campings arrangements, if you are interested, are provided by professional companies who specialize in this sort of thing. You’ll enjoy a safe and beautiful site. As you enter Kisama Heritage Village, you’d notice various display boards by camping organizers and how you can contact them. Again, make prior arrangements as far as possible or bring your own tent!
Also, there are some expensive resorts around. But if you are here for Hornbill, I suppose you would go back to your paid roofs only to sleep and keep your stuff. So, though it all depends on you, I have emphasized more on hotels.
You’d find many hotels and guesthouses in plain sight in and around the capital city. The quality of rooms and service can vary with prices. Beware though that room rates can be higher-than-usual during festival time and, given the high tourist footfall, it helps to make prior arrangements. For what it’s worth, here’s a list of hotels in Kohima that might help some.
- Hotel Pine – Opposite Oking Hospital, Kohima (contact: +919436001041)
- EcoStay Hostel – Below Kohima War Cemetary, TCP gate, Kros Plaza Building, Kohima (contact: +917005916834)
- Niraamaya Retreats – Aradura Hill, Tekhuba, Kohima (contact: +918045104510)
- The East Gate Hotel – Opposite Kohima War Cemetary, Chandmari Road, Kohima (contact: +919089434838)
- Central Guest House Kohima – Below New NST station, Daklane, House no. 29, Sector 2, Kohima (contact: +919402800057)
Note by Unakriti: Contact information provided by the author is verified. All numbers are current at the time of publishing this post. However, a call to Niraamaya Retreats is routed to an answering machine in Bengaluru!
Hornbill Festival Tourism Police
The Hornbill Festival witnesses hundreds of thousands of visitors to Kohima. Typically, the Indian northeastern states are safe for travel. For your convenience, the government has provisioned Tourist Police.
Nagaland Tourist Helpline Numbers +91 9366532795 and +91 8794833041
The security folks are specially trained to handle visitors’ concerns. If you need support, help is just a call away.
Think North East India
For those who do not know what northeast India is like, it comprises of eight states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura. The Himalayas and its waters define the region’s terrain, climate, rich biodiversity, and the peculiar indigenous lifestyles her people follow.
That North East India is bound by Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet to the north, Bangladesh to the south and west, and Myanmar to the east hints at the eclectic mix of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity. This is where elements of Asia come together to do what they do best – cast a spell.
The region’s innate charms have remained under-explored. Travelers, who figure out how to backpack in Northeast India, find gems such as Dzükou Valley all to themselves. Importantly, the hospitable people of the region make sure that visitors take back the choicest of memories.
Meanwhile, pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices.
Have you been to or live in India’s North East? Come, let’s talk about your experiences and help someone follow your footsteps! Click The Dialogue Diaries™ – Interview Line for details and to get started.
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