Festivals are an inherent part of our culture. India is home to a wide variety of communities with their respective cultures and traditions. Unique in every way, these festivals are celebrated to not only preserve the traditions through generations but to encourage intercultural engagement as well. The Hornbill Festival, celebrated by the people in Nagaland, is one such festival that encompasses the Naga culture and showcases it exquisitely to the viewers.
History of the Festival
Located in the Northeastern region of India, the state of Nagaland is one of the most culturally diverse and distinct states in the region. Hornbill Festival celebrates not one but many milestones achieved by the Naga community throughout its history, from attaining statehood in 1963 to the after years of military unrest to globalising the Naga way of life. The inception of the festival came from the participation in the International Tourism Borse held in Berlin in 1998, along with World Tourism Mart, London in 1998 and 1999. Having more than 60% of its population dependent on the agricultural sector, each tribe is known to celebrate their individual harvest festivals. The government of Nagaland felt the need to unite and strengthen the inter-tribal relations through a common celebration. Thus, the idea of the Hornbill Festival was born. It is known to be held in the year 2000 for the first time and has continued to be held for the past 20 years successfully, with each year bringing something new to the table. It is held during December (1st to 10th) in the village of Kisama (a portmanteau of Kigwema and Phesema), located 12 kilometres from Kohima. The festival had taken place at Khouchiezie, Kohima in its initial years, later moving to the current venue for its spaciousness. However, it’s celebrated in many other districts as well such as Wokha, Dimapur, Phek, Mokokchung and even other Northeastern states such as Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur and Tripura.
What is special about it?
The name of the festival comes from the endemic bird of the state: Hornbill. Highly admired by the people for its alertness, grandeur and majesty, the hornbill bird is not only a sign of solemnity but of the many ways it has been a part of the Naga tradition. Embedded in their attires (the headgear) and their folklores, it was felt that the Hornbill was common among all the tribes. It celebrates the culture and traditions of the 16 recognised Naga tribes – Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Kachari, Khiamniungan, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Rengma, Sangtam, Sumi, Yimchunger and Zeme-Liangmai (Zeliang). There are quite many highlights of the festival, one of them being the Morungs. Essentially, they are community spaces for young boys who were taught about their tribes’ history, folklore, dances, songs and the techniques of war. They would also be used for council meetings and other festive occasions from time to time. The roofs are made of dried leaves and grass with nameplates adorning each tribes’ name at the entrance. The walls of the morungs have various symbols on them which are of importance to the tribes, such as the symbol for sun and moon (doni and polo) which has been worshipped for many years. It also features a woman’s breast symbolizing life, protection of the family and as a sign of prosperity etc. An interesting thing to be noted, is the spatial arrangement of the morungs are according to the geographical positioning of each tribe. A large amphitheatre stands in the middle, surrounded by the morungs. Events would usually start from 9 am and last until dawn. Besides the uniquely built morungs, the well-stitched traditional wear of the tribes is definitely an eye-catcher as well. Each tribe having a different attire than the other shows how diverse they are from each other. The headgear is one of the most characteristic features of each tribe. Only successful headhunters were allowed to wear headgears with a hornbill feather in them, as it was believed that the honour of donning the feather had to be earned. There are various etiquettes and rituals followed by tribes such as the tapping of two conical hard leather instruments, to awaken the forefathers to ensure victory in warfare. All of these were iterated at the festival. From Angami women performing a welcoming dance that marked the commencement of the festival called Pita to the Pangan by the Chang tribe which consisted of a slow-motion dance with vigorous vocals. The Akhu Keteli of the Rengmas shows how young tribe members would visit newlyweds and rejoice in marriage, asking the groom for the price of the wife through meat or beer. Every performance leaves the viewer with something new. Packed with variety one can distinguish between northern and southern districts as one showcases log drums and morung culture while the other wood carving, stone pulling ceremonies, housing structures etc. Shelter and clothing aside, every community is known undoubtedly through their food. With delicacies such as yam patties, naga chilli chutneys, leaf cooked rice cakes, boiled naga beans, roasted millets, slow-cooked pork, brown rice, bamboo and beef pickles paired with chilled rice beer, the Naga meal is sure to leave one wanting for more. Besides performances, stalls and other festivities, many other programmes such as Hornbill International Rock Contest (Dimapur), International Loin Loom Festival (Dimapur) and Miss Nagaland contest take place as well. In 2019, apart from cultural performances, hiking and trekking to Mount Teyozwu and Dzukhou Valley, a WWII rally and Stone-pulling event were also arranged.
Over the years, the festival has grown and reached more people, nationally and internationally. Every year, the organisers keep adding new flairs, such as the sign at the gate that reads “Naga Heritage Village” in the manner of the “Hollywood” sign and the gate of the festival reading “Window to Nagaland” inspired by a theme park in China reading “Window to the world”. Besides the Hornbill Festival, there are many other attractions visitors can treat themselves to; WWII cemetery, Naga bazaar, Nagaland State Museum, Catholic Cathedral, and Khonoma village known to have been the last base for the naga warriors against the British empire. The festival serves as a ground for not only celebrating Naga culture with people from all over the world but also providing an entrepreneurial space by allowing local traders to sell their goods such as pickles, handicrafts, jam, handlooms, local food and drinks. Most of the vendors are local but may also branch out as far as Jammu and Kashmir. Visitors must keep in mind to obtain an ILP (Inner Line Permit) for domestic travellers or a RAP (Restricted Area Permit) for international travellers before arriving in Nagaland. Lodging and other essentials can be either booked with an agency early on or maybe opted out by the visitor
The Bottom Line
The Hornbill festival has seen immense growth in its audience in the past few years. It has been a huge brand of tourism for Nagaland and the government plans to continue to boost the festival further. A vision document of 2030 for Nagaland was released by Governor P.B. Acharya with the CM T.R. Zeliang mentioned how the vision focuses on creating employment opportunities for Nagaland’s youth, women, improving the standard of living of the people in general, and building connectivity within states and neighbouring countries.
One comes to experience the authentic Naga tradition through Hornbill Festival. It was introduced to give the audience an experience of the genuine Nagaland. The tribes have their respective festivals which are celebrated however Hornbill festival acts as an umbrella for the rest, making it known as the festivals of festivals. A prominent Naga human rights activist Neingulo Krome stated in a research paper written by A. Longkumer, to quote –
“One way the Hornbill festival is good is that it is keeping traditions alive – the other negative aspect is that it is corrupting indigenous life. Without the real intention of indigeneity, it has become a commercial enterprise. If we want to have our indigenousness then let’s have it in its original form.”
Traditions and cultures are being constantly tweaked from time to time, every community is susceptible to it. As for authenticity, one cannot blend modernity without losing its identity or creating something completely different out of it. We as people have grown so much, learning from each other’s cultures and traditions, let’s learn to not only preserve our past but to celebrate its evolution.