Nagaland. The moment I said these words out loud, I was bombarded with a string of words I did not appreciate- ‘insurgency’, ‘headhunting’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘unsafe’, ‘WILD’. I was baffled at how oblivious mainland India can be to areas far away from its imagination. Never having been to the state, never having interacted with its people, and not having even an iota of an idea about its culture, I was given unsolicited caution advisories by annoying uncles and aunties who thought they knew the world better than I do. Tch.
Thankfully I have found myself at a place in my life where I am able to recognize the difference between genuine warnings and bogus ones. And all these over-smart uncles and aunties who tried to dissuade me from travelling solo to a state so infamous for god knows how long, only ended up fueling my desire to back my bags and catch the next train headed to Dimapur, and so I did. I decided to club my intrepidations with the beloved Hornbill Festival, a cultural extravaganza spread over ten days across the state of Nagaland.
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What's In Here
How to Reach Hornbill Festival
The Hornbill Festival is mainly located around the Kohima town, with the main festival arena situated at Kisama Heritage Village, some 12 kilometres from the main Kohima town. If you’re on a budget, reaching Hornbill will not be the easiest travels of your life, but will surely be rewarding. Here is how I reached the Hornbill Festival:
Delhi to Guwahati flight.
Guwahati to Dimapur train (12068 Jan Shatabdi Express). This train is the fastest travel mode between the two cities and only takes about 4 hours to reach the Naga city. I opted for the non-AC 2S compartment which proved to be quite economical yet comfortable, thanks to the cool winter breeze of the Assamese countryside.
Dimapur to Kohima local bus. The 70 odd kilometres between the two biggest towns of Nagaland are probably the worst I’ve ever traversed through. The roads are unmade and the national highway is essentially a dirt track through which all kinds of vehicles pass over. It took me 5 hours to cover such a short distance! Truly, a backbreaking journey.
Kohima to Kigwema shared taxi. The bus drops you at the Nagaland State Transport (NST) bus stand in Kohima but shared taxis are found easily from BOC. The 15 kilometres take some 80 rupees per passenger and are covered in about 40 minutes.
Where to stay at the Hornbill Festival: Vicha Guest House
17 hours of travel and 4 different modes of transportation later, I finally made it to Kigwema. Kigwema is the nearest inhabited village to the Kisama Heritage Village. Kisama does not have any houses or stay options, and only consists of the festival ground. Kigwema, on the other hand, houses a solid population, has several homestays and campsites and even a church and college of its own. Located some 2 kilometres from the festival arena, one can easily walk up and down from Kigwema.
But, here’s the catch: Hornbill isn’t (obviously) the most budget-friendly places I’ve experienced. Prices soar during this time of the year and the cheapest accommodation usually starts at 1000 rupees a night… which can usually sustain two nights of accommodation including meals for a traveller like me! Thankfully, I got lucky.
I somehow stumbled upon Vicha Guest House which also has a dormitory option, apart from private rooms, which is great for cost-cutting, something I did not see in other homestays. This beautiful little home is run by Mr Zhato and his wife and I was floored by the warmth and sincerity with which they receive their guests. Mr Zhato even went out of his way to ensure a ~creepy stalker cum fellow festival goer~ leaves the property immediately after I realized he had followed me all the way to Vicha. As a solo female traveller, I felt right at home and apart from the delicious meals Mr Zhato’s wife cooked for everyone, the fried papad accompanied with every meal are missed dearly even today!
I strongly recommend Vicha Homestay if you plan to experience the Hornbill Festival this year. To get in touch with Mr Zhato, please call or message him at +91 7005130393 or +91 9436437930. You can also email him at email@example.com . If you quote my name, you will also receive a special discount. You can thank me later!
Things to do in Hornbill Festival
While the Hornbill Festival arena is in itself a great place to be at, there’s much more around Kisama that you must experience and explore. Here’s all I can think of-
General Sato’s House, Old Kigwema
Kōtoku Satō was an infamous lieutenant general in the Japanese Imperial Army who disobeyed the direct orders of his general and pulled back his troops to save them from starvation and diseases, which ultimately resulted in Japan’s defeat in the battle. The house he stayed in during the course of his time in the battle, is located in Old Kigwema, about a 3 kilometres walk from Vicha Homestay. Although now the house is inhabited by someone else, one can still see the bullet marks on the walls of the house, dating back to the battle.
Angami Stone Pulling Ceremony, Mima Village
The stone pulling ceremony is an ancient Angami ritual which was initially done before sowing the seeds to pray for a good harvest. In the ceremony, a massive engraved monolithic stone is pulled by the men of the tribe.
In addition to the weight of the stone (~2 tonnes) (!!!), there is also the weight of the livre- the wooden bed on which the rock sits, as well as the weight of the top 5 wrestlers of the tribe who stand upon the said stone. All the men and women of the Angami tribe participate in this mammoth ritual which is usually held in Mima village, about 3 kilometres from Kigwema and is open for tourists to experience. Although I could not see the ceremony for myself, I saw videos from fellow travellers I met at the festival and wish I could have seen it in person.
Hornbill Festival Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony of Hornbill Festival which usually begins around 4 pm on the 1st of December is a grand spectacle of all tribal troupes coming together on the stage and dancing and singing throughout the evening.
The energy on the floor is indescribable and the vibrations of the traditional Naga music coupled with copious amounts of rice beer take you someplace else entirely!
Get Drunk on Rice Beer at Hornbill
If there is one thing I’d like to associate the festival to- it has to be the amount of rice beer I had and the number of friends I made on said drunken nights. Most morungs– little huts dedicated to each tribe to showcase their traditions- offer this goodness at a per glass charge, and the best part? These glasses are essentially just pieces of bamboo culms smoothened out and filled with beer!
Visit Different Morungs at Hornbill
Traditionally, each tribe used to have their own morungs where young children were sent to study. These morungs used to be the centre of acculturation and education for the children where boys were taught life skills like hunting and carving and women were taught cooking and weaving through folk dance, music, tales etc. These morungs were grand buildings and aimed to protect the traditions and cultures of the village. Important announcements such as birth, death, war or weather predictions were done at these morungs by beating the traditional Naga log drum.
Since the advent of Christianity in Nagaland, the morungs have now been abandoned but one can still visit them in the villages, or see the ones put on display at the festival arena.
Witness Various Cultural Performances at Hornbill
Throughout the ten days of the festival, there are various tribal cultural performances that took places throughout the day where troupes from several tribes showcase their folk dances, songs, and even enact their way of living such as making fire and fermenting zutho (rice beer). These performances give an insight into what traditional Naga life really was like- before modernization took over (much like the rest of the world).
Hornbill Night carnival, Kohima
During the Hornbill Festival, the streets of Kohima turn into an otherworldly place with vibrant stalls, street food, baked goods and mini concerts happening everywhere. The night carnival begins at 6 pm but really starts to pick up pace by 7 pm. Troupes of various tribes also parade the streets in their traditional attires, singing folk songs. Starting from Y Junction and ending at Razhü Point, it is definitely a sight to behold!
World War II Museum, Kisama
The World War II Museum is a newly inaugurated museum right at the festival ground at Kisama. If you’re interested in learning about the war, and the Battle of Kohima- one of the bloodiest battles of the war- this is the place to go to. With an entry ticket of a mere 20 rupees, this is a good place to spend some time away from the cultural festivities of the festival and indulge in some historical facts from a bygone era.
Shiirho Viewpoint, Kigwema
Shiirho Viewpoint in Kigwema is located quite close to Vicha Homestay and overlooks the beautiful valleys of the Naga Hills. With paddy fields as far as the eye can see and a bright blue sky above, this is a great place to catch a beautiful sunset.
Pro tip: There are various events that keep taking place in various villages throughout the 10 days of the Festival. A PDF of all events along with dates and venues is available on their official website. Here is what the 2019 schedule looked like.
Hornbill Festival- FAQs
ATM Near Hornbill Festival
There is no ATM in Kigwema, the village nearest to the festival ground. The nearest ATM to the festival arena is at Kohima, some 15 kilometres away. So make sure you carry enough cash to the festival as credit or debit cards are not accepted anywhere. However, I did see SBI and Axis Bank putting up stalls for visitors where they could swipe their cards and get cash in exchange, for a small fee.
Network Connectivity at Hornbill Festival
Only Airtel and Jio work at Kigwema village. Network connectivity is especially poor at the festival ground in Kisama, where only Airtel works intermittently. Idea and Vodafone did not work anywhere in the said region.
Transportation at Hornbill Festival
Nagaland State Transportation plies several buses that run from Kohima to Kisama and back at various intervals throughout the day to help tourists and locals staying in Kohima visit the Hornbill Festival.
Alcohol in Nagaland
Nagaland is a dry state. You can get rice beer at the festival arena, or if you get lucky and stumble upon secret underground bars (like I did in Kohima and Dzuleke), you can also get some rum and other beer. But apart from that, be prepared to go liquor-free.
Hornbill Festival entry ticket
The entry ticket for the Hornbill Festival is just rupees 20 per day. You need to buy the wrist band ticket before entering the arena on each day you visit.
Nagaland Inner Line Permit
All tourists- Indian and foreigners alike- must obtain an inner line permit while travelling to Nagaland. This can be obtained from Nagaland House in Delhi, Guwahati, Kolkata or Shillong, or even online. It costs 50 rupees for 15 days and 100 rupees for 30 days. I got mine online, and you can too on their website. Pssst. Throughout my 3 weeks in Nagaland, I was not asked for my ILP even once. But better safe than sorry!
Hornbill Festival- Is it worth the hype?
The Hornbill Festival is a great place for those who do not have the time to go around Nagaland and experience the state’s rich traditions and cultures. But having experienced both, there is no denying that indulging in the slow village life and the traditions and culture that come with it was far better than watching troupes enact these said traditions in a highly commercialised and ~touristy~ festival.
The rice beer that I bought for 20 rupees a glass at shady village bars was being sold for 100 rupees at the festival. Additionally, the hoard of photographers and tourists that treated members of the cultural troupes as mere props to take pictures with bothered me immensely but that is a discussion that I would like to save for another day.
So while the Hornbill Festival is extremely rich and colourful, it did have its own share of flaws that I could not look past. Ultimately, it is indeed a great place to get a crash course on Nagaland and its culture if you don’t have the time and/ or interest in experiencing the beauty of living like a local in its beautiful tiny villages.
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Yay, transparency! My stay at the Hornbill Festival was sponsored by Vicha Homestay, but the views reflected in this post are solely my own. I promise.
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A twenty-something solo adventurer, Avantika finds comfort in learning about various cultures, its people and listening to age-old folk tales. When not on the road, she can be found cuddled up with her dog in her room, with a book in her hand.