World Indigenous People’s Day: Why I Will Not Visit Hornbill Festival Again

It’s the International Day for the World’s Indigenous People today. The sudden burst of portraits of people of various tribes from across the world on my Instagram feed today were all celebrating the World Indigenous People’s Day but very few spoke about why this day is so important across the world now more than ever.

I quickly joined the bandwagon of sifting through a number of portraits I had taken of Adivasi people during my travels and I realised most of them came from Nagaland. The Hornbill Festival 2019 was a turning point in my life, for it opened the portal to the beauty of Nagaland and its people. This festival takes places every year in December in Kohima and is a celebration of the 17 tribes of Nagaland and their ancient traditions and cultures. It’s a 10 days long fiesta, and yet there are a hundred and one reasons why I would probably not visit the Hornbill Festival in Nagaland again.

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Also read: “Why I Left Khonoma Earlier Than Planned“.

Hornbill Festival is as commercial is it gets

hornbill festival nagaland opening ceremony

I understand that the Hornbill Festival is a huge source of income for a lot of small businesses and artists in Nagaland, but in the past year, I’ve realised it is not the kind I would like to visit again. Amidst stage performances and chief guest inaugurations, the authenticity of the tribal way of life in Nagaland replaced a kind of show business in the Hornbill Festival. I would’ve preferred a genuine interaction with the naga people instead of watching them on a small stage from afar.

It was a photographer’s traffic jam

Hornbill Festival to me seemed to be less for the tourists genuinely interested in the history and culture of Nagaland, and more for the scores of photographers with their telescopic lenses that swarmed the festival arena ready to take a few pictures of each performance and move on. I saw photographers fighting to get the right spot and pay no attention or respect to the show that was being put on. The distance that these photographers maintained from their subjects really perturbed me and was just not my cup of tea. And this brings me to how…

Tourists treat tribes like photo props

hornbill festival nagaland arena
Tourists and photographers lining the festival arena to get that perfect shot

Once each performance was over, the tribal troupes would roam the festival arena to grab a bite, or just get some rest, only to be assaulted by the thousands of tourists who ran at the opportunity of seeing indigenous people, especially in their traditional clothing and jewellery. I saw tourists pose with the tribal people and take pictures without consent, treating them like inanimate cardboard cutouts. These tourists did not even bother exchange a smile or a second glance when the said picture was taken, and simply moved on to find the next victim of this disrespect. It was an extremely sorry sight to see and this was one of the main reasons why I swore off not to visit the Hornbill Festival again.

The food at Horbill Festival was barely indigenous

I wonder if this was because the traditional Naga food doesn’t sell much within the tourists, but whatever the reason was – pizzas and samosas trumped the traditional Naga dishes like smoked bamboo shoots and fermented soyabean. Although zutho (rice beer) was consumed in copious amounts, it was uncommon to see people relishing the variety of pork, bamboo, colocasia and mithun dishes that Nagaland is most known for. I had a much better experience with Naga food in the villages that I travelled to, after the festival.

Also read: “My Journey from Khonoma to Dzuleke“.

How can we be more empathetic towards indigenous communities?

1. Listen more, speak less

When it comes to indigenous people, there struggles and problems are far different than anything we can ever imagine. It’s important that when interacting with a marginalised community, we give them an opportunity to share their feelings and thoughts. As a traveller, ask the people questions about their struggles and lend a genuine ear to their stories. You will come out far more informed than you were when you stepped in, I promise.

2. Contribute to the indigenous economy while travelling

My host family in Longwa, home of the Konyak tribe.

While travelling to remote regions, you must have come across various organizations working for the economic upliftment of the indigenous communities. Whether it is through art or tourism, be mindful about where you are spending your money and let it go to those who may need it the most. Instead of staying at hotels, choose homestays runs by local people and support local artists by buying your souvenirs directly from them.

3. When photographing indigenous people, consent is key

When photographing tribal communities, it is important to not treat your subject like a lifeless model. Their colourful attire and jewellery are attractive, yes but there’s a much deeper layer than the way they look. Before you take a photograph, make sure you as for permission. If they speak a different language, ask someone to translate for you. And if they say no, respectfully step away instead of being annoyingly persistent. Better yet – engage in a conversation with them before whipping out your camera. Chances are, they’ll be more comfortable with you photographing them once you’ve established a connection, and you’ll probably come out with a nice conversation to reminisce over. Win-win!

4. Stand up for their cause

There are several donation campaigns and online petitions that keep doing rounds whenever an atrocity takes places against the indigenous communities. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Draft 2020 is a relevant and recent example. This draft, once passed, will uproot hundreds of tribal communities in India and displace them through deforestation under the garb of “development”. It is important that we stand up and raise our voice for causes like these since they become detrimental in the future of the indigenous communities

Visit this link to learn how you can stand up against the EIA 2020.

Have you ever come across a photographer/ tourist mistreating indigenous people? If yes, where? I would like to hear about your own experiences with these issues, and what you did to fight back against this toxic culture! Please drop in your stories in the comments below.

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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.


  • Capt Suresh Sharma

    Excellent article. Photographers of this age have made a mess of every place and sure enough there are places where these PHOTOGRAOHERS are now hated and soon they will be booted. They have no inclination to learn about the manners and etiquettes as a human and photographer. Their greed is to get more and more shots and scream on Instagram. They shamelessly go after their subjects and extend no respect and courtesy.

    I find almost all of them are fake.

  • Vidur

    Very well authored and I understand the sentiments behind it. Have never been there, would love to go but only to experience the tribes. Not as a photo op

  • delhifundos2014

    I never came across to such situation where tourist or a photographer mistreating indigenous people. But I am happy that you raised the point. But I would love to attend this fest. Hornbill Festival looks great place to understand the culture of the different Naga tribes. Thanks for sharing the details and your experience with us

  • Ramya

    Kudos Avantika at least someone still covers the truth. I agree with all the points mentioned by you. I believe even the government should invite a limited number of media and photographers. They think the more the merrier, and it leads to utter chaos, as mentioned by you. Also, the culture of that place gets negatively affected. The locals tend to loose the innocence and uniqueness, for which we travel to these places. Well written girl.

  • pamela

    Wow Avantika, loved your post. The way you mentioned every detailed really very thought provoking. I know how photographers are bombarded at any place and creating messes. But sad to read about changing food style and cultural habits. One must protect the culture and history for future generation.

  • Shagufta

    What a thought provoking post this is. Respect is the least thing these people must be treated with. Over-commercialisation is killing the whole essence of the festival. Hope your post lights up some minds.

  • Lancelot Quadras

    Hi Avantika, this is a thought provoking story indeed. It’s important to show respect and not use people as props. I remember when visiting Majuli in Assam, I had the best time at the home stay. The people were so good and we loved every bit of their hospitality.

  • Raksha NagarajRaksha

    Wow this is such an amazing post. I had planned for Hornbill festival last year, but unfortunately it did not happen. I had planned for this year which again looks bleak. I will definitely visit it next year as I am so intrigued by the tribes of Nagaland and would love to know more about them.

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