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Travel & Holiday

Hornbill's tribal thrills

Tribes in Nagaland in north-east Asia show off their rich heritage in a colourful festival
The Straits Times - February 28, 2012
By: Tan Chung Lee
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Hornbill's tribal thrills -- PHOTOS: TAN CHUNG LEE

A visit to the remote Nagaland highlands in north-east Asia, seeing tribes come together to celebrate their famous Hornbill Festival, is like being transported back in time.

The most recent festival, held over seven days from Dec 1 last year, was a visual feast of tribal life. It was a fascinating experience to see the inhabitants of this forested land, the Nagas, carrying colourful ceremonial spears, fearsome-looking daos (machetes) and battle shields, and wearing vibrant costumes, elaborate jewellery and headdresses.

What was even more remarkable is that this is no tricked-up performance for tourists. Nothing has been adulterated, making it a brilliant showcase of authentic Naga culture.

The Nagas, as they took turns to dance, sing and play music, were engaging in many age-old traditions to do with agriculture and hunting that they still observe back in their highland villages.

They are also known for being fierce warriors and were once headhunters, and their dances, involving hops, skips and jumps, also - presumably until recently - served as exercises to build up their stamina for battle.

The annual Hornbill Festival itself, though, is a more recent invention, having only started in 2000. Named after the Greater Indian Hornbill bird which is considered sacred, the festival came about partly because the Nagas are spread across eight districts of the vast territory of 16,500 sq km and often exist in isolation from one another.

The Nagaland government thought a festival would give the tribes a chance to learn about one another - and now, intrepid tourists can get to know about them as well.

The festival is held in the tiny village of Kisema, 12km from Nagaland's capital of Kohima, where accommodation can be found and from where transport can be arranged to Kisema. English is widely spoken in Kohima as well as the main towns of Nagaland.

Tribes gather and perform dances and songs in the sprawling complex of Kisema's Nagaland Heritage Village.

The festival also originated to celebrate the cessation of long drawn-out hostilities and to promote unity among the Naga tribes. After British rule ceased, Nagaland became India's 16th state in 1963 and constant battles were fought as secessionists tried to create an independent Greater Nagaland with other Nagas living in the Indian states of Assam, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh and in Myanmar.

However, a ceasefire was declared in 2000.

Performances apart, the festival affords a glimpse of the traditional Naga way of life. The venue complex is a microcosm of a typical village and has a thatched-roof timber 'morung' (traditional communal dwelling) occupying centrestage.

There are 16 tribes and sub-tribes among the two-million mainly Christian Nagas with their own distinct language, customary traditions, way of life and attire.

The tribes - Angami, Ao, Chakhesang, Chang, Khiamniungan. Kachari, Konyak, Kuki, Lotha, Phom, Pochury, Zeliang, Sangtam, Rengma, Yimchungru and Sumi - have little in common except their shared identity as Nagas, similar beliefs borne out of an animistic past and artistic talent, especially in the visual and performing arts. They are experts in woodcarving, pottery, basketry as well as skilful weavers, producing vibrant textiles using a back-strap loom.

It is believed that they probably migrated from southern China to Burma (Myanmar today) and north-east India. Until the British occupied Nagaland in the late 1800s, it was part of then-Burma.

For the Nagas, the Hornbill Festival has become an opportunity to exert their cultural and social identity and a means of showing off their rich heritage. The tribes take part with much zeal and fervour as evident in their war cries, dances and the energetic beating of traditional giant drums.

At last December's festival, I was present on the first day when participants from each tribe filed from their thatched hilltop in the heritage village at Kisema to take their seats in an amphitheatre below, chanting and singing with gusto.

Whether men or women, tribal members have a penchant for ornaments - fashioned out of cowrie shells, beads, bamboo, and especially from animal teeth, bones and fur - which they use to decorate their arms, ears, neck, ankles and waist. And they are skilful weavers, going by their intricately patterned sashes, scarves, shawls and vests.

As tribes trooped past, each successive wave seemed garbed in even more spectacular costumes than the ones before.

There were the Rengma tribesmen with their bright red appliqued sashes worn cross-wise on the chest, matching leg cuffs, aprons studded with cowrie shells and goat's hair coronets, each topped with three hornbill feathers.

They were followed by the Chang, their faces draped with tiger's teeth, and bear-tooth chokers around their necks. Their cane-woven conical caps were decorated with boar tusks. They wore elaborate shell-studded loincloths in front, with a shining brass disc for added oomph.

In comparison, the procession of Konyaks from Mon in north Nagaland, the territory's most remote district, seemed underdressed, wearing blue loincloths that barely concealed their behinds and with only a woven sash across bare tattooed chests and a woven basket tied around the waist.

But they looked no less intimidating, sporting necklaces with a row of brass head medallions, once proudly displayed only by those who had taken heads but now worn for decorative purposes and to symbolise their former head-hunting days.

As for headdresses, a young Angami man stole the show with his extravagant wheel-shaped headdress comprising slit bamboo spokes tipped with cotton and feathers.

With their outlandish headgear and taste for ornaments, the men somehow seemed to outshine the women. Still, the women stood out with copious layers of beaded necklaces, headbands with bright red tassels, beautifully woven panels of cloths worn as skirts and aprons, and rows of bracelets.

Each day after the main performances, the tribes congregated to rejoice with drumming rituals and imbibe traditional rice-beer, made from fermented rice, the only alcoholic beverage available in the dry state of Nagaland.

There was also feasting. At the Chakhesang morung, for instance, visitors were invited to partake in a typical meal comprising delicious fried silkworm larvae, frogs, forest crabs and other indigenous foods.

Other tribal kitchens also served typical dishes such as pork or river fish boiled with fermented bamboo shoots.

The festival also enables the Nagas to showcase their handicrafts. There were beads, carvings, baskets, bamboo containers and even animal horns used for drinking and hornbill feathers offered for sale in a handicrafts complex next to the amphitheatre. Do note that the hornbill, whose feathers are used in virtually all headgear decorations of the Nagas, has been hunted to near extinction.

Other highlights include a horticultural fair where you can admire highland orchids and sample fruit and vegetables such as the fiery king chilli, the world’s second hottest.

There was also a chilli eating contest - the winner scarfed down 15 chillies in 20 seconds - fire-eating and feats of strength featuring wiry Konyak tribesmen carrying wooden benches with their teeth.

A weekly night bazaar in Kohima, a four-day rock music festival and contest featuring mostly local and Indian bands and a two-day car rally rounded off the undeniably enjoyable and unique Hornbill Festival.



Fly to Kolkata direct from Singapore on SilkAir or via Bangkok on Thai Airways to connect with a domestic flight (Jet Airways) to Guwahati (70 minutes; S$83) in Assam. From here, either fly on Air India (50 minutes; 3,200 rupees or S$82) or take the train (five hours; 150 rupees) to Dimapur.

Buses from Dimapur (150 rupees) or shared taxis (200 rupees for a seat in a four-passenger car) can ferry you to Kohima in three hours. Tour operators in Guwahati such as Network Travels can arrange transport in a private car for the nine-hour journey to Kohima for 3,400 rupees.

Entry to the festival from Dec 1 to 7 is 10 rupees a day. Pay at the Nagaland Heritage Village entrance. The ticket also gives entry to the horticultural shows, flower displays and handicrafts market.

5 things to do

1 Bring enough cash in rupees. Credit cards are not widely accepted, and few banks offer foreign currency exchange.

2 Although foreigners no longer need a special permit to enter Nagaland, you still have to register your presence at a police station at the first point of entry.

3 Make hotel reservations ahead as hotels fill up for the Hornbill Festival. One of the few upmarket hotels is The Orchid ( at 2,000 rupees (S$51) a night including breakfast and dinner. Homestays (from 800 rupees) are available. Arrange them through a tour operator such as Network Travels (

4 The best way to get to Kisema is to hire a taxi in Kohima to be dropped off and picked up later. The going rate is 600 rupees, cheaper than private car hire from a travel agency and less hassle than waiting for shared taxis which leave only when they fill up.

5 Drop in at the State Museum in Kohima to learn about the Nagas and their traditional lifestyles.

2 don'ts

1 Don't be ruffled by slow service in hotels and restaurants. Tourism in Nagaland is in its infancy.

2 Don't forget to bring enough warm clothing in the winter month of December. Temperatures can drop to 10 deg C.



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