The Hornbill Festival of northeastern India celebrates the 16 major tribes of Nagaland, bringing to life the ancient tales of the Naga people through song, dance and storytelling.
Hornbill feathers are worn when performing ceremonial dances. The power and majesty of the hornbill, which soars above the mountains of Nagaland, is symbolised in the war dances of the Nagas
Words : Stephanie Brookes
Photography : David Metcalf
A Konyak warrior, with full facial tattoos, beat a hollowed log to call his clan into the circle. As he struck the huge log, ancient sounds reverberated across the arena. On cue, the women of his clan began to sing the song of Helena, a revered goddess who is said to have de- scended from heaven on a string. With poise and grace, the women moved in time, like flowers linked to heaven by a solitary thread.
I was at the 10-day long Hornbill Festival – an event held just outside the township of Kohima, the hilly capital of India’s northeastern state of Nagaland, in the first week of December each year. The festival brings together all the ma- jor Naga tribes for a celebration of unity and diversity.
Just as the dreamlike dance came to an end, I heard the sweet strains of a folksong as the Sangtam tribeswomen entered the arena. The Sangtam are from the Tuesang district of Nagaland, and it is believed that they actually mi- grated from Myanmar. Dressed in stark white skirts and matching head cloths, their rich orange and yellow beaded necklaces created a vivid effect as they danced to their harvest song. Like many tribal groups from Nagaland, the Sangtam practise jhum or shifting cul- tivation, moving every eight to 10 years. Their folk songs celebrate their nomadic life, planting and harvesting rituals, as well as crop rotations. Christianity ar- rived in Nagaland in 1871 and the Sang- tam tribe embraced this new religion, blending its teachings and practices with their own traditional beliefs.
One of my favourite tribal dances was the Oh Hai folk dance performed by the Pochury tribe. The men, dressed in tribal skirts and warrior helmets adorned with red tassels, held warrior shields in one hand and brandished large knives in the other while chanting in their Pochury dialect. They finished the sequence holding hands and tap- ping out a rhythm with fancy footwork. It was a mesmerising act! The Pochury is a prominent tribe from the Phek dis- trict of Nagaland, and their folk songs tell amazing tales of their ancestors.
UP THE SLIPPERY POLE Since its inception in 2000, the festival has drawn bigger and bigger crowds each year; people come not only for the dances and tribal music, but also to catch the many entertaining sport- ing events – in particular, the slippery pole competition!
It was day three when this much- awaited competition was announced over the loud speaker at the festival grounds, and I could feel the excite- ment in the air. This near-impossible feat entails scaling greased bamboo poles! The crowd roared with enthu- siastic support and good-natured laughter as one contestant made a good three-foot gain, only to lose his momentum a moment later and slide back down. Frustrated, one of the men removed his shorts and scaled the pole again. Another competitor followed suit. The crowd became absorbed in the two Nagas stripped down to their un- derwear. Even with more skin contact, these men could hardly make it past the half way mark, without yet another fall from grace.
Sitting near pole number three, I watched in amazement as one of the more serious contenders battled the slippery pole, fiercely determined to reach the top. After a grueling 30 minutes of inch-by-inch progress, the young man conquered the pole and balanced victoriously on top, coated in sweat, grease and layers of fine sand, muscles gleaming. His reward was a generous cash prize but judging from his beaming smile, the cheers of the crowd seemed enough to satisfy him.
The Hornbill Festival is touted as ‘the festival of all festivals’ and to keep the spirit of fun and entertainment high, the festvial even included an intriguing highlight: the great chilli eating compe- tition. Nagaland is famed for its chillies; according to locals, the hottest chilli in the world comes from Nagaland, and its potency is said to be 401.5 times greater than Tabasco sauce!
MEETING IN MORUNGS Each tribe has their own morung (tribal hut), which doubles as a dance rehearsal venue and meeting place during the day, and becomes a sleeping place at night. It is at the morungs that you can really delve into the culture of the various tribes and learn about the tribal artifacts that adorn the walls. As there are 16 mo- rungs, there’s plenty of room and you never feel crowded in. These wonderful spaces allow for visitors to interact with locals and gain insight into each of the unique Naga tribes.
In the late afternoon, after the main dance performance, I wandered through the morungs and found a group of women sitting in a circle around a fire singing songs about the harvest. In another morung, men were beating their chests, chanting words of valour and honour. There was a friendly atmo- sphere all around and I was served tea in a bamboo cup and invited to linger a little longer, to watch, chat and learn.
DELIGHTING THE SENSES The Hornbill Festival was a feast for the senses. Colour was everywhere – from spectacular dance costumes with bright red hues and splashes of brilliant sun- flower yellow to bright blue feathers delicately placed behind the ears of warriors. I saw tribal elders in tall fluffy hats adorned with feathers of the horn- bill, the revered bird of the Nagas. The festival is named in honour of the hornbill, which is revered by the Nagas. This magificent bird is constantly referred to in the dances, songs and tribal folklore of the Nagas.
The festival is indeed a feast for the eyes but be ready to explore its tasty culinary offerings too.
When it comes to enlivening your taste buds, you have a choice of 16 dif- ferent tribal cuisines, served at each morung. I tried a famous Naga pork dish, which had a delicate, smoky flavour and was cooked with bamboo shoots and chilli. I washed this down with a local rice beer served in a bamboo flute. If it’s variety you are after, dried squirrel soup, delicately sautéed frog and even poached silkworm larvae are some of the more intriguing Naga dishes.
1,000 VILLAGES UNITE The uniqueness of the Hornbill Festival is how it brings all the major Nagas tribes together. Dancers, singers, musicians and elders from the 1,000 villages that line the high hills of Nagaland come together in unity. It’s a photographer’s paradise to move amongst the hun- dreds of performers, some of whom were once real warriors!
In the past, the Nagas were head- hunters and even today, you will notice that many of the elders wear necklaces decorated with mini brass skulls, sig- nifying the number of heads they’ve taken. Headhunting is now banned, but the elders are happy to share a few wild stories back in their village, where the journey into their culture really unfolds.
KING OF THE KONYAKS Keen to learn more about the intriguing history of the Naga people, my travel compan- ion, David Metcalf, and I took a winding trail high into the hills above the town of Mon to explore the village of Hong Phoi and meet King Puwang, the leader of the Konyak tribe.
Beside a blackened hearth, King Puwang sat on his haunches and wel- comed us to join him. He wore bright blue beads around his legs, denoting his royal blood. Around his leathery brown neck were four brass heads. “Oh, yes!” he confirmed, “I took four heads. The last one was in 1950. We are not allowed to head hunt anymore.” King Puwang also had facial tattoos, representing the various heads he had taken, as well as intricate tattoos etched into his upper chest. “It all tells a story,” he said with a grin.
The people of King Puwang’s tribe rely on verbal storytelling to keep their legends alive. The wisdom of the elders is passed from one generation to the next through their songs, cementing their culture orally, as the Nagas have no written language.
Later, Pulei, a proud 100-year-old Konyak, welcomed us into his home. He had taken five heads, with sup- portive evidence around his neck. Pulei explained that after taking a head, a Konyak man would be honoured by having his face tattooed, and then, his chest. “These tattoos you see are 70 years old. I got my first one when I was 15. It was made using a thorn,” he said proudly. Pulei went on to describe how as a young warrior, he had to prove his bravery. “It is only permitted to take male heads, and I took most of my heads over land disputes.”
As we sat in Pulei’s simple wooden house, four ladies entered through a back door. They seemed surprised to see foreigners sitting in their one-room house. Maybe the word had spread that tall, white strangers had arrived. The Nagas are the friendliest people, happy to share their culture with you, and they are great conversationalists.
After some chatter, the women slowly turned their words into song and performed a beautiful tribal song for us. One of the ladies explained its message, “This is a romantic song. It is a legend about a goddess who collects flowers and is captured by a young man. How- ever, the goddess escapes and ends up capturing the sun.”
We had heard this song at the festival just the day before and it struck me how genuine their living, breathing culture is. I felt lucky to be able to travel the world and discover moments like this, to be able to forge a natural connection with local people and honour their cul- ture simply by visiting them and learn- ing from them.
DAILY VILLAGE LIFE Nagaland is a rural state and more than four-fifths of the population live in small, isolated villages. Spending time in the villages allows for a glimpse into their lives. Life revolves around the growing cycles of rice, millet, maize and pulses, and their crops include arums, yams, potatoes and sugarcane.
The whole village gets involved in hunting and gathering, as well as farming. Every day on the road, we passed single file lines of men and women with baskets strapped to their backs. Some were filled to the brim with forest fruits and many with wood from the forest.
In the late afternoon, we arrived at Longwa, a village in the Naga hills out- side of Mon, where we were invited to sit in a ‘talking circle’ with the village elders. It was a great honour. A fire was burning, and the men sat in a huge semi- circle. One of the elders was tending to a pan containing gunpowder. “We have had muzzle-loading guns since 1920,” the tribal elder told me. “This powder comes from a special tree and must be burnt first,” he explained, “We mix it with other compounds, and in the old days, we used it to load our bamboo cannons as well”. It is interesting that Nagas were already using gunpowder even before the British arrived in 1826. Today, most households in Longwa have at least one muzzle-loading rifle and you’ll see many men carrying these rifles, as the Nagas are adept at hunting for food.
I couldn’t help but notice how busy village life was. People seemed to be in constant motion, endlessly busy. I soon learned their secret: betel nut! Supposedly, betel nut acts as a stimu- lant and chewing it keeps people from being lazy.
A DIFFERENT WORLD Travel- ling opens your eyes to so many new things. A whole other world exists out there, waiting to be explored. In Naga- land, I met old warriors, hunters and tribal leaders. I rubbed shoulders with people whose homes were once inac- cessible to foreigners. Sitting among elders with their full facial tattoos, I felt honoured to meet Nagas who may very well be the last generation to sport this age-old form of traditional body art; full facial tattoos, which once served as a visual reminder of the Naga warriors’ bravery and headhunting prowess, are on a decline following the ban on headhunting.
The Nagaland of today is a place of stunning beauty. Sitting on the eastern side of the Himalayas, the mountain- ous terrain is rugged and lined in a patchwork of Naga villages where life continues as it has for centuries. The Nagas hold firm to their traditional val- ues. By coming together once a year for the Hornbill Festival, they celebrate their rich culture, showcase their diversity and bask in their unique Naga heritage.
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