Not too many decades ago, you would probably not have felt all safe to travel to Nagaland, a state in the very northeast of India bordering Myanmar. As late as about 1960, headhunting was still a practice among the warrior tribes in some of the villages of Nagaland. These days you can have a friendly talk with these ex-warriors at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima, the state’s capital.
No need to be afraid: The tribe’s people are open to tourists and are mostly just as eager as you to shoot a selfie. Simply sit next to them and start chatting, I guarantee they won’t pierce you with their fierce looking spears.
Since 2000 the Hornbill Festival is a great display of tribal heritage, which is kept alive across villages and generations until today. More than a dozen tribes offer glimpses into their traditions, showing off their dances or other tribal traditions like fire making out of wood, stone and grass or preparing their youngsters for war, stone lifting games and harvesting rituals.
Nagaland’s departments of tourism and culture have set up a festival village, which is well worth visiting once the rich cultural program in the big arena is over. You can sit in traditional Nagaland huts together with the tribal people and visiting locals, taste their rice beer and eat pork with great millet tea or other spicy delicacies of the region.
Be prepared to get fully smoked, as there is an open fire in most of these village huts. The fire flames are very welcome as it keeps you warm. Temperatures can become chilly even during the day, since the Hornbill Festival takes place in the first week of December. It’s advised to get yourself a nice long wool shawl at the festival bazaar.
The Hornbill Festival is not only about tribal life but also hosts wrestling competitions as well as a rock festival in the evening. The big bazaar showcases local handicrafts, you can buy anything from fancy earrings and necklaces, knitted bags, traditional skirts and shawls to more scary tiny skulls – a Naga version of the „evil eye“.
You can sip local Naga-coffee to get you going in the morning and take your kids to a play park inside the festival venue. The Hornbill Festival is a wild mix between tribal heritage, sports competition and music festival, a special atmosphere you will not find anywhere else in the world.
In early December, Kohima is fully preparing for Christmas and hosts a Night Market at the same time. It’s a great opportunity to meet with the locals and eat their street food: Be ready for all kinds of meat, including dog meat. And in case you forgot your hat and gloves, you will find some hand knitted pairs there.
If you are ready for the bumpy ride between Dimapur airport and Kohima and enjoy outdoor style camping close to nature, this is your festival to discover the friendly people and nature of Nagaland.