Picture this: You are going tribal home-hopping, watching a war dance in one home and a harvest dance in the next. In your hand is a bamboo mug, filled to the brim with rice beer brewed in these very homes.

This warm and exhilarating experience was part of our itinerary while visiting the Hornbill Festival in Kisama, near Kohima, the capital of Nagaland. It allowed us to be part of a world where nature once reigned supreme, where pride was a matter of life and death, and where the locals tell their own stories.

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(A man of the Chakesang tribe all set for their performance at the Hornbill Festival, Nagaland, India)

Visiting the Hornbill Festival was a last-minute decision. In its 18th year now, it is the most popular festival in the North East, and the busiest tourist season for Nagaland. All of this meant that most hotels in and around Kohima were booked out. Not knowing what to do, we contacted Holiday Scout, a local travel company based in the region. It took their magic wand to find us tents in a campsite in Kisama. Of all the campsites that spring up here for the Hornbill Festival, this one was closest to the venue.

“Head to the morungs before the event begins," we were advised by the camp organisers. At that point we had no idea what the morungs were or what to expect on the festival grounds and around. A totem pole led us in the direction of the morungs. Our first glance in this direction told us we were about to enter a world unlike anything we had experienced before.

Morungs — a world in themselves

Spread out on three different levels were wooden house-like structures with massive roofs made of dried grass and leaves. In the front was ample open space lined with bamboo benches. The entrance to each of these houses was decorated with symbols, some of which we recognised (replicas of animal skulls) and some we didn’t (fantasy creatures). A board announced the name of the tribe of Nagaland that the morung belonged to — Ao, Chakesang, Rengma, Sangtam, Konyak and several others. Outside each of these morungs were young boys and girls looking resplendent, dressed in brightly coloured traditional attire. And behind it all, a hill covered in green was painted 'Naga Heritage Village'. It was a beautiful place to be in.

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(The morung of the Sumi tribe)

A closer look revealed a lot more about the morungs and their purpose. They were more like community spaces where young boys got together. Based on their age, batches of boys from the tribe would be recruited into the morung. Here they would be taught the history and culture of the tribe and their village. This was when they learnt the folk songs and dances. Folk tales and legends were also passed on to the next generation.

It was in these morungs that young boys became worthy Naga warriors. They learnt war techniques and practised these with their fellow morung batchmates. While learning to be warriors, they also had to take care of the elders. The morungs had their own rules and any violations would be taken seriously. Punishment would be served. “Make a worthy citizen of the village” — that was the true purpose of the morung in the Naga villages.

The cultural performances would begin only later in the day, and everyone was in a relaxed, interactive mood. So we asked them questions about their lifestyle, their attire — and their head hunting days.

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(The Chang tribe in their morung)

Most tribes were inherently warriors. Their attire was designed to be useful in wars. Only the men fought wars, which is probably what made the men wear more striking attire than the Naga women. There are belts and hooks to carry the spear, sword, arrows and the dao — the machete, something that always accompanies them, even when they are just stepping out of their house. When the men went out to wars, their mothers and sisters would cut some of their tresses and these men would proudly attach them to their attire like a tail. The hair showed that these warriors came from families with a fine lineage. Just above this is a small basket. When a warrior had successfully hunted a head, he would cut the ears off and put it in these small baskets at the back to proclaim victory.

The head gear though is the most special part of the entire attire, differentiating one tribe from the next. Some of these head gears were the heirlooms of the families and had real hornbill feathers. Only successful warriors were allowed to wear headgear with a hornbill feather. The hornbill is a revered bird across all tribes of Nagaland, featuring widely in their songs and legends. It's also where the Hornbill Festival gets its name from.

Sadly, excessive hunting has driven the hornbill to extinction in Nagaland. In recent times, exposure to the outside world has started a dialogue on conservation within the Naga tribes.

Former hunters are turning into protectors. These efforts are slowly showing results, with hornbill sightings in the wild being reported in the remote forests of Nagaland.

Even the panels at the entrance of the morungs spoke about the warrior lifestyle of the Naga tribes. Carved out of wood, the sun and the moon — Doni and Polo — were depicted at the top. Historically, the tribes worshiped the sun and moon. On the side was a symbol depicting a woman’s breast. This stood for life and was believed to protect the family and help it prosper. Below these were several rectangular blocks which stood for the animals that the men in the family had hunted. A wild bull (widely known as mithun) skull meant that the family was well to do and owned several 'mithuns'. In between were carved human skulls which stood for the human heads the men in the family had hunted.

Head hunting is a banned practice now, and in most tribes, it was only the forefathers who were headhunters. It was an important game back then and a matter of serious pride. A head hunter was the most respected member of the tribe.

In the matter of a few generations, life had dramatically changed for the people of Nagaland. And yet, they knew so much more about their traditional way of life and their history than many people do in the rest of India. They could sing the old songs, do the old dances and cook the old cuisine. And the Hornbill Festival was a wonderful means for us and anyone in the world to experience this ancient way of life.

Feasting on meat — and forbidden wine

At the Hornbill Festival, these morungs allow visitors to sample the local cuisine of the tribes. A wood-fueled fire takes centre place inside the main room of the morung, just as it does in their homes back in their villages. Slowly cooking on it and above are some fine pieces of meat. The smell of bamboo-flavoured curries emanate from the room inside where women are busy cooking copious amounts of food.

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(Setting up the fire to roast the Naga beans inside the Chakesang morung)

Leaf-cooked rice cakes, yam patties, roasted millets, boiled naga beans can all be had with the rice beer served in huge bamboo mugs. The staple food served at all the morungs is the aromatic brown rice and slow-cooked pork accompanied with bamboo and beef pickles, and of course, the hot Naga chilli chutneys. The pork preparation changes from tribe to tribe. The taste ranges from outright lip-smacking to takes-getting-used-to. But the meat served is always the finest and the juiciest. These people know how to cook their meats and we did full justice to this knowledge by feasting in these morungs each day of the festival.

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(A meal of rice with Anishi Aon, slow cooked pork with colocasia patties, at the Ao morung)

If meat isn't what you're looking for, you could just drop in the Hortispace opposite the main venue grounds. Farmers from all across Nagaland had brought their produce and displayed it at the Hortispace. There were local tomatoes and tiny carrots along with a whole variety of lemons. Oranges and pineapple are the fruits of the season and you could easily have them for all your meals! There were wild mushrooms and persimmons too. The most surprising fruit though was the local avocado. All local and organic.

Handicrafts can also be bought at the morungs. Jewellery in bright hues, handwoven red shawls that you see a lot of tribesman draped in, as well as the pickles and chutneys can be purchased. What stood out for us were the local wines. Packaged like wines from any well-known winery, these wines are made from the local wild fruits.

Making alcoholic beverages is banned in Nagaland, so all the winemaking is sort of an underground activity.

The wine maker who understandably didn’t want to be named has aptly called his venture Anonymous Wineries. We sampled his red wine, made from the wild fruits called mungmungthi. These trees grow tall and wild in the forests of the Wokha district. While 80 percent of the fruit is lost to the wind, harvesting the remaining 20 percent is a matter of great skill, as the fruit is extremely delicate. We felt privileged drinking this wine after listening to its story from the winemaker himself. The taste of this full-bodied wine could easily give the finest wines in India a run for their money.

Dances of harvest, victory and the hornbill bird

The morungs had given us some insight into the lives of the Naga tribes, and the dance performances introduced us to more aspects of their traditions.

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(Performers of the Yimchungri tribe enter the performance venue)

The Angami tribe presented a friendly dance called the Pita. It is a welcome dance they perform when they are hosting other tribes in their village. It is a dance proclaiming friendship and a vow to be together in good and bad times.

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(The Sangtam tribe performing at the Hornbill Festival)

The Ao tribe performed a Hornbill dance where they imitate the hornbill flying from branch to branch. The hornbill would guide them when they went to the forest for wood. It would move from branch to branch and finally settle on one. That was the only branch they would cut to procure wood; if it was good enough for the hornbill to sit on, it was good enough for them to use in their homes. What a wonderful story to pass down from generation to generation to teach conservation.

There was a harvest dance and a victory dance. There was the pulling of the lockdrum used to announce victory in war or inform everyone of the death of a senior member of the village. There was a depiction of a typical summer feast thrown by the Shai, a rich man, to thank everyone who helped him in the farms. The performers stayed true to the act till the end, even taking a drunken exit from the venue!

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(The Zeliang tribe in performance)

The Konyak tribe performed the high-energy bamboo dance where two layers of bamboo are used to make squares and then moved rhythmically. The rhythm can be changed anytime without any warning. Members have to jump in and out of these squares without getting caught in the bamboo — this requires a lot of concentration and agility. The other tribes seated around the performing ground made it even more challenging, doing everything they could to distract the performers.

After the evening performances, we would head back to the morungs. The temperature dips drastically after sundown and fires would be lit up all around. All kinds of music, including K-pop, would start playing. It transformed into an open air party with rice beer flowing freely.

Why the success of the Hornbill festival is important

It was hard to believe the negative reports we had read about the Hornbill Festival before we got here. So much so, that we were actually prepared to be disappointed. Instead, what we saw was an example of how to hold it all together and conduct a successful event year after year.

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(Left: An Ao man plays a game of stilt walking in his morung | Right: A member of the Konyak tribe takes a rice beer break)

We heard complaints of Hornbill becoming too commercial and mainstream. This year, we saw families and senior couples coming to visit. When we asked them if they were liking it they said they had thoroughly enjoyed the performances. We felt it was a wonderful thing that the demographic was expanding.

An event could become commercial and still retain its true essence, and we felt the Hornbill Festival was doing it perfectly well. But the importance of the Hornbill Festival goes beyond just the ten days when it is held. Other regions in other states of North East India are drawing inspiration from the Hornbill festival and conducting their own regional festivals.

The Hornbill Festival does the job of presenting a not-so-easily-accessible state to a global audience. What better way of attracting tourists than presenting a vibrant snapshot of who you really are?

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