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.
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 descended 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 major Naga tribes for a celebration of unity and diversity.
Just as the dreamlike dance came to an end, I head 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 migrated 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 practice jhum or shifting cultivation, moving every eight to 10 years. Their folk songs celebrate their nomadic life, planting and harvesting rituals, as well as crop rotations. Christianity arrived in Nagaland in 1871 and the Sangtam 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 tapping out a rhythm with fancy footwork. It was a mesmerising act! The Pochury is a prominent tribe from the Phek district 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 sporting 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 excitement in the air. This near-impossible feat entails scaling greased bamboo poles! The crowd roared with enthusiastic support and good-natured laugher 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 become absorbed in the two Nagas stripped down to their underwear. 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 the top, coated in sweat, grease and layers of fine sand, muscle 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 festival’ and to keep the spirit of fun and entertainment high, 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 paradise to move amongst the hundreds 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, signifying the number of heads they’ve taken. Headhunting is now banned, but the elders are happy tho 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 companion, 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 haunces and welcomed 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 1959. 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 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 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 supportive 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 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 the festival even included an intriguing highlight: the great chili eating competition. Nagaland is famed for its chillies; according to the locals, the hottest chili 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 morung that you can really delve in to the culture of the various tribes and learn about the tribal artifacts that adorn the walls. As there are 16 morungs, 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 ws a friendly atmosphere all around and I was served tea in bamboo cup and invited to linger a little longer, to watch, chat, and learn.
DELIGHTING THE SENSE
The Hornbill Festival was a feast for the sense. Colour was everywhere – from spectacular dance costumes with bright red hues and spashes of brilliant sunflower 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 hornbill, the reveverd bird of the Nagas. The festival is named in honour of the hornbill, which is reversed by the Nagas. This magnificent bird is constantly revered to into the dances, songs and tribal folklore of the Nagas.
The festival is indeed a feast for for 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 different 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.