I could hear the rhythmic beating of the drums from a distance, and as we walked closer, the sound of gun shots and war cries became clear. Excitement filled the air around the stadium in the Kisama Heritage Village, the host for Nagaland’s famous Hornbill Festival. We too could feel the goose bumps on our skins as we watched with bated breath. On the ground were the huntsmen from the Konyak tribe.  They had tattoos on their faces, arms and backs. Around their waists were tied skulls, spoils from a previous expedition perhaps, and they carried hunting rifles.

Their chief was leading them stealthily around the stadium as he plotted on how to attack the enemy tribe.  The tribe enacts the ritual of head hunting (which they no longer practice) using dummies for the enemy tribe.  The excitement is built up with their sneaky moves to get closer to the unsuspecting enemies and suddenly with a whopping war cry; the chief leads his tribe into attack. With crude bombs and gun shots, they ravage the enemy tribe (thank God they were dummies) and with one fell swoop, the head of the enemy chief is cut and carried off with great pride, much to the delight of the watching audience. Yes, this enactment by one of Nagaland’s warrior tribes, the Konyaks, got the loudest cheers at the Hornbill Festival this year and was declared as the act of the day!

Getting ready for action Photo: Vidya Deshpande
Getting ready for action
Photo: Vidya Deshpande
Watching from the stands
Photo: Vidya Deshpande
Konyaks enacting their beheading ceremony
The Skull in the belt pack, as proof of spoils from their war
Photo: By Vidya Deshpande
And he has the enemy’s head!
Photo by: Vidya Deshpande
Displaying the eneny’s head!
Photo by: Vidya Deshpande

During the Hornbill Festival, each of the 16 tribes of the state show case their culture and heritage. The Kisama Heritage Village is a huge mela ground with a stadium, wrestling area, green house, and exhibition hall. During the festival the whole village is festooned with coulourful buntings. It is divided into 16 zones, based on the map of the state, to represent the 16 tribes of Nagaland. Each zone has a traditional morung ( the traditional dwelling of the tribals) decorated according to the rituals of each tribe. During the festival, members of the tribe are dressed in their traditional outfits and also run a small restaurant serving their traditional food.

With traditional gear
Photo by: Vidya Deshpande

Each restaurant has a different kind of dish, which is their specialty. At the Ao tribe’s morung,  you can taste silkworm, fried grasshoppers and a salad with snails and shrimp, the Rengma tribe serves its specialty dog curry and the Konyaks serve smoked pork.  Of course you can always find the regular chow mien and moms at the restaurants run by Nagaland Tourism.

Snails & Shrimps to taste
Photoby : Vidya Deshpande
Pork being smoked; below is a kettle of green tea on the boil
Photo by: Vidya Deshpande
The mesmerizing Tetseo Sisters

During the festival, there are plenty of other side shows to watch. There’s a traditional wrestling competition, art competitions, pole climbing competitions, and even a chilli eating competition. The Naga chilli (the bhut jolakia, or ghost chilly) is one of the hottest in the world, scoring 855,000 on the Scoville scale (used to measure hotness of chillies). And you better watch out, this chilli is 400 times hotter than Tabasco! But one of the most awesome side shows is a concert by the Tetseo Sisters. (Several  of their songs are available on Youtube)The quartet’s amazing depth of voice and rendition of traditional Naga songs is simply mesmerizing.

Just below the main stadium is Bamboo Hall, where traditional artefacts from the state are sold. Most of them are manufactured by non-profit organisations and you can pick up traditional shawls, the hunting axe and spears, different kinds of knives, bamboos artefacts and traditional jewellery. A word of caution: the prices here are much higher than the market rate. Try and strike a bargain, if you can and really like something.

Coinciding with the Hornbill Festival is the popular North East Car Rally, a cycling brevet and a bikers’ rally. These too are good fun to watch from the side lines or better still as a participant. In the evenings, there are rock concerts with both local bands (western music is very popular in the state and they have many popular local bands) and other national and international bands playing. (Check the website of the festival (www.hornbillfestival.com) for details of programmes.

Its best to visit Nagaland during the festival as the whole state comes alive for it. But be sure to book your hotels in advance as you may get stranded if you don’t make reservation in advance.

The author Vidya Deshpande (L) and her business partner Mimi Chakrabarti (R) strike a pose. They both run Soul Purpose Travel, an adventure travel enterprise only for women, by women
Photo copyright: Soul Purpose