“Nagaland" and “Naga" invoke stereotypical images of smiling tribal warriors in full battle gear—a stereotype that holds true at the Hornbill Festival, to be held from 1-7 December.
In form: Yimchunger warriors from Tuensang district entering the arena to perform traditional dances and songs.Photo by Ramki Sreenivasan.
The festival was named after a bird widely respected and depicted in folklore, after many unsuccessful attempts to find a name acceptable to everyone. Ironically, the bird is almost extinct in Nagaland, thanks to a hunting culture that is deeply ingrained. The government has been trying to persuade the tribes—not always successfully—to use fake tail feathers in headgear instead of killing hornbills.
When it started, the festival only used to feature traditional games such as the greased bamboo pole-climbing contest and folk songs, most of them about farming or war—the Naga tribes have traditionally fought each other, though they united against the invading Japanese, who were trying to break out of Myanmar and into India, during World War II. The Battle of the Tennis Court, 1944, in Kohima marked the limit of the—and the last attempt at a—the Japanese advance into India. British and Indian troops jointly pushed the Japanese back in a battle Lord Louis Mountbatten later described as “probably one of the greatest battles in history...in effect the Battle of Burma".
(Clockwise from top) Women from the Zeliang tribe have some of the most exquisite headgear at the festival; this warrior’s ornaments are fashioned out of bird feathers and beads; an Ao warrior sips rice beer from a wine vessel made the traditional way, out of a gourd. Photographs by Ramki Sreenivasan.
Another aspect of the festival, the Hornbill National Rock Contest is a rock show that is gaining prestige, with bands from across the country vying for cash prizes. It is quite possibly Nagaland’s first indigenous stage musical. Spanning seven days, it is also the longest rock festival in the country. Applications for it involve sending a recorded demo to email@example.com, before 10 November each year (keep it in mind for next year’s show) and selected bands can apply for free dormitory accommodation.
If rock is not your thing, try the hugely popular Hornbill Motor Rally or the Designer’s Contest, which puts designers and models from across the North-East on a single platform.
And you thought Nagaland was going to be just about the birds.
Ramki Sreenivasan is a Bangalore-based nature photographer and wildlife conservationist.