The land of colourful festivals, indigenous tribes, intricate art and craft, and strange food, Nagaland has always been a place of mystery and attraction for people. With over fifteen odd headhunting Naga tribes, this tiny bit of India, today, speak for its once fierce self — the rare place that never saw a colonial raaj in its history, unlike the rest of the country.
Where the stories of Nagaland’s impressive past and an immersive culture is unfortunately slowly dying today, the best way, at least for tourists, to get closer to its people and their culture, is by attending the 10-day carnival of the Hornbill Festival. Celebrated every year, between 1 and 10 December, Hornbill Festival is where all Naga tribes come together and exhibit their wears, enact their daily life and re-create their energetic festivals at one place. Imagine spending a year travelling through rural Nagaland, witnessing their way of life and celebrations, and then think about bringing it all together in one go. That’s hornbill festival for you.
My Visit To Hornbill Festival
My visit to Hornbill happened more out of luck than an immediate desire. It all started when a 3-day blog trip invites with Datsun India, and three other travel-bloggers, landed in my inbox, and I couldn’t be happier because attending this festival was in my bucket-list, ever since it started more than a decade ago. However, due to one reason or the other, I could not make it.
What made the invite even better was the fact that other than Hornbill Festival, we were going to explore a few other places in and around Kohima. In short, there was more for us in store than just the cultural overdose of the festival.
A Three Day Travel Guide To Hornbill Festival
Day 1: Arriving in Dimapur & Driving Further To Kohima
Dimapur has the only airport and the train-station in Nagaland, making it inevitable for anyone to start their journey from anywhere else but here. Though to be honest, the town doesn’t offer much beyond a dusty city like experience, what Dimapur lacks in beauty it makes up for a cozy evening Christmas market (only if you’re visiting during the Hornbill Festival, and around Christmas) and a fancy Christmas concert taking place around the city landmark — the miniature Eiffel Tower.
Tip: If you arrive late in Dimapur, it’s well worth spending a night in the town, as Dimapur-Kohima road isn’t very good in shape and can take 3 to 5 hours for just a 70km distance. During winter, daylight in this part of India is moreover very limited and often gets dark before 5pm. If you plan on staying in Dimapur, I can recommend Hotel Lake Shilloi that offers good views of the city and the landmark city tower, with Christmas carols playing loud and a few Santas dancing on its tunes. The only thing that may make you reconsider is their high prices (particularly for backpackers!) but then again, in Nagaland, nothing is cheaper.
Since we arrived in Dimapur before lunch, we decided to take our chances and head to Kohima. Despite having a brand new Datsun redi-Go, driving from Dimapur to Kohima turned out to be a nightmare, because of the poor road condition. The road was under construction (and in the very initial stage, during Hornbill 2017) transforming a seemingly narrow dirt-track into a four-lane highway, and with that, changing everything bit of a beautiful green into a dusty yellow.
Though only a 70 km stretch, it can take anywhere between 3 to 5 hours to drive from Dimapur to Kohima, and if you end up driving during monsoon the same journey can take up to 7-8 hours due to landslides. [Read More About The Road Trip From Dimapur To Kohima]
Day 2: Visiting Kisama Heritage Village & The Hornbill Festival
The actual site of Hornbill festival is located at about a half an hour drive from Kohima, in the Kisama Heritage Village. Kisama, the Naga Heritage Village, which hosts the main festival, is well maintained and the scenic beauty around the area is breathtaking.
Starting early in the morning, we left our hotel in Kohima around 8 am and reached Kisama Heritage Village around 9.30. Though only a 20-minute journey (of 12 km) from Kohima to Kisama, traffic congestion in Kohima, during Hornbill, can be dreadful and can tire you for the day before you even open your eyes and gain senses. But the atmosphere inside the Hornbill festival makes it up to you.
With different stalls offering “Zothu” and “Thutse” (local alcoholic beverages made of rice) and the authentic food of the all the sixteen major tribes of Nagaland, Kisama offers a plethora of options for foodies and of course to bibulous like me to start with.
Different tribes have different dedicated stalls for showcasing their cultural & tribal festivities and sell local food, art, and craft. The stalls in Kisama close their affair by 6 in the evening; however, the night does not get over so soon. The Rock Contest, the Music Festival, the Hornbill Night Bazaar, and many other activities kept the nights alive and young. But it’s always a good idea to visit Kisama early in the day because there’s just so much to see and do.
Other than a dedicated stall for each tribe, a common performance area, there is a war museum, a massive horticulture display, and much more.
We dedicated our entire day to the Hornbill Festival, savored our senses with lovely performances and exotic Naga food and left Kisama around 7 in the evening — as we were staying in Kohima (again, a long drive back, thanks to the unrealistic traffic congestion). The traffic at the entry & exit of Kohima (towards Kisama) can be brutal during the Hornbill, and can sometimes take as long as two hours to clear, so plan accordingly.
Tip: Contrary to what many people believe, the actual site of Hornbill festival is located at about a 20-minute drive from Kohima (if the traffic isn’t brutal) in the Kisama Heritage Village. And those not bitten by the idea of staying in the capital city of Kohima should consider staying in the town of Kigwema (the next village at only a walking distance from Kisama) to avoid bleeding unnecessary time in the traffic. Compared to Kisama, which more or less offers a crowded and bustling city experience, Kigwema is, moreover, less-crowded, laid back and provides all necessary comforts for a tourist. And one place I can particularly recommend in Kigwema — where I ended up staying after my blog-trip — is Vicha Homestay (very suitable for budget travellers).
Day 3: Visiting The World War II Cemetery, The Khonoma Village, & Driving Back To Dimapur
Leaving early towards Dimapur, we stopped at the World War II cemetery in Kohima — a memorial which lies on the battleground of Garrison Hill. Dedicated to soldiers of the 2nd British division of the Allied Forces who lost their lives at Kohima in the Second World War, the cemetery contains a total of 1420 Commonwealth burials in addition to 917 Indian soldiers — Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs who were cremated as per their faith.
It is a moving experience just walking there, reading the tombstones. Many of these casualties were Nagas (mostly belonging to the Angami tribe) but there are no statistics for them, except for one — a 21-year-old Saliezhu Angami, the inscription on whose grave reads, “The big-minded warring youngest son of mine shall arise and shine like a star.”
Tip: The war cemetery is located on the main highway in Kohima and can be quickly visited in 10 to 15 minutes. Another place of interest in Kohima is the Catholic Cathedral popular for its architecture which incorporates various elements of traditional Naga houses.
Next in the list, and on the way to Dimapur, was the quaint little village of Khonoma. Also known as ‘Asia’s first green village’ Khonoma is located at 5,320 feet above sea level in Dzukou Valley. A loner’s paradise, Khonoma village surely deserves a couple of days than a few hours (as we ended up visiting it for) but if short with time, a quick visit around the village is surely recommended to get an idea of the unrealistic beauty rural Nagaland offers.
Inhabited by people from Agami tribe, the Khonoma village offers a rustic village setting with mud flooring and bamboo walls. One can also visit the Ancestral home belonging to Agami tribe. There’s a small tourist entry fee of 30 Rupees to visit the town.
Finishing the two brief, but memorable pit-stops on our way to Dimapur (from Kohima), we made it back to the dusty NH29 taking us back from Kohima to where our journey started — the town of Dimapur. Three days well spent; a global cultural event, well explored!
Disclaimer: This trip was sponsored by redi-GO provided by Datsun India. Though our trip was sponsored, all experiences and recommendations are solely mines. I only recommend what I personally try, and find worth appreciating.