Day 3: The Opening Ceremony, The Hornbill Legend & Vibrant Tribal Colours

The Hornbill Festival officially opened its gates to the world on 1st December. Here’s everything Rupert Winchester has to say about the grand opening! 

Heritage Village, the location of the Hornbill Festival

Heritage Village, the location of the Hornbill Festival

The opening ceremony of the Hornbill Festival was held at the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama today (just a few minutes from the Kohima Camp). Since it was the festival that brought us to Nagaland in the first place, it was an exciting day.

Although the official state bird of Nagaland is the Blyth’s Tragopan (a small rufous pheasant), it is the hornbill that is most closely associated with their culture. On arrival, I was a little discomfited to know that there are almost no hornbills left nowadays, having been hunted into ‘near threatened’ status. Nevertheless, they remain hugely important in the Naga culture.

One Naga myth tells of an orphaned young man who lived with his wicked stepmother. She treated him cruelly and he constantly wished to be free like a great and powerful bird. Eventually his wish was granted, and he was transformed into a hornbill. But his friends cried for him, so he returned to fly above them, and dropped feathers from his tail. The feathers fell into their hair and thus started the tradition of wearing the hornbill feathers on special occasions, like the Hornbill Festival.

The Naga head gears decorated with the feathers of the Hornbill

The Naga head gears decorated with the feathers of the Hornbill

Under piercingly blue skies, a vast gathering of tourists, dignitaries and tribes people had gathered. After a blessing from a village elder and an address from Nagaland’s chief minister, various local tribes showcased their traditional dances in the open-air amphitheater. The entire place was a riot of colours as the tribes people in their red, black and orange ceremonial dress whooped, sang, stamped and turned.

These dancers wore huge bamboo headdresses adorned with bear fur and dyed horse hair, topped off with the signature black-and-white hornbill feather. In fantastic costumes, with elaborate necklaces and arrow quivers, and carrying long, vicious-looking spears and daos (local machetes), they looked both martial and stunningly exotic. It made for a powerful and vital spectacle against the backdrop of the thick tropical forest, which extended down the steep hills behind the agora.

Between the tribal cultural festivities, we spent time wandering around the stalls that offered traditional tribal goods. Like local markets, but considerably cleaner, the Nagas here sold clothes, traditional bolts of cloth, wildly patterned sarongs and skirts, woolly hats and coats, boots and sandals as well as elegant haute couture women’s clothes by local designers.

Other stalls offered hardware, such as daos, knives, scabbards, and samurai swords (the retreating Japanese left some here after the Second World War, and the Nagas have enthusiastically copied them). Also on offer were bamboo tableware and cutlery, notebooks, spices, vegetables and the local Naga King chilli, which is generally reckoned to be the hottest in the world (I’ve been warned, but I’m yet to try it).

And the jewellery! Fabulous strings and swags of beads of the brightest orange and deepest black; long feathered earrings, bone anklets and bracelets. We could have shopped for hours. But we’ll be back in a day or so, for the monolith-rolling competition and the chilli-eating contest, among other delights. There’s not a moment of boredom in Nagaland: it is continually fascinating.

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Read the next installment of Rupert’s article here and to know all about Day 2, click here!