Keeping time

Keeping time
Photo Credit: S. Ajatashatru

The vibrant Hornbill festival is the proof that tradition endures in the back-country villages of Nagaland

S. Ajatashatru
August 21 , 2014
09 Min Read

I’m all for trying everything laid out on the table at community feasts, but I knew I was hazarding a foray into uncharted culinary territory when eyes of various descriptions stared back at me from the massive utensils. I chose the most deadpan look — it belonged to a frog — said a silent prayer, closed my eyes and, predator-like, went for the head. A few rapid chomps and a forceful gulp sent it down to its penultimate destination as an appreciative audience cheered me on between sucking bits of meat out of snails, biting into crunchy bugs and attacking slabs of Mithun meat that had blood as flavouring.

Now, before anyone complains about how I made their stomach churn or their breakfast hastily exit, bear with me a moment longer: by the end of lunch, I had polished off a fair number of stewed frogs, steamed hornets’ larvae, silkworm curry and a myriad of other bugs fried in their own fat. And I did this, not because an 80-something villager told me that the secret of his fitness lay in the regular consumption of one of the critters, which kept the heart strong and rheumatism at bay, but because they all tasted good. And bragging rights, of course.


But enough of that. Let’s begin on a more benign note — that of how I reached the village high up on an escarpment where people decked in fur, fibre and feather true and faux had gathered for lunch, next to a massive boulder that had dropped from the sky a thousand years ago. By car. It takes only around three hours on circuitous mountain roads to reach Kidima.

You could be forgiven for wondering where Kidima is, because Nagaland, by virtue of its location — in the extreme east of the northeast — and habit of popping up in public consciousness only when racked by incidents of militancy, has remained largely off the radar of nosy cultural foragers. Information about most of this state is rather scant, and tourism brochures make such a great deal about the 16 major tribes that call this mountain-grit region home that you could, like I did, be led to believe that you would be confronted by a horde of machete- and spear-wielding warriors adorned in amulets chiselled from bone and teeth and headdresses fashioned from fur and hornbill feathers the moment you step off the plane at Dimapur.

Of course, that’s not true anymore. Nagaland, or at least Kohima and Dimapur, is as unabashedly Western as the rest of India and the tribal costumes are reserved for special occasions — like the Hornbill festival, a weeklong celebration of the primal, exotic and utterly unique tribal traditions. Which brings us to why I suddenly decided to head for Nagaland in the first place.

Held at Kisama Heritage Village, some 9km from Kohima, from December 1 to December 7 every year since 2000, the festival provides visitors the best introduction to the fast-fading lifestyles and traditions of these fiercely independent former headhunters. The setting comes complete with traditional stilt-houses and totems with Naga warriors, hornbills, crocodiles and tigers carved on them. There are even animal trophies dangling from the walls of the huts. And then there are the warriors themselves, decked up in psychedelic colours and dancing the most traditional of dances.

For the three days that I watched the show, it was fascinating. But there was only so much I could take of flying swords, blood-curdling shrieks, trance-inducing chants and the rhythmic beating of log drums. So, on Day 4, I decided to get away from the brochured bit about Nagaland and find myself a place that was not make-believe. That’s when I heard of Kidima and found myself in the middle of a community feast a few hours on, graciously accepting invitations to stay the night there. There would be bonfires, rice beer and endless conversation — the time-honoured way of building bonds. Dinner would be the leftovers of lunch with a few vegetable dishes thrown in. Lucky me.

But first, a walk was due — as much to explore the village as to make space for dinner. The warren of lanes and by-lanes are completely disorienting. This village looks unlike any other in the country. Massive Mithun faces carved into the walls of the wooden houses, the brightly patterned shawls, the wild and rugged country surrounding the cluster of houses, the whirls of paddy fields splashing down the mountainsides, and colourfully-dressed women laden with necklaces. It seemed, to my book-enriched imagination, a surreal scene straight out of some Andean civilisation. Ridge after ridge receding into the mist, valley after plunging valley, interrupted with classical antiquity by a sprinkling of houses in the distance. A vulture circled overhead for added effect.

By four in the afternoon, the sky was already darkening. The next day’s dinner barked somewhere in the distance. An untimely cock-a-doodle stopped midway. I had chicken for dinner and lots of rice beer that was served in a bottomless bamboo stalk. And the banter began. Unlike the state museum in Kohima, which seemed to try and downplay the tradition of headhunting (which offically ended in 1963), the elderly villagers revelled in the memories of the violent past when they diced the heads of the members of other tribes and the rapidly advancing Japanese soldiers. It was the Japanese soldiers’ fault, they said, echoing the sentiments expressed by the plaque at the Kohima war cemetery. “They would harass us, steal our pigs, hunt in our forests.”

So the Nagas hunted them. And this particular tale, told with the utmost seriousness, included apart from the final decapitation, a grisly account of tracking the quarry and plunging spears “deep into their hearts”. And as if the dancing devils in the details were not enough, he added (right before wishing me good night and sweet dreams) that with my shoulder-length, curly locks, I would have made an especially memorable trophy. He was only joking, but after the surfeit of war dances at the Hornbill festival and vivid display of the grim harvest of skulls at the museum, I wondered how I would sleep. Fortunately, I was too tired to bother and fell into a fitful slumber.

I woke up groggy as a lance of sunlight struck my face. It was 5am. The east, I realised, was not a good place to sleep late. Gathering my belongings, I departed just as the villagers headed out to the fields and the women got down to cleaning the houses. By noon, I was at Khonoma, another Angami village that offers a rich insight into the history of this land. Not much seems to have changed here — if you discount the odd mortar-and-brick house and the electric poles that march through the village.

The centre of the hamlet is still dominated by the tehuba, a platform made of stone, where the village council metes out justice. Emerging as a tourist destination, Khonoma is famous for having fiercely resisted the advancing British troops (legend has it that one of the heads in the Kohima state museum once belonged to a British officer) and for being the birthplace of the father of Naga nationalism, A.Z. Phizo. An epitaph describes how a handful of villagers kept the advancing army at bay and how they laid down their lives to protect their independence.

Today, however, things are very different. A British couple was being escorted to the jungles by a Naga guide and they were putting up at a house remodelled as a homestay, just a short jump from where the epitaph rises.

The hosts, too, were intent on having me sample the riches that lay in the forest surrounding the village, oblivious to the fact that I was not half as nimble as they were on trails made by centuries of shuffling feet. When we finally finished our ‘leisurely’ walk, I was too exhausted even to open the door of the vehicle I was to travel in and opted instead to check into another homestay. My embarrassed host, trying to lighten the atmosphere, told me that change was gradually seeping into their lives. “There will soon be a proper road that tourists use,” he told me. “Someday, we may even have a road wide enough for cars.”

I hoped that would not be the case, for Nagaland, despite that day’s strenuous walk, was the most visually seductive place I have seen. But tradition, I happily realised, would endure for a long time to come. Dinner that night was steamed hornets, snail stew, sticky rice and the bug that helped strengthen my heart.

The information

Getting there
Dimapur has direct flights from Guwahati and Kolkata. It is also connected by train to Delhi (Brahmaputra Mail or Dibrugarh Rajdhani) and Kolkata (Kamrup Express). Kohima is a pleasant 8-9 hour drive from Dimapur.

Where to stay
There are several hotels and paying guest facilities in Kohima. Among them, the better ones are Hotel Japfu (standard single and double rooms for Rs 900 and 1,200, respectively, deluxe rooms for Rs 1,400/single and Rs 1,600/double; 0370-2240211) and West View (singles for Rs 400, doubles for Rs 800; 2270496/845).

What to see
Though there are tribal festivals sprinkled all through the year, the most convenient way to catch all the action is at the Hornbill festival — a weeklong affair held at the specially built Naga Heritage Village at Kisama, a short drive from Kohima, from December 1 to 7 every year.

If festivals are not your kind of highlight, any time between October and May will offer clear skies and scenic vistas. Kohima town itself is more than a stopover. Places of interest include the war cemetery, state museum and the Catholic Cathedral at Aradurah Hill. Though any place in Nagaland could hold tourists in awe, the more accessible are Khonoma and Tuofema. Contact the Office of the Commissioner and Secretary, Tourism (0370-2270072/2270107) to book homestays here.

It is compulsory for tourists to have an inner-line permit to visit Nagaland. It can be acquired from the Deputy Resident Commissioners in Delhi (011-23012296/23793673), Kolkata (033-22825247), Dimapur (03682-226530) or Kohima (0370-2290666).

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