For the first ten days in December each year, the mountain city of Kohima is filled with some extra colour and cheer. The serpentine roads leading to the city are dotted with Christmas decorations and locals handing out blue stars to travellers, welcoming them to Nagaland’s pretty capital. The state government organises the Hornbill Festival every year to showcase Naga culture and invite travellers to explore the state. Nagaland has 16 tribes and this festival is a crash course in their culture, language and cuisine. Kohima is a small city, still learning to equip itself to handle large crowds and all the hotels listed online tend to get full months in advance, so some pre-planning may be required. My trip was last-minute so I had no reservations. During the five-hour train ride from Guwahati to Dimapur, I spent some time wondering if I should have brought a tent. I soon realised, however, that tourists have it very easy during the festival. There were lots of clear signs, and ample fixed-price public transport from the venue to other parts of town. I was dropped off at the main market street and found my anxiety about not finding a hotel unnecessary. There were several unnamed lodges on the main street that come to life during the festival. Dorms and double room signs are everywhere, and while they lack the comfort of a hotel, the buzz on the street below makes up for it. I found a cosy inn whose owner Michael stopped his guitar practice and shared a cup of black tea to welcome me.
The festival’s open-air performance area was full of beautiful, bizarre, and mindboggling performances. Most of the performances are accompanied by live music, so I was surrounded by thumping sounds and melodious tunes all the time. The rock concerts held every night have youth bands from all over the country performing. With each performance I watched, I felt inspired to explore a new area of this state. The fire eaters from Mon rubbed red-hot coal over their bodies and I added Mon on my travel bucket-list. After being sucked in to intense drumming by the Chang tribe, I was ready to get into a bus to Tuensang district just to listen to them longer. The delicate dancing of the Ao girls made me want to take a detour to the Mokokchung district and learn the steps.
In traditional Naga society, a morung is at the heart of every village. A morung is something like a hostel where all the children of the village are sent to learn traditional skills and customs. A morung was also the central hub of each village, where all announcements were made and hunting trophies displayed. With western education and influences this practice has become uncommon, but each tribe re-creates their morung on the festival grounds, as a reminder of traditional methods of imparting life’s important lessons to the next generation. Visitors walk in and around these spaces and can interact with the locals, sample their food, and watch them practice traditional dances and music.
The shopping area is a place for casual interaction. The handicraft artists enjoyed chatting with the customers and seemed to be more interested in conversations than selling their products. I spent a lot of time lingering over the numerous stalls. I met local artist Canato Jimoni who creates graphics for bags and cards with Naga characters. He spoke warmly to every customer and invited me to his home to eat roast pork. Munami is an artist who painstakingly makes greeting cards out of dried plants found in the Naga forests. I got my copy of the novel Mari signed by author Easterine Kire who told me that she’s excited that online retail has made it possible for people around the world to read Naga folktakes. The boys at the bamboo trinket stall shared their lunch of rice and dried beef. The college students at the Ao hut gave me a glass of rice beer and insisted I eat at their table.
Though it is outside the festival grounds, the night market is a big part of the festivities. It is held in the city centre on the same days as the festival. The street is crammed with food stalls, toy sellers and live music. Since Christmas is one of the biggest celebrations in Kohima, the roads were already glittering with red and green lights, big red stars and stuffed Santas. At 8 p.m. sharp, a police jeep started to drive through the market with a loudspeaker that screamed, “shut down your stall, it is 8 p.m.” Ten minutes later, this lively street was empty with everyone slowly making their way home.
Appeared in the October 2012 issue as “Music, Markets, Morungs”. Updated in October 2016.
Air Dimapur is the closest airport. There are daily flights from Guwahati to Dimapur.
Rail Dimapur railway station is the closest and is connected to most states in the northeast. The Jan Shatabdi offers an extremely scenic five-hour train ride from Guwahati to Dimapur.
Road Guwahati to Kohima is a pleasant drive on NH37 even though the terrain is quite hilly (350 km/10hours).
Dimapur to Kohima There are convenient share taxis from the Dimapur railway station and airport to Kohima.
Indian citizens need to get an Inner Line Permit to visit Nagaland. This can be obtained at Nagaland House in Delhi, Kolkata, Guwahati, Shillong or Dimapur. It’s a fairly simple process and all you need to bring along is an accepted photo identity card and passport-size photographs. Foreign tourists (except from Pakistan, Bangladesh and China) no longer need a Restricted Area Permit to enter. Find out more on tourismnagaland.com.