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Hornbill Festival
Chasing hornbills, headhunters and the spiciest chili in the world

Tribal Warriors
Tribal Warriors | © Erdmuthe Hacken

From Galdan Namchot in northern India to Cochin Carnival in the south. From Rann Utsav in the west to Wangala in the northeast. The diversity of festivals on the Indian Subcontinent is just as colorful as the festivals themselves. Today we present a highlight from Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival. Sixteen ethnic groups from the small state plus neighboring clans travel to the huge event and present traditional costumes, rituals and dances.

By Erdmuthe Hacken

The hornbill is calling. To distant Nagaland. The majestic animal is not only worshipped here in northeastern India, it’s also the namesake of the festival, which focuses every year in December on folklore, traditions and the cultural heritage of the small Indian union state. The ethnic group, which is very close to the Mongols and was Christianized by Baptists in about 1870, is known for its immense hunger for education (the rate of illiteracy is astonishingly low), amazing equal rights for women for India and for its decades of isolation, the consequences of which the Nagas are now eagerly seeking to overcome.

Independence efforts, however, are hardly an issue today. On the contrary. With a national consciousness across ethnic groups, healthy pragmatism and a positive view of the future, the Nagas are trying to make the best of their situation on the fringes of India and to capitalize on their remote and inaccessible world. The Hornbill Festival is the culmination of these endeavors, especially with regard to tourism.

  • The stage © Kehm/Hacken
    The stage
  • Hornbills © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • The Arena © Kehm/Hacken
    The Arena
  • Curious © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Curious too © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Curious too
  • Proud entering © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Proud entering
  • Move in with instruments © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Move in with instruments
  • Dancing with sticks © Kehm/Hacken
    Dancing with sticks
  • Moves with grace © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Moves with grace
  • Break © Erdmuthe Hacken
It is the annual highlight in the Naga calendar. Perfectly organized by the National Tourism Board and the Art & Culture Department of Nagaland, the lively atmosphere attracts thousands of spectators. These include not only locals, but increasingly also guests from Central India and abroad. That's why they had to beef it up. Up until 2012, the Hornbill always took place from 1 to 7 December. Since 2013, it has taken a few more days, from 1 to 10 December.
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors
  • Tribal Warriors © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Tribal Warriors

War dances and mating songs

Beyond the high plains of northeast India, between snow-covered mountain peaks and the green valley of Brahmaputra, far away from historical and modern trade routes, the indigenous tribes bear such sonorous names as Angami, Konyak or Yimchungrü. They present their traditional art and traditional dances, songs and competitions in the Kisama Heritage Village, about ten kilometers north of Kohima. Wild battle cries, energetic drums and sweet songs resound from the huge amphitheater. The arena is surrounded by traditional huts, the so-called Morungs, which are decorated with all kinds of wood carvings.
  • War dance © Erdmuthe Hacken
    War dance
  • In Action: The war dances are wild and divers © Erdmuthe Hacken
    In Action: The war dances are wild and divers
  • Dancing between the Morungs © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Dancing between the Morungs
  • Morungs © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Morungs © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Feathered headdress on standby © Kehm/Hacken
    Feathered headdress on standby
  • Infront of a Morung © Kehm/Hacken
    Infront of a Morung
  • Carving © Kehm/Hacken
  • Chai in a Morung © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Chai in a Morung
You quickly find yourself inside again and come into conversation with the proud Nagas over the open fire with steaming tea from reed cups. The descendants of the dreaded headhunters gladly take tourists into their midst and smile friendly and patiently in high-tech cameras and smartphones today. Thanks to the Hornbill-Wifi, countless selfies of half-naked, tattooed warriors adorned with boar teeth and rhinoceros bird feathers find their way around the world in real time.

The local rice beer is served in the next hut, a brew whose harmless taste should not be underestimated. Nor should the King Chili, which was recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the spiciest chili pepper. For the very obstinate, this is rather an incentive: At the hottest competition of the Hornbill Festival they stuff the big red pods into each other's mouths one by one. Even when you're watching, it takes your breath away.

Homestay with family connection

Insiders and avid fans are convinced that the first three days of the festival are those most worth seeing. Therefore, early planning is recommended. Flights are quickly full, hotels are booked out. This year, hostess Cathrine is opening two rooms of her house for the first time to guests. On the fly. After an urgent call from the tourist office. Accommodation was scarce so they asked whether she could help out. She could.
  • Local women © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Local women
  • On the way to the performance © Kehm/Hacken
    On the way to the performance
  • Dressed to impress © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Dressed to impress
  • Male choir © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Male choir
  • Female choir accompanied © Kehm/Hacken
    Female choir accompanied
  • Relaxed © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Interested audience © Kehm/Hacken
    Interested audience
  • Observers © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Creative headdress © Kehm/Hacken
    Creative headdress
  • Saber-rattling © Kehm/Hacken
  • Ready for dancing © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Ready for dancing
  • Thoughtful © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Unwatched © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Highly concentrated © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Highly concentrated
The homestays in Kohima, which only boasts a handful of hotels, are rapidly gaining ground. Simple, clean rooms, with breathtaking views of the foothills of the Himalayas and surprisingly warm hospitality. What’s not around is made possible. Without much attention. But with all the more heart and soul.

The wonderful madness of Naganess

Lovely, good-natured, sociable, open-minded, hospitable and pleasantly curious: these are the keywords that keep falling if you want to get to the bottom of the "Naganess" beyond the Hornbill. Caused by an irrepressible pride, a status-conscious culture and a connection with the homeland that’s rarely so deeply felt. This becomes clear on the first evening of the festival. After many speeches and the first dances in the festival village, the tourism minister invited Naga artists to a musical evening at the Oriental Grand, the first hotel on site. By the way, this is just one of the numerous events in the cultural program.

Under the motto "Expressions,” we will experience a concert with local talents that could not have expressed the essence of the Naga soul better. Nise Meruno, a pianist and baritone, has not only gathered an astonishing variety of musicians, he also lends the whole thing an emotional frame, whose spark immediately leaps over to the outsider.

The language of music

The energetic all-around-talent, Meruno, who claims to have classical music in his blood, has no lesser goal than promoting Naga folk and classical music beyond Kohima's borders. This evening will be a success: Young singers and pianists, actors, Miss Nagaland 2010 and an award-winning choir will bring traditional songs into the cold night and a feeling of the “wonderful madness of Naganess” to the stage.
  • Nise Menuro © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Nise Menuro
  • C. Apok Jamir, parliamentary secretary for tourism, his wife Amenla and Nise Meruno © Erdmuthe Hacken
    C. Apok Jamir, parliamentary secretary for tourism, his wife Amenla and Nise Meruno
  • "Expressions": All artists © Kehm/Hacken
    "Expressions": All artists
In addition to folk and classical music, the Nagas (in contrast to Northern India) have a special preference for rock music. A few years ago, for example, the German rock band Helloween as well as Chris Norman with Smokie were guests in Kohima. Due to its popularity, the Hornbill International Rock Contest, which is also an integral part of the Hornbill Festival, is now taking place in Dimapur. Boney M was engaged for the final concert in 2017.

On the road and in the air

Nagaland, which is the corner of India, is best known as one of the seven sisters in the extreme northeast of India. C. Apok Jamir, parliamentary secretary for tourism, also confirms that there is still a lot to be done for the notoriety of his homeland. More than just printing glossy brochures and creating colorful festivals. The infrastructure alone is already reaching its limits. The National Highway connecting Dimapur Airport with Kohima, the capital city, is in such a desolate state that one is inclined to consider whether the helicopter would not have been the better choice. It takes three hours until you've tormented yourself over the 75 kilometres of dusty and pothole fringed piste.
  • Nagaland © Kehm/Hacken
  • Beautiful surrounding © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Beautiful surrounding
  • Back Country © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Back Country
  • The capital Kohima © Erdmuthe Hacken
    The capital Kohima
  • Atmospheric Kohima at sun set © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Atmospheric Kohima at sun set
  • At night in the capital © Erdmuthe Hacken
    At night in the capital
  • One of the many villages in Kohima district © Erdmuthe Hacken
    One of the many villages in Kohima district
  • Naga Heritage Village © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Naga Heritage Village
  • Nagaland - unexplored horizons © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Nagaland - unexplored horizons
  • Natural beauty © Erdmuthe Hacken
    Natural beauty

Shaken and inspired

Apok Jamir draws attention to the competence of the central government. Similar to German federal highways, the responsibility, especially the financial responsibility, would lie in Delhi. You can see excavators and workers at the roadside in all places. But only the stars know when the highway will be completely renewed. For the time being, quick repairs are needed. After three days, however, this surface cosmetics will crumble to such an extent that the way back to the airport is even more strenuous.

Flights are the other issue surrounding the regional government. There are only two airlines, each offering a direct connection from Kolkata, not even once a day. That's not enough. Chief Minister T. R. Zeliang also makes an urgent appeal to local airlines in his opening speech on the first day of the festival.

At the moment, all this does not detract from the rush. The grandstands are filled to the last seat. The few European guests, who combine the Hornbill Festival with a tour through the less developed northeast, are especially enthusiastic.
  • Outlook © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Dangerous? © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Peaceful © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Kind © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Colourful © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Proud © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • strong-willed © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Familial © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Confused © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Funny © Erdmuthe Hacken
  • Tired © Erdmuthe Hacken