Nagaland Hornbill Festival – The Ultimate Guide
The Nagaland Hornbill festival was one of our main draws towards traveling around Northeast India during the winter months. That said, it worked out beautifully, as the October to January period we chose for our trip, turned out to be the perfect time to travel in Northeast India, with the Nagaland Hornbill Festival featuring prominently on our three-month itinerary.
The remaining destinations in Northeast India fit nicely in the plan, focusing mainly around us being in Nagaland for the Hornbill Festival.
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Where is Nagaland?
Nagaland is one of the Northeastern states of India, commonly referred to as the Seven Sisters. Nagaland is a tribal region with 16 main tribes living in the state, each of which have their own individual traditions and customs. You can read about our experience with meeting the Konyak tribe in Longwa here.
As is the case in most of Northeast India, traveling in Nagaland is not for the faint-hearted. Roads are abysmal and connections are sketchy, although when compared with traveling in Arunachal Pradesh, traveling in Nagaland was a piece of cake! Nagaland is one India’s ‘Christian’ states, and it is also a dry state, i.e. no alcohol is allowed, and none can be consumed (officially).
Nagaland is almost all hilly, and anyone suffering from motion sickness will face a problem traveling through the state’s winding roads, with Dimapur being Nagaland’s only flat area.
Naga tribes are prominently known for their former practice of headhunting, where they would chop off their enemies’ heads during tribal wars similar to the tribes in West Timor, Indonesia and the Cordillera region of the Philippines. Headhunting is no longer practiced today, but former headhunters are still alive, and although most of the human skulls have been buried following the Nagas’ conversion to Christianity, we were told that some skulls are ’still around’.
What is the Nagaland Hornbill Festival?
The Hornbill Festival is also known as the Festival of Festivals and it’s not difficult to see why. This festival is well-known throughout all of Northeast India, with many of the Naga tribes actively participating in the festival on a daily basis throughout its duration. Tribes from other states sometimes join in the fun too!
The Hornbill Festival takes place in the Naga heritage village of Kisama, 12km away from Nagaland’s state capital Kohima. Different shows, dances, competitions and cultural events (pineapple eating competition anyone?) are featured every day, during which various Naga tribes are given the opportunity to ‘show-off’ their colorful traditions.
Festivals are considered to be sacred in Nagaland, so the Festival of Festivals is always very well-attended, not only by local Naga people, but also by many domestic and few foreign tourists who flock to Kohima, Nagaland to experience the colours, the sounds and the dances. Traditional tribal food is served at many of the morungs (more on that below) where visitors are given the opportunities to interact with the Nagas.
Since we had already experienced some fascinating tribal life in Longwa, before our arrival in Kohima, we were more than enthusiastic about being able to see and meet so many different Naga communities in one destination!
When does the Nagaland Hornbill Festival take place?
The Nagaland Hornbill Festival typically takes place over a ten-day period at the beginning of December often on the 1st – 10th December (but this should be confirmed on the particular year). A schedule of the events taking place is often published a few days before the festival.
Getting to Kohima, Nagaland
Kohima, Nagaland’s state capital, is one of the more accessible areas in the region, with better connections than Longwa. Read about getting to Longwa here.
To get to Kohima, Nagaland you must first get to Dimapur, on the border with Assam. Dimapur is home to a train station (Kohima is not), so there are frequent train connections from Guwahati to Dimapur and other parts of Assam such as Jorhat to Dimapur. Once you are in Dimapur, you can get a shared taxi to Kohima. Shared taxis/sumos leave from behind the train station.
If you are traveling from Guwahati to Kohima or from Jorhat to Kohima, and you need to make an overnight stop in Dimapur, you can check the latest accommodation prices in Dimapur here.
You might find that trains running to Dimapur are fully booked during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival. Indeed, we couldn’t find a seat on the train running from Jorhat to Dimapur. Our solution was to book seats on the lesser popular Mariani to Dimapur route, Mariani being only 30 minutes away from Dimapur.
Getting to Mariani wasn’t hard, and we easily secured places in a shared tempo from Jorhat. The tempos commuting from Jorhat to Mariani can be found on the same road where the tempos to Majuli are located, and cost Rs 35 (€0.45) each. A seat on the train from Mariani to Dimapur, a journey of about 2 hours, cost Rs 65 (about €0.80) each.
Shared taxis from Dimapur to Kohima are also difficult to find during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival. Although we had confirmed with one of the taxi drivers that shared taxis would be running to Kohima starting off early in the morning, when we got to the taxi stand behind the train station, they were nowhere to be found. Private taxis, on the other hand, seemed plentiful!
A helpful police official informed us that we could also make the commute on public (NST) buses, but that the bus station was pretty far from where we were. Two guys (one from Assam and one from Delhi) who were waiting at the taxi stand, seemed to be in our same predicament and were also going to the Nagaland Hornbill Festival.
We decided to find a ride together, and as usually happens in India, everything got very complicated from then on. After about an hour of speaking to different drivers, considering going by bus, and negotiating prices, we managed to find a small Maruti Suzuki taxi who would take the four of us and our luggage to Kohima, Nagaland for Rs 1700 (about €22).
We were told that prices were not inflated during festival time, and that this was being enforced by the Police Department, but it seemed hard to believe that this was the regular price.
The road from Dimapur to Kohima, Nagaland is very bumpy and terribly dusty since major roadworks were ongoing at the time of our visit (and probably still are), but we thought that overall, it was still better than the roads in Arunachal Pradesh!
Entry Formalities in Nagaland
Indian nationals need an Inner Line Permit to visit Nagaland. Foreigners do not need any permit, besides their visa into India. Foreigners are however requested to register their stay with the police department as soon as they enter Nagaland.
We had totally forgotten about registering our stay when we entered Nagaland for the first time to go to Mon and Longwa, and did not do so. However, upon entering Nagaland for the second time in Dimapur, we were greeted by a very friendly police official who took us to the office in the train station where we had to show our passports and visa, and give several details about our stay in Nagaland.
Indian nationals can apply for an Inner Line Permit online, or contact a dedicated agency to do so on their behalf.
Where to stay during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival
Accommodation prices during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival are ridiculously expensive and budget accommodation is practically non-existent.
Some camping facilities are set up in Kisama close to the festival and this is probably one of the cheaper accommodation options during the Hornbill Festival, however we think that staying in Kohima offers a better all-round experience due to the carnival being held there every night during the festival.
Guesthouses located close to Kisama and other villages such as Kigwema, also offer accommodation facilities during the festival. Holiday Scout can guide you further in finding a suitable guesthouse in the area.
Accommodation options in Kohima can be booked here. Keep in mind that Kohima is located about 12 km away from the Hornbill Festival area, however if you follow our guide, we will show you the best and cheapest way of getting from Kohima to Kisama on a daily basis.
We booked a wonderful guesthouse for Rs 3000 (about €38.50) a night (most of the accommodation prices are really that expensive during festival days!). IK Homestay is a beautiful building, with large rooms and clean private bathrooms, but unfortunately, we had not realized that it was an hour’s walk away from the town center.
If you are traveling with your own private car, the distance is not a problem, and we totally would recommend staying here, but had we realized beforehand, we would have tried making a reservation at some guesthouse closer to the center, since walking to center and back every day (where transportation options, the carnival and basically everything else was located), proved to be a bit of a hassle.
Taxis to the center were pricey so we preferred walking most of the time, although we sometimes got lucky and hitched a ride with the very friendly locals!
Getting to the Nagaland Hornbill Festival from Kohima
Kohima is about 12 km away from Kisama, the location of the Nagaland Hornbill Festival. Prices for private taxis from Kohima centre (a locality called Razhu Point) to Kisama seemed to have been standardized at around Rs 350/ taxi (about €5.50).
We quickly discovered that shared taxis were running from B.O.C. (another locality in Kohima) to Kisama for Rs 50 (about €0.60) per person. A bus from Razhu Point to B.O.C. cost Rs 10 (about €0.15) each. This quickly became our main means transport from Kohima to the Nagaland Hornbill Festival and back.
The Nagaland Hornbill Festival Experience
You might be wondering what the Nagaland Hornbill Festival is actually like and whether it is actually worth going to.
The Festival of Festivals is all about showcasing local ethnic culture, so if this is something that you are interested in you shouldn’t, at all costs, miss this event if you’re traveling in the area. You will not get to meet the tribal communities in their local setting, nor will you experience their true lifestyle – the festival is very organized; you will however gain exposure into the beautiful costumes, colours, dances and songs that are traditional to every tribe.
You will have the opportunity to observe competitions between the tribes such as tug of war and stilt walking, or even take part in some of the competitions yourself! Most of the performances relate to agriculture, crops and weather which were, and to some extent still are, of great importance to the survival and well-being of the communities.
Whilst the shows were going on in the main arena, wrestling competitions were being held in another area of the heritage village and visitors could also visit the different morungs and interact with the tribes.
In Nagaland, a morung refers to a large hut in the village used as a youth dormitory where the young Nagamese learn about their tribe’s traditions and culture. In the Kisama Heritage Village, each tribe sets up their own morung where they normally serve traditional food, practice their songs and dances and explain their traditions to curious visitors like us. We thought that the morungs were essentially as interesting as the shows!
Another area of the Kisama heritage village hosts the War Museum, a stark exhibition in which the bravery of the Nagamese in the Battle of Kohima, and their perception of fighting a war that was not their own, is portrayed. We’re not usually fans of museums but we thought that this was pretty interesting! Entrance to the war museum was paid separately. We didn’t keep a record of how much we paid but we think that it was Rs 50 (about €0.65) each.
What to eat during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival
First of all, we have to tell you about Nagaland’s pineapples. The sweetest, juiciest and best pineapples we have ever tasted during the entirety of our travels so far! We first got to sample some of the juicy yellow morsels during the pineapple-eating competition when, the host was waxing lyrical about the Naga pineapples, during which he asked the audience to go and tell the world about the indigenous fruit.
Rather skeptically, we took a few samples each, doubting that they would taste very different to any other pineapple we had already tried, but after the first few bites, we were frantically searching for more and more pineapple. So here we are telling you all about Nagamese pineapple, because we genuinely believe that everyone should get to try them at least once!
Traditional Nagamese food is served at the different morungs and there are many Naga dishes you can try if you are adventurous! It was difficult to decide which morung to eat at, but after checking them all out, we settled on a hut with a buffet-style setup, that seemed to have a wide selection of food, including lots of the dishes we wanted to try.
Noteworthy dishes were the eel with anishi (stems and root of the colocasia plant used to make thick stew), the pork with axone (fermented soy bean) and a very tasty yam curry. Bamboo shoots are used as an ingredient in many of the dishes, and fermented fish was on the menu too! The non-veg all you can eat buffet of Naga dishes cost Rs 500 (€6.50) each whilst the veg buffet cost Rs 350 (about €4.50).
Many of the stalls were serving dog meat (also called bush meet) and whilst we didn’t try that at the festival, I literally fed my curiosity when I tried it at the Kohima night carnival in the evening. Whilst I had reservations about eating dog meat, I failed to identify a reason as to why I was ok with eating most other kind of animal flesh, but I was hesitant to try dog meat. Logically, much to Nikki’s dismay, I gave dog meat stew a go and quite honestly thought it was super tasty!
Despite Nagaland being a dry state, local rice beer (Zutho) is served in abundance at the Nagaland Hornbill festival, an incongruity we didn’t quite understand, since it definitely contained alcohol! Together with the Nagamese and other visitors, I drank a fair bit of the brew during the few days we were at the Hornbill Festival!
I also tried roasted silk worm for the first time at the festival (note the use of the word I, since Nikki is far less adventurous when it comes to food) and thought it tasted so much better than it sounded! Bee larvae were on offer too, but I wasn’t allowed to sample them and could only get to taste them by buying a large bag at a cost of around Rs 1000 (about €12) which we thought was above our budget.
Entry fees and expenses during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival
A daily entrance fee of Rs 20 (about €0.25) to the Hornbill festival needs to be paid at the entrance to the Kisama Heritage Village. Most of the sights and performances are free to watch, although a separate fee needs to paid for entry to the War Museum (see above).
Food tends to be pricey, but definitely worth trying since many of the traditional dishes are not available in town. We have already discussed transport options from Kohima to Kisama in detail in the sections above – shared taxis cost Rs 50 (about €0.65) each way.
Accommodation, also discussed above, is rather expensive especially before, during and after the Nagaland Hornbill Festival, although we have heard that locals do open up their homes to visitors at festival time.
In keeping up with the environmental theme, no plastic bottles are allowed inside.
The Night Carnival in Kohima during the Nagaland Hornbill Festival
During the Nagaland Hornbill Festival, Kohima, Nagaland’s state capital is home to a colourful night carnival during which food stalls and other stands are set up on Kohima’s main streets close to Razhu Point. If you’re a fan of local food, this is the place to sample all kinds of animal dishes, such as dog meat, snail curry and beef intestines as well as different fruit wines and ‘milder’ dishes such as momos and chole.
Students from the local college had also set up some stalls selling little souvenirs and seemed to be competing with the each other for the highest sales. We got a wooden key chain and some packets of dried wild apple. The carnival takes place during the evening hours between 5 pm and 9 pm, after which time, closure of the stalls is enforced by local police.
Other things to do in Kohima
Kohima is not all about the Nagaland Hornbill festival, although if you are there during festival time, you might be tempted to spend all of your time at the festival or the carnival like we did.
Here are some other things to do in Kohima, Nagaland which you may find to be of interest:
The Kohima War Cemetery
The Kohima War Cemetery is perhaps the most-visited attraction in Kohima. The rather beautiful cemetery grounds contain the graves of over one thousand British, Indian and Allied soldiers who fought during World War II, particularly those killed during the Battle of Kohima.
The cemetery is a sobering reminder of one of World War II’s most difficult battles, voted by the British national Army Museum as “Britian’s Greatest Battle”.
Nagaland State Museum
Nagaland’s cultural and traditional heritage is displayed in its state museum located in Kohima. The museum is home to several artefacts and articles from different tribes showcasing their culture and lifestyle. It’s a great place to visit is you’re looking to learn more about Naga tribes!
The Kohima Cathedral
This Christian church in Kohima, Nagaland is particular for the fact that its architecture is similar to that of a traditional Naga house, and it is home to one of Asia’s largest crosses.
The Keeda Market
The Keeda Market or Bazaar in Kohima is where the local people shop for their traditional Naga ingredients. Here is where you will find an array of insects such as silk worms and bee larvae, snails as well as the infamous King Chilli. Ask the locals for directions.
We strongly encourage you to visit Kohima, Nagaland and experience the Nagaland Hornbill Festival if you’re interested in all things tribal!