Nagaland beyond Hornbill Festival: A place for travellers, not tourists
In Nagaland, spirits of forests, rivers, and tigers roam the sloping hills. It’s where head-hunting is a memory and racism a wound.
Friday December 23, 2022,
8 min Read
To me, Nagaland had always been a distant and remote land—a place of mystery that remained elusive to the ‘north Indian,’ and one that even novelist Easterine Kire’s writing couldn’t unravel. It was a land of folk tales and superstition, a collection of hills mired in decades-long conflict, a place fragmented between warring tribes.
The outside world had already decided that Nagaland was to be left alone to deal with the youth who picked up guns in the hope of separation from India, where tribal culture was “uncouth” and “uncivilised”, and where Man killed Man for dominance, glory, and territory.
All that changed when my plane spiralled into Dimapur—the largest city and the state’s economic hub. The state has a population of 23 lakh—less than one-tenth the population of Delhi, where I come from. Dimapur is a town like any other—modern, constantly moving, and without a distinct population identity.
The state capital, Kohima, on the other hand, is a Naga city at its heart. Sitting like a crown jewel atop hills, it comes alive during Christmas—every street glows in celebration, every Church is dressed in lights. When I visited in early December 2022, the city’s roads were buzzing with cars and bikes bearing flags of Argentina, Brazil, Germany, England etc; football fever was at its peak.
But the city is also a muse. As rapper Macnivil puts it, “Land of the brave, ain’t scared to dream.”
Just a few kilometres away from Kohima is Kisama village, host to the popular Hornbill festival. The 23rd edition this year was a 10-day long affair showcasing cultures from various tribes—not just from across Nagaland but all over the Northeast. It serves as a window into the complex culture of the state; tribes present their attire, dance in merrymaking, showcase their living quarters, and are proud of the food they eat—from smoked pork and snails to beef pickle and sauteed silkworm.
But the festival is just that—a window into Nagaland. While the outsider may find the warrior helmets, the pointed spears, and the beautiful beads adorned by Naga women “exotic”, Hornbill festival is a show—a beautiful and well-organised one, though—that offers just a glimpse into the Naga way of life.
The real Nagaland reveals itself when you step out of Kisama village and head east.
Nagaland isn’t easily traversable by roads. Most roads are unpaved, the terrain is sometimes rocky, and not every vehicle can survive ‘the great outdoors’. I didn’t have anything to worry though as most of the work was done by 4x4s Mahindra Thar and Force Gurkha provided by Nagaland Offroad—sponsored by Nagaland Tourism and facilitated by Nidhi Salgame, Founder of extreme overlanding venture Wander Beyond Boundaries.
But despite the tough, and sometimes long, 14-hour drives, the beauty of Naga Hills doesn’t fail to enchant. The sloping hills let the sky drop as much as they lift the land. But whether it’s the interlocked mountains near Chizami or the tabletop terrain at Kapamodzu, one thing follows you everywhere—bamboo.
The other constant during my eight days in the state was hospitality. The Nagas are some of the kindest people I’ve met (and I’ve been to Thailand twice, so that’s saying something). But that wasn’t the picture painted in my head before I stepped foot.
In Delhi, which has a sizeable Naga population, the community often finds itself at the brunt of racism—many calling them “chinki”, “dog-eaters”, and “terrorists.” That wound is open, but the people I encountered didn’t let it show.
All I saw was pride—in their culture, lifestyle, and their history of head-hunting—recalling stories of how their forefathers brought severed heads of the enemy home.
Villages atop hills
Unlike elsewhere in the mountainous parts of India where most villages are nestled in valleys or near streams, Naga hamlets sit atop hills. This way, the tribes have a bird’s eye view of their territory and can’t be easily conquered.
Zapami village in Phek district rolls down a hill, its green-roofed houses blending with the vegetation around it but also standing out for their uniformity. Many houses were adorned with a cross of horns—a symbol of wealth and stature. But the pair doesn’t come easy. In Zapami, a family has to host a feast, not just for the village, but also for the neighbouring villages of Lasumi and Leshemi to earn respect.
All three villages are home to Chakhesang tribe—one of the 16 recognised tribes in Nagaland.
Like most villages in the state, farming is the default profession in Zapami too. All that is grown is consumed. That was the case until recently when women revived the traditional stinging nettle weaving (Thebvo Nah) that had been dead for over 30 years.
A woman in her 60s, Pfuzukha is one of the weavers who calls Thebvo Nah a labour of love.
“Weaving cloth is a long process and we don’t earn much profit here either. I want to pass this on to the next generation. I’m already teaching this to my son and others in the village,” she says.
I visited the village just two days after the death of Dikholy Khutso, the richest and the oldest man in the village whose father was the first in the hamlet to convert to Christianity. Around 90% of the state is Baptist Christian and it highly values cleanliness, one of the central tenets of the religion. Every village I visited was spotless, and there was a ‘Use Me’ litterbox every few steps.
A strict social structure
Half of Nagaland lives in villages, and every village is headed by a Gaon Bura (village elder). He is not just responsible for making administrative decisions, but also bringing in development, mediating discord between families, and overseeing crime and punishment. He is the executive, the jury, and the executioner—all in one.
In cities, law enforcement is pretty visible. There are traffic personnel guiding traffic and police vans patrolling the streets, just like in any other city in India. But that’s where government reach ends and tribal laws take over.
Tribes in Nagaland are immune from the Indian Penal Code and mete out justice keeping the customs and traditions in mind.
At its core, Nagaland is a patriarchal society; women mostly act as a support system and don’t exercise much power. Ashelo Theviiry is the Gaon Bura of Phokhungri village, home to the Pochury tribe. When I asked him whether women can also perform administrative roles, he wittily remarked, “Village elder is called a Gaon Bura, not Gaon Buri.”
But women do have a say. I visited Laruri village in the middle of a meeting of the village’s women's council.
Chisii, a primary school teacher who had convened the meeting, told that the body deals with all sorts of issues—drug addiction, adultery, and even land disputes.
Nagaland has seldom found peace like it does today.
Its tribes have not just fought one another, but also found themselves at odds with the late medieval Ahom Kingdom. The Japanese had occupied large swathes of the territory during World War II and left gunpowder all over the state.
The insurgency led by several factions, including the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN), divided the state into ‘with us’ or ‘with them’ and instilled a permanent sense of fear.
That fear reflects in the eyes of villagers whenever the sensitive topic is brought up, and justifiably so. But things have changed.
Upon arrival in Phokhungri village, the men showcased the Oh-hia folk dance that is otherwise performed during the sowing season. They swung their machetes while the skulls of monkeys (which would’ve been skulls of humans in earlier times) hung from their necks.
Among them was a teenager who was also vlogging with his phone. His excitement was palpable.
The internet is a recent phenomenon in Nagaland. Many parts of the state were dark spots until as recently as 2019. For that teenager, who was proficient in doing intros and outros, the world had opened up far and wide. But as soon as he ended the shoot, I saw that his phone wallpaper was the flag of NSCN—a reminder that peace is still fragile.
Unlike many ‘hidden’ gems, Nagaland is not yet spoiled by tourists. It’s not like the Nagas don’t want people there; they want others to see their beautiful land and experience their unique culture. But they don’t want what tourism brings with it—commercialisation, mountains of waste, and prejudice.
The best way to explore Nagaland is when you visit it as a traveller—eat the food they eat, stay at their beautiful homes, live their culture, and leave all preconceived notions behind.
Edited by Teja Lele