The iconic Hornbill Festival, named after the bird, is one of the largest celebrations of the indigenous warrior tribes of Nagaland, in India's far north east region. The hornbill is particularly revered by the Nagas and is reflected in tribal folklore, dances and songs.
The state government started the Hornbill festival in 2000, to showcase the state's culture and promote tourism. It began as a week-long festival to coincide with Nagaland Statehood Day on December 1 each year. In 2013, the festival was extended for a few extra days, and now runs from December 1-10. It is the most popular festival in Northeast India.
Do note that the Hornbill Festival will be celebrated virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The content for the virtual festival will be sourced from government archives, and streamed on social media platforms and other audiovisual channels.
Most of the festival activities take place at Kisama Heritage Village near Kohima (the capital of Nagaland).
Kohima is best reached by road from Dimapur (where the nearest railway station and airports are located). The journey takes about three hours, as the road is in poor condition in parts. Shared jeeps are available for 300 rupees per person. Alternatively, it's a long nine hour drive from Guwahati in Assam. However, you can take the early morning 12067/Guwahati - Jorhat Town Jan Shatabdi Express train from Guwahati to Dimapur (it departs a 6.30 a.m. and arrives at 10.30 a.m.), and a taxi to Kohima from there.
Taxis are readily available from Kohima to Kisama Heritage Village. Do check that the vehicle has a pass to park at the venue.
What to See and Do
The festival is attended by all of Nagaland's 16 major tribes. It features traditional arts, dances, folk songs, and indigenous games. All this takes place amid immaculate replicas of tribal huts (morungs), complete with wood carvings and hollow log drum instruments. The drums are beat in haunting symphony at the end of the day. The festival's opening and closing ceremonies are another highlight, with spectacular shows from all the tribes in the amphitheater.
It's recommended that you visit the morungs early in the mornings, by around 8.30 a.m., to have a look around and learn about each tribal community before the performances begin. You'll be able to chat with the tribes, and gain insight into the daily lives and culture. In the evening, you can return to the morungs to eat and drink with the tribal people. The tribes are in an especially celebratory mood on the last night of the festival, and are keen to party into the night.
The festival has plenty of handicraft stalls, food stalls (smoked pork is a local delicacy), and heady rice beer (chhang) to enjoy as well. Plus, a film festival, adventure activities, and kids' carnival. However, the hottest event (literally!) at the festival is undoubtedly the Naga chili eating competition!
A daily festival program is available from Nagaland Tourism here. Details of other events held during the festival are also available here. Going on a day hike to the pristine and remote Dzukou Valley is worthwhile.
The Hornbill Rock Contest, which used to take place alongside the Hornbill Festival in Dimapur, has been discontinued and replaced by The Hornbill Music Festival.
Where to Stay
The Hornbill Festival is one of the top tourist draws in Nagaland, so if you're planning to attend, do book accommodations well in advance.
The best place to stay in Kohima is the Hotel Japfu. Rooms cost upwards of 3,500 rupees for a double. Advance bookings are imperative. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, if you want to avoid the traffic congestion from Kohima to Kisama, consider staying in Kigwema village. It's within walking distance of Kisama, is much less-crowded, and has comfortable facilities for tourists. Expect to pay 2,500-3,000 rupees per night for a double. Try Lalhou's Homestay, Greenwood Villa, or Vicha Guesthouse..
Another option is to camp. Kite Manja provides the only campsite inside the festival ground, just 100 meters from the main arena. Camping starts from November 30, for those who want to catch the opening ceremony the next morning. Facilities include tents, sleeping bags, eco-toilets, water, common area, phone charging points, and kitchen. It's the "happiest campsite" with bonfire, jamming, and other activities. A benefit of staying inside the festival ground is that you won't have to pay the daily entry fee (20 rupees) and camera fee (30 rupees).
Tours to the Hornbill Festival
Greener Pastures conducts an eight-day tour to the Hornbill Festival every year. Check out this seven-day Nagaland and Hornbill Festival tour offered by The Holiday Scout as well. Kipepeo also runs a recommended eight-day tour to the Hornbill Festival. All are reputable organizations.
Those wanting to photograph the festival may be interested in this photography tour offered by Darter Photography in partnership with local travel company Gypsy Feet. It includes visits to neighboring villages of the Angami tribe, Kaziranga National Park, and Majuli Island.
If you'd like to stay in style (think glamping!), don't miss the luxurious Ultimate Traveling Camp. They offer itineraries of various lengths.
- There's a very handy Information Center next to the festival venue, which provides brochures listing the events at the festival and other attractions in Nagaland.
- Make sure you bargain at the souvenir shops.
- Entry permits are no longer necessary for foreigners visiting Nagaland. However, foreigners will need to register themselves with the Foreigner's Registration Office (District Superintendent of Police) within 24 hours of entry into the state. Indian tourists need an Inner Line Permit. This is available from any Nagaland House.
- Kisama Heritage Village is usually only about a 20 minute drive from Kohima. However, heavy traffic during the Hornbill festival can increase travel time to an hour and a half. Make sure you plan accordingly.
- Do bring warm clothing and comfortable walking shoes. Expect the nights to be very cold.