Travel through Nagaland during the Hornbill Festival



Nagaland is a land of folklore handed down from generation to generation orally. Here, music is an integral part of everyday life. Folk songs praise of parents and ancestors, the brave deeds of warriors and traditional heroes. Poetics of love songs were written to immortalize ancient stories of love from the tragic end and everything invites the visitor to make a stop.

The traditional ceremonial costumes of each tribe transmit itself an image of solemnity worthy of being admired with the polychrome spears and daos are decorated with dried sheep's wool, headgear made of finely woven bamboo and crossed with orchid stalks, and adorned with teeth of wild boar, hornbill feathers and elephant tusk bracelets.

In ancient times, each warrior had to earn the right to wear each of these symbols of valour. Nagaland with its exquisite and picturesque landscapes, the vibrant color of the sunrise and sunset, green and lush flora, is a land of unimaginable beauty, tailored to a breathtaking experience. Its population belongs to the Indo-Mongoloid stock, whose ancestors lived the abundant gifts of nature, with a markedly extraordinarily strong. The people here are warm and extremely hospitable! You hear it in the air

As we move from Assam to Kohima via Dimapur, the capital of the small Indian state of Nagaland, in front of us is a wide expanse of hills that gradually rise to the top, while the forests that cover them had taken the place of the ordered plantations of tea. The road, straight as it was, starts to become tortuous. Some rusty sign indicates that this is the boundary of Nagaland. Apparently a station abandoned in the jungle, an English outpost left to the fury of nature when there was a need to go.

Here live the Nagas, the Mongolian race, divided into 20 different ethnic groups with many subtribes. The common language is of Tibeto-Burmese origin, which is in turn divided into numerous dialects often unintelligible to each other. We know that they were great warriors and headhunters. Often they wear tattoos that, unlike many other tribes, has not only a symbolic meaning, but is also used as an ornament.

Today they live mainly by agriculture and its cycles devote to countless festivals where music and dancing are dominant. Each tribe has its own language and their own customs and generally are very hospitable and cheerful and gladly offer you the zutho, a powerful rice beer. The villages are situated on the tops of hills and often are surrounded by walls.

An element of distinction between the tribes is a shawl that indicates the social status of the owner in addition to its peer group. Of course the traditions that allowed the possession of a certain type of fabric, only after passing some stages of life are a bit loose and today the rank is more difficult to identify.



We get to see these tattoos in the Kisama Heritage Village, the place of the Hornbill Festival, the most important festival of Nagaland celebrated in the first week of December. The festival takes its name from the tropical bird which is closely linked with the social and cultural life of these people, as we see in the tribal dances and songs and its beak and feathers are used as ornaments. It's a spectacle of colors, sounds of drums, singing and primal screams.

Here are the dormitories where the boys sleep and each is built according to their architectural tradition in order to simulate a real naga village. In these dormitories the shyest guys are launched in the company to break with the coming of age, and they are perceived for the first time emotions such as fear of being hunted by an enemy or by a wild beast. The most important values of life, such as courage, loyalty, honesty, as well as arts and crafts are taught to the young. They are narrated the legends and myths of every tribe, handed down from generation to generation.

In Nagaland there is a saying that life is like a long festival. As there are 16 tribes in the land, there is a tribal festival at least once a month like Tsukhenyie, Mimkut, Bishu, Sekrenyi, Aoling or Aoleang, Moatsu, Tuluni, Nyaknylum, Mongmong, Tokhu and Yemshe of the Pochury, Chang, Konyak or Angami tribes. These festivals revolve around agriculture, connected to the spring planting, the first harvest of the year and are always celebrated with great joy and enthusiasm.

Nagas follow the lunar calendar for their festivals as prescribed in their animistic religion. Observing the phases of the moon the village shaman choose the days that fall between the new moon and the full moon to celebrate holidays. The day of the festival is celebrated with a loud voice to all the tribes after they have finished their duties.

It's a great outdoor museum where they meet all major Naga tribes, creating a rich blend of dances, games, crafts, parades and religious ceremonies. Men and women dressed in traditional clothing perform their traditional dances to the beat of drums and trumpets.



After so many vibrant emotions in the festival, we move to the Wokha district, where live the Lotha tribe, whose particularity is that they still follow the ancient tradition of burying their dead in a tomb surrounded by a fence adorned with objects belonging to the deceased such as weapons, jewelry and clothing.

Then we move to Mokokchung, whose population has the Ao tribe, the first Naga tribe to replace barter with a form of currency with the chabili or iron sticks. The traditional costumes are among the most beautiful of the various ethnic groups and even they manufacture women's jewelry, especially crystal earrings and carnelian pearls. The town stands on a hill in a very suggestive position.

The road climbs up to over a thousand meters and overhangs are becoming increasingly steep even if hidden by the increasingly dense and lush vegetation. Even the huts scattered in the thickets are barely visible even if close to the road. When we get to Mon, an agglomeration of scattered huts and shacks over several adjacent hills, with winding roads, steep descents and equally daring ascents, it's almost evening.

There was just time to stop at a sort of wooden house museum at the beginning of the town, which contains many objects of Konyak culture, that prevail in these hills. The Konyak, known for its pride and belligerence are a secluded people, living on horseback between Nagaland and neighboring Burma, moving freely in this area without recognizing the modern territorial limits. The Konyak name comes from the root of two words of Khau or head and Nyak or black, for the custom of tattooing their faces and teeth with blackened soot.

They are divided into many different tribes subject to the authority of local kings called Angh, whose office is hereditary, whose word is law. Their name is Wang, meaning the origin of all that exists and this sweeps all doubts about their undisputed authority, under each of which consists of a few dozen nearby villages, perhaps even across the border, once in constant struggle with each other, for continuous territorial disputes or family feuds because of real or imagined slights, abductions of girls and various problems that lasted for decades even if now no one remembered the origin.

There were real wars, rather bloody, in which the king sent his troops to ambush the enemy villages, which were resolved each time with some dead and jubilant warriors returned to the village, who demonstrated their value and courage reporting the presence to the queen with the severed heads of enemies killed.

These were placed for the festivities in a sort of stone spades altar, in front of the Morong, the house in which the warriors and the mighty headhunters gathered, and were gratified by the queen herself with a particular black tattoo on the face, a unequivocal sign of the strength and the experience of the same warrior, a visible medal of honor and at the same time was a warning to future enemies.

The wars and the severed heads began to wane and are now just a memory for seniors who still roam with gentle eyes, but with the faces that testify to a past glory.

There is another place lost in the woods, in the thick of the jungle, Hong Phoi. Hong Phoi is of particular interest because of the presence of many elderly people who still dress traditionally. Indeed they lend a certain amount of exhibitionism to show the hairstyles and the most important relics. Not far is also the village of Tangnyu. Tangnyu is hidden by greenery, with low and deserted huts, as the adults are in the forest. We see a beautiful sunset on the way back to the populated slopes in the forest of girls with their baskets full of wood that come back from the woods.

Few houses grouped around three Morong is carved from the rafters with disturbing figures that tell of animal sacrifices and battles between men. Here it is perhaps the highest concentration of elderly, which represent a past that is about to disappear forever. They're gathered in Morong, one in which when they were boys will have seen their rallies before the raids to the enemy villages and barbaric parties after the return of those still alive, who could exhibit his macabre booty to testify their value.

We visit the village of Longwa at the border with Burma and Chui. Here lives the hereditary dynasty of Anghs with broad powers on over 30 Konyak villages. The Anghs practice polygamy and may have several wives. We are in northern Nagaland, the most complete part of the country, where many tribes live in villages formed by houses that rest on elongated bamboo stilts called longhouse, of up to 100 meters long. A hundred scattered huts, cling to small stolen spaces of the jungle, surrounded by green, spotted with a thousand flowers as the season explodes as sudden fireworks, with white fragrant frangipani and magnolia, blue jacaranda and the many colors of the bougainvillea that cover the fences between the courtyards.

On top of the hill where there is a large open space of red earth, a sort of square, stands the Morong, the great hut where the men gathered before the battle. The wooden building, this being the main village in the area, also serves as a royal palace. The border runs right through the building erected on large poles carved with battle scenes and sacrificed animals.

A few steps to the trail that goes down the other side and you're already in Burma. No sign or control, this is a wild land owned by the Konyak, who do not recognize divisions, so there is no sign of separation, gates and barriers. On a motorcycle, you could go down quietly in the Sagaing region or in Kachin areas of Myanmar. Yet here it seems all the same land. Wild gorges covered with jungle where are caught red slopes and paths to reach huts and isolated villages.

The Angh king think long before they speak, maybe pass in thoughts, distant memories, bloody battles, revenge of generations, victory songs around the bonfire of the sacrifices, when the nights were lit by torches and fires. Girls danced while holding hand, glancing at the just returned warriors who are still full of adrenaline and unquenched violence that perhaps would find peace in the embrace of the night.

The voice wants to show the wisdom that led him to become king, but in the depths of his dark eyes, surrounded by blacks signs that time has gradually faded, read a spark, a surge of pride that has not subsided who lived a different story. The antique red sun, meanwhile, falls among the trees waiting for the next night.

In some traditional villages still survive the morung, large dorm houses where young males until marriage were educated. The morung also served as a depot for weapons and the skulls of slain enemies. Now they are used primarily as a place to take the most important decisions affecting the village.

The Morong is full of people sitting around the fire. The skulls in the walls are of every kind of animal, caught in the forest or sacrificed to the gods. At the center of the big pillar that holds up the thatched roof is the old trunk of a towering tree, carved with great figures. On a seat covered with fabric, the young king sits, who ruled over forty villages, ten around here and the rest in the Burmese side, perhaps also known for his sixty wives.

At his side a character that seems straight out of a story of explorers of old times, a Burmese village chief came here to solve a territorial dispute between his and another nearby village. A few decades ago the problem would have been solved with a direct war and a lot of severed heads, only to end up probably in the same way, an undisputed king's decision.

Today will immediately switch to this phase of diplomatic negotiations. In the end, the one that will count will always be the decision of the Angh, accepted by both parties to the dispute. The old man has a face carved in stone with deep wrinkles and scars. The black tattoos, albeit a little faded over time, completely cover, leaving only clear space around the orbits and forehead. A black bearskin helmet covers his head.

They stand on top of the long flight feathers of the hornbill with the white end. The lobes of the ears are pierced by two long boar tusks, and in the neck is a necklace of tiger teeth or some other feline, alternating with white and turquoise stones. His social position is marked by two turquoise bracelets that encircle the calves, the sign that distinguishes an Angh.

Just outside is the tomb the earlier Angh, covered with flowers and surrounded by buffalo and mythun skulls who have been sacrificed on the occasion. In these villages we see several unique pieces of statues, statuettes and totems carved in wood logs that support the huts. We can touch the shields and spears on the walls, and see and hear the characteristic drums made with long and large wooden trunks.

From the top of this ridge I look at the lush jungle covering the Naga Hills letting my mind wander, thinking about what might still be there and how I could find me if I still walk through the village for a few hours, in any sense. But now I know that it is almost a certainty that the more you travel, the more the world becomes great instead of shrinking.

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