Sport & Culture

The Transcending Hornbill Festival

The Hornbill festival in India’s Nagaland is both a celebration of the local tribes, and the triumph of peace.

Even in a country as rich in culture and diversity as India, Northeast India occupies a special position. Among the seven sisters, as these seven bordering states of India are called, Nagaland has a distinct identity. The state, also referred to as the “Switzerland of the East,” is the only state in India where music enjoys the status of industry.

This can be seen clearly with the state’s annual Hornbill festival. Though all 16 tribes within the state have their own way of life, once a year they come together to celebrate this event together. 

Named after a bird that’s part of the tribes’ folklore, the week-long Hornbill festival, held every year in the first week of December, not only brings all the tribes onto one platform, but also showcases to the world the uniqueness of Naga’s tribal culture and tradition.

This is all in stark contrast with the 1990s. Back then, the state was in the grip of a violent insurgency movement, and a four-decade struggle by the secessionist movement effectively destroyed two generations of Naga tribes. But ever since the main insurgent group entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Indian government, the state has witnessed an unprecedented recovery.

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The Hornbill festival therefore represents a welcome space of normalcy. Indeed, this annual event is billed as an attraction not only for the people of the state and even the rest of the country, but also for foreigners. There are no immediate figures available for the number of foreign tourists visiting the festival this year, but according to those attending regularly the number has been gradually increasing.

Through the Hornbill festival, then, Nagaland is attempting to project itself as a prime tourist destination in India’s “Far East.” Despite the limited transport links between Delhi and Nagaland, the week-long event typically attracts large numbers of enthusiasts to the Naga Heritage Village of Kisama, the main venue of the festival lying, about 12 kilometers from the capital, Kohima.

One of the main attractions of the cultural extravaganza is the Naga cultural dance, which combines traditional tribal warfare displays with agricultural rituals. All 16 tribes display their own sports, arts and crafts. Colorful Naga dresses also form an important part of the event. To give it a modern touch, a fashion show is also organized where models gracefully sashay in their traditional attire.

Though the state government takes a keen interest in organizing the Hornbill Festival, it’s the active participation of all the groups that make the event such an important part of the national calendar. The success of this festival also shows how economic initiatives can transform a troubled region into one of the fastest developing states in India. 

The Hornbill is just one manifestation of the change in the region – the large number of music bands in the state also demonstrates the new image of the predominantly tribal lands there. And Nagaland is also promoting village tourism and eco-tourism, which have attracted many visitors keen to explore somewhere a little different to the usual tourist destinations of Rajasthan or Kerala.

With India’s “Look East” policy getting a new lease on life through deepening ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries, north eastern states like Nagaland stand to benefit. Indeed, with Nagaland sharing its border with Burma, the state is likely to be one of the main beneficiaries of the proposed trans-Asian highway, which will not only strengthen the economic interactions between the Northeast and East Asian countries, but could also lead to a greater number of tourists.

For Nagaland, the Hornbill festival transcends its original intent. It is an assertion of normalcy and a victory for the forces of peace over those of violence. It is an example for other disturbed states in India, as well as other parts of South Asia, of how peace truly can be won.

Sanjay Kumar also blogs at Indian Decade.