Art Fest: Hornbill Festival... In retrospect: 2018

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

What could give us more relief in this time of the COVID19 pandemic, than to reflect on time past of the travels we have journeyed and lived voluntarily out of the comfort of our home (for now we are more or less confined and travel does not seem exactly right at this moment)? As I mull on the concept, it is an opportunity to share my own, long due, past travel in India. I might say, Exotic India here as what I lived as an experience was totally different from my overall conception of the Indian peninsula. In this exciting journey of discovery and self-education, I will share Santanu's and my creations which have inspired us and enliven our experiences.

Arvin Ombika, 'Tribal Sculpture with shawl', gouache on paper
Santanu Dutta, 'Tribal Man', technical pen on paper

It was on a sudden impulse of adventure which was ignited by our common friend, Aditi, Director of the Kerala Museum in Kochi, that Santanu and me finally concluded that December 2018 will be the year we will finally go to the world famous Hornbill Festival. As a foreigner I was most excited upon this opportunity as had Santanu been with his penchant to discover, especially the music of the Nagaland tribes. And off Santanu and I set on a train to Dimapur, the largest city in Nagaland, hiring a cab through the bumpy road leading to Kohima. I was hopeful seeing the road under construction to better the broken condition of the path. We reached our rented guest house a little bit later than midnight (because of the lateness of our train), but were warmly welcomed by the Apong, the boyfriend of our young host, Divina. It would not be long before we became good friends with them, hanging out frequently in the short vacation and discover much more about life and atmosphere in Kohima.

The Hornbill festival is an annual event which is held in Kohima, the capital city of the North East

Indian state of Nagaland. The festival first started at the beginning of the twenty-first century in 2000. Also known as the ‘Festivals of Festivals’ the Nagaland government initiated the celebration to encourage inter-tribe interactions. However and fortunately it is an event which is open to the outside people as well and I believe an opportunity to be seized. Off this festive season, Nagaland has the reputation of being politically disturbed. Therefore, not only is the Hornbill Festival an occasion for outside people to discover this part of North East India, but a break for the local people to enjoy a less politically tensed atmosphere as well as interact with other people outside their own community. Furthermore, as the locals themselves admitted during our visit, it is this event which bring much more economical prospect, given the huge amount of tourists who visit the state.

Young man belonging to Chang morung

Indeed, as we could see for ourselves, several group of people came through organized agents with a package not only for the Hornbill festival but a guarantee of a more ‘authentic’ experience with visits in the local tribal villages, which is otherwise a difficult to access without proper connections. Well the packages are quite costly. Some packages also proposed a whole camping arrangement during the ten day festival, which still is expensive, but does not lack clientele in quest of the so called ‘real taste’.

Well back to the Festival!

The Hornbill festival is a real cultural package and we were really elated to be able to discover the sixteen officially recorded morungs (tribes), each with their cultural particularities.

Arvin Ombika, 'Guys from Phom morung', gouache on paper

The sixteen morungs or tribes include:

1. Angami

2. Konyak

3. Zeliang

4. Kuki

5. Ao

6. Phom

7. Khiamniungam

8. Yimchungru

9. Sangtam

10. Lotha

11. Sumi

12. Chang

13. Pochury

14. Chakhesang

15. Kachari ­­­­­­

16. Rengma

Arvin Ombika,'Chang man sipping rice beer', gouache on paper

The place which has been allocated for the celebration of the Hornbill Festival is organized as close knitted community of the 16 different morungs. Each tribe has their huts constructed out of wood and straw, distinct in their own styles. The huts include heavy woods which some tribes work out skillfully carved out forms of animals and people, all in dedication to the symbolic representation of the particular tribe. Some of the huts also have stylish hanging decorations resembling wind chimes.

You can hop from hut to hut, altogether discovering their cuisine and especially the rice beers (within most except a few tribes). The most challenging dish to try is the dog meat. We had the chance to give a bite when offered by a friendly guy at one of the tribe hut. We did not hesitated by were simultaneously having a weird feeling, well, probably only a psychological one. The meat was fibrous with a dominant lime taste, nothing much particular of meat as such. The guy went on to explain that dog meat helps then Nagas to keep away from fever and protect from cold. The grilled silk worm, arranged in sticks was a much welcomed snack we tried. For me, a Mauritian who eats wasps’ larvae, it was yet another bigger one; I was familiar with the taste. For Santanu, tough it was a whole new experience as was the dog meat for both of us. Besides experimentations, we enjoyed the pork and parboiled cooked food with rice.

Arvin Ombika, 'Angami morung headgear', gouache on paper

As artists, Santanu and I could find no more relish than capturing shots from the various exhibits in each morung’s hut. There was a lavish display of costumes including clothes, jewels and headdresses. All of the tribes are close to nature recycling animal skulls and cowries shells to make exquisite jewels beaded with saturated cadmium red, ultramarine, chrome yellow, black and white beads. The masks, probably worn for hunting and mostly for tribal rituals, made with natural treated fibers with an assemblage of furs, feathers and copper was a real sleigh of the hand. In these colorful combinations of headdress, clothing and jewelries which were never too much was a true high-fashion inspiring attire. It was a real artistic performance to our foreign eyes to see the beautifully clad men and women swaying with the music.

Konyak morung's drum made from hollowed tree trunk
Libuh: Naga traditional string music instrument

The music of the Nagas is soothing and definitely bears similarities with the Nepali monk music. The accompanied chanting is therapeutic and mesmerizing. Most of the tribes have their own specific drums, some elongated while another one more squatted kind of. The most captivating was the drum, made out of hollowed tree trunk with calculated cut out squared holes, laid horizontally and play simultaneously by several men. Visitors could also give a try and experience the sound. The music is made using barbell shaped thick wood, which to our utter discovery, was to be stomped on the hollow trunk vertically.

Traditional Naga drums

We could see art in everything. However, taking to fine arts terms, sculptures were recurrent in all the morungs. There were carved massive woods reproducing animals like rams, scorpion, jaguar, hornbills as well as imaginary dragons. Human figures in stylized with particular tribal traits, reminding of Cezanne and Picasso (who obviously drew from Tahitian and African tribal carving respectively), stood out. Most of the sculptures formed part of the architectural designs of the huts while some smaller versions were put out for sales.

Sculpture from the Kachhari morung hut
Traditional mask which was on sale
Kachari morung's traditional human figures wood carvings

So much for the visual culture which gave a broad overview of the tribes was, but, enough to capture the art of living of the Nagas. The daily performances, most of which were repeated were mostly the display of traditional songs and dance and extended to the re-enactment of hunting sessions. The closing ceremony was an interactive one, inclusive of all the visitors, regrouped around a huge campfire around which the dance of unity was performed in much enthusiasm of locals and visitors alike, connecting us for a lifetime, as broadly as can be expressed.

Sketch of a Zeliang morung member


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