Roadtripping to the ‘Festival of Festivals’

So there I stood. At the start of a journey I had dreamed about for ages. Kohima beckoned. There was only one slight problem. My friend who was supposed to travel with me had cancelled. So what now? Surely, I couldn’t go to Kohima alone. It was a dangerous road passing through deserted and insurgency troubled areas. And I had never been to Nagaland. Hell, you needed a separate permit to just get into the state.

Ever since I moved back home to Assam around a year back, I had my mind set on visiting the Hornbill Festival. So I took a deep breath, packed my bags, (To any rider wondering, I use ViaTerra bags), and set myself for one heavenly experience.

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Early morning, around 6 am, I started from Guwahati. It is December, and the roads are foggy in the morning. As I reach the stretches of Nagaon bypass the fog starts to lift and beautiful sunshine lights up the highway. The rest of the trip is pretty uneventful. Beautiful deserted roads. I literally cruised at 80kmph and reached Dimapur by 11.30 am. I stopped in Dimapur for brunch and moved on. When I reach Kohima, it is already 2 pm and as the Hornbill Festival is held in Kisama, I decide to go there the next day.

Kohima is a beautiful city. Located on serpentine hills and meandering roads, the city has a festive vibe during the annual Hornbill festival. Everywhere I go, people greet me warmly. A little boy taps on my bike mirror as I wait for the roads to clear. Traffic is mad during the festival. Lots of tourists from all over the world. Smokie had just performed. There is chaos everywhere.

I check into my hotel, a new one called Hotel 2k. It has decent rates, 3000 INR per night for a deluxe room (Prices increase substantially during the festival). The room was quite good and the staff excellent. The manager, Ken, is a nice guy who recognized me the moment I stepped into the hotel. Apparently, I was the only one who had enquired about Motorcycle parking!

Evening sets in and my friends come to pick me. We go for a little ride through the hills. I meet some new people. They are all very cheerful and nice. I drink some rum to beat the cold and we spend the night hanging out at the Hornbill Rock Concert. It’s a 7 day concert and the finals are tomorrow. Though a little less than expected, the crowd is excellent. The food is divine. A little high and really happy, I reach my hotel around 12 am. It’s an excellent start.

Dawn and I wake up at 6 am. I figure it’s the excitement. I push off for Kisama around 8 planning to reach early so that I get a feel of how things are set up. The drive from Kohima to Kisama is absolutely picturesque as the valley drops to the left. I reach the venue at 8.30. I feel a quiet exhilaration. The solo ride has been worth it. I know it immediately.

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The Kisama Heritage village consists of different morungs of the various tribes of Nagaland. The Morung, or the bachelor dormitory system, used to be an essential part of Naga life. Apart from the family, it was the most important educational set up of the people. The Morungs are grand buildings, constructed at the village entrance or a spot from where the village can be guarded most effectively. On attaining the age of puberty, young boys and girls were admitted to their respective dormitories. The Naga culture, customs and traditions which were transmitted from generation to generation through folk music and dance, folk tales and oral tradition, wood carving and weaving, were conveyed to the young in the Morungs.(Wiki).

Lotha Morung

There is delectable food at every morung and rice beer. Pork dominates every Naga menu. I drank some Thutsey and Zutho, variations of rice beer. They are all really good!! 5 days in the festival, drank a lot of that stuff. The various tribes put up cultural displays every day in an open air theatre located right in the heart of the venue. It is quite a colourful display which offers insights into the traditions and ways of life of the Naga people. The Hornbill festival is a chance for the Naga tribes to keep their culture alive through song and dance. Dancers display their vibrant dances through songs which extol the practices of legends and heroes. Each tribe has their own story to tell. It is a colourful melange of history and a way of life mixed into one.

Angami Ao (2)

On the first day, I had lunch in the Angami Morung. The Pork with Bambooshoot was absolutely delicious. I drank some Thutsey as I conversed with some of the people in the morung. The Angamis are one of the major tribes of Nagaland who are known for terraced white rice cultivation on hill slopes. This allows them to cultivate the same plot year after year. Also, because of this labour intensive cultivation, land was considered the most important form of property amongst the Angamis

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There is also the Kohima war museum which displays various stories of WW II. The highway from Kohima to Imphal was an important strategic point for the British and it was here that the war turned in favour of the British as they held off the Japanese forces. There is a photography competition and traditional Naga Art in the form of wood carvings and paintings are on display near the museum.

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Evening on my second day and I attend the finals of the rock fest as Vinnie Moore plays a set which electrifies everyone in the crowd. On my fourth evening in Kohima, the Rock festival was also host to Bon Giovi, a tribute band to Bon Jovi. Singing songs like ‘Someday I will be Saturday Night’ and ‘Bed of Roses’ has to be one of the highlights of my trip as I grew up with these songs and don’t normally hear them in concerts throughout the country.

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On my 4th day, I visit the village of Zakhama courtesy a local friend of mine. She was kind enough to invite me to her village house so that I could have a glimpse of how an actual Naga village looked. According to legend, thousands of Japanese soldiers, supported by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose camped in and around Zakhama before they captured Kohima from the Allied Forces during the Second World War. One thing peculiar to most Naga villages is that they have raised stone platforms where elders of the village convene to discuss matters concerning the village. Also, most houses have granaries since the currency in olden times was grain and full granaries are still a measure of how wealthy one is relative to others in the village. Timings are quite different here as everyone is generally up by 4 am and its lights out by 6 pm. I took my bike and went around the village a bit. The people are very friendly and there is a huge monolith on the entrance of the village which states “Amidst animistic belief, the infinite word of God shone the heart of Saho Sophie who accepted the Lord Jesus Christ, baptized and became the first convert on 9th July 1905”.  Nagaland was once an Animist or polytheist culture but is now mostly Christian.

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On the closing day of the festival, there was a huge bonfire as Miss Nagaland and the CM of the state came down to officially declare the festival closed. There is a huge unity dance by all the 17 tribes and later on, the crowd joins in the festivities. The merrymaking continues till night as I get on my bike and head to the Night Bazaar in Kohima city. Sumptuous food in every street stall, concerts and fireworks mark the last day of a festival in a city so hospitable you want to keep coming back.

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Yimchungru Garo (3) Kachari (7) Khiamnungian Rengma

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I shall always treasure my first visit to Kohima and the Hornbill festival. It has been a vibrant and memorable experience which I will always cherish. The people are beautiful and hospitable. Uncorrupted by modern devices still, there is pleasant space to have a leisure filled holiday while indulging in a culture so rich you crave for more.

As I leave Kohima, sunshine filters in through the early morning fog. Once in awhile you take a holiday so wonderful everything falls into place. Sometimes you travel to lose yourself. Other times, you realize being lost is so close to being found. Kohima was a wonderful dichotomy for me. An experience to last a lifetime.

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