A frothy white brew made from rice and yeast, called Thutse, is served in thick bamboo mugs. On each mug is painted a hornbill’s tail feather, symbolic of the importance that it has in the lives of the Naga tribes. As a low fire flickers and the embers burn slow in the centre of the Morung, a young man brings two plates of meat as accompaniments to our rice beer – wild boar and some dog meat.
Organized by the state government as an annual tourism promotional, the Hornbill Festival is a ten-day event that began back in the year 2000 in India’s north-eastern state of Nagaland. Although it’s held across the capital Kohima, the primary festival venue is the Naga Heritage Village in Kisama, some 12 kilometres from the capital from December 1.
Billed as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ in the ‘Land of Festivals’, the official line is that the Hornbill Festival is a collaborative celebration of all Naga tribes and “a tribute to the great hornbill, which is the most admired and revered bird of the Nagas”. While actual hornbills are hard to come by in the state nowadays – thanks to unabated hunting over the years – the festival does bring together the 16 major tribes of the state in celebrating their rich cultural heritage.
Since its inception 15 years ago, the festival has grown exponentially and continues to attract a large inflow of domestic and foreign tourists alike. In fact, last year recorded over two lakh visitors.
The Heritage Village at Kisama (which is a portmanteau of Kigwema and Phesama villages, between which two it falls) is spread across a wide sloping hill and consists of houses built in the traditional style of tribal dormitories known as Morungs. Some of the Morungs house the traditional log drums that are beaten to mark festivities.
Reliving the past
The Nagas are a proud people and take a lot of joy in showcasing their rich culture marked by their colourful traditional attires and lively folk dances. While the sight of tourists shoving their cameras into the faces of the tribal men and women as they perform their dances appears invasive, the performers themselves do not seem to mind as they carry on with ease and calm. The richness and diversity of their culture is visible in the many dances that are performed by the tribes, each telling a unique tale.
On the third day of this year’s festival, the cultural performances began with the ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ of the Konyak tribe.
The Konyaks call Mon district in the eastern part of the state home, and are famed for their warrior skills. In fact, when the British first made contact with the Konyaks, they were surprised to see that the Konyaks (and several other tribes in eastern Nagaland) already had knowledge of making their own guns. The Konyaks were also amongst the last of the Naga tribes to give up the ancient practice of headhunting, i.e. collecting the severed heads of defeated enemies. The ‘Yea Uh Lapu’ explains the reasons why headhunting was practiced among the Konyaks – and while the practice has been long abandoned through the passage of time, they have preserved the tales of yore to this day.
A close relationship exists between the people and the land, as is evident in many of the songs and dances. For example, the Aos of Mokokchung perform the ‘Ozu Tasen Tsungsang’, a folk song depicting the habits of birds as they come together at the break of dawn and begin their day. Bare-bodied men in white shorts and headgears adorned with feathers of the hornbill mimic the flapping of wings with their arms and move in intricate but synchronized patterns while kicking up dust with their feet.
Of dog meat and rice beer
Much of the Northeast is a meat lover’s paradise. While vegetarian fare does exist in the cuisines of the region, for most parts they act as accompaniments to the meaty affair. And when it comes to meat, Nagaland is king. Be it the regular poultry affair or something exotic like hornets, nothing is off the plate.
Unless told otherwise, when cleaned and cooked, distinguishing dog meat from any other meat is not an easy task. The plateful of dog meat that was served to us looked almost indistinguishable from the plate of wild boar right next to it. It is only when you feel the meat with your fingers and pop one fleshy piece into your mouth that you can tell the difference: it tastes like mutton!
Cooked simply with dried red chillies, ginger and garlic, the meat’s texture is similar to that of quality pork. Even the skin on the meat is reminiscent of a hog’s, but the meat itself tastes very much like that of a goat or sheep.
Now, across the world, consumption of dog meat is generally frowned upon due to the fact that dogs are often referred to as being man’s best friend. But any food item enters the cuisine of a culture for a plethora of reasons; therefore, to say that Naga tribes’ consuming dog meat is somehow wrong is, in reality, an imposition of an outsider’s view of what is proper or improper. And it is, after all, an individual’s choice.
Personally, I did feel a slight discomfort, but not in my stomach or my tongue – only in my head. If I didn’t know any better, I would have ordered a second round. And there are plenty of second rounds that do take place when it comes to the rice beer!
Nagaland happens to be a ‘dry’ state, largely due to the influence of the Church, which views drinking alcohol as sinful. However, throughout much of the state, alcohol can be acquired through bootleggers. At the main festival venue, though, the only alcohol available is Thutse, which goes down smoother than a glass of whisky.
Another locally brewed beer found at the venue is made from millet. Called Yukhu in the language of the Yimchunger tribe that resides in Tuensang district, the millet concoction is clearer than Thutse and delivers a strong punch to the senses.
How to fire a gun
Nagaland is spread across an area of 16,579 square kilometres, and is home to 16 major tribes. The eastern part of the state is home to the Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Khiamniungan, Yimchunger and Chang tribes, who were the last of the Naga tribes to have been converted to Christianity. However, these tribes are ingenious and had developed the technology to produce their own guns long ago.
An oft-repeated story told to tourists is that, during the colonial era, the British were not only surprised to find these gun-wielding tribes but also petrified by them. One story that was overheard at Kisama was that the British feared for their territory, and so decided to introduce opium as a means to subdue the warriors in the east. The veracity of that story aside, the guns are fascinating.
At the Heritage Village, the Morung of the Phom tribe allows tourists and visitors to fire their aged guns into the air for a small fee. The air at the village is filled with loud bangs each time guns are fired. Excited, I think I should give it a shot, as well.
The attendant at the Phom Morung explains that I should place the gun below the collarbone but above the armpit, and slightly towards the outside of the chest. Since there is no shooting range as such, people are told to aim to the sky (to avoid casualties) and be strong and steady when pulling the trigger.
With the instructions noted and memorized, I aim for the emptiness of the blue sky and pull the trigger – only to hear a whimper of a ‘pfff’ instead of a ‘bang!’. After two more failed attempts, I decide to leave the shooting to the experts.