The Great HornBill Festival of Nagaland

“Why don’t you attend the Horn Bill festival instead” – asked a friend when I mentioned about my plan to attend the Rann Utsav during my visit to India for the Christmas holidays. In the next two days, myself and a friend made our hotel, flight and train reservations to the land of the great hornbill festival – Nagaland – a place we barely knew anything about – but then that became the single biggest reason why we knew this trip was going to be exciting. This was our first time to the uncharted territories of North East India and I believe we had more discussions on where to buy a pepper spray and how to use it than on what exactly we should be doing once we get to Kohima.

Clearly, we had our share of bad experiences – scammed on the day we arrived for a huge amount by a taxi driver, exceptionally terrible or nonexistent roads, bitter mountain cold and the like – the list goes on. While we wondered if we made a mistake, situations changed in a day when we made new friends, and ended up nothing less than having one of the most memorable days of our life on the final day at the Horn Bill festival – we danced with the tribes around the mega bonfire, swayed to the rock music and watch the celebrations of a grand festival come to close.. So here is everything what we experienced in this colorful journey to the Land of Nagas to participate in the “Festival of Festivals”.

Note: Before you get carried away with the colorful pictures and description, please head over to the last section of this blog to know if the Hornbill festival and Nagaland should really be your next bucket list item.


How to reach Kohima for the Horn bill festival

The only way Kohima can be reached is via road from the nearest railway station or airport. You can fly in or take a train to Dimapur or Imphal and take the roads that lead to Kohima. There are few public transport buses but otherwise you should be easily able to take a share taxi or hail one for yourself to get you all the way to Kohima.

These roads are under construction and hence expect delays and congestion during the way to Kohima and plan your travel accordingly. Food options are minimal during this stretch which can take anything between 4 to 7 hours to reach. Shared cabs can cost anywhere around ~500 per head whereas a basic cab like Alto may charge anything close to 3500 – 4000 to take the 70kms to Kohima.

Entry Permit Requirements

Before embarking on a journey to Nagaland, acquiring the entry permit is a must.

Domestic tourists should obtain the Inner Line permit issued by the following authorities : Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi, Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, Kolkota, Assistant Resident Commissioner In Guwahati and Shillong, Deputy Commissioner of Dimapur, Kohima and Mokokchung. We were able to procure the same by contacting our hotel staff at an additional price of about Rs.300/- per head by providing the details and ID proof scanned copies in advance.

Foreign tourists no longer require a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) / Protected Area Permit (PAP) to enter Nagaland as the new rules only require foreigners to register themselves at the local Foreigners Registration Officer (FRO) of the district they visit within 24 hours of their arrival. This is a temporary change in effect for one year.

Note: Pakistani and Chinese nationals still require an RAP/PAP for entry.


The 10 days of Colors and Festivities

It would be not be an understatement to say that the 10 days of Hornbill festival is when the town of Kohima is at its colorful best. The otherwise not so happening town of Kohima and the heritage village of Kisama becomes the single greatest attraction among the 7 sisters during these 10 days. Starting from the opening ceremony on Dec 1 to the final and 10th day on Dec 10, Kohima sees a high footprint of tourists and from the whos who from the government and ministry and popular faces.

The exact charting of the days events are made available well beforehand in the official site of the Hornbill festival to help tourists plan their visit and itinerary. However, it goes without saying that the first and last day sees the best of all performances.


Travel Tip : If you do not want to spend the entire 10 days watching the hornbill festival, try to reach Kohima on the opening day of the festival, spend a day or two watching the celebrations and head on with exploring the rest of 7 sisters and return back to Kohima towards the end of the celebration to watch the closing ceremony.


Why Attend the HornBill Festival

India is distinct because of the varied cultural heritage that is so evidently visible as one traverses from one state to another. What makes it distinct is not just the languages and dialects, but the geography, religious diaspora and the ethnic groups that make each state different. And the north east, is a territory of its own.

The less explored and underdeveloped states of the North East India preserves the traditions and cultures that remain a mystery to the rest of the country. Hornbill is that festival which showcases the best of these tribes and traditions that make up most of the north east. When the cultural groups representing each tribe sashays into the podium set up in the Kisama Heritage Village in their vibrant costumes to put up a display of their traditional dance and rituals, what they bring to the table is not just entertainment but rather their dedication and commitment to preserving what their identity is all about.

Horn bill festival is every travelers delight. While you spend the day time watching the tribes perform to their traditional tunes, the heritage village transforms into a colorful arena in the evenings when the native rock bands take to the stage. Whether you choose to shake a leg to the music at the rock fests or raid the various “Morungs” where the tribes entertain you with their music/dance or culinary skills is totally up to you.


What Not To Miss At the HornBill Festival

  • The opening and closing days of Hornbill sees the largest footfall during the festival. Throughout the 10 day festival, top leaders from the Union Ministry and the State Cabinets and other major dignitaries visit the Heritage festival. From rock fest to ethnic shows to the competitions for choosing Miss Nagaland and Chef of Hornbill, the 10 days promise entertainment galore to every enthusiastic traveler.
  • The itinerary for each year’s festival is posted much ahead in the official Hornbill website to help make travel plans in advance. Always remember – This is the peak season in Nagaland and all roads lead you to the Horn Bill. Reserve your accommodations in advance to ensure you do not have to scramble during the last minute.
  • Rice Beer and music forms the religion of this grand festival. Do not miss trying out the custom made rice beer served in bamboo cups at every Morung. If you are open for it, you can go ahead and taste the various types of meat being served in the various stalls – they range from Pork, Beef, Dog Meat to Wood worm. If you are not up for it, well, there is also plenty of normal food. Having a cup of hot warm noodles to beat the cold is also a great idea.


What to Know Before You Plan to Attend the Horn Bill Festival

  1. This is a 10 day festival and each day offers a different set of entertainment and programs for all. It is best to ensure to include travel to some nearby destinations and smaller villages during these 10 days to ensure the best of your travel dates.
  2. Prices skyrocket during the Hornbill festival. Hotel prices are almost doubled and taxis charge a bomb for every short ride. You can save some money by taking shared cabs or buses. Buses are not very frequent and the roads(if you can call them roads) are dusty and difficult to travel on.
  3. Do not be surprised to find “Dog Meat” proudly displayed on the menu card in front of the various eateries. It is also common to find severed heads of animals hung around after butchering for meals – not for the faint hearted!
  4. It is perfectly okay to pose with the ethnic groups flaunting their traditional attire but be mindful of the fact that they spend long hours on the ground perfecting their dance and moves. Remember to seek permission before standing with them for those colorful vibrant photographs.
  5. In the winter months, it can get really cold in Kohima. Coming from the subzero temperatures of Michigan, I had kind of hoped to brave the temperatures in Kohima fairly easy but it proved to be difficult while being out during the day loaded with heavy camera gear. It is highly recommended to carry sufficient heat gear or dress up in layers if you plan to be out attending an entire day at the Kisama Heritage village.
  6. Sunrises and sunsets happen pretty early in this part of the country. Sunrise can be as early as 5:00 AM and sun sets on this mountain village pretty early at 4:30PM. What this means is that the temperatures drop drastically post the sunset making it even more important to carry your warm winter jackets, scarves and if required gloves for the evening time.


Is Hornbill Right For You

Before you get carried away by the pictures in this blog and the write up, do read the below to decide if the HornBill festival is your ideal holiday getaway

  • What HornBill is not – it is not your family vacation spot. Do not go here expecting to relax and spend time with your family/children. Hornbill is an experience not meant for the fainthearted. The itinerary can be hectic and the terrain, quite adventurous.
  • The roads to Kohima are practically nonexistent – and no, I am not exaggerating. I have traveled to several parts of India and never been on such miserable roads anywhere else. The 70km drive from Dimapur to Kohima can take anywhere from 5-8 hours depending on the road condition, blocks and traffic. Food options are minimal during this segment and you will either need to carry some packed food or be prepared to eat at the small roadside shops that pop up occasionally.
  • The Transport : Public transport is minimal with few public buses plying between the cities. With any luck if you get into one of these, you can be assured to be covered in several layers of dust by the time you reach your destination. The other alternatives are shared cabs and taxis. Shared cabs may work out to be cheaper and private taxis charge a hefty amount especially because of the nonexistent roads. Most of the cabs are Maruti Alto or other small segment cars like Wagon R.
  • Food Options : We stayed at one of the city’s best resorts – the Niramaya Retreats. This ensured that we had access to the food cooked by some of the best chefs in the area. This came at a fat price of about Rs.10000/- per day charges for the stay. We soon realized it was well worth the money paid because more than often we heard from other tourists at how terrible the food options are outside. The shacks at the Kisama Heritage Village during the Horn Bill is another great option for food. They serve some amazing culinary delights but otherwise, do not be surprised if you find the food not up to what you are used to.
  • Safety : Kohima is as safe as you want it to be – provided you know where you are going and what to expect. We would highly recommend solo travelers and girls/women travelers to always carry a  pepper spray for that “just-in-case”. The fact that the sun sets around 4:15PM in the winter months plunging most of Kohima’s roads and pathways into darkness post sunset makes it important to ensure your own safety while getting around in the dark.
  • The festival and the crowds : If you are someone who finds the crowd, party and booze in Goa overwhelming, stay away from the Hornbill. It is a festival where travel freaks and adventure enthusiasts from across India and abroad make their footfall to celebrate and rejoice the melange of culture and colors that Hornbill showcases across 10 days. If you are expecting well behaved, gentlemanly crowds, you are going to be in for a rude shock. Rice beer and weed sets the mood of the place and the evenings sees crowds dancing and partying to the various rock bands that perform some terrific numbers.
  • Expenses and budget : Nagaland is not a budget friendly destination especially during the HornBill festival. The 10 days of Hornbill brings the largest influx of tourists to this part of North East during the entire year and it is only natural that the prices go up tenfold. You could end up paying hefty amounts for taxis ferrying you very short distances. The prices of hotel accommodations skyrocket during this time and finding a good one may be hard because they sell out quick and early.

Where to Stay In Kohima

Kohima is known for its limited stay options, especially around the time of the HornBill festival. The prices skyrocket and you would need to make your reservations in advance.

We chose to stay at the Niramaya Retreats which was definitely on the expensive side at about Rs.10000/- per night. However, the service, food and facilities were exceptionally the best among the ones available in Kohima and we had no complaints. The staff were uber helpful and always trying to help us in every possible way with arranging cabs, restaurant services and offering suggestions. The complimentary breakfast spread was amazing and the chef nor the restaurant staff ever gave us a reason to complain.

If you are looking for cheaper accommodations, you can reach out to NEIDA(contact information provided below). They can arrange stay in Kohima or in and around Kohima in one of the tribal villages. These would be home stays that the villagers do on a rotation basis and you will be assigned to one of the households – quite a promising experience for those willing to take the road less traveled by.

NEIDA For Further Details and Bookings Contact:

Phone: +91 – 370 – 2260197 (9.30 am – 5.30 pm)

Email: homestay@neida.org.in

Chalohoppo also provides some amazing tenting and camping options in the north east area. Do check out their website at https://www.chalohoppo.com/ to see the what best suits your travel style.


In and Around the Hornbill

Despite Horn Bill being the most popular festival of the north east, it is only a speck in the vast experiences that the north eastern states of India can provide. The 7 sisters of North east as the states are commonly known pack in a punch of variety and adventures for those who are set to explore. The several tribal villages and cultures culminate to provide an experience that is out of the mainstream tourism in India.

While we look forward to exploring more of North East in the coming years, we hope this post is a helpful guide for those planning to attend the Horn Bill festival. Experience the adventures in North east, and you will sure not be disappointed.

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