‘But what about food?’ was the first thing my younger daughter asked when we were planning a trip to Nagaland in Dec 2022. Food was the last thing on my mind. When traveling in India, you assume that you get basic ‘dhal, rice, and curd’ combo in every corner of the country 🍛
But Nagaland is different.
Naga cuisine can be a challenge for a South Indian vegetarian family. But somehow, we (including my 7-year-old daughter) overlooked the food part. Exploring the Naga tribal culture, landscape, and tiny villages sounded more exciting than fretting over dhal-rice.
The idea was to spend a few days exploring Kohima (and nearby villages) and a few days at the legendary Hornbill Festival.
Kohima gets booked out during the Hornbill festival. You may get decent accommodation if you start accommodation hunting in early September. But here I was, frantically calling and emailing places in mid-November. The Hornbill festival happens at ‘Kisama Heritage Village,’ about 12 km from Kohima, or a grueling 1-hour drive in a tiny Alto (taxi = Alto) through the windy mountain roads.
Most people traveling for the Hornbill festival pitch tents at the camp sites near the venue or stay in Kohima and commute up and down. Staying in a tent was ruled out for us, and there was no accommodation in Kohima; almost all the places I spoke to said they were booked out, except for that one ‘resort-ish kind of place.’
That one place had a room available, and they claimed to be located right next to the heritage village (less than 800 mts or 15 mins walk), and the email description of the room seemed perfect for a family of four. This sounded too good to be true and I instantly knew there had to be a catch.
I called the ‘resort’ and insisted on a WhatsApp video call.
The manager hesitantly agreed to the video call. After the initial customary small talk, I asked the manager to pan his mobile phone to show me the rooms and facilities. My expectation was a basic clean room, with a decent loo, and nothing fancy.
Instead I saw a bunch of construction workers and construction materials scattered everywhere. The place was under construction 😬.
But the manager quickly assured me the site was near completion and would be fully done before the festival.
I signed up on blind faith and asked my family to keep their fingers crossed. There was no plan b 🤒
Was the food and accommodation risk worth it?
Luckily, the place was done by the time we landed, albeit with minor issues. And I’ll choose not to elaborate on the ‘minor issues’ part of the story 🙄
The ‘resort’ was 800 mts from the venue, but this 800 mts was vertically above the venue on a rocky hill with no road. Pretty much impossible for a human to walk through that dusty pathway.
And did I mention Kohima is biting cold in December?
Anyway, all that aside, we had a place to stay, which also served watery dhal and rice. No curd, though. So survival was not an issue. And the people are so good that you ignore these tiny things and move along. The best part about North East is the people. They are super kind, friendly, and hospitable.
The first few days we went around Kohima city. The city kind of resembles Shillong (my favorite NE city). Coffee culture is picking up in Kohima and the city is dotted with many hipster cafes serving ‘Naga coffee’, a thing to try if you are in Kohima.
After a few days of soaking in the city vibe, we decided to head out to check out the smaller villages around Kohima. One of the days, we trekked along the picturesque terrace farms of Khonoma, an Angami Naga village situated at the Indo-Mayanmar border, with just over 400 inhabitants.
What was supposed to be a 2-hour trek turned into a 4-hour trek. Well, that happens if you have a camera in hand while trekking. The place is so breathtakingly beautiful that I wanted to capture it all, not realizing that it’s impossible to do that 🙂
While huffing and puffing through my trek, cribbing about my 400gms camera weight, I saw this woman effortlessly climbing with a ton of load on her back, not breaking a sweat 🙆♂️.
The serpentine gullies of Khonoma wind through the valley; the only traffic here is these women carrying stuff up and down the valley. En route, there are a few designated pitstops where the women stop for a break and catch up with friends.
Yeah, I only saw women working while the men chilled at the ‘morung‘.
More on morung in a bit.
I don’t know if that’s the norm or if it was just a one-off day where the men decided to chill.
Khonoma gave us a sense of the quintessential Naga tribal culture. I was now all geared up for the Hornbill Festival!
Nagaland has about 16 tribes spread across 8 districts. The Hornbill Festival aims to bring these tribes together and promote inter-tribal interactions and the cultural heritage of Nagaland.
The festival happens at a designated place in Kisama village. The venue has two main parts – the arena and adjacent to the arena the tribals set up their morungs. The arena is where the cultural events happen, and the morung is like a base camp of sorts for the tribal folks. This is where they cook, eat, sleep, pray, practice songs & dance, brew sticky rice beers, and chill.
And they welcome visitors to their morung and are happy to explain their heritage and culture to the visitors. Of course, they also take pride in serving you freshly brewed sticky rice beer in eco-friendly bamboo mugs🍻
In my opinion, these morungs are the heart of the Hornbill festival.
I spent a lot time at the morung ‘chit-chatting’ with the tribal folks and the many visitors. For me, this is the best part of the Hornbill festival. The warmth and hospitality of these people is unmatched. Of course, watching them in their traditional attire is a visual treat.
Each element in the tribal attire is a beauty on its own. I spent a lot of time clicking portraits of these beautiful people, secretly hoping that the culture and heritage is preserved for time to come and won’t disappear in this rapidly changing modern world.
I had spent the entire day at the festival and was super tired. I was now itching to return to the hotel and retire for the day. The thought of slurping on piping hot watery dhal-rice on a cold Kohima night seemed divine.
While packing my backpack, I saw this man rolling up his cigarette in the corner. He had probably spent his entire day at the arena, being in the spotlight, dancing, and performing for people. He was now having a moment for himself. As I quietly observed him from a distance, Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the page’ lines played in my mind.
Out there in the spotlight you’re a million miles awayTurn The Page, Bob Seger, 1972.
Every ounce of energy you try to give away
As the sweat pours out your body like the music that you play
Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette, rememberin’ what she said
Speaking of music, every evening the place transforms into a rock concert arena right after all the cultural events. Bands from across the North East and the rest of the country perform, and it’s such an incredible experience!
Here are a few more pictures before I wrap this up, do click on the individual picture. They look better on a large screen 🙂
One of the places I emailed for accommodation was Razhu Pru, a cozy little homestay in Kohima. While they didn’t have accommodation for us, Sushma, who runs Rzahu Pru, was super helpful. She patiently answered all my questions and even helped me plan the trip without any expectations. I can’t thank her enough for this kind gesture.
Time just flew in Nagaland, and I know we’ve not had enough of North East India, and I will go back there sometime soon.
Until then 🖖🏾