Hornbill: A photoessay

December 2016

Though I have stayed in the North east corner of my country for approximately 3-4 years, I barely have any memory that I can remark upon with complete assurance. So when the chance of visiting one of the state literally falls into my lap, I didn’t hesitate twice about snatching it up. Usually it’s an obsessive and compulsive habit of mine to sit and plan and iron-out the nitty gritty details about a place before even contemplating the idea of a trip, but this was the first time I decided to go against my “natural” instincts and take help from one of those “self-proclaimed experts” of north-eastern states. It’s not like they were bad planners. It’s just that they didn’t deliver half the things that they promised they would.

When it comes to the North east states, people immediately flock to Meghalaya for its stunning living roots bridge and the famous cave expeditions, or opt for the floating lake of Manipur, or the dips and swells of Arunachal Pradesh. But Nagaland has always had this certain aura of tribal mysticism associated with it, along with many myths and misconceptions of cannibalism and unpalatable diets.

Kisama Heritage Village

Initiated in 2000, the main objective of the festival was to unite 16 major tribes of Nagaland. Their cultures and customs differed and conflicted for many decades. Hence, the Hornbill Festival was started to represent all the tribes as one; Naga people. However, ever since the unification, the objectives of this festival has changed, and now it has become more commercial – expanding tourism in Nagaland and making it more accessible. Known as the ‘Festival of Festivals’ held within the ‘Falcon capital of the World’, this 10-day annual extravganza is an eye-opener for the uninitiated and a revelation to those who are veterans of the travel arena.

What’s in a Name?

Though it is commemorated in honour of mother earth, the history of this festival plays a significant role in Nagamese culture. Held in the first week of December, the most important characterof the Hornbill festival resides in its name only – the Hornbill. This majestic bird is revered in Naga culture for its beauty and ability to stay alert. There are many aspects of tribal folklore that tell stories of this amazing bird and these are enacted during the festival. Hornbill feathers are displayed proudly on traditional headwear made of boar’s teeth and orchid stems.

The Naga people – History:

‘Naga’ is a generic term which comprises of various tribes, and is attributed to various ethnic groups associated to the present North Eastern part of India and northwestern Myanmar. The tribes have similar cultures and traditions, and form the majority of population in the Indian state of Nagaland and Naga Self-Administered Zone of Myanmar; with significant populations in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India; Sagaing Division and Kachin State in Myanmar.

The Naga people and the Naga way of life: Debunking myths and assumptions

Officially the state recognises 16 tribes as Nagas. However, the idea of ‘Greater Nagalim’, the Naga-inhabiting areas, takes into account more than 30 tribes that are geographically spread across Nagaland, Manipur, parts of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. Like every other individual and society, each tribe has its own unique dialect, customary laws and practices.

Do they roam around naked? I think this is the most common assumption that a person has when it comes to tribal culture and lifestyle. The Naga people have a rick textile history that is abundantly displayed through various tribe participation during the Hornbill festival. For instance, the Garo community refer to their colourful garments as dakmanda, daksari, or gando and are known to feature a feathered headgear known as a do’me. Traditional attire of men in the Rengma community comprises of a 6 inch wide embroidered sash, coming down on each shoulder, while in the bottom they wear a wrap around cloth that reaches 2 inches above the knees. In contrast, the men in the Zeilang Naga community wear a 10 inch wide sash from their left shoulder that is conjoined at the waist and left to dangle, an embroidered wraparound piece of cloth, protective calve dresses, armlets, neckpieces and an elaborate headdress which symbolises honor. The vibrant textile range symbolises honor and pride in their cultural roots, which goes beyond the standards of Indian fashion and Bollywood.

The ‘Naked Nagas’ was an unfortunate misnomer that was used widely in reference to the tribes living in the former province of British-ruled Assam. The term came to public knowledge more after being used as a title of a 1939 book by Austrian anthropologist Christoph Von Fuhrer-Haimendorf, who was said to have lived in ‘Eastern Nagaland’ – parts of which fall in the present-day Myanmar.

So, if that’s the case, how old is the history? Despite the belief that the Nagas immigrated from South East through the Indo-Myanmar border near the Naga Hills, the Nagas officially have no written historical record about their origin or their route of migration to their current habitation. The first documentation was seen in the report on the province of Assam in 1854 by Mills A.J. Moffatt, according to which, the British first came in contact with the Nagas in 1832 when Captain Jenkins and Pamberton along with 700 soldiers and 800 porters were trying to find a route from Manipur to Assam while marching across the Naga Hills.

Hiuen Tsang , the Chinese pilgrim who visited Assam in 645 A.D. during the reign of Bhaskar Varman , mentioned the Naga tribes in the hills, east of Assam. Hiuen Tsang mentioned that the inhabitants of the border hills showed similarities to the barbarians of South West China.

The Ahom Buranjis (historical chronicles and manuscripts of the Ahoms) records that the Nagas were already settled in the Naga Hills when the Ahoms came to Assam in the 13th Century. [ Gait, E.A., A History of Assam, 1967, pp.78-79.].

According to the document ‘A Brief History of the Garos of Nagaland‘, the Garos are the earliest human group that migrated into North East India from the Tibetan Plateau during the pre-historic period; the evidence of this being the Garo villages found across the Brahmaputra Valley, including many in and around the Guwahati metropolitan area and spread far and wide as far as the Chindwin valley in Myanmar. The tribe itself is known to outsiders as Garo but the Garos call themselves as ‘A.Chik’ or ‘Mande’. 

During the 1870-1880’s the British survey team led by Woodthrope first entered the Northern Sangtam territory. When the Britishers asked the people about their tribe, they replied that they are the people who migrated from Sangdang (now Satami under Zunheboto District) which was their ancestral village. Thus the word Sangdang was interpreted as Sangtam by the Britishers. As per oral history handed down through generation, Sangtams were also among the first group of people who were brought from Mongolia to China and deployed in the construction of the Great Wall of China, before they migrated to Myanmar and Nagaland.

Interestingly, despite the official documentation of the Nagas by Britishers, they were able to conquer only a small part of the Naga areas even though they added Assam to the East India Company’s territories. 10 military expeditions were sent between 1835 and 1851, and each time, encountered a fierce resistance from Naga guerilla groups particularly the Angami tribe. After annexation in 1879, Christian missionaries were introduced to bring about the conversion process.

With such a vast and undocumented history, what kind of cultural and social practices do they follow? Most Naga are Christians (about 95%). However, despite Christianity, traditional beliefs in spirits, local deities and supernatural forces associated with life evemts remain strong. Spirits are associated with both animate and inanimate objects and most are regarded as either gods or souls or deceased people. Instead of deferring to the common theme of good and bad spirits, individual spirits are regarded as having good and bad qualities.

Rengma Tribe
Awaina lim (Amur falcon dance) of the Zeliang community depicts the happy, merry movements of the Amur falcons, which visit Nagaland during September and October.

These very belief system reflect in the various dance forms that are showcased during Hornbill festival. Each tribe has its own distinct style, but the commonality stems from their posture and form – the torso is kept erect and the steps in the early stages of the dance are precise and dignified and progresses to become more ecstatic and complex. The formation of the dance forms are determined by the social organization of the tribe and an individual’s position within the group.

Garo Tribe – The main protagonist of Wangala dance – the nokma or village headman who acts as the priest. While the men play on horns and oval-shaped drums called dama, the women make formations around the nokma in honour of the Misi-Saljong (also known as Pattigipa Ra’rongipa).

The social practices are equally unique for each tribe. Unlike the Garo community who are one of the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world, Sangtam and other Naga society revolve around patrilineal clans. Clan loyalty is more important that any other loyalty. As such, personal identity if often seen in synonymous with clan identity. For instance, Sangtam has six different and distinct clans. Marriages within the same clan are not allowed but inter-marriage between these six clans are permitted. The Sangtams favourably practiced the bride-price system, prior to introduction of Christianity. The price was paid to the girl’s parents depending upon the position and status. For example, if the girls are from a rich family, the price was paid in the form of one or two mithun, pigs or cows. This practice stems out of the belief that it would encourage long-lasting marriages since any divorce from the bride’s side would result in a hefty return of interest from the bride’s parents. But if the divorce was from the groom’s side, the price was not considered.

Khava Jing Tsu Those is a folk dance performed by Sangtam tribe, which said to be an imitation of the jumping crow requiring precise steps.

Conflicts play an equally important role in forming cultural and social practices. For example, early history states that The Rengmas and the Lohtas were a part of a single tribe. However, many conflicts were reported between the Rengma village and the Lotha villages of Phiro and some more between the Rengma and the Angami tribes of Nagaland. The Rengmas were also known to practice slavery before British Raj arrived in India. The slaves were known by the names Itsakesa and Menugetenyu. The traditional weapons of warfare were spears and shields.

Considering the wilderness, headhunting and cannibalism is still followed? The last reported incident of headhunting was somewhere in 1980s. Since tribal conflicts were prevalent, ‘decapitation and preserving the head’ was considered as a symbol of trophy back then. It is said that Naga warrirors would raid settlements in search of heads since they believed that blood sprinkled on the fields yielded in good harvest. Also, the custom of headhunting is considered as a sign of masculinity which improved the chances of getting a good bride, leadership positions in council and chieftainship especially in tribes that don’t follow hereditary system.

Wangala Dance by Garo Tribe. Wangala is a 3-day annual festival where the Garo tribe thank the Misi-A-Gilpa-Saljong-Galapa (The Sun God) for blessing the region with good harvest. The festival signifies the beginning of winter, which also means the end of the harvesting season and labour in the fields.

Because of their belief in spirits and local deities, the Naga tribes usually live on all things that grow and run wild. Most probably this is what led to the stories of cannibalism. Overall, the tribes are agro-dependent, that is, they live on produce grown from shifting cultivation ‘Jhum’. Juhm land is generally cleared, burned and used for two years and then allowed to grow back into wilderness. Those tribes who are not farmers, end up raising animals, hunt and fish.

Naga cuisine has its own identity with no influence of rest of the country or its shared boundary with Myanmar. Rice is a staple diet and is paired with both vegetarian and meat-laden dishes. Nagas love their pork and beef with the same passion as rest of the country swears by Butter chicken and Chicken Tandoori. As such, they usually sun dry or smoke the meat so that it can be preserved and enoyed for the remaining year. The portion size are hearthy and are prepped wth raja chillies or Naga chillies that have the notoriety of being the world’s hottest chilli. Each tribe have their own way of prepping the meat, but all of them have a collective lobe and obsession for fresh and dried bamboo shoot that forms an integral cooking ingredient. Interestingly, despite the generosity of the portions, use of masalas or indian spices is very limited since they believe that the spices are loaded with artificial color that interferes with the basic flavour of the dish.

With its rich history, why are the North east states not a popular destination? Despite being one of the most remote part of India, the north eastern states have one of the most beautiful terrains, rich and fascinating culture and history, and a weather that is completely contradictory to Mumbai. The only problems that travelers often face is the lack of accessibility, not to mention numerous inner turmoil and ridiculous government protocols like inner line permits that are simply too confounding for the residents of India. Interestingly, the Nagas never considered themselves part of India. The Naga Club, formed in 1918, made the first public declaration of the Naga territory as distinct from mainland India in their memorandum to the Simon Commission in 1929. While India assimilated Nagalnd in 1952, it was in 1963 when Nagaland was given status of a self-governing state with restricted foreign access. Beginning in 1975, Nagaland was formally put under presidential rule by the Indian government.

Hornbill festival can be considered as a shorthand guide to the multiverse of Naga culture, highlighting the tribal ethnicity, dance and music, authentic food and a glimpses of the Naga way of life. Hornbill is an experience, but the commercialisation of the festival now feels like a gawking moment. I sound hypocritical here considering all the pictures that I have taken, but through the camera lens, more than the uniqueness, I did feel like I was looking into thinly-veiled disdain towards us “gawkers and common folks”. Must be me, but then I don’t think its a pleasant feeling to have a camera shoved in your comfort zone, capturing every single muscle twitch in the name of travel enthusiasts and tourism.

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