(Ex Secretary, Tourism, 1998-2004)
“Memory, is the diary that we all carry about with us” Oscar Wilde.
Come December, and all roads lead to Kohima, or more precisely to KISAMA, and the Hornbill Festival of Nagaland, which is held annually from 1st to 10th December since 2003. The Festival is now in its 20th year, since its inception in the year 2000, and hopefully, it will witness many more years of milestones, fame and growth. Whether this journey will continue to be as enriching or impoverishing, time is yet to tell. But the fact remains that the “Hornbill Festival of Nagaland”, was conceived as a tourism promotional event and in this context it has served its purpose of opening up Nagaland to the rest of the world.
Prior to the Hornbill Festival, Nagaland, as a tourist destination, was almost unknown. When the state (Tourism Department) participated in the International Tourism Borse (ITB) Berlin, in March 1998, and World Tourism Mart (WTM) London, in November 1998 and 1999, and in other domestic/national tourism events, the incognizance about Nagaland was visibly felt. Nagaland, in spite of its rich cultural diversity, beautiful landscape, verdant hills and valleys and salubrious climate, was little known for these assets and strengths. At the most, it was known as a conflict area, with advisories as an unsafe travel destination. Moreover the cumbersome process of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) for foreigners and the Inner Line Permit (ILP) for domestic travellers, made it less attractive for many.
It was therefore strongly felt that a unique selling proposition (USP) be developed to promote Nagaland as a destination, showcasing the cultural mosaic of diverse multi ethnicity of Nagaland in it’s totality. As one travels to different parts of Nagaland, it was observed that the state is replete with its diversity and ethnicity. The Northern districts of Nagaland, are characterised by their log drums and morung culture, while the southern districts has its own unique wood carvings, housing structures and stone pulling ceremonies. The one thing that stands out distinctively, is that, the Nagas are the most artistic and talented people in the entire North East, in so far as bamboo architectural structures/housings, bamboo crafts and weaves, and wood carvings are involved. These aspects, along with the diverse culture, costumes, languages, indigenous tribal festivals, dances and songs and cuisine, all encompasses the total Nagaland. Though each tribal community celebrate their myriad festivals revolving around the agrarian calendar, throughout the year, it was not possible that these can be witnessed by all. It was thus felt that all these elements be showcased in an annual event, to promote Nagaland as a destination, that is unique, ethnic, diverse and enchanting. It was also felt that an event to revive and protect the rich culture of Nagaland was needed, as at that time, such traditional festivities was almost dwindling with the exception of a few villages, where traditional festivals were still celebrated.
Thus the idea of a major event/festival took shape, and while considering an appropriate name for the same, that would be distinctive and exclusive to the state, and after much deliberations, the name ‘Hornbill Festival” emerged as the winner. This was unanimously accepted, as the Hornbill bird, holds significance in most Naga folklores. The Hornbill feathers, also features in most Naga tribal traditional head gears and is indicative of a “commonness”, amongst the Nagas. It was also felt that naming a festival after a bird which was endemic to Nagaland, would create awareness amongst the people for conserving the diminishing wildlife. The Festival not only witnessed the coming together of all the traditional and tribal aspect of the state, but also saw the convergence of government departments and social organisations in actively supporting and organising the event.
The Hornbill Festival was first held in the year 2000, in Khouchiezie, at the Kohima local ground, initially for just five days, and till 2002 it continued in the same location. During this period, the preparation of putting up 16 tribal morungs/huts/structures, display/food stalls, a performing stage etc. (these structures had to be dismantled after every event), allotting stalls, coordinating with various tribal organisations, other agencies and departments was all done in a matter of 10-15 days at a total coast of Rs.25 lakhs annually. Matters of security, water and light connectivity, toilet facilities and maintenance, crowd control and monitoring by the local youth organisation etc. had to be executed and coordinated as well. The issue of selling of the local traditional rice wine during the festival faced strong objections from the churches and was a burning issue then. The day programs of Hornbill Festival, was confined to the traditional dances, songs, sports and food and the sale of local handicrafts etc. The night programs saw the finale of the Miss Nagaland pageant, fashion shows, and western music competitions etc. Attempts were made to include choir competitions, but due to the lack of response, this was discontinued after the second year. In spite of the tight schedules, constraints in space, and it’s critics, the festival went off well, without any hitches.
Nagaland had entered into a Cease Fire Agreement in 1997, and the tension and fear amongst the people still existed in 2000. Understandably, the state was devoid of any forms of entertainments and recreational outlets and night life was non-existent, at that point of time. It was therefore, perhaps, a much needed respite for many to have some form of entertainment and outings. However, instigating social change is never smooth sailing and the initial years of the Hornbill Festival had its fair share of criticisms and disapprovals. But the fact that it has survived and grown in the last 19 years is testimony to the fact that it was appreciated, needed and has stood the test of time.
In 2003, the venue of the Hornbill Festival was shifted to its present location at KISAMA – a name coined from the name of the two villages of Kigwema (Ki) and Phesama (SAMA), as the site is between these two villages. Kisama, was initially, the site for the WWII Museum only, but as the place was large enough, and a permanent location for Hornbill Festival was needed, the upper portion of the land was allotted as the venue for the Festival. Preparations for the development of the site, which at that time was a jungle, started in mid October 2003, after the monsoon rains. The Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, sanctioned an amount of Rs.3 Crores, for creation of the infrastructures and organising the festival. In addition to the above amount other departments pooled in for water connectivity, power connection, the road constructions etc. The initial layout comprised of the sitting arena with the central space for the cultural performance, with a podium for the dignitaries. Behind and above this arena, were the various stalls for display and selling of handicrafts and some food stalls. As one enters the arena, on the left are the various tribal morungs/houses, 17 in total initially, representing all the tribal inhabitants of Nagaland. With just a month and a half for the commencement of the Festival, it was a race against time in setting up the basic infrastructures and preparation of the venue with all the participants. The departmental officers/staffs, tribal groups, workers and volunteers etc. all worked late into the night in the freezing cold, punctuated with some unexpected challenges. However the comradeship and support from all kept everyone going to meet the deadline.
The location of the tribal morungs/houses at Kisama is in the shape of the map of Nagaland, and each morungs/structures are strategically placed as per the actual locations of the districts in the state. This was done so as to give a sense of direction to the visitors on the geographically location of the different tribes. Most of the structures, such as the main wooden post and the beam, are still in its original state with periodic renovations/ improvements and changes of the thatch roofing materials and bamboos. The log drums in the morungs of the Konyak, Phom, Sangtam, Ao, and the Khiamniungan tribes were originally brought from their respective districts, in 2003, after performing their log pulling ceremonies. These are now vintage items, and care should be taken to preserve these artefacts as heritage displays. The bamboo hall was added in 2004 by the Nagaland Bamboo Mission. Behind this hall is also an open auditorium, which was to be the venue for the musical events.
As one enters the arena to the venue of the festival, one is greeted with a majestic gate on which is the sign “Window to Nagaland”, appropriately named to give a glimpse of Nagaland, its people and its culture. This idea was borrowed from China’s theme park at Shenzhen, Guangdong, where the “Window to the World” of all the world’s famous replicas exists. The signage on the hill top “Naga Heritage Village”, is styled a la “Hollywood”. Apart from these two borrowed ideas, most of the infrastructure developed are original in idea and theme, and in tune with the essence of Nagaland.
Over the years, much of original minimalist venue saw the additions of more structures of multiple sitting podiums, a stage, an artificial tree-full of artificial hornbills, two horn blowing “Adonis” looking figures, a chapel etc. Whether these additions are suited to the venue is for people to debate upon. With every new politician or bureaucrat heading the department there seems to be a compulsion to leave their mark, and one wonders whether the venue will be able to withstand the load of these constant additions as the years go by. The Hornbill Festival was conceived to showcase Naga culture, heritage and diversity, and the initial years focussed on these aspects, but gradually it became a melting pot of other cultures, of not only other states but of other countries as well. There was not only a dilution of the original concept, but a depletion of resources, as most of these external participants were guests of the state government. Today, there are many other events and organisations, “riding” on the wings of the Hornbill Festival. Some of these “riders” may have no relevance to the Festival (culturally) or even tourism promotionally. The Government needs to take a stock of these riders, as they seem to be increasing annually.
The Hornbill Festival, was summed up as the “Festival of Festivals” in 2012, thereby exalting its status to other traditional festivals in the state. It must be remembered that the Hornbill Festival is a tourism promotional event created to showcase Nagaland as an attractive destination. It is not an indigenous or a traditional festival, and as such it cannot be elevated or be at par with other traditional tribal festivals of Nagaland. The state in 2018, had also appended the moniker “Mini Hornbill festival”, to all the indigenous traditional festivals of different tribes in the state. Each traditional tribal festival has its origin in every tribal culture and history, much older than the Hornbill festival, and thereby cannot be considered as mini to anything. The essence and identity of each tribal festival must be preserved and passed down to the future generation in its purest form. Appending another agnomen to traditional festivals will dilute its meaning and may even eventually lose its identity. We have had the President and Prime Minister of India, wishing the Nagas, a “Happy Hornbill Festival” on two occasions, which again is an indication of misconstruing the event to something which is not. All Nagas celebrate Christmas as a religious festival, and that would be an appropriate time to wish the Nagas, while traditional festivals are celebrated at different times by different tribes.
Whatever may be the chequered path of the Hornbill Festival, it is essential to acknowledge the reasons for why the Hornbill Festival was conceived – as a tourism promotional event, showcasing the multi-ethnicity of the state. Efforts must be made to maximise and promote the festival to showcase the state as a destination that encourages visitors to explore other districts and places in the state, after having a glimpse of Nagaland “through its window”. There is a much wider area to explore and appreciate Nagaland for an off the beaten track adventure and experiencing the true and genuine essence of each tribal distinctiveness, standing tall on its own merit and not as an appendix to something else. Each tribe should take pride in its own distinctive cultural heritage and history, and retain that essence in its true form.