Tribal talent time

Fierce warriors, scary chilli, hot dogs - Ben Stubbs gets a taste of a rarely seen side of the subcontinent.

The Naga tribesmen in the hills of hidden India were once known as some of the fiercest warriors in Asia. They repelled the Japanese invasion with spears during World War II and they practised headhunting until the British outlawed it in 1929. Some say that they continue the tradition in the deep valleys of north-east India, when intruders threaten their villages. I wonder how true the rumour is as I sit in a crowd of Naga warriors swinging machetes and preening their hornbill-feather headdresses while they wait to enter the cauldron.

I am just outside the city of Kohima in Nagaland in the far north-east of India to experience the Hornbill Festival, a yearly event where all the tribes of Nagaland and the rest of the north-east tribal states of India congregate for a week of dancing, eating and cultural displays.

The festival, which starts in the first week of December, is named after the colourful bird revered in the folklore of the Naga tribes.

From the city of Dimapur on the humid lower plains of Nagaland we travel for three hours by car through valleys lush with tea plantations, wandering elephants and wild rivers up to the plateau where the villages of Nagaland stand like beacons on the edges of the mountains. Kohima is at an altitude of 1444 metres, so even in the full sun the wind chills us as we climb the hills for the opening ceremony.

As the festival opens, each of the 23 tribes enter the cauldron to display their colours to the crowd like birds of paradise. They show off their dances and war chants to the masses that have travelled here from the remotest parts of India. The arena moves with the thumping of waist-high drums and the strange buzz of the throat-singing men who trot around the lower levels.

Nagaland is one of the last frontiers in India, due to its remote location and the complicated visa process that, until now, has stopped tourists entering independently. The Naga government has recently relaxed its entry procedure (a visa is issued at the Dimapur airport now) and so my wife and I are among the first independent tourists to enter the region.

Apart from the music, dancing and competition, the festival is known for its interesting food options. Up in the green hills of Nagaland there are no sausage sizzles or fairy floss vendors. I walk past the traditional houses, called Morungs, while tribesmen sing and fire blank rounds from their rifles in the air to celebrate. The first local delicacy on offer looks a little like elongated popcorn, though there is no mistaking the fried silkworms for anything so common. I'm hungry and after something a little more substantial. Because of the proximity to Burma and the flavours of south-east Asia I find noodle dishes heavy with lemongrass and coriander, though the stall that has locals queuing is serving a Naga delicacy; it's hot dog, literally. The harsh way of life up here means that the Nagas are accustomed to eating many different things, whether it is frog, dog or rat, out of necessity. I order a plate that is doused in liberal squirts of Naga chilli sauce, made with Raja Mirchi chilli, the hottest in the world. After the first bite my face is numb and I can't taste a thing so the meal tastes as good as anything else I eat at the festival. I follow the lead of the other warriors sitting on the wooden benches around me and wash it down with a warm draught of sour rice beer.

My wife and I take a walk through the markets and browse for gloves and woollen scarves among headhunting knives, bags of chilli and dried ox intestines.

I take my souvenir headhunting knife and get a seat in the arena to watch the tribes perform. The Yimchungru tribe, wearing red hats and no pants, dance in circles around the dusty ground, hypnotising the crowd; they make way for the little women from Arunachal Pradesh, who slice the air with ceremonial swords, and their men, who prance around the arena with drums. The women are long-haired and beautiful, though I'm told that in the past the men in Arunachal Pradesh would disfigure their women with large nose plugs and facial tattoos so rival tribes wouldn't steal them.

Throughout the afternoon we sit on the edge of the arena sipping chai and watch the tribes file in and out. I snap photos of the Konyak people with red teeth and rifles, the Sangtam women in their Scottish-looking tartan sashes, and the fighting Kachari tribesmen.

The games are more demonstration than competition as the Mizoram folk take the stage and show us their version of "goanna pulling" across the dirt. For the next event, the scantily-clad Assamese jump around the arena like frogs balancing on pieces of bamboo and they complete their routine by throwing terracotta jugs into the air from their teeth.

We wander to the fences and meet tourists from Mumbai, Naga authors, and teenagers stumbling about after too much rice beer.

There is a hush around the arena as men from the Mon village in Sikkim take to the stage. Their costumes are less elaborate than those of many other regions, though their matching camouflage underpants do give them a sense of intrigue. They are known to be among the bravest tribes in the valley. They pull burning sticks from a fire off to the side of the arena and, after blowing out the flames, start eating the charred wood like corn cobs. Flames lick up and around their mouths yet they keep eating as if the sticks are doused in nothing more than butter. I'm not sure if "brave" is the word that first comes to mind.

This place doesn't feel Indian at all; as many of the Nagas tell me, "Nagaland is Indian in name only".

It is quiet and cool as my wife and I walk back to our homestay. The rolling blue hills lead all the way to the Himalayas, and the town feels a little like Darjeeling. There is a range of good hotels in Kohima, though we arranged our visit at the last minute so we are experiencing the area with a more authentic homestay. We stay on the top level of a family home and, while the accommodation is basic, we have a balcony looking out over the tea plantations that stretch towards the distant mountains. It's not quite the "Switzerland of the East" as one tourism rep told me, though after spending a week here I'm impressed with Nagaland's unique charm.

The first event the next day is the Naga chilli-eating contest. Hardy locals are given their minute to shine and show their bravery. According to the Scoville scale the Naga chilli has a rating of almost 1.4 million units. To put it in perspective, law-enforcement-grade pepper spray rates from 1.5 million to 2 million.

The clock starts and the table of old ladies and red-faced men begin devouring the tiny chillies like jelly beans. One contestant tumbles behind the stage to vomit and as the timer stops the winner is a small lady from a farming community not far from here. She eats 17 chillies in a minute and I don't envy her for a second as news crews scramble for an interview. For something a little less spicy, the next event is the Naga pork fat-eating competition. The offerings look like large slabs of white jelly, though the competition is stiff and the winner consumes more than a kilogram.

Even though Nagaland feels like the end of the Earth, I'm reminded of how small the world has become. I stop to take a photo of a group of Konyak men. They oblige and smile for the camera. I momentarily think I might have crossed a cultural line as the leader reaches into the folds of his tunic. He pulls out a mobile phone and snaps a picture right back at me. Despite the fact that he possibly descends from headhunters and prefers rice beer to ice-cream, for the brief moment as we look at each other through our lenses, the gap between traveller and headhunter is smaller than ever.

The writer travelled with assistance from Thai Airways.


Three other things to do

1 Khonoma The traditional village of Khonoma is 20 kilometres from Kohima. Set in a valley surrounded by mountains and rice paddies, it is a fantastic place to experience authentic Naga life.

2 War cemetery The cemetery in the centre of Kohima is a reminder of Nagaland's involvement in World War II. There are three Australian graves in the cemetery and a good museum in Kisama.

3 Intanki Wildlife Sanctuary This small sanctuary 111 kilometres from Kohima shelters gibbons, elephants, wild dogs, sloth bears, sambar and hornbills.

Trip notes

Getting there

Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Kolkata (with a stopover in Bangkok). www.thaiairways.com. From Kolkata there are many domestic carriers that fly to Dimapur, the capital of Nagaland. airindia.com. From Dimapur there are numerous taxis and drivers available to take you up into the mountains at Kohima. Expect to pay about $30.

Staying there

There are hotels, hostels and homestays in and around Kohima. hornbillfestival.com.

Touring there

For organised tours, World Expeditions runs a nine-day tour to Nagaland and Assam to see the Hornbill Festival. Prices start from $1990 including meals, accommodation and guide. worldexpeditions.com.au.

More information

Australian citizens require a visa to enter India. vfs-in-au.net.
The Hornbill Festival website is the best place for up-to-date information and contacts, hornbillfestival.com.

The story Tribal talent time first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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