Though unassuming most of the year, the village of Kisama in northeastern India comes alive the first week of December—exploding with music, dancing, food, crafts and more—during the annual Hornbill Festival.
Named for the large colorful birds revered by locals, the festival was launched by the state tourism board in 2000 and attracts throngs of locals and tourists alike. Known in India as "the land of festivals," Nagaland is home to 16 distinct tribes, each with its own customs, language and dress. But those groups have seen their culture threatened by assimilation, scarcity and insurgency: Naga people speak more than 90 different languages and dialects—mostly unintelligible to each other—but English is the official language of the region and Nagaland is one of the few states in India with a predominantly Christian population. The Hornbill festival both preserves local traditions and promotes intertribal unity.
"It's the biggest festival of the year for many of the tribes, who will dress in their traditional garb, that usually involves horns, beads, feathers, sea shells and elaborate headdresses," explains Nellie Huang, a travel writer and guide with Wild Junket. "[There's] a colorful mixture of dance, parades, games, sports and religious ceremonies."
Last year, nearly 300,000 people watched tribes perform war dances, sing folk songs and compete in traditional games like archery, Naga wrestling and climbing greased bamboo poles. Artisans also create paintings, sculptures and wood carvings, while tribal shamans prepare herbal medicines.
Though this "festival of festivals" concentrates on traditional Naga heritage, attendees can also enjoy more contemporary activities, including a vintage car rally, a massive rock concert at Indira Gandhi Stadium and the Miss Nagaland Beauty Pageant. Those with strong constitutions can sample zutho, a beer made from fermented rice, or compete in a hot-pepper-eating contest. (Cultivated in Nagaland, the Bhut jolokia has been called the world's hottest chili pepper.)
The ten-day festival concludes with massive bonfires, one for each tribe to dance around and another conflagration in the middle.
"The... varied and vibrant culture of Nagaland showcases a perfect melange of cultural displays," Lieutenant General Shokin Chauhan told Times of India in 2017. "This cultural heritage must be preserved and promoted for our future generations to follow and to set an example for our countrymen to emulate."