The December morning air has a chill, and the roads en route to Kohima are lined with red-tipped poinsettias. Outside Kohima, I mistake the funeral shops for flower ones, as the polished coffins hide behind cascades of artificial flowers. Red stars dangle on tall bamboo poles to announce Christmas is around the corner, but the merry-making season has begun with the Hornbill Festival. Beyond the stage shows, indulge in a slice of Naga life at the traditional morungs at the heritage village of Kisama, revel in the merry-making and live grills at the night market in Kohima and hike into the surreal bamboo bowl of Dzukou.
I’m early at the heritage village of Kisama, the festival venue, to peacefully explore the morungs on the slope behind the arena. It is where the performers of different tribes congregate in their respective community huts. The setting of the traditional huts would gladden the heart of any Uderzo comic buff. At the Ao morung, the younger members sit around the sacred log and get a pep talk while the weathered elders top up on an early morning tot of rice beer. At the end, they all have a moment of silent prayer. Strips of pork hang from the rafters above wisps of smoke that catch the light inside the Zeliang morung.
The Chakhesang tribe troops into the amphitheatre humming with snacks and bamboo mugs, and I have them for the company on one side and the Kachari tribe members in their bright orange ensembles on the other. In the spirit of things, I am offered rice beer by a Chakhesang lad, and I profess it further to a Kachari elder next to me. A gentle but firm shake of the head and a haughty nose silently turned up and away speaks loudly of the dynamics at play. Later, during the lunch break, my nose takes me to the Sumi morung for a delicious lunch of smoked pork, sticky rice and delectable greens. In the evening, while a heavy metal band holds centre stage, a quartet belts out classics to a small, cosy crowd around candlelit tables and a bonfire at one of the morungs.
Post sundown, for the duration of the festival, the main market road in Kohima turns into a street market. Christmas cheer is in the air on a gaily decorated street, and I walk the length lined with aromatic live grills, sampling some past game stalls crowded with hip youngsters and browsing through Christmas trinkets. At one end, I find a crowd crowing with joy as someone gambling on live chickens gets lucky. Those with an adventurous palate who cannot make it to the famous Mao, aka keeda market, might get lucky here. I pass up the satay sticks of silkworm, but the crickets are crispy and crunchy. My sense of adventure is clearly bite-sized.
I round off the trip and burn off the feasting with a day hike to the nearby Dzukou Valley. It is an early morning start, a steep climb through a thick forest trail and then a level walk inside the rim of a ladle-shaped valley. Charred trees dotting the bamboo-lined valley seem to point accusing black fingers towards the bright sun, and even the larks keep to the shaded path.
The setting is surreal as the narrow valley opens into a shallow bowl carpeted with thick bamboo. A giant white cross near the bottom beckons with open arms, but it is a three-hour walk back, which is a cakewalk for the Angami guide, but my racing heart is not all thanks to the vistas. I look at the fall colours on the trees hiding a murmuring stream and imagine the flaming sunset that would otherwise be a perfect curtain call to this land of the Nagas.