The dust rises up in spirals and comes to rest long after our passing. We're a small convoy of four-five cars, and our pace has been slow: we're driving through one of the politically volatile districts of West Bengal, and due to a strike called by a local outfit, we're required to travel with a police escort. The "escort" happens to be a small battered tempo with a posse of curious policemen, who finally decided to take us across the troubled stretch after making us wait the entire day. Not the best way to start a trip. We're in the middle of a foolhardy road trip from Gangtok to Kohima, almost 1,200 km, and headed for that famed cornucopia of music, culture, food and revelry in Kisama, Nagaland: the Hornbill Music Festival.
"But dude, this is the Hornbill we're talking about!" T, friend and photographer, had thundered over the phone when proposing this trip. Known to have a natural disinclination for prudence, he was convinced about the feasibility of driving across a major swathe of the North East in less than 10 days. "We've got a souped-up van; it'll be a walk in the park!"
And what a strenuous one at that; four tired, hungry, ghostly-looking figures eventually reached the border junction town of Dimapur late one evening. National Highway 36 winds through the tea estates of Upper Assam and small hamlets to suddenly emerge into a glitzy straight stretch lined with liquor shops: more than a hundred of them.
"We like our drink," says our host, pouring everyone a tipple for good measure. "And we have to go across the border to buy alcohol," he adds with an indifferent shrug. Nagaland is a dry state, and that, considering the Naga affinity for a drink is about as absurd as not allowing a bikini on a beach. "Don't worry about it," says the host, "Nagaland can be a bit dichotomous."
Dimapur is the commercial capital of the state which tends to detract from its historical importance as the ancient capital of the Kachari tribe that ruled the region in the 13th century. Ruins of the medieval Kachari kingdom are scattered about the town and are worth a visit although it's tough to get a guide. The Rangapahar Reserve forest is a short-drive away. Although just over 20 hectares, this biological hot spot is home to an astonishing diversity of avian life.
It isn't easy to be a vegetarian in Nagaland. Pork is a staple, and if you want to give it a break, then help yourself to some chicken. Herbivores beware, beyond hubs like Dimapur and Kohima, veggie food is practically impossible to find.
Just over a couple of hours drive away is the spectacular Benreu village. Facing Mount Pauna, the third highest peak in Nagaland, the village, perched at 1,950 metres, is surrounded by a dense wildlife sanctuary.
Historically home to the Zeliang tribe, the village still follows animistic customs and social mores, even though the Zeliangs are a minority in a Christian-dominated population. We checked into the tourist cottages located a short walk away from the village. There is a recreational Morung—a traditional dormitory where male Nagas gather for community bonding—next to the cottages. But it pales in front of the oldest Morung in the village below.
Dark and embellished with skulls and horns of bears, deer, boars and other animals, hanging out at the Morung is decidedly an acquired taste, fascinating though it is. The villagers claim that Benreu also has the largest concentration of Mithuns. These are huge bulls which look very intimidating but are usually gentle. Every Mithun usually has an owner—whose wealth is judged by the number of Mithuns he owns—but they wander freely.
Trails cleared by these large animals have since become popular with trekkers. Along these routes are Tancuhebung—natural curative bathing ponds; Tingkaiki, a mysterious cave that blows hot air throughout the year; and Hetia Kerelibe, the echo-producing boulder. The hills around Benreu abound with the ginseng herb, considered to be a strong aphrodisiac, just in case you want to put the bounce back into your step.
Nestled in the hills, two hours from Benreu and Dimapur, is Kohima, capital of Nagaland. The capital is deeply imbued with military associations. The Nagas fought with the Allied forces to defeat the Japanese in a bloody battle in World War II. Soldiers who died in this battle are commemorated at the pretty but sombre War Cemetery in the middle of town. Walk past the cemetery and into the bustling vegetable and meat market in town. It's not for the squeamish, though, as everything from frogs to venison and fermented meats is being hawked. I stop by a stall selling venison and ask the seller why he killed the animal. "Well, it is sad, but if I hadn't, then some bigger animal would have got it anyway," he says before (as if satisfied by this stilted logic) smiling and urging me to sample some pickle.
In December every year, all roads lead to Kisama: a heritage village where the Hornbill Festival is held. While popular for its music competition, the Hornbill is also a microcosm of Naga culture. After all, the state is home to 16 different tribes, including the Angamis, Aos, Chakesangs, Changs, Konyaks, Kacharis, Kukis, Sumis, Lothas, and the Pochurys. These tribes speak extremely dissimilar languages and have very distinct customs and even styles of cooking. The Hornbill was surprisingly well attended—music, dance, rituals, arts and crafts, food, all washed down with a healthy swig of Jootho, the local ale, marked three days of complete revelry culminating with the finals of the music competition which was won by the local rock band, ‘OFF'.
The last evening before leaving for Dimapur, on the way back to Sikkim, we parked ourselves at the Sema tribe Morung at the Hornbill. Poets in long feathered headgear sat and recited around a blazing bonfire, surrounded by women who loved the idea of poets more than the words themselves. At dawn, a man sang the dreams he had that night to the beat of a grizzled hand on a tightly-stretched goatskin and invited others to do the same. He said that drums can talk, if you have the skill. "Just like you", he says, referring to my feeble and contrived efforts to write. "And any man who's been well nurtured in his tongue ought to have that ability," he adds.
But sometimes ability is not enough, and Nagaland alone knows how to tell her dreams. Like the ones I have now sometimes of walking through tall grass, spear in hand, gazelles on my mind, out along the edge of the great forest, from where my people came, from where wisdom came. A place of wood and straw and cooking fires, of music and magic, where the universe slides together.
Dimapur has a good number of hotels for the budget to medium-range traveller. Rooms cost anywhere between Rs 760-1,700 per night. There is also a tourist lodge run by the government. Call +91-3682 226355 for details.
This centrally-located hotel offers rooms in the range of Rs 1,000-1,600.
Kohima does not suffer from the overdevelopment which has become the bane of most hill towns. There is a smattering of small hotels and homestays and advance booking is a must, especially if you're visiting during the Hornbill Festival. If you're backpacking, then head for the government-run Tourist Lodge. Among the noteworthy hotels are:
Tariff: Rs 1,600-5,000
Located on the foothills of Japfu peak, Dimori Cove has rooms as well as a dormitory.
Tariff: Rs 1,200-2,000
An old bungalow which has been converted into a hotel, Razhu Pru is located in the historical Kohima village. The hotel has spectacular views of the mountains.
Tariff: Rs 1,800-5,200
Mount Pauna Village Resort (Benreu)
The tourist village is an extension of the Benreu village about 300 metres south along the Pauna mountain range. The village has eight double-bedded cottages built under trees. For accommodation, contact the Directorate of Tourism, Govt of Nagaland at +91-3702243124.
For rural accommodation in the tourist villages around Kohima like the Khonoma Green Village or Tuophema Tourist Village, contact the office of the Commissioner and Secretary, Nagaland Tourism. Phone: +91-3702270107/+91-370 2270072
Unfortunately, Nagaland is not the easiest place to travel to, both in terms of air connectivity as well as bureaucratic red tape. Dimapur is the only airport at the moment and direct flights only operate to Kolkata and Guwahati. Dimapur is well connected by rail to the rest of the country. To get around from Dimapur, visitors can hire taxis (exclusively and shared). All Indian visitors need to acquire an Inner Line Permit.
To apply, contact: The Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi Phone:+91-11-23012296/23793673.
Foreign Tourists need to travel either in a group of four or in twos (provided the two are a "couple") and are required to acquire a Restricted Area Permit to enter Nagaland. The permit is valid only for 10 days with the option of a single 10-day extension. These permits can be acquired from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi or any of the FRRO offices in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. Tour operators can also help in getting these permits.