Aoling Festival in Nagaland: The authentic, untouristy alternative to the Hornbill Festival

Why you should skip the Hornbill Festival and attend the authentic, untouristy Aoling Festival instead.

The highlight of a visit to Nagaland, North East India’s wild west frontier, is witnessing the unique lifestyle and intriguing culture of the tribal people that live here. The tribes of Nagaland take their festivals very seriously and one of the best ways to experience this fascinating tribal culture is by attending a festival in Nagaland, the most well known of which is the annual Hornbill Festival.

The Hornbill Festival in Nagaland

The Hornbill festival is held each year, usually from 1- 7th of December, at Kisama Heritage Village, 12 kms from Nagaland’s capital Kohima The festival is organised by the State Tourism and Art & Culture Departments to showcase and protect the rich tapestry of tribal cultures and traditions of Nagaland as well as to encourage interaction between the different tribes.

The Angami tribe dancing at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima, Nagaland

The Angami tribe dancing at the Hornbill Festival in Kohima, Nagaland

The Hornbill festival is a great chance to see the traditional dances, folk songs, games, foods, arts and crafts from all of Nagaland’s major tribes. In the evenings there is also a rock concert, night market and Naga chili eating competition.

Why is it called the Hornbill festival? The hornbill is a bird that is much loved by the Naga people and is mentioned in much of their tribal folklore, dances and songs so it makes sense that Nagaland’s biggest cultural festival, the Hornbill festival is named after this important bird.

Looking for a more authentic experience of the ‘real’ Nagaland

Konyak (Headhunter) man

Konyak (Headhunter) man

Whilst, the Hornbill Festival offers a colourful and exciting display of the culture and rituals of the tribes of Nagaland it’s a very touristy event and takes place in a specially built open air museum that contains just replicas of traditional style tribal Nagaland buildings. Modern life is starting to catch in the cities of Nagaland like Kohima.

The real, authentic tribal life can still be found in Nagaland but nowadays, you can only find traditional Nagaland out in the villages. 

If you want to experience authentic Nagaland tribal culture that is not in a museum and meet the last of the head hunters, Nagaland’s most famous and intriguing tribes, in the traditional environment then you should skip the Hornbill Festival and visit the Mon region to attend the authentic Aoling Festival instead!

Standing on the border of India and Myanmar is the Konyak village of Longwa in Nagaland

Standing on the border of India and Myanmar is the Konyak village of Longwa in Nagaland. I’m wearing a traditional Konyak tribal necklace too from the village!

Meeting the headhunters of Nagaland

Nagaland’s most well known occupants are the people of the Konyak tribe – better known as the infamous head hunting tribes. The Konyaks live in the Mon district, a beautiful, wild, hilly area that is the best place in Nagaland to see traditional villages, tattooed tribal warriors and get a fascinating glimpse of a lifestyle so different from the modern world.

One of the highlights of visiting Mon is the intriguing headhunter village of Longwa that straddles the Indo, Myanmar border. The traditional houses display animal skulls, where they would have once displayed human heads and you can visit the opium smoking Angh (the chief/ king).

See more about when I met the headhunters in Nagaland

Visiting the more authentic Aoling festival in Nagaland

The timed my visit to Nagaland with Holiday Scout to coincide with the first week of April, this is undoubtedly the best time to visit as this the when the Konyak’s celebrate their Aoling festival (sometimes spelt Aoleong Monyu)

The Aoling festival in the village of Wakching near Mon in Nagaland, North East India

The Aoling festival in the village of Wakching near Mon in Nagaland, North East India

The Aoling festival celebrates the Konyak new year and is a vibrant, colourful week long festival to welcome in the spring and pray for a good harvest with lots of dancing, feasting and rituals including sacrifices meant to appease the divine forces to bless the land with a good harvest.

I loved seeing the people in their traditional tribal attire and most where happy to welcome me into their homes and to let me celebrate with them.

Konyak girls getting ready for the Aoling festival in Mon, Nagaland

Konyak girls getting ready for the Aoling festival in Mon, Nagaland

The Aoling festival takes place over a week and each day has certain rituals to be performed. The first 3 days of the Aoling festival are called Hoi Lah Nyih,  Yin Mok Pho Nyih and Mok Shek Nyih and are spent preparing food and rice beer for the festival as well as weaving the colourful traditional cloths and gathering domestic animals that will be sacrificed during the festival. The Konyak families also partake in an interesting soothsaying ritual whereby chickens are sacrificed and the future is predicted by looking at the intestine.

Tribal dancing for the Aoling festival in Wakching village in Nagaland

Tribal dancing for the Aoling festival in Wakching village in Nagaland

The most important day of the Aoling festival, and the most interesting to witness, is the fourth day –  Lingnyu Nyih. Everyone in the Konyak tribe dresses up in their very best colorful traditional dresses and jewellery and the entire day is spent celebrating as a community with dancing, singing, feasting and merrymaking. Thought the Kopnyak tribe are now peaceful, during the Aoling festival you can see glimpse of their ancient headhunting culture as the Konyak men dress up, shoot their guns in the air and dance as though they were carrying an enemy’s head around the village as a display of victory.

The last two days of the festival, Lingha Nyih and Lingshan Nyih, are dedicated to spending time with the family and cleaning the houses and village.

Why I loved attending the Aoling festival

Undoubtedly, the Aoling festival is the best time to visit Nagaland if you are interested in authentic tribal culture. The Aoling celebrations were a riot of colour, costumes and laughter, the villagers were in high spirits and genuinely welcomed me into their homes.

Witnessing the tribal people all dressed up in their traditional clothes and jewellery and performing unique tribal dances and other rituals was an incredible experience but the highlight was meeting the people who were so warm and hospitable and offered an incredible insight into their unique way of life.

 

Celebrating the Aoling festival with one of the headhunters

Celebrating the Aoling festival with one of the headhunters

What sets the Aoling Festival apart from the more famous Hornbill Festival is that the Aoling Festival is totally traditional, untouristy and authentic, in fact, I only saw about 6 other tourists the whole time I was in Nagaland and this is an experience of a unique way of life that I will treasure forever!

Why you should visit the authentic, totally untouristy Aoling Festival in Nagaland, North East India (1)

How to visit the Aoling festival

Nagaland, and most of North East India is only just opening up to tourism and can be difficult  to travel independently. I visited with a great local tour operator called Holiday Scout who do a special tour for both the Hornbill festival  and the Aoling festival which also includes visiting the intriguing Mopin festival in Arunachal Pradesh. Check out the Holiday Scout website for more details about these unique tours.

Also check out my other experiences in North East India:

Attending the mystical Mopin festival in Arunachal Pradesh

Meeting the last surviving Headhunters in Nagaland

Escaping it all in the Tribal Lands of North East India

Meeting the Apatani Tribe in Ziro Valley

The Mountains and Monasteries of Tawang – the last Shangri La.

Kaziranga National Park: The Last Refuge of the Endangered Rhino

8 Reasons why you should add North East India to your Bucket List

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2 Comments

  • Shawn Saleme says:

    Hi Anna,

    I understand the experience you had was authentic. Yes, there are more tourists who go to the Hornbill Festival. But please, as someone myself who has traveled to over 60 countries, and a cultural anthropologist, can you please change the title of your article or even consider archiving it. I say this because, there aren’t that many traditional gatherings left in the world that are not affected by tourism. While I understand you would like to gain traffic to support your travel blog, as a professional art/design/travel blogger myself for 4 years, I would say you also have a social obligation as a world traveler to protect the last of the indigenous tribes in the world that still try to hold their traditions without much outside influence.

    I’m not coming off as upset, but I do have friends in the Konyak tribe and while I think it’s wonderful you cam to discover this gathering, I don’t agree that it should be promoted as the premiere festival to go to because it’s more authentic. It will just become like all the other festivals and gatherings that held sacredness but were tampered because so many wanted to come and spectate.

    Best in your travels and thanks for hearing me out. I’m happy to talk more or hear your opinion about it.

    • Anna says:

      Hi Shawn,

      Thanks for sharing your opinion.

      I can see what you mean – it’s difficult because I want to find authentic experiences (difficult as so many places are now overrun with tourists) and share my stories and bring different cultures to light but I see your point and of course I don’t want these cultures to be ruined by tourism.

      I’m not really gaining much traffic with this article because no one really knows about this festival so the search volume is 0. I spent alot of time/ money on the trip and article and don’t want to just take it down 🙁

      What do you suggest that I do?

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