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 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
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!
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 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.
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.
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.
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!
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: