On 30th November we took the train from Guwahati across the golden plains of Assam where the farmers can be seen in the fields harvesting the winter rice crop by hand.
Dimapur was the first station where we had to climb down from the train and walk along the tracks upon arrival. Both the station and the town felt very dirty and everywhere was thick with dust, but after our 5 hour train journey we decided to shoulder the backpacks and make the 25 minute walk to the OYO Hotel Bravo where we were booked for the night. This booking may have been our best decision for a while, as there we met the owner Afreen and his business partner who were the kindest and most helpful hosts. We tried to arrange a taxi for following day’s three hour journey up to Kohima and the Hornbill Festival, but in the end Afreen offered to drive us and another couple up the mountain (on appalling roads!) in his little car. We really got along well with Afreen who comes from the Jorhat area of Assam, but lived and worked in New Zealand for several years. As we write on 7th December, we are staying in Afreen’s mother’s house in Jorhat as this is close to Majuli Island which we were keen to visit.
The Hornbill Festival is an annual event which draws together the 17 tribes of Nagaland in an epic cultural celebration over the first 10 days of December. Thanks to Afreen we managed to catch the opening ceremony which was spectacular, as all the tribal cultural troupes were present in their traditional dress and in some cases, bearing weapons. Throughout the 10 days of the festival, it is possible to visit the individual tribes in their own areas of the site, sample their food and talk to them. The tourists also take endless “in your face” photographs and selfies of the individuals in their costumes.
During the 4 days we attended the festival we also enjoyed the horticultural show, featuring the best flowers, fruit and vegetables of the region as well as art, photography and local craft exhibits. Concerts in the main arena took place nightly, and sporting events such as Naga wrestling and stone pulling drew a large local crowd. After dark, back in the town of Kohima where we were staying, there was a gigantic night market where local people set up a variety of stalls offering regional food and drinks such as silkworms, dogmeat (we didn’t try this!), “Jobstears” and Roselle, Gooseberry and Wild Apple teas.
Although we enjoyed many aspects of the festival, we did feel that the event has become quite touristy and commercialied. We also heard some rumours that there is official pressure on the Naga tribespeople to participate in the event.
Located at the Hornbill Festival site is a museum dedicated to the battle for Kohima. This was an important battles of WWII, although it is not widely remembered outside this part of India. By 1944, the Japanese army had advanced through SE Asia into Burma (Myanmar) and planned to continue pushing forward into India. They were stopped at Imphal, the capital of Manipur and at Kohima in Nagaland by British and Indian forces, supported by the local Naga tribespeople. The fighting was terrible with many casualties on both sides. In Kohima, the decisive arena was around the tennis court of the deputy commissioners bungalow, close to the town. This exact site is now a cemetery dedicated to the soldiers of different faiths and nationalities who fought together and lost their lives in the conflict. It is a quiet, green and beautiful spot near the centre of modern Kohima and is a moving place to visit. In the cemetery there are quite a number of graves of men from the Royal Berkshire Regiment and a commemorative plaque.
We were planning to stay in Nagaland for 9 days but after 6 decided it was time to move on. As we were keen to visit Majuli which is currently the largest river island in the world, and our friend Afreen had kindly offered the use of his house nearby, we set off for Assam and the town of Jorhat.