On the border with Myanmar, Nagaland is at the easternmost extreme of the Indian subcontinent. It is a remote state, largely unknown even to Indians. Almost cut off from the world, Nagaland's rich culture thrives in landscapes of great natural beauty. Permit restrictions for visitors have been eased in the last few years but still very few visit . Travel here is challenging but hugely rewarding.
Created in 1963, the state is home to some 16 Tibeto-Burmese tribes of around 2 million people whose simple villages are scattered over the hillsides and where you may find the inhabitants wearing traditional dresses with feathered headgear and have tattooed faces. Some tribes were once famous for headhunting. Missionaries, many from the United States, have been hugely successful in turning Nagas into Baptists; the biggest buildings in the ramshackle towns are their churches.
For many the North East of India is synonymous with World War II and the battles of Kohima and Imphal which turned the tide of war in Asia and the cemeteries and museums are a haunting testimony to the loss of life here.
Nagaland's Hornbill Festival is a highlight of the year. Begun in 2000 by the government of Nagaland, the goal of the Hornbill Festival is to revive and protect the rich traditions of the Naga tribes. The festival brims with music, vibrant dances, games, and colourful ceremonial attire, including decorated spears, bead and ivory armlets, and elaborate headgear of woven bamboo festooned with flowers, boar's teeth and hornbill feathers.
The great hornbill, after which the festival is named, is known for its impressive size—up to 50 inches in length with a 60-inch wingspan—for its longevity—up to 50 years in captivity—and for the unique prominent and bright yellow and black casque atop its massive bill. In Naga culture, the great hornbill is revered for its beauty and alertness.
Hundreds of festival participants in their tribe's colourful traditional attire meet for warrior log drumming, re-enactment of heroic tales, folk dances and songs are performed, indigenous games are played, and contests—pork eating and King Chilly eating included, are waged. Much of the action takes place amid the thatched bamboo huts and morung-style structures in Naga Heritage Village. Ornately carved in the style of each tribe, they provide a glimpse into the Naga world. Delicious ethnic foods typical to each tribe are offered, along with the traditional rice beer. In the not too distant past, the morungs were tribal youth dormitories where warriors displayed their hunting trophies—including the skulls of their enemies.