India—Nagaland Hornbill Festival 2016 Trip Report

By Kevin McNeal on Dec 27, 2016

The Nagaland Hornbill Festival 2016 tour was an “Exploratory,” a designation that offers photographers a chance to travel to new and different locations. The India: Nagaland Hornbill Festival trip began with a lot of anticipation as everyone was excited to experience less-known and less-frequented aspects of this complex country.
The tour began in Kolkata in East India where we had an opportunity to get to know one another and meet our local guide, Harry. From there, we flew to Kohima in the northeastern part of the country for the Hornbill Festival. This exuberant weeklong festival unites the peoples of all of the major tribes of Nagaland.  Music, vibrant performances, lively sports and games, and unique foods are featured.  Elaborate ceremonial attire and traditional arts, including paintings, woodcarvings and sculptures, are on display. The festival celebrates the cultural heritage of the tribal peoples and reinforces Nagaland’s identity as a unique state of India.
On our first morning, the group had a chance to shoot the festival participants from the many different tribes as they entered the arena. What an opportunity to photograph all the bold colors, patterns and textures of their traditional costumes! Then the festivities began with folk dances as the Naga tribes came together to pay tribute to their ancestry. Later, each tribe took the short walk to their traditional hut in the Naga Heritage Village. Here, tribal members were able to bond as a group around a fire, telling stories of their warrior history, demonstrating their dances, and sharing their customs revolving around foods. For photographers, the afternoon was a success as we captured some quieter, more intimate moments between individual tribal members. Over the next few days we had various opportunities to record many aspects of each tribe’s history and customs.
The highlight of the festival took place on the third day—the “rock-pulling” event. All of the tribes worked as a unit to pull a massive boulder through the town. To achieve this with success, everyone must work together, communicating, strategizing and plotting a way to pull the heavy rock to its destination. Our group was able to capture the event from a viewpoint on the roof of a local house. Photographing from this higher vantage point gave us a chance to record the scene—hundreds of men all voicing different tribal chants as the women in their colorful traditional outfits urge them on.
After three days of ceremonies and celebration, our group headed northward to Kaziranga National Park in the state of Assam. This wildlife sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, hosts two-thirds of the world’s greater one-horned rhinoceroses. We stayed at the beautiful Diphlu River Lodge within the park, giving us close access to the main attractions. Early the next morning we headed out to photograph at prime viewing times. A particular highlight was the opportunity to photograph the greater one-horned rhino from atop an elephant, giving us a unique perspective for shooting the rhinos in their wet meadow and high grass habitat. And then, as the dawn broke and the sun rose through the morning mist, we had our first chance to photograph the one-horned rhino. Over the next days we also photographed all sorts of wildlife, including rare birds, elephants, swamp deer and wild buffalo. We spent our days—from morning to night—traversing the Kaziranga by jeep and exploring all sections of the park.
As our time in India came to an end, we flew to Delhi, said our goodbyes, and reflected on all of our adventures—from the rich cultural experiences among the Naga tribes to the diverse wildlife of Kaziranga.  The “Exploratory” had lived up to our expectations!