Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Nomadic Luxury in Nagaland: The Hornbill Festival

Piece published in SUITCASE magazine.

My Bell 412 helicopter searched for the helipad, a spherical silhouette on a patchwork of multicoloured terraced houses, slung out on a ground of undulating forest. I felt like Elizabeth Bowen, a lone female entering the Land of the Head Hunters – albeit by much more modern means. In these far-flung reaches of eastern India lies Nagaland, a region shrouded in mist, mystery and misconception. Every December, amidst a cacophony of colour and sound, the state’s 16 tribes put their differences aside and take part in the annual Hornbill Festival.

Heard of it? Probably not… but in India, the Naga’s notoriety precedes them. Despite government initiatives to increase footfall, only a trickle of tourists travel to this corner of the country every year. But the wheels of change are in motion. The 12-hour journey from Delhi has been slashed thanks to the introduction of daily flights to Dimapur and The Ultimate Travelling Camp, India’s most ingenious ‘hotel’ has embarked upon a pioneering venture to introduce luxury travel to the region.

I was not fortunate enough to enjoy such luxuries as direct flights but the private helicopter, courtesy of TUTC’s Kohima Camp, made up for it. Operational for just two weeks, from November 29 to December 12, the team has perfected the concept of nomadic luxury. Brainchild of General Deepak Raj, of former Indian Army fame and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, this unlikely duo combined military precision with artistic flare to create the first camp of its kind. Nestled between the lush Dzüku Valleys in the village of Kigwema, it is just a 15-minute drive from the festival ground; when Modi is not in town.

Tribal Dance Khaki Tent

Having missed the opening ceremony (the Prime Minister does not do security by halves nor do I skip breakfast) Keja, my guide, updated me on the afternoon’s activities: a pork fat eating contest, a pork fat kicking contest and a pole, lathered in pork fat, climbing contest. So that myth was true: Naga’s love their pork. Lard-based activities aside, attendees can also look forward to traditional song and dance performances and peruse the tribal wares for obligatory souvenirs.

While we waited for Modi to complete his presidential duties, Keja took me to his tribe’s morung. Traditionally the physical and metaphorical centre of village life, a morung is a place for men to share stories, farming tips and the odd glass of rice beer. These days women are allowed in too and I was treated to a tankard of the stuff. I was beginning to enjoy myself as much as the locals, who’d been boozing since the AM.

“How about a traditional Angami lunch?” suggested Keja, “to accompany your traditional ‘aferitip’? They’ve got everything”. He was right, the Angami’s really did have everything on the menu: cows intestines in a blood gravy, fermented bean curry and tushichi which, for those of you that are not familiar with, is dog.

Stomach distinctly turned, I passed at the opportunity to take part in the infamous (and potentially fatal) chilli-eating contest. But for purveyors of peculiar foods or those in search of the unusual, Nagaland and the Hornbill Festival is the assault on the senses that many have been looking for. Be gone the Golden Triangle, this is India as you have never seen it before.

hornbill-festival-03

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

The Chamba Camp, Thiksey: Nomadic Luxury At Its Best

Published on The India Tube:

A former playing field of “The Great Game” Ladakh was once considered a destination so remote “only your best friend or worst enemy will visit you”, or so the local adage goes.  But with daily flights from Delhi to Leh, it’s now a firm favourite for a long weekend getaway from Delhi. And The Ultimate Travelling Camp really is the ultimate way to do it.

The Chamba Camp in Thiksey is TUTC’s flagship property and will be running until the end of September, before packing up and journeying to Nagaland for The Hornbill Festival, where they will be stationed from the 1st–7th of December. With four-poster beds, a designated butler service and bespoke menus, TUTC takes the concept of “glamping” to new heights – over 10,000 feet in this case.

blowing-conch-shells-before-the-morning-prayers-thiksey-monastery-02

It is the brainchild of an unlikely duo; General Deepak Raj, a former army general, and Dhun Cordo, wedding planner to the stars, combined creative flair with military precision to bring this pioneering venture to life. The concept is simple–a luxury nomadic camp that’s focused on seasonal or date-specific itineraries–but the execution is not: each tent fills one truck, and there are 14 tents. It is quite the convoy.

white-tent-interior-01The White Luxury Tents at The Chamba Camp, Thiksey nagaland-68The Khaki Tents at The Kohima Camp, Nagaland

An oasis of colour, The Chamba Camp sits serenely in the rocky embrace of the Ladakh and Stok mountain ranges. By day its 28 acres are a symphony of birdsong, and by night they are unbelievably romantic, bathed in moonlight and the flickering glow of more than a hundred lanterns. And with those views of Thiksey monastery you’d be forgiven for not venturing out your tent.

With the luxury market in Ladakh almost as barren as its terrain, The Chamba Camp could rest on its laurels, but it’s the attention to detail here that really set it apart. There are several private dining options for a start, from meals in the organic garden, by one of its many water-bodies, in and amongst the alfalfa fields, as well as several outside the camp, every experience is tailor-made, as are the menus. Chocolate momos? You bet. High-altitude scallops? Why not!

picnic-set-up-02Lunch by the Indus River

harvest-threshingA pastoral scene during the harvest season

Surprises abound, like the live kitchen that greeted us after a day of exertion at water rafting, or the train of red-robed monks perambulating the camp while I sat sipping on a gin & tonic. Needless to say that G&T disappeared quicker than you can say “om mani padme hum”.

I visited the Chamba Camp during the 33rd annual Kalachakra, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Richard Gere was there, but namedropping aside, it is the perfect destination for those interested in both the spirituality and history of the region (you can barely drive a few hundred metres without stumbling across another monastery or stupa) as well as a luxury break.

trekking-01A walking tour of Ladakh

If Ladakh is a spiritual Mecca then it is also the adrenaline junkies Elysium. With everything from trekking and white water rafting to mountain biking and climbing, there’s no shortage of activities to give your travel insurers the chills. There’s also horse polo matches which seasoned riders are welcome to try their hands at, and a list of activities so long I defy anyone to try them all. Yes, the Chamba Camp, Thiksey is both an adventurer’s paradise as well as a recluse’s hermitage.

The Ultimate Travelling Camp offers a luxe route to India’s more offbeat destinations.

 hornbill-festival-01 hornbill-festival-03Tribesmen at The Hornbill Festival, Nagaland

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

The 33rd Kalachakra: The Greatest Buddhist Gathering, Ladakh

Yesterday saw the first day of the 33rd annual Kalachakra in Ladakh, hosted by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The largest annual gathering of Buddhist in the world, with over 150,000 pilgrims set to attend it promises to be quite the gathering. With a break of 38 years since the last Kalachakra was held in Ladakh it is most likely to be the His Holiness’s last in Ladakh as he is said to struggle with the altitude. Ever the professional, aside from the odd tickle in his throat, His Holiness did not show it. Sitting and reciting prayers and teachings on love and kindness he also spoke on the importance of respecting and understanding fellow human beings religions, whatever they may be.

14th-dalai-lama   His Holiness the Dalai Lama

The word Kalachakra itself means cycles of time. Generally the passage of time has a debilitating effect on human beings: as we age our sight, hearing and physical strength deteriorate. Buddhists believe that the practice of the Kalachakra helps individuals to exit this cycle and achieve enlightenment.

 IMG_3927   Solo monk

The 3rd – 6th July marks the ‘initiation’ period before the main Kalachakra begins. The primary aim of this is to learn from the Bodhisattva and Tantric vows: focusing on the path to enlightenment as well as being able to benefit all living creatures. Including several days of prayers it is a preparation stage before the period of ‘empowerment’.

Pilgrims from all corners of the world attended with real-time translations being broadcast on FM radio stations in 13 different languages. A practicing Buddhist himself, although not present on the opening day, Richard Gere will be attending in the upcoming days as one of the primary sponsors.

IMG_3926 Pilgrims arrived in bus loads from all over Ladakh, India and the world

IMG_3938 One lone pilgrim makes his way home by foot through the many ‘gullys’ that traverse the Ladakhi countryside

The crowd was something to behold with the traditional dress from around the state of Jammu and Kashmir proudly being displayed; including this Thiksey native sporting a tibi hat typical of Ladakh.

IMG_3924   A village elder (who turned out to be a great aunt of a friend of mine!) wearing her traditional attire

Whilst the left of the stage was reserved for press and foreigners, the front seats was a Red Sea of monks, all eagerly listening to His Holiness’ every word. In fact the entire Shey region was awash with the red and yellow garb of the monks.

IMG_3903   Awash with red and yellow: monks from all around the world came to attend the 33rd Kalachakra

The Kalachakra will take place until the 14th July with the Jiwetsal grounds gradually filling up with travellers and pilgrims alike. The pinnacle will be the creation of the physical representation of the Kalachakra, a mandala and meditational visual aid depicting the various stages of enlightenment. This physical mandala will then be destroyed after the end of the Kalachakra as a symbol of lack of detachment, principal to Buddhist teachings.