An odyssey of unlimited adventures await the itinerant traveller amongst South Asia’s most vibrantly multi-cultural,
An odyssey of unlimited adventures await the itinerant traveller amongst South Asia’s most vibrantly multi-cultural,multi-lingual societies, sequestered in the far-flung reaches of India’s Northeast region – that ancient crossroad of people, commerce and culture. Centuries of migrations from the East and Southeast Asia can be traced in this complex bio-geographic frontier – a critical hub of Indic, Sinic and Malayasian-Burmese strains. Not only is it a fabulous storehouse of faunal, floral and avian biodiversity, the Northeast holds the promise of a kaleidoscopic range of experiences of racial, religious and linguistic cross-currents in India’s most thrilling ethno-cultural frontier.
The mystique of India’s ‘Seven Sisters’ – Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Tripura – and the Himalayan state of Sikkim lies not just in their isolated setting but also in the distinctive history, traditions, spiritual heritage and lifestyle of each of its ethnic communities. Be it tourism, a rock festival or politics, the region – challenging, bound in myths and legends and a pristine paradise – is very much in the news today.
Brace yourself to get out of your comfort zone in the crowded, frantic world you inhabit for the curiosities of slow-paced travel and discovery of the best traditions, in India’s grand cultural destination – richly tempting for its raw scenic beauty, environment, heritage and history, crafts, cuisine, sports and entertainment. Valid permits are needed to visit parts of the region, but this is easily addressed by the state government offices in New Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. The best time to go is from October to March; the monsoon lasts from June to September.
Facts and legends, mystical lore and oral traditions form a large part of our exposure to the historical moorings of India’s Northeast region. The splendid mosaic of this ethno-cultural frontier defies being straightjacketed in our traditional perceptions of this vast and isolated (by setting and sometimes design) area of the country. In fact it was not always so isolated as is evident from the fact that waves of migrating communities came here, overland, from East and Southeast Asia, bringing with them their own religious, linguistic and traditions. The intricacies of its historic significance in today’s context need to be explored against the backdrop of the tumultuous worlds of the over 166 communities whose forebearers made it their home over centuries of migrations from the surrounding nations.
Located in close proximity to the borderlands of Bhutan, Tibet, China and Myanmar, Arunachal Pradesh’s earlier history is shrouded in mystery as most of what we know is by way of oral traditions of the Tibeto-Burman migrants who settled here. In the Raj era it was largely isolated because of the strictures put on movement in the region by the British from 1873. After Independence it became part of the erstwhile North East Frontier Agency (NEFA), while constitutionally it was still part of Assam. Arunachal’s location became of critical importance during the 1962 invasion of India by China. Under direct rule of the central government through the governor of Assam, the region was constituted as a Union Territory and renamed Arunachal Pradesh in 1972 and went on to become the 24th state of the Indian Union in 1987.
The Ahoms of Burma’s Shan tribe entered Assam through the passes of the Patkai Range. Once comfortably settled in the Brahmaputra Valley they overthrew the native rulers, the Kacharis, in 1540. For 600 years the Ahoms ruled Assam from their bastion Charaideo (close to Sivasagar), successfully repulsing invasions by the Bengal Sultans and the Mughals. Burma invaded Assam in the 18th century but was ceded to the East India Company in 1826 at the close of the First Burmese War. Administered by the British till 1947, large chunks of Assam were hived off to East Bengal/ Bangladesh and Bhutan during Partition. In time it also lost the territories of Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
Meghalaya broke away from Assam in 1970 to become an autonomous state and by 1972 had attained full statehood. The earliest immigrants, the Khasis from Burma, settled first in the plains of East Assam where their kingdoms flourished in the Kamrup and Nagaon regions. The Jaintias, believed to have migrated from Tibet-China, settled in the hills here. A long struggle ensued between the British and the Jaintias for control of this territory, which was eventually annexed during British rule. The Garos migrated to the hills here from Tibet. Much of their early history is lost in the mists of time. In 1935 most Indian states and territories were allowed more autonomy by the British, but continued to administer the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills. When Meghalaya attained statehood in 1972, three autonomous district councils (Khasi Autonomous District Council, Jaintia Autonomous District Council and Garo Autonomous District Council) took care of their affairs.
Mizoram too was part of Assam. In 1895 Mizo Hills formally became a part of British India. In 1898 the north and south hills were officially merged as the Lushai Hills District (Assam), headquartered in Aizawl. In 1954 it was renamed the Mizo Hills District; by 1972 it was a Union Territory and attained full statehood in 1987. Nagaland was annexed to Assam by the British in 1826. In 1963 it became an independent state of the Indian Union.
Manipur’s pre-history is lost in legends. Its rulers appear to have enjoyed political and territorial clout for centuries, and were acknowledged by the surrounding foreign powers. The political clout of the Meitei rulers came from their hold on the region around Imphal, and the entire valley and hills. Their territories were known by 20 different names over time but by the 18th century were officially named Manipur, when King Pamheiba helmed the kingdom. Manipur State Archives reveal that Manipur was ruled by 76 kings from 33 CE. After a ruling in 1891 the kingdom was not annexed to British territory and was allowed to flourish as a princely state. The Manipur Constitution Act of 1947 established the maharaja as the executive head of a democratic government. Manipur became a state in the Indian Union in 1972.
The pre-historic period of Tripura is checkered by legends, myths and folklore. During the 14th and 15th centuries it was ruled by a string of tribal kings. The Rajmala, Tripura’s 15th century court chronicle, ascribes the lineage of the ruler of Tripura to the Chandravanshi Rajput Kshatriya line. The kingdom’s original territories are said to have included all of east Bengal from the Brahmaputra valley in the north and west, to the Bay of Bengal in the south and tracts of Burma. The kingdom reached its zenith under Maharaja Dhanya Manikya. Subsequent rulers were able to successfully repulse invasions till the middle of the 17th century, when the Mughals captured the Tripura plains, and renamed it Roshanabad. The East India Company, a growing political force, sought tribute from ruler. Jajdhar Manikya (1785–1804) paid them annual revenue to get his throne back. After Partition princely rule was brought to an end. Tripura attained full statehood in 1972.
Sikkim’s Lepchas (an offshoot of the Nagas of the Mikir, Garo and Khasia hills) preferred to avoid conflicts with the more aggressive Tibetan migrants of Red Hats (Bhutias) who arrived in the early 17th century. A common leader, the Chogyal, was chosen by the lamas to rule Sikkim. From 1780–93 vast tracts of Sikkim were wrested by Nepal. Sikkim allied itself with the British in India against the Gorkha rulers of Nepal. The British and Sikkim too had a long and contentious relationship, with northern Sikkim coming under British India in 1888. In 1918, Sikkim gained independence in all its domestic affairs and retained this status. When India attained Independence in the year 1947 these guarantees were transferred to the Indian government, which now agreed to a special protectorate status for the region of Sikkim. In 1975 it became the 22nd state of the country.
A 26,500sq km border links India’s Northeast region with Bhutan, China, Myanmar and Bangladesh. Sequestered within its embrace are unimagined narratives of a compelling fusion of ecological diversity, geographic settings and community life. Each state represents an unending roll call of a fascinating ethnic diversity, botanical bounty and wildlife and avifaunal plenitude – a hard-to-ignore allurement for the seekers of new delights.
Arunachal Pradesh’s mountainous sprawl of 83,743sq km adjoins the international borders of three nations – China (Tibet) to the north with the natural barrier of the Eastern Himalayas, Bhutan to the west and Myanmar to the east. The Northeast’s largest state, with an 80 per cent forest cover, this ‘land of the rising sun’ stands cheek-by-jowl with Nagaland and the floodplains of Assam in the south. Five beautiful and largely unexplored valleys have been carved into its mountain ranges by its five snow-fed rivers – the Siang (later engorged by the waters of Dibang and the Lohit to become the Brahmaputra in Assam’s plains), Kameng, Subansiri, Lohit and Tirap. Numerous surprises lie hidden amongst these gorgeous vales and mountainous outposts, still largely unexplored by tourists. In Ziro (Subansiri Valley District), now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we discover the Apatani tribesmen’s sophisticated indigenous irrigation methods.
The Apatanis practice terrace farming for cultivation unlike the Nishis and Miris, who still resort to jhum (slash and burn). Strictures set in place by the Inner Line Permit and the gradual opening up of Arunchal (increasingly being recognised as an important global biodiversity ‘hotspot’) has been a blessing in disguise as it has kept vast tracts of its mountains, forests, waterways and scattered tribal settlements, untouched by the blight of overdevelopment. Ranked amongst the world’s 17 biodiversity heritage sites, Arunachal’s terrain ranges from the sub-tropical to the alpine in the upper regions of the northwest. Its fabulous canopy of rainforest supports many endangered and rare species of flora and fauna.
Assam’s mighty Brahmaputra river, starting out as the Tsangpo in Tibet and the Siang in Arunachal, is the primary protagonist of the state’s ecological setting. This ‘Son of Brahma’ is both the nourisher and destroyer of the land he dominates. The massive alluvial valley is studded with swatches of paddy fields, dense rainforest and tracts of tea plantations. The incessant monsoon rains (averaging 178cm to 305cm from June to September) are a boon for the farming community, which every year also pays a terrible price when the Brahmaputra floods the land with his rage. It is slowly nibbling away at Majuli Island, the world’s largest inhabited riverine island. Set in the embrace of Himalayan ranges to the north and the hilly expanses of Meghalaya to the south, Assam has a flourishing tea industry (half of India’s tea is produced here) and is home to Asia’s first and oldest oil refinery – in Digboi. Its rainforests are rich in wildlife and floral diversity. Kaziranga National Park has gained world acclaim for its conservation of the endangered great Indian rhinoceros, while species such as the hoolock gibbon, golden langur, hispid hare, white-winged wood duck, tiger, clouded leopard and swamp deer have catapulted this protected habitat into the ranks of the global biodiversity ‘hotspots’.
The misty heights of Meghalaya are home to the Garo, Jaintia and Khasi communities. It shares borders with Bangladesh and Assam of which it was a part till 1970. Predominant features of the land are the Shillong Plateau – a haven for its profusion of orchids and butterflies, the Garo Range and Tura Range – where the Nokrek Peak dominates the landscape. The state is home to the wettest place on earth – earlier Cherrapunjee/ Sohra – now Mawsynram (with an average of 467.4in of rain). The hills offer breathtaking vistas with their plunging valleys, rolling meadows, exuberant waterfalls and tranquil lakes. An orchid paradise, Meghalaya is said to produce 300 species out of the 17,000 known species in the world. The state is also renowned for its extensive subterranean cave systems.
The Tropic Of Cancer passes through Mizoram’s state capital Aizawl. Sharing boundaries with neighbouring states of Manipur, Assam, Tripura, some bits also lie within shouting distance of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The undulating terrain, rising from Assam’s Cachar Plains features lush bamboo forests and tropical verdure riddled with dancing rivers and their silvery streams. Rice is grown extensively here. The state’s highest waterfall, Vantawang (228m) is set amongst dense thickets of bamboo and tropical foliage, and its highest peak, Phawngpui (2,157m), overlooks Myanmar’s border. Famed for its medicinal herbs, orchids and rhododendrons, the peak falls under the purview of a state-run conservation programme.
Dominating the central vistas of Nagaland are three verdant mountain ranges (a continuation of the Burma Arc) stretching north to the south, in jagged parallel lines. To the northeast it’s guarded by the Sub-Himalayan ranges of Arunachal’s Tirap District and to the north and to the west – Assam; the hills of Manipur rise in the south – Myanmar lies east. If the stones of the Patkai, Barail and Naga ranges could speak, what a story-telling session it would be of one of India’s most colourful ethnic communities who have long lived here in a world fiercely protected from outsiders – cut off even from mainland India for years, till the British, in the 19th century, started making inroads into this unexplored world and initiated the process of its merging with the Indian subcontinent. The two major rivers in the Naga hills are the Doyang and Dikhu, most streams are seasonal. The highest peak in the mountainous terrain of state capital Kohima is Mt Japhu (3,014m). In Tuesang District the highest elevation is Saramati (3,840m).
Spread over 22,327sq km, with a forest cover of over 60 per cent, Manipur is bounded by Nagaland to the north, Mizoram to the south and Assam to the west. To the east lie the borderlands of Myanmar. This emerald vale, surrounded by blue-hued ranges, is nourished by the Barak river. The moderate climate allows for all-year-round visits. The altitudinal diversity in the hills ranges from tropical to sub-alpine providing nutritional resources for a wide variety of endemic plants as well as animal life. Orchids grow in profusion here. In Loktak Lake, home to the endemic sanghai (brow-antlered deer), are the Phumdi islands (made from floating weeds) of the Keibul Lamjao National Park – the world’s only floating national park.
Tripura’s area of 10,491sq km is cocooned between the border lands of Bangaldesh on three sides and the hilly terrain of Assam and Mizoram in the northeast. Its over 50 per cent forest cover consists of vast tracts of sal, bamboo and mixed forests. The dipping valleys under cultivation are separated by a phalanx of low ranges whose eleva-tions can rise up to 3,000ft on the fringes of its borders with Bangladesh. Dumboor Lake, its biggest water body, attracts masses of migratory birds. The Jampui Hills are famed for their luscious oranges. The Sepahijala Wildlife Sanctuary is home to over 400 botanical species as well as endangered animals such as the clouded leopard, whilst Trishna Wildlife Sanctuary is the ancient stamping ground of the hoolock gibbon, golden langur and capped langur.
Though much of the 7,096sq km sprawl of Sikkim is closed to outsiders for exploration, what one gets to see is awesome – as awesome as the world’s third-highest peak, Mt Khangchendzonga (8,586m), revered here as a deity. The mountain is sequestered in the vast expanse of Khangchendzonga National Park (in Yuksom) – extending from Sikkim to Nepal. A sizeable part of Sikkim comprises the upper valley of the Teesta river (a major tributary of the Brahmaputra); to the south lies West Bengal, with which it shares the territories of the Rangeet and Rangpo rivers, while the Sinhalila Range separates it from neighbouring Nepal; the northern and north-eastern borderlands feature the elevations of the Dzongkha Hills. The land is a world of gorgeous lakes, massive snow peaks, orchid- and-rhododendron-embellished forests and rich birdlife. The glacial Tsomgo Lake and Nathu La Pass further along (on the old Silk Route to China) make for popular drives. The pristine Khecheopalri Lake is held sacred by Sikkim’s people.
The Northeast is the proverbial melting pot, richly garnished with centuries of cross-cultural migrations. Its traditions, ancient and abiding, have been the bedrock of its cultural and creative roots, enriching and nurturing the lives of its many communities. Asia’s most ethnic and linguistic hot spot – being home to over 166 tribal communities, each with its own heritage and traditions – provides visitors one the most riveting cultural experiences of India. A measureless treasure trove for anthropologists, it also ranks amongst the most culturally diverse places on earth. The people of the Northeast are inextricably rooted to the land – they’re known for their kinship with nature, their deep spirituality and dignity. They are also fun loving, hospitable, creative and hard working.
Oral tradition and ancient legends source the origins of the people of Mizoram (Kukis, New Kukis and Lushai) in India’s Northeast enclaves as part of the Mongoloid wave of migrants from China. Traditionally the society’s strength has been its community-based activities. Established in 1935, the Young Lushai (later Mizo) Association plays a pivotal role in nurturing the ancient Mizo practice of Tlawmngaihna – code of ethics of chivalry and kindness – along with Hnatlang – voluntary community works. Zawlbuk – bachelors’ dorm – is a social institution that trains adolescent boys to become responsible adult members of society.
The literacy rate of the Mizos is the second highest in India. This ‘songbird of the Northeast’ also nurtures gender equality. A majority of Mizos became Christians in the 19th century under the influence of Welsh missionaries.
Claws and teeth of the tiger are common enough symbols of the martial prowess of a Naga brave dancing at a traditional Naga festival. Folklore reflects its symbiotic links with the community’s bravery and valour. About 20 Naga communities are settled in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley and Myanmar’s Chindwin Valley. In Nagaland there are over 16 tribes and many sub-tribes, distinguished by their own distinct history/ legends of their origins, culture and language. Major communities are the Ao, Angami, Sema, Lotha, Tangkhul, Konyak, Rengma and Mao. Life used to be driven by the twin engines of agriculture and war – today it’s agriculture. In the 19th century the British opened up a window to this closed world of fierce and proud people in the Naga Hills.
British missionaries were responsible for converting a major part of the community to Christianity. Nagas were also recruited as labour corps by the British during World War II. The Feast of Merits tradition (long gone with the advent of Christianity) entailed a Naga performing a series of feasts (genna), to gain one-upmanship over his peers in society. The feast-giver was then also qualified to hold the coveted Stone Dragging Ceremony to consolidate his social standing. The gravitas of a Naga’s status in Stone Dragging is reflected in the Lungpensu shawl, featuring five stripes of light blue on dark blue cloth.
Assam’s inhabitants are primarily tribal (Bodo/ Kacharis, Miris, Deoris, Rabhas, Nagas, Garos and Khasis amongst others) and non-tribals (Ahoms, Kayasthas, Kalitas, Morans, Muttaks and Chutias). The Bodos, who established their settlements early on in the Brahmaputra river valley, were a powerful community. The Kacharis, ruling eastern Assam, were overthrown in the 13th century by the Ahoms from Burma, who in their 600-year reign promoted cultural pursuits that were purely indigenous. The British era saw the arrival of the ‘Baganias’ – labour from Bengal, Bihar, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh to work in their tea plantations. Majuli Island is unique for its neo-Hindu Vaishnavism propagated in the satras established by Shrimanta Sankardeva in the 16th century. The island is inhabited by the Mishing tribals, migrants from Arunachal Pradesh.
Home to the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia communities, Meghalaya has been distinctly influenced by the arrival of Christianity. Some of the country’s best bands and choirs hail from here. The state is also renowned for its matrilineal society, highly influential on lineage and ancestral inheritance in favour of women.
Set amongst the remotest outposts of the region, Arunachal’s 26 primary tribal communities originally descended from Tibeto-Burman migrants. These isolated tribal communities still cling to their old ways. The Sherdukpens, Monpas and the Membas (Siang) are its leading Buddhist communities. The Monpas’ folk dances such as the yak, deer, Ajilhamu dance and eagle dances are perfromed at certain festivals in the region. The Khamtis, Singpos and Tangsas, also Buddhist, hail from Thailand and Myanmar. The animist practices of the Adis, Akas, Apatinis, Mishis, Nyishis and Mijis are intrinsically linked to the agricultural cycles of the land.
Home to the Meitei community, which dominates the populace of it’s mainly Naga and Kuki-Chin Mizo groups, Manipur is renowned for its aesthetic sensibilities in the arts. This artistry is as evident in its handicrafts and weaving traditions as it is in its poetic rendition of the martial arts. A devotional streak is richly reflected in its dance traditions – folk, classical and modern. The state is renowned for its rasleela dance dramas. The annual Lai Haraoba Festival mirrors this beautifully. Manipur is also the harbinger of modern-day polo with its sagol kangjei tradition. Other sports unique to their culture are mukna kangjei (wrestling-hockey) and yubilakpi (rugby played with a greased coconut).
Pivotal to its great cultural diversity are Tripura’s 20 hill tribal communities. The largest group comprises the Tripuri, while the Reangs from Chittagong are next in line in numbers. Other communities include the Jamatia, Noatia, Darlong, Hala, Garos, Chakmas and Kalai. The state still holds its cultural and spiritual Bengali influences close, having held parts of the state at one time. Durga Puja is celebrated with great enthusiasm here.
The gentle Lepchas of Sikkim were spiritually influenced by the pristine splendour of their environs. Buddhism arrived here with the ‘Red Hat’ Tibetan (Bhutia) migrants, who in time prevailed on the animist Lepchas to become Buddhist. Many places sacred for the Lepchas are also venerated by Sikkim’s Bhutias and Nepalese. Today, with many remote areas opening up to tourism, enterprising outfitters are creating itineraries for visitors to share this spiritual beauty in the mountains, the lakes and the ancient monasteries and villages – for long closed to the outside world.
From exploring the worlds of many unique ethnic communities to plunging down torrential rivers to trekking through orchid-filled jungle trails – India’s Northeast region truly spoils you for choice. Thrill seekers can have their fill of adventurous experiences in any of the states – Arunachal, where one can follow the lovely orchid trail from Tezpur to Tawang through misty mountains, go white-water rafting on the Siang or a trek through the biosphere ‘hot spot’ environs of Namdapha National Park.
You can join up for angling tours, parasailing and hang gliding sessions as well. Wildlife jeep and elephant-back safaris offer wonderful highs in Assam’s Kaziranga National Park as does a leisurely cruise down the Brahmaputra from Guwahati. In Sikkim there’s a tempting range of trekking trails on offer (Meanam Hill Trek, Singhalila Trek, Rhododendron Trek, Coronation Trek, and the Dzongri Trek with its promise of sightings of the endangered red panda); there’s rafting on the Teesta and Rangeet rivers and mountaineering courses on offer in Yuksom in plain sight of Mt Khangchendzonga. Nagaland’s gorgeous trails along Japfu Peak offer rewarding treks and birding jaunts; increasingly popular now are climbing, off-road racing and biking tours. Manipur’s Mt Isii and Dzuko Valley open up opportunities for mountain biking and treks, while rafting down the Baraka river can be followed
up with contemplations of various caving adventures at Tharon and Khangkhui. It is worth exploring some of the most exciting caving systems in the hills of Meghalaya, along with its virginal game parks. Driving tours and treks are the best way to enjoy Mizoram’s natural beauty. Its Phwangpui Mountain offers an exceptional eco-tourism experience. Tripura beckons with the allure of eco-tourism, several wildlife trips and archaeological tours.
Meghalya is home to over 300 of the world’s orchid species. Sir Joseph Hooker, the famous botanist, discovering the blue vanda orchid (vanda coerulea) in these parts, took home a sample to propagate it at London’s Kew Gardens. Its sacred forests, a centuries-old and highly revered tradition, can be enjoyed in Mawphlang Sacred Forest, close to Shillong. Preserved in these sacred spaces is a unique and pristine ecological system. Meghalaya’s living root bridges, created by the ficus elastic belonging to the rubber tree family, are truly unique. Near Sohra there’s a double-decker bridge over a waterfall.
Sikkim’s botanical trails are rewarding holiday experiences. The Hooker Trails are of particular interest. The Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary, en route to Tsomgo Lake, is magical with summer blooms that can last till the month of August. The Dzongri Trekking Trail is also hugely popular for its varieties of rhododendron.
Arunachal Pradesh, India’s orchid capital, is home to over 1,150 species. Follow the Tezpur to Tawang orchid trail, with stops at the orchidarium at Tipi (7,500 species) and Sessa (200 species). A vast primeval wilderness Namdapha National Park intrigues with its immeasurable botanical bounty. Its unique setting and climatic conditions have created a superb wealth of vegetal splendour – from the wet evergreen tropical forestlands and sub-tropical forests to temperate and alpine forests. One of the most unusual botanical features of the Northeast are Manipur’s phumdis, found on Loktak Lake. Made up of floating weeds these islands are the natural habitat of the sanghai, the brow-antlered deer on what is the world’s only floating national park. A trek up to Mizoram’s highest peak Phawngpui (2,157m), rewards visitor’s with its wealth of orchids, rhododendrons and medicinal plants. This ‘Blue Mountain’, is open for eco-friendly activities only.