A trip to the North East of India is never predictable. For one, the landscape ranges from frozen lakes in the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh to lush green tea gardens in Assam. Each state is home to multiple ethnic groups and tribes rendering them with a rich heritage of art, craft and culture. From Assam’s golden muga silk to brightly-woven Manipuri fabric – the handloom industry – though facing decline – is still prevalent.
Catch an ethnic dance performance or attend one of the many socio-religious festivals to know the locals better. Of course, no trip is complete without viewing the region’s diverse wildlife. From the one-horned rhinoceros to the hornbill and rare species of orchids, the North East is home to 54% of threatened mammals, 68% of birds and 63% of reptiles in the country.
Flowing all the way down from a Tibetan glacier, it is the mighty Brahmaputra River that has shaped life in Assam through the ages. With over 19 wildlife sanctuaries, the star attraction is the one-horned Indian rhino (spotted widely at Kaziranga National Park, Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas National Park). But visitors can also look forward to spotting the Bengal tiger, golden langur, sambal and a rich variety of bird species. Home to 14 lakh weavers, Assam has a vibrant handloom culture ranging in a rich repertoire of refined silks and colourful tribal weaves.
Celebrate the great outdoors by cruising along the Brahmaputra and visiting Majuli – the world’s largest river island. Seek the goddess’ blessings at the centuries-old Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Then sample and take home some fresh tea from the estate to remind you of your varied experiences in the land of the Brahmaputra.
Often described as the land of festivals, Nagaland is home to 16 officially recognised tribes and sub-tribes each with distinctive costumes, headgear and jewellery. Each tribe also has their own agrarian calendar of festivals. It is said that no matter which month you visit, there will always be a reason to celebrate. For instance, the Angami observe Sekrenyi – a festival of purification – with feasting and singing in February, while the Chang tribe celebrates Naknyülüm in July with indigenous games and a host of local customs.
But the mother of all festivals is the 10-day Hornbill Festival held in December. Here, members of all the Naga tribes congregate to put up cultural performances, indigenous games, a crafts bazaar, musical events and more. For history buffs, there is also a World War II Museum that houses relics from the 1944 battle of Kohima, which first put Nagaland on the global map.
Mawsynram, a village in the East Khasi Hills district of Meghalaya, is reportedly the wettest place on earth receiving an average annual rainfall of 11,872 millimetres. Cherrapunji, which shares a border with Bangladesh, is a close second. The gorgeous waterfalls in this hilly state are a result of this abundant rainfall and the tourism department has helpfully constructed viewpoints at strategic sites. For more adventurous explorers, a trek through the jungle leading to one of the many living root bridges in the region is a must.
Built by the local Khasi tribes, some of these date back to over a century. One of the most famous ones, Umshiang double-decker bridge near Cherrapunji, is over 180 years old. The khasis are known for following the matrilineal system through which the property is passed down from the matriarch to the youngest daughter.
Sharing a border with China, Arunachal is at the tip of north-eastern India. You can drive many miles without spotting a soul here. Inhabited by over 26 major tribes and 100 sub-tribes, many of whom live a life that’s relatively untouched by modern technology, interacting with locals can be an eye-opening experience. One such notable community is the Apatani tribe, who live in Ziro Valley and can be identified by their incredible facial tattoos. Known for their paddy-cum-pisciculture techniques, the Apatanis’ sustainable form of agriculture has put this lush valley on the global map after it was nominated as a UNESCO world heritage site in 2014.
The Namdapha National Park, spread over 1985 sq km of dense forest, is home to a mind-boggling array of animal and plant species including four big-cat species (leopard, tiger, clouded leopard and snow leopard). In contrast, Sela Pass (at elevation of 13,700 ft) is snowed under for large parts of the year.
Imagine driving past entire hillsides draped in shades of red, pink, yellow, purple and white under a picture-perfect blue sky. If you happen to be in Yumthang Valley, Sikkim, between March to May, there’s a good chance of catching the hill state in full bloom. Home to over 5000 species of flowering plants, the Flower Exhibition Centre in Gangtok is worth a visit. The Rumtek Monastery, built in 1966, is an important Buddhist monastery in this region.
It holds countless invaluable artefacts — precious metal statues, gem-studded cenotaphs and a golden stupa that acts a reliquary for the ashes of the 16th Karmapa who founded the Rumtek complex. From there, drive to Pelling, 36kms from Gangtok, for a view of the snow-capped peaks of Mount Kangchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world). For the more adventurous traveller, Sikkim is also a good spot for river rafting, kayaking, paragliding and trekking.
For the more adventurous traveler, Sikkim is also a good spot for river rafting, kayaking, para-gliding and trekking.
Classical Manipuri dance has put this state on the cultural map of India. A graceful and sinuous dance drama depicting Lord Krishna and Radha’s story, Manipuri female dancers are distinguished by their elaborate costumes comprising a stiff barrel-shaped skirt and a translucent veil. Visitors can also catch performances of other indigenous dance forms at the state-organised Manipur Sangai Festival held in November.
A big part of Manipuri culture is the tradition of weaving. After Assam, Manipur has the highest number of handloom workers (over 2 lakhs, according to the National Handloom Census of Weavers and Allied Workers 2010). Different tribes have their own set of motifs and weaving traditions, producing a prolific amount of colourful fabrics, silks and shawls.
Plan a trip to Loktak Lake, the largest freshwater lake in the North East, which is 48kms from Imphal. Meet the fisherfolk who live on the lake’s enchanting floating islands.
This mountainous state on the southern tip of India’s North East isn’t a frequented destination, Mizoram. Which is a shame given the scenic locale – blue hills, sheer cliffs, tranquil lakes and quiet villages. While Christianity is the predominant religion, most Mizos cling to their rich cultural heritage. For instance, the state-wide festival of Chapchar Kut held in spring celebrates the end of a long season of jhum (clearing forest land for agriculture) through song and dance. Dances include the highly-skilled Cheraw or Bamboo dance which is performed by a group of women dancing between crossed bamboo sticks that are rhythmically moved by men holding them at either end, close to the ground.
If you happen to be in Aizawl over the weekend, there is a Saturday street market where village women sell local produce. Further afield, lies The Murlen National Park in the scenic Champhai district where only one per cent of the sun’s rays penetrates through the jungle on a sunny day. An easier-to-access point of interest would be Mizoram’s largest lake, Tamdil Lake, where one can go boating.
From palaces to ancient rock carvings and wild life sanctuaries, this compact North-eastern state is worth discovering. In Agartala, the state capital of Tripura, the Ujjayanta Palace occupies pride of place with its high dome, magnificent tile flooring, curved wooden ceiling and beautifully-crafted doors. Neermahal – a summer palace in the middle of the Rudrasagar lake – 53 kms from Agartala is another interesting piece of architecture. For Kali worshippers, the 517-year-old Tripura Sundari temple in Udaipur is an important point of pilgrimage.
But it’s the mysterious rock carvings at Unakoti that’s truly awe-inspiring. According to local lore, Lord Shiva was on his way to Mount Kailash when he decided to spend the night here. He warned his companions that they would have to leave before dawn, but after a night of revelry, Shiva was the only one who woke up on time. Miffed, Shiva cursed them to an eternity on Earth and they now adorn the hills of Unakoti as reliefs.