When most people think of India as a travel destination, they think of the magnificent Taj Mahal, the splendors of Rajasthan, and major cities like Mumbai, Delhi or Kolkata. All are wonderful tourist spots to be sure. But travelers to India should think beyond that---far beyond, to the great, undiscovered North East.
Even in India, the North Eastern region is not well known and rarely visited. Many in the region are not familiar with its rich history, its diverse population, and cultural attractions that rival the better known regions. They are known as the Seven Sister States: Assam, Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and Manipur and Meghalaya.
I am from India myself, and I have visited Sikkim and nearby West Bengal in the past. But otherwise, like the rest of my fellow countrymen, I had traveled little in the region. Well, I just returned from a visit to the Seven Sisters, and I can attest that North East should be on the itinerary of any traveler to India who want to go beyond the ordinary tourist spots, and see a region that truly beckons.
It is certainly remote, and is closer to Southeast Asia than the population centers of western India. The North East shares its border with China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Myanmar. Thanks to a new initiative by the Government of India along with state and local governments, tourist assets and resources are being developed at a fast pace, and overseas investment is being vigorously encouraged. I saw the fruits of that during my trip.
My journey commenced in New York, via a non-stop flight to Delhi on Air India. After resting for an evening at the outstanding Ashoka hotel, I was ready for my journey the following day, with a group of fellow journalists to attend the Sixth International Tourism Mart. It was held in Guwahati, Assam from Dec 5 to 7, organized by the Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India and State Tourism of Assam. After attending the Mart we embarked on a tour of Meghalaya. The fastest route takes one through Assam.
A two-hour flight from Delhi on Air India took us to Guwahati in Assam. En route one can see the Himalayas in the distance, and upon arrival one is greeted by crisp, clear mountain air. We headed towards Vivanta by Taj 5 star hotel from Guwahati airport, which is about a 45 minute drive by car.
We passed local markets, shops along the dirt road, newly built hotels and businesses, cows just roaming around busy traffic—the usual rhythm of daily life in Guwahati. As we approached the Taj we encountered lush greenery on the way.
In the late afternoon we visited the legendary Kamakhya Hindu temple, and followed by stops at the Guwahati Zoo and botanical garden, which is spread on 432 acres of the Hengrabari Reserved Forest in Guwahati. You can see beautiful orchids and the breeding programme for the endangered golden langur.
Navagraha temple represents the nine primary Grahas, celestial bodies as per Hindu astronomy. The Navagraha Temple has within its sanctum a Shivalingam representing Surya, the sun, surrounded by eight Shivalingas, each draped with a symbol of the celestial body.
Vivanta by Taj is a top-notch Taj property with modern conveniences and comforts, located on the Guwahati-Shillong highway in the centre of Guwahati’s government, business and cultural areas.
The hotel is spread in five acres of manicured greenery, interspersed with betel nut trees; water bodies and local flora. The design was inspired by Rang Ghar, the royal amphitheatre of the mighty Ahom dynasty from which Assam draws its name.
Dominating the property is a signature bamboo cane interweave abstraction lookout. There were Xingkhap murals in the rooms, and 1008 sacred bells in the lobby that cascade down dramatically against a stunning backdrop. There are marigold motifs that greet you all around the Taj property, which has an independent convention complex that is the largest meeting and social space in the North East of India.
In the evening we were entertained by performers from different the Seven Sister States -- Bihu (Assam), Hajgiri (Tripura), Nongkrem (Meghalaya), Dhol-Cholom (Manipur), traditional folkdances from Arunachal Pradesh and the major folk dances of Nagaland includeto name a few Modse, Agurshikukula, Butterfly Dance, Aaluyattu, Sadal Kekai, Changai Dance, Kuki Dance, Leshalaptu, Khamba Lim, Mayur Dance, Monyoasho, Rengma, Seecha and Kukui Kucho, Shankai and Moyashai etc, however, the prominent ones are War Dance and Zeliang Dance.
The cultural function was followed by a welcome dinner hosted by the Ministry of Tourism, Govt. of India in an open arena at the Taj with exotic cuisine of North East India. It was just a wonderful experience of the real taste of North East India and was truly an eye opener for me.
We also enjoyed a river cruise on Brahmaputra, a legendry river on the last day of our stay in Guwahati with colorful folk and traditional dances performed. The cuisine of North East India was featured, with a bonfire in the open area under the beautiful clear night, with stars shining above us. It was breathtaking.
Although there are many attractions in Assam and other sister States which I couldn’t explore because of limited time, but I would like to mention a few places one can explore and visit in North East India ----
Tezpur, "The city of Blood" (as a result of the great mythological war between Lord Krishna and Lord Shiva), the remains of 5th – 6th century stone temples have been discovered in nearby Da Parbatia. It is 174 kms from Guwahati.
Tawang Ganden Namgyal Lhaste: Popularly known as the Tawang or Gompa Monastery, is a 400 year old Mahayana Sect Buddhist Monastery. It was built in the 17th century AD by Mera Lama, a contemporary of the 5th Lama.
Kaziranga National Park: 217Kms from Guwahati. The oldest park in Assam, Kaziranga is on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River, world famous for its great Indian horned rhinoceros.
Hornbill Festival, Kohima Nagaland – It will be held Dec 1-8 this year, and is one of the most cherished festivals of Nagaland, India’s Far North Eastern state and celebrated by locals with much enthusiasm and zeal. The festival is named after Hornbill, one of the most venerated bird species in the state whose importance is reflected in a number of tribal cultural expressions, songs and dances. Almost 85% of Nagaland’s population still depends upon agriculture, so most of their festivals revolve around agriculture which they consider sacred. The Hornbill Festival is one of the largest celebrations of the indigenous warrior tribes of Nagaland.
Kohima village: where one can notice a number of traditional wooden gates with the scimitar of horns of Mithun and you come across wooden carvings look like horns on the top of some houses. You can also see relics of stone erections in front of the houses which are memorial symbols of the grand feasts offered by their ancestors.
The Kohima War cemetery: It has historic significance was set up in memory of fallen officers and men who made supreme sacrifices during World War II. On each grave there are beautiful epitaphs engraved in bronze.
Imphal: Manipur Zoological Gardens: 8Kms from Imphal, at the foot of the pine-covered hillocks and you will find a wealth of rare birds, animals and reptiles.
Khonghampat Orchidarium: It has hundreds varieties of orchids. The best time to visit the orchidarium in April and May when the orchids are in full bloom.
Khwairamband Bazaar: run by tribal women clad in colorful, traditional attire, selling everything from hand-woven shawls, skirts, vessels, mugs and mats to fish, lotus, oranges and orange-flavored honey.
Agartala –Lake City Udaipur. (not to be confused with the city of the same name in Rajasthan). The main attraction is Tripura Sundari Temple, popularly known as Matabari, one of the 51 pithas of Hindu Puran. Also there are Bhuvaneswari Temple, the Gunabati group of Temples, and the beautiful Vast Lakes.
Neer Mahal is a magnificent lake palace that was constructed as a summer resort in 1930 by late Maharaja Birbikram Kishore ManikyaBahadur in the middle of a natural lake called Rudrasagar with an area of 5.35 Sq.Km. The construction was undertaken by Martin & Burn Co. and it is the only lake palace in the entire eastern India.
Kamalasagar Lake: A lake at the border of Bangladesh was excavated by Maharaja Dhanya Manikya in the 15th century. On the bank of Kamalasagar, there is a famous temple of Goddess Kali dated back to 16th century. It is one of the excellent picnic spots in the state with scenic beauty.
In the morning of Dec. 7 we boarded in 4 different vehicles and headed for Shillong from Guwahati, 110 Km by road It was quite an adventure! The roads were winding but very scenic, like a beautiful painting all the way from Guwahati to Shillong. It took about three hours.
We reached Shillong in the afternoon and checked into Pine Wood Hotel, one of the oldest structures of Shillong built by a Swiss couple during the late 19th century. It is entirely built of seasoned red pine and Burma Teak. This is a heritage building consisting of eight cottages spread over acres of lush green lawns. The Banquet Hall has a pure Burma Teak floor and can accommodate 100 guests.
In and around Shilliong as we traveled by road to different destinations in Meghalaya, we passed the historic buildings of downtown Shillong: Eastern Air Command, a Statue of Signalman, and Military Hospital Shillong, which dates back to the Second World War. Back then this was an important staging area for battles further to the east.
On the first day of our arrival in Shillong, we visited the Don Bosco Museum of Indigenous Cultures in Shilliong. It was a beautiful sunny day. People were crowding into the local Police Bazaar, selling and buying merchandize. There were many bargains to be had and we availed ourselves of them. There were handicrafts, utensils, food, clothing—something for everyone.
Don Bosco is a seven-story building with seventeen Galleries filled with artifacts, paintings, and fibre glass figures. The topmost Gallery is where the visitors can relax and enjoy the rare dances of the North East. The museum also has a food Gallery where the indigenous cuisine of North East region can be tasted. There were pork chops and the fragrant wild rice and zesty fish dishes of Manipur, as well as the Momos and Noodles of Sikkim, the masala fare of Tripura and the tangy flavors of Assamese cuisine, all available in the Food Gallery.
On the following day, after breakfast at the hotel, we went by car to Cherrapunjee. It is a 56-km. journey via a winding and scenic road. On the way, we stopped over at Mawkdok and experienced Zip-lining across the Mawkdok Valley. There were woman vendors selling local corn on cob over the burning coal, and small tea and snack shops along the road. All around us were cheerful school children on a day excursion.
We halted at Orange Roots for light tea and snacks and visited the magnificent Arwah Caves, Nohkalikai Falls, Nohsngithiang Falls, and Mawsmai Caves.
Cherrapunjee lies 4.500 feet above sea level, rising over misty valleys and foaming rivers, ensconced in swirling clouds and perched on an escarpment. Because of this stunning location and the year-round rain, Cherrapunji has been in the Guinness Book of World Records as the wettest place on earth, where the rainfall can be recorded in feet rather than in millimeters. The heaviest downpours occur from May until September. The clouds become totally dark and menacing, and torrents of rain descend earthwards with stinging force.
Nohkalikai Falls is a hauntingly beautiful waterfall, cascading down from the top of the gorge to the mystic deep green pool below, reminding one of the tragic legend associated with it, of a grief stricken mother who plunged to her death, unable to overcome her sorrow over the murder of her daughter by her husband.
Near Cherrapunji, in Sohar, there were shops filled with handicrafts, local spices, chips, tea, snacks and all kinds of meat pork, beef, poultry, and boiled eggs.
The following day we traveled to Nongblai Village, also known as Village of the Gods, 52 km. from our hotel. The village boasts the highest number of bio-engineered living root bridges than anywhere else in the world. The villagers turned roots into natural bridges over the numerous streams and rivers in the area, one of the marvels of India found nowhere else.
As we walked pass the village down to see a living root bridge, some over 400 steps down and back, children were peeking out from their home with smiles, some were shy, there was a church or two along the way and women washing clothes and doing daily chores as children helping them carry few kitchen utensils. Some played in the rain and I took out my snack bag and gave a boiled egg, a packet of biscuit and an apple to a little girl with a broad smile. We were all huffing and puffing but reached to our cars safely and moved on to our next destination.
In most of Meghalaya, the terrain and vegetation is very similar to Myanmar, giving travelers a sampling of Southeast Asia without leaving India.
On the following day we traveled to Mawlynnong Village, 80 km. away, to visit Dawki village. This is close to the Bangladesh International border. The river and surrounding areas are known for adventure camps and activities—water zorbing, snorkeling, scuba diving and angling among them. We stopped for lunch on a tree hut by the river side, and ate a local meal of rice, lentils, mixed vegetable and fish with hot chutney served on a bamboo dry leaf.
Young girls and boys were playing in the water and having a good time. It was raining and we all had umbrellas with us. It was very picturesque –river flowing, boats, people, straw and bamboo huts on the sand and rocks, big pebbles, and you see the Dawki bridge in the distance, shrouded in fog and mist.
Dawki Bridge is on the border of Meghalaya with Bangladesh. It is on a hill and one can see the plains of Bangladesh all along the route to Dawki. It is a suspension bridge and was constructed in 1932 by the British. The border of Bangladesh lies at a distance of 2 kms from Dawki town.
It was still raining, and getting dark so we moved to Mawlynnong village in the East Khasi Hills, also referred to as ‘God’s own garden.’ It won acclaim in 2003 for being the cleanest village in Asia. Mawlynnong offers one the opportunity to view natural beauty in abundance from the Sky Walk, an 80 feet high "machan' or observatory. You can also visit the Living Root Bridge and Natural Balancing Rock. We all headed back to Pinewood hotel in Shillong for the evening.
That was our final day in Shillong. We traveled back to Delhi and then to our final destinations. It was a unique experience, an exposure to an area relatively untouched by commercial interests and not heavily developed for tourists. You meet the people of India as they are—and it is an unforgettable experience!