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Northeast India

Northeast India

This story for Lonely Planet Traveller explored some of the lesser-known areas of India, focusing on the northeast regions around Assam. It’s a rural area, a long way from the big cities, traffic and smog of the big cities like Kolkata and Mumbai. Along the way we visited tea plantations, spotted tigers in Kaziranga National Park, visited a sacred island and visited the remote province of Nagaland, which has been off-limits to outsiders for many years and is only recently starting to open up to the outside world.

Khasi Hills

Monsoon floods are a fact of life in the mountains along the Bangladeshi border, but local tribes have engineered their own solution to the problem

Mist is shrouding the wooded slopes of the Khasi Hills, and the villagers of Nongriat are setting out for work. Men are heading for their fields, hessian sacks slung over their shoulder, machetes dangling from their waistbands, while women prepare breakfast or set out for the river to wash clothes. Chickens scratch in the undergrowth, and jungle sounds echo in the steamy air: the chatter of songbirds, the honks of hornbills, the occasional boom of a gibbon down the valley. But there’s another noise that jangles in the background like a musical refrain: the sound of water.

For the people of the Khasi Hills, life revolves around water. Rainfall from the nearby Shillong plateau is funnelled down canyon walls, nourishing the vegetation and providing the villagers with a never-ending drinking resource. It’s dry season now, and the rivers and waterfalls around Nongriat have tapered to a trickle, but it’ll be a different story in a few months time, when the first rains arrive and the monsoon begins.

‘For most of the year, the spot where you’re standing is six feet underwater,’ explains local guide Batskhem Wahlang, gesturing across the dried-up riverbed with his arm as he hops over boulders with the sure-footedness of a mountain goat. ‘It’s peaceful now, but during the monsoon, the river is a wild animal – unpredictable and dangerous.’ He reaches the far bank and looks up the valley, where the slopes reach up sheer and high as a sea-cliff. During the monsoon, Batskhem says, the cliff becomes a wall of water, thundering into the valley in plumes of vapour.

Running along the southern border of the state of Meghalaya, overlooking the flat deltas of Bangladesh, the Khasi Hills are one of the wettest places on earth. During the monsoon between May and November, the area receives some of the world’s heaviest rainstorms: in an average year, 11m of rain falls here, ten times the rainfall of London. The nearby town of Cherrapunjee still holds the record for the highest amount of rain in a single year: 26.4m between 1 August 1860 and 31 July 1861.

Swollen by the deluge, the area’s rivers often triple or quadruple in size. Streams become surges, trickles become torrents, but the War Khasi people have found an ingenious solution to the problem: living bridges created from the roots of rubber trees.

‘We call this Ritymmen,’ Batskhem says, ‘Long Root Bridge.’ He points towards the riverbed where a bridge spans the banks, marked at each end by a giant rubber tree. Its banisters and rails are formed from the trees’ intertwined roots, woven together like the strands of a steel cable.

‘This is the longest root bridge, 95 feet. Local villagers think it’s at least two hundred years old. Personally, I think it might be older!’ He steps onto the bridge, holding on to the knotted banister with one hand. ‘Don’t worry, it’s safe!’ he says, laughing. ‘If it can survive the monsoon, it can take our weight.’

There are nine such root bridges in the Khasi Hills. Constructing them is a laborious process: even the fastest-growing take two decades to complete, and constant care is required to ensure they remain healthy enough to survive the monsoon onslaught. But once they’re finished, the bridges are very long-lived: the oldest are more than five centuries old. Most are single-span, but there’s one example – the Double Decker Bridge near Nongkriat – which has two levels, with a third currently in the works.

‘When I look at these bridges, I feel very proud of my people,’ says Batskhem, as he treks back up towards the road, a calf-shredding thousand feet above. ‘Our bridges have survived everything that the monsoon can throw at them, and they’re still standing. If you ask me, they’re a wonder of the world.’

ESSENTIALS

A few miles from Nongkriat beside the village of Laitkynsew, Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort is between a hotel and a homestay. It’s surrounded by gardens, has valley views and offers simply-furnished rooms, some in the main hall, others in a separate block. Rates include dinner, with local dishes like jadoh stem chicken and fried brinjal on the menu (rooms from £44, cherrapunjee.com).

INFO It’s a leg-sapping 90-minute slog down concrete staircases to the root bridges, plus another two hours back out. Local guides charge about £10.

 

Kaziranga National Park

Spot rhinos, water buffalos wild elephants in Assam’s biggest nature reserve – or, with luck, perhaps even a tiger or two

‘Quiet,’ says naturalist Subash Sawsa, as he stops his jeep and steps onto the trail, scanning the brush beside the track. It’s half an hour after dawn, and a hush has fallen over the plains of Kaziranga National Park. The air feels charged, as if it’s poised before a thunderstorm. All is still. Across the river, a bark pierces the silence, high and shrill, with an edge of panic, like the screech of metal on stone.

‘Deer’s alarm call,’ Subash whispers, eyes shining in the half-light. ‘Tiger is nearby.’ He drops to one knee and peers into the gloom, scanning the landscape for movement. Nature holds its breath. Watching. Waiting.

And then, as suddenly as it arrived, the moment passes. Birdsong breaks the silence. A flock of swifts flurries overhead, heading home to roost before nightfall. A water buffalo emerges along the riverbanks, horns nudging out from the head-high reeds. The drone of crickets thickens in the twilight. Wherever it was, the tiger has moved on – at least for now.

Covering 170 square miles along the Brahmaputra River, Kaziranga is one of India’s most important tiger strongholds. The last census estimated the population at between 100 and 110, giving Kaziranga the highest tiger density of any of India’s national parks. Most rangers here can identify individual cats by sight, distinguishing them by stripe patterns; some even have names. But even in Kaziranga, tigers are elusive, and sightings never guaranteed.

‘Usually, you feel a tiger long before you see one,’ Subash says, as his jeep judders along a trail in the park’s western range. ‘But sometimes they appear out of nowhere, so we must be careful.’ He looks over to the ranger sitting in the passenger seat, clad in camouflage, a rifle butt wedged between his knees. ‘Insurance policy,’ Subash says, with a toothy grin.

Tiger sightings are rare, even in Kaziranga, but there’s a wealth of other wildlife to see. The park is split into three ranges – West, Central and East – each with a different habitat: some marshy and wet, others flat and savannah-like, cloaked in grassland and trees. It’s a haven of wildness, and home to some of India’s most endangered species, including the one-horned rhinoceros, Asiatic water buffalo, eastern swamp deer, Indian muntjac and clouded leopard.

The park owes its origins not to conservation, but to hunting. In 1904, Mary Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, visited the area and failed to spot a single one-horned rhino. She lobbied her husband to protect Kaziranga’s dwindling wildlife. It was designated as a game reserve in 1905, becoming a national park in 1974, a world heritage site in 1985, and a tiger reserve in 2006.

Happily, Kaziranga’s one-horned rhinos have since staged an impressive comeback. There are now around 2,400 inside the park, accounting for two-thirds of India’s entire rhino population. Although poaching remains a problem, conservation efforts have allowed them to flourish, and unlike its tigers, Kaziranga’s rhinos are relatively easy to spot.

‘Rhinos often come here for salt,’ Subash says, stopping beside a salt-lick near an elephant apple tree. As if on cue, a mother rhino lumbers out from the undergrowth, tail swishing, ears twitching. Moments later, a baby rhino pokes its head out from the grass, nudging its head against its mother’s legs. Together, they meander along the creek-bed, munching on wads of grass as kingfishers blur past, and a fish eagle watches on from amongst the sun-bleached branches.

Later, at dusk, Subash parks his jeep at one of his favourite hides. It’s a creek fringed by reeds and overhanging trees, leading out into a broad, silver lake. Mist is drifting off the water, tinted pink by the setting sun, and along one bank, a rhino stands knee-deep in the water, relishing the evening cool. On the far bank, water buffalo are grazing, surrounded by egrets and adjutant storks. In the shallows, a family of elephants are splashing each other with water. It’s like the Just So Stories brought to life.

‘Tiger likes to drink here,’ Subash says, scanning the shoreline with a pair of binoculars. He watches for another half-hour as the sky shifts from pink to purple to black, and stars sprinkle the darkening sky. Then he coaxes his jeep into life, grinds it into gear and rattles off towards the park gates.

‘Sorry,’ Subash says ruefully. ‘No tiger today. But there is always tomorrow.’

ESSENTIALS

Borgos Hotel is opposite the gates for Kaziranga’s Central Range, making it perfect for an early morning safari. Rooms are huge, with gargantuan beds and views over lawned gardens. Indian, Western and Chinese cuisine is served in the restaurant. although wi-fi is patchy (rooms from £87, kazirangaborgos.com)

INFO Jeep safaris run into Kaziranga from 7.30am to 5.30pm daily at dawn or dusk (jeep fee £7.50 per person, £3.60 toll per vehicle, £2.40 per camera; kaziranga.assam.gov.in).

 

Majuli 

Catch a country boat down the Brahmaputra to the world’s largest river island, a land of rice paddies, stilt houses and sacred monasteries

The morning ferry has just moored on Majuli, and the dock is a picture of chaos. Mopeds, pick-ups and trucks clatter off the boat, rolling down wooden gangplanks onto the sandy shoreline. Dockers shout instructions over the gunwales, and cargo is unloaded: sacks of rice, oil drums, crates of vegetables, an air-conditioning unit, a couple of flatscreen TVs. Passengers clamber down the gangplanks and load themselves into tuk-tuks lined up on the sand. Then the traffic flow shifts into reverse: the ferry fills up, cargo is reloaded, and in ten minutes, it’s pulling away from the jetty, put-putting across the Brahmaputra, black smoke spiralling from its antiquated engines.

Old they may be, but these rickety wooden ferries are a lifeline for Majuli. Marooned in the middle of the Brahmaputra River, this sprawling island has no airport or bridge, so the ferries are its only link to the mainland. They run across several times a day, transporting passengers and essential supplies.

The whims of the river dictate everything on Majuli. It’s a liquid presence wherever you go: creeping along creeks, filtering into marshland, gliding along inlets, eddying around bays. It provides for the island’s fishermen, but more importantly, it nourishes the paddy-fields: rice-growing is Majuli’s staple industry, and more than a hundred varieties are grown here.

Living alongside the river has its advantages, but it doesn’t make for an easy life. During the monsoon, much of the island disappears underwater, but rather than trying to fight it, locals have adapted to its capricious nature. Mamu Payeng Kaman is a member of the Mising, the largest of Majuli’s tribes. Like everyone in her village, she lives in a chang ghar, or stilt house. Built from handwoven bamboo panels and topped with thatch, it’s a time-worn design – although these days, the more upmarket houses sit on concrete pillars, rather than bamboo.

‘The river is part of life here,’ Mamu explains, her words underscored by the clack and whirr of her hand-loom. ‘We cannot control it, so we have to find ways to adapt.’ She points to a canoe moored beneath the house: when the floods come, she explains, it’s the only means of transport on Majuli. And, she adds: ‘Canoes are cheap. They don’t eat hay, and they don’t use petrol!’

The islanders are used to coping with the river’s whims, but it’s something that will become more difficult with the onset of climate change. Over the last century, the island has lost three-quarters of its land-mass: from 1250 square kilometres in 1900 to just 352 square kilometres in 2014. With each monsoon, the river level creeps a little higher, and more of the island vanishes into the Brahmaputra’s waters. According to some predictions, the island could be submerged within the next fifteen years.

Concerned for the future, many islanders have relocated to the mainland, but others have stayed. Among them are the residents of Majuli’s sattras, or sacred monasteries, which are devoted to the strand of Hinduism known as Neo Vaishnavism. Founded in the 15th century by the poet-philosopher Srimanta Sankardeva, the monasteries use music, dance and story-telling to make their teachings accessible to all sections of society. Combining comedy, acrobatics, slapstick and drama, many involve the use of handmade masks. Crafted from plaster on a bamboo frame, and individually hand-painted, each one is a work of art, and depicts a character from the Mahabharata and Ramayana stories – a roll-call of demons, deities, monkey kings and fantastic beasts.

Jayanta Saikia lives at one of the oldest monasteries, Dakshinpat Sattra, built in 1654. Now twenty-two, he’s been a monk for six years, and plays the khul, a double-sided drum, during holy festivities. ‘It takes a long time to learn the performances,’ he says. ‘Some last only fifteen minutes, others can last for hours. Sometimes we are very tired by the end!’

He begins his morning practice, his drumbeats ringing around the temple’s atrium, open on three sides to the monastery’s carefully tended gardens. Around him, candles sputter in the gloom. Sacred statues loom in the darkness. Fabric flutters from the ceiling. At the far end of the hall, colourful panels depict episodes from the life of Vishnu, and a gateway leads into the inner temple, its doors shut fast against the world.

With a flurry of beats, Jayanta finishes his practice and pads across the sattra’s gardens. Inside the monastery, the sound of chanting strikes up. A bell rings, announcing evening prayer. Outside the gates, the waters of the Brahmaputra slip by, and a fishermen casts his nets into the twilight.

ESSENTIALS

Accommodation is limited on Majuli, so it’s best visited a day-trip, If you decide to stay, Mepo Okum offers basic thatched huts modeled on chang ghar. They’re rudimentary – bare mattresses, cold water taps, no showers – but the food is tasty (room around £18, contact owner Haren Narah +91 9435203165).

INFO Ferries run several times a day from the jetty at Neamatighat, near Jorhat, to Majuli. Most sattras are open to visitors, but a local guide is helpful for interpreting (majuli.org). 

Jorhat

Tea has been central to life in this part of India since the 1830s. Meet tea-pickers and visit the plantations in one of Assam’s most prestigious tea gardens

Across Assam, there’s a morning ritual, common to the humblest village house and the grandest old hotel. It’s heralded the start of the day here since colonial times: sometimes it’s a formal affair, served with pomp and ceremony, but more often than not, it’s taken on the run, grabbed from a street vendor or taken quickly at a pavement café. It’s the glue that binds Assam together. Life here would be unthinkable without it. It’s the morning cup of tea – and in Assam, it comes hot, sweet and very strong.

Since the late 1830s, when British settlers discovered the first wild camellia bushes here, tea has grown into Assam’s most lucrative industry. It’s the largest tea-growing region in the world by area, and produces enough tea every year to produce 6.3 billion cups – second only to southern China in output. More than a million people owe their livelihoods to it – from the pickers in the fields and the workers in the factories to the café owners, hoteliers, horticulturalists, shippers, merchants, botanists, brokers, auctioneers and exporters. Tea is more than an industry here. It’s a way of life.

‘Without tea, Assam would grind to a halt,’ states Dhruba Jyoti Dowerah, who manages eight of the region’s largest tea gardens, covering 8250 acres around the town of Jorhat. ‘For us, it’s more than something nice to drink. It’s an obsession. If you pricked my finger, I think I’d bleed tea.’

It’s a hot, sticky morning in Gatoonga Garden. Tea bushes stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. Unlike other tea areas like Darjeeling and Nilgiri, in Assam there are no rolling hills or terraced slopes. Here, the gardens are pan-flat, and the bushes planted in ruler-straight rows, interspersed with irrigation channels, and acacia and mimosa trees for shade. The bushes are still shiny with dawn dew, their leaves glistening like bottle-glass against the red soil, but the tea-pickers have already been working for an hour – it’s vital that the picking is done early to retain moisture and prevent midday scorching.

Sabitri Ganjam is one of the team of tea-pickers working in Gatoonga Garden today. Her village is an hour’s walk away, and she commutes to the garden every day on foot. Dressed in a red cardigan, her head protected from the sun by a broad-brimmed hat, she works along the row, plucking out the tips from each bush before dropping them into a bamboo basket on her back.

‘The best gardens, like ours, take only the top two leaves and a bud from every bush,’ she says. ‘That means we harvest less tea, but it’s top quality.’ She inhales the leaves’ scent: it’s grassy and floral, with a bitter, astringent edge. ‘The aroma is good,’ she says. ‘I think we should have a fine crop this year.’

A mile away, Gatoonga’s processing factory is getting ready for the coming season. Engineers are stripping down machinery, cleaning equipment and painting floors; there’ll be no time for maintenance once the season begins. The factory’s proximity to the gardens minimises the time between picking and processing, maximising freshness.

‘Ideally, the tea should be processed within two hours of plucking,’ Dhruba says, as he leads the way around the factory floor. ‘That’s a challenge, but it’s the best way to ensure the quality. Now I think it’s time we tasted some tea.’

He ducks through a doorway into the factory’s tasting room, which looks more like a science lab. Along one side, a line of china cups has been arranged along the worktop, one brew for each of the estate’s signature teas. They range from dark brown to burnt orange and pale lemon, signifying the various grades, leaf sizes and brewing strengths.

With the panache of a sommelier, Dhruba tastes each in turn, swirling them round his mouth, rinsing them across his gums before spitting into a spittoon. ‘All India’s teas have their own character,’ he says. ‘Darjeeling is known for delicacy, but Assam is known for strength. A well-rounded cup of Assam tea should be malty, robust and have a full, mellow flavour. We like our teas to pack a punch.’

Pleased with the selection, he takes a last sip and disappears into the factory. Out in the fields, it’s lunch-time, and Gatoonga’s tea-pickers are taking a break. Under the shade of an acacia tree, they unpack their tiffin tins and settle down for lunch. Before long, a vehicle putters up the road and toots its horn. It’s the tea-van, and one by one, the workers line up for their midday brew.

There’s plenty more work to do in the gardens this afternoon – but in Assam, there’s always time for one more cup of tea.

ESSENTIALS

Built as a grace-and-favour lodging for the assistant tea manager, Banyan Grove is a colonial-era manorhouse located right in the middle of Gatoonga Garden. It’s packed with historical details, from 19th century Indian artwork to antique four-poster beds. On the veranda, you can enjoy afternoon tea with views of the gardens and a magnificent banyan tree (doubles from £78, heritagetourismindia.com).

INFO Tours of the tea gardens and factory are free for guests staying with Heritage Northeast; otherwise, half-day tours cost £12 per person (contact DJ Dowerah +918011209038, dhruba@barooahs.in).

Nagaland

Step off the map in northeast India’s most isolated state, a little-visited land of thatched huts, hill tribes and septuagenarian head-hunters

‘Kenekaa aase,’ says Mrs Ngap Non, clasping her hands together and bowing her head in greeting. ‘You are welcome to Lungwa. Please, come inside.’

She steps into her house. Inside, it’s dark and cool; shafts of sunlight filter through the thatched roof, casting spider-web patterns on the earthen floor. Tools and trinkets hang from the walls. There are farming implements and feathered hats, ceremonial masks and strings of beads, animal horns and an arsenal of daws, the triangular machetes used to cut vegetation, but which also sometimes doubled as weapons of war. But Ngap Non leaves the main attraction till last.

‘This was carved by my husband’s grandfather,’ she explains, pointing to a wooden doorway at the front of the house. Hewn from a teak tree, stained black by weathering and wood-smoke, it’s covered with carvings. ‘It is about the Khonyak way of life. In my opinion, it is the finest door in the village.’

She points out a few features: in one corner, a hunter takes aim with a rifle at a tiger, surrounded by lizards, snakes and storks; above him, two men sit on the floor of a hut, one brewing tea, the other puffing on an opium pipe. Inside the house, more carvings cover a second panel and several pillars, including a macabre picture that can’t fail to draw the eye: a bare-chested warrior grasping a lizard’s leg, surrounded by a pile of skulls.

Ngap Non nods gravely. ‘This is a Konyak headhunter. Once they were the pride of Lungwa, but now they are all old. Soon, there will be none left.’ She contemplates the panel, lost in thought, then shuffles into the kitchen to brew tea.

In the north of Nagaland, two hours’ drive from the town of Mon, Lungwa straddles the border between Nagaland and Burma. It’s one of the state’s most isolated villages, light-years from Mumbai’s office blocks or Kolkata’s traffic-jammed boulevards.

Until recently, Nagaland remained a mystery even to most Indians. Mountainous and jungled, for decades it was off-limits to foreigners, a result of the guerrilla war for independence that’s been crackling here, on and off, since the 1950s. Though pockets of resistance remain, Nagaland is largely peaceful these days, and is gradually opening up to the outside world. But even now, travel here still feels like an adventure: only some areas are sanctioned for outsiders to visit, and armed soldiers of the Assam Rifles still check passports as you cross the border.

Most of Nagaland’s two million inhabitants belong to one of sixteen tribes, of which the Konyak is the largest. Each has its own customs, dress and dialect, although everyone speaks the official language of Nagamese. Traditionally, Naga people lived a subsistence lifestyle, growing crops of bamboo, betel nut, rice and fruit, with each district governed by an ang, or headman, a hereditary title passed down from father to son. Few people travelled far beyond their villages – unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that Nagaland’s tribes were notoriously suspicious of outsiders, and warriors were rated according to how many heads they’d hunted, rather than for their diplomatic skills. Though it was officially outlawed by missionaries in the 1890s, the practice of headhunting is thought to have continued in Nagaland until as recently as the 1950s.

These days, few young people give much thought to their tribal past, and most drift away from their villages in their teens, gravitating in search of work towards the ramshackle shanty towns that cling to the region’s hillsides. Some slip over the border into Burma, others head for the big cities of Assam and Manipur.

Across the village, Teram Nyakto squats on the floor of his house beside a smoky wood fire, surrounded by animal horns and an antique rifle. He’s the son of one of Lungwa’s last surviving headhunters. For him, developments have been positive: the village has electricity, clean water and sanitation, although he’s keen that youngsters don’t lose touch with their tribal identity. ‘When I was a boy, there wasn’t much opportunity,’ he says, chewing on a wad of betel nut, his mouth and gums stained crimson by the juice. ‘But now we have education, healthcare, medical supplies. Some people have satellite TV!’

He takes out his ceremonial hat; made from strands of bamboo and crowned by a plume of vulture feathers, it’s worn on feast days and other special occasions. He looks over to his father, Kamhi, who’s now in his eighties, his face and torso covered by black tattoos denoting his headhunting prowess. ‘Times change,’ Teram continues. ‘That’s the way of the world. But we must remember our history. It makes us who we are.’

Outside Teram’s house, villagers are returning from the fields, carrying baskets of rice and bundles of bamboo. The school bell rings, and children spill onto the village square, hollering and laughing as they tumble in the dust. A moped buzzes past, driven by a teenager in a leather jacket and aviator shades, his ear glued to a mobile phone, listening to Naga pop. Along the valley, oxen plough the paddy fields, and farmers are slashing and burning in the jungle, sending smoke into the yellow sky.

Change is coming quickly to Nagaland, but the past is never far away.

ESSENTIALS

Facilities in Nagaland are still extremely basic, and there are few hotels. In the town of Mon, Helsa Guesthouse offers spartan rooms, each with a bed, rudimentary bathroom and toilet, although none have a shower, and electricity only runs a few hours a day. Rates include home-cooked meals of dhal, rice and vegetables (rooms from £18, contact Aunty on +91 9862345965).

INFO Visas are no longer required for travel to Nagaland, but you do need the permission of the local ang to visit villages, so a local guide is essential. Guides cost around £25 per day and can be arranged through your guesthouse.

 

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