The six Northeastern States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Mizoram and Tripura lie in an almost forgotten part of India. Different cultures and peoples inhabit these lands, as different between themselves as from the rest of India. Tibet, Burma and Bangladesh adjoin this area and have spread their influences across the borders. Many live here in tribal communities.
Central to the state is the Brahmaputra, one of the great rivers of India. The river starts as a stream in Tibet and breaks through the mighty Himalaya before spreading its waters widely through Assam on the way to the Bay of Bengal. If you’re very lucky you might catch site of a very rare freshwater dolphin. The Brahmaputra irrigates a lush landscape patchworked with rice fields and tea plantations. The flatness of the state makes it the easiest of the northeastern states to visit.
Guwahati is its capital with flight connections all over India.
Come here to visit Kaziranga National Park with its rhinoceroses, tigers and other wild beasts. Nearer Guwahati is Pobitora National Park with a higher density of rhinos. In both parks animal spotting is done from atop an elephant, exciting stuff. There are also jeep safaris available.
Other national parks worth a visit include Manas National Park on the border of Bhutan. Another reserve, Nameri National Park, is a favourite with bird watchers and there is a chance to do some gentle river rafting. On a clear day you can glimpse the snows of the Himalayan peaks to the north.
Majuli Island is the world’s largest river island reached by at least an hour’s journey by boat from Nimatighat near Jorhat. The journey is an adventure in itself. Mising (not missing) people inhabit this island that is also a centre of worship of the Hindu god Vishnu. A number of monasteries (satras) are home to monks whose acts of worship include dance and music – something that definitely should be on any visitor’s agenda.
If you’ve always wondered how tea is processed then a visit to a plantation and tea factory near Dibrugah is a must. And a stay in a palatial tea-manager’s bungalow from the British period just adds to the experience.
Because of the shared (disputed) border with China, foreigners require a special permit. The stated rules are: 30 days for two or more, cost $50 per person. The state web site gives conflicting advice suggesting that a) a permit can be obtained at the Resident Commissioner of the Government of Arunachal Pradesh in Delhi and b) a permit can only be applied for through a local approved tour operator. My experience is that a good local travel agent can arrange most things.
From the border with Assam to the south, Arunachal Pradesh rises steeply through heavily wooded hills to snow-capped peaks along its northern border with China.
Southern Arunachal Pradesh
More than twenty different tribes live in this state each with its own distinct culture and settlements. It is a pleasure ground for polite (“May I take your photo?”) photographers. Several tribes will be found in the Ziro Valley. The women of the Apatani tribe used to be tattooed and fitted with nose plugs as a defence against raiding neighbouring tribes who highly prized the beautiful Apatani women.
Itanagar is the state capital with little to recommend it except as a transport hub and a place to get travel organised.
Western Arunachal Pradesh
The big journey in this state is northwards over hills and mountain passes to the land of the Monpa people who are of Tibetan Buddhist origin. At the finish line is the town of Tawang. Dominating the town is the splendid Tawang Gompa (monastery) pitched against a backdrop of soaring peaks. It’s slow travelling up and down windy roads but eventually you reach the Sela Pass (4,176m/13,700ft), the gateway to the Tawang Valley.
Known as the Abode of the Clouds, this pretty and hilly state is very attractive to those who want to escape the heat. Rising out of the plains of Assam to the south, the state abruptly ends in massive cliffs overlooking the plains of Bangladesh. Monsoonal rain clouds rushing in from the south are forced to shed their load as they climb the heights of Meghalaya and in doing so unleash torrential rain. This makes Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram the wettest places on earth. Massive waterfalls and big cave systems are results of all this water. Nearby and requiring an amount of legwork are living bridges formed by joining roots from trees opposite each other over a small gorge and waterway.
This state borders with Myanmar and is named after the Naga people who are also spread across the India/Myanmar border. They were once headhunters and a few villages still have a stash of skulls hidden away.
The big attraction is the Hornbill Festival in the first week of December when the tribes come together to display their dance, music and culture. The tribal costumes are almost overwhelming.
Kohima, the capital, was the site of one of the great battles of WWII when the Japanese advance into India was repulsed. Where the fighting took place is now the location of a poignant war cemetery.
While there maybe less of interest, unless you are a WWII buff, in Manipur there is some spectacular countryside. Of especial interest, and worth a day out from the capital Imphal, is Lake Loktak, a tribal area with floating villages.
In Imphal the Manipur State Museum and the Kwairamband Bazaar are well worth visits.
Mizoram might belong elsewhere as most of the people don’t look Indian at all but rather Thai or Chinese. Caste and gender discriminations are more or less absent and the women appear as open in society as their Western counterparts.
Aizwal, the state capital clings precariously to a ridge and looks like a painted backdrop when approaching via the windy hairpins. The state is heavily christianised and quite strictly. If you want to shop, eat or visit places on a Sunday then everything is closed. As you’ll only need a few days to appreciate the state it’s best to arrive on a Monday and leave by Saturday.
Coming to Tripura from its adjacent northern states is coming back to Hindu India. The capital, Agartala’s sights include the Ujjayanta Palace surrounded by Hindu temples and the Royal Mausoleums.
Udaipur (a popular Indian name for a town – there’s one in Rajasthan and another in Himachal Pradesh) is Tripura’s old capital with now redundant temples quietly decaying into history.
Tripura is also a border town for crossing into Bangladesh.