The diversity that India presents can be a travellers delight. And the magical charm of the Northeast region remains one of its best-kept secrets. Take a trip across any of the seven states and you would be overwhelmed by some challenging terrain – rugged mountains, valleys, river bodies, floodplains and forests. With culture, cuisine and climate adding a layer of unique charm that is its very own.
We took a fortnight off to discover some places around Assam and Meghalaya that we had never been to before. While some of the usual had to be done, we opted for a bit of the offbeat as well; like a visit to a silk weaving hub, taking a ferry to the world’s second largest river island, trekking through the country’s cleanest village and driving up to the Indo-Bangladesh border. And along the way we came across some stunning landscapes, great food and beautiful people.
The early morning flight from New Delhi to Guwahati took about two and a half hours. It is the best mode of travel if you want to save time, pack in as much in your itinerary, and treat yourself to the majestic aerial view of the mighty Himalayas from the aircraft. It’s magical against the rising morning sun. Train is an option but the fastest one takes about 28 hours. For the more adventurous sorts, a road trip is doable over 3/4 days, but be warned of broken roads and some really bad patches between Bihar and West Bengal.
Guwahati is a bustling city, with the Brahmaputra towards its north and the hills of Meghalaya on its southern side. Many external influences and booming commercialisation has resulted in poorly conceived infrastructure and haphazard growth that the city is somewhat struggling to come to terms with. But strands of heritage, local culture and traditional cuisine hold it all together, giving the city a unique form, feel and flavour that is steeped in warmth and simplicity. It is an ideal base camp to explore around Assam and the neighbouring states. Hot and humid during summers and pleasantly cool in winters, it does get some temperamental bouts of rain, hail and unpredictable cloudbursts; so be prepared. Monsoons are a particularly bad time to travel with incessant rains that could last for days.
Stay options are plenty, with 5-stars like Radisson blu, Vivanta by Taj and the slightly dated but beautifully located Brahmaputra Ashok. There are several budget and boutique hotels as well that offer a comfortable stay, and some well-appointed guesthouses that are popular amongst corporates. But if you can manage, a homestay is the best option for a truly immersive local experience.
While in Guwahati, a trip to the Kamakhya Temple is a given. And we made sure to pay our obeisance to the Goddess. The long queues and hustling around at the temple takes time, so plan for a leisurely day. Next on the agenda was a visit to Umananda, a Shiva temple located on a small riverine island in the Brahmaputra, just off Guwahati; which incidentally happens to be the smallest inhabited river island in the world. The boat ride that gets you there is a heart-in-the-mouth experience that can leave you a bit shaken and stirred, but take it as a part of the adventure. Another interesting place we visited was the Srimanta Sankardev Kalakshetra – a sprawling campus that is a repository for local art and culture. Beautifully designed, it integrates a museum, library, parks, amphitheatres, emporiums, organic eateries and several demonstration & performance areas to showcase local art & craft.
For anyone visiting the state, the hunt for pure ‘Muga’ Silk and Assam Tea begins the moment you land in Guwahati. ‘Muga’ is unique to the region and in its pure form has a beautiful glossy golden hue to it. Traditionally it has a sense of ceremonial significance, but these days one can find a lot of contemporary variations that are targeted at a wider non-traditional audience. When it comes to Assam Tea, always go for the second flush. Knowing someone from the gardens could help get this sorted, and we were fairly resourceful on that front. Also look out for ‘Eri’ silk and contemporary bamboo art & craft products, which are available at the local emporiums and handicraft stores around the city.
Assam has a rich culinary lineage as well. Food here is low on spice and high on flavor, with a strong emphasis on rice, fish, local ingredients, seasonal vegetables and some form of a sweet dish (like payas) to end a meal. Much of the unique flavors come in the form of accompaniments that complete a traditional platter. The cooking style is subtle – mostly steamed, stewed, fire grilled or mildly cooked. Rarely would you find something that is deep-fried. Of course, modern restaurants serving traditional cuisine are more experimental and offer greater variety. Interestingly, the ‘eating out’ culture was non existent in the city till the early 90’s. But now it is bursting at its seams. Towards the side of town we stayed in, Gams Delicacy and Bhut Jolokia were two places worth trying. They serve delectable smoked pork, pigeon fry, duck meat with bamboo shoot and chital maas anja (a gravy dish cooked with a specific variety of fish, potatoes, herbs and green veggies), accompanied with leafy greens, khorisa, pitika and an assortment of pickles. Meals here can be simply exhausting, and a post lunch siesta therefore, is a ritual.
After 3 days in Guwahati, we headed out on a road trip to Kaziranga National Park – a world heritage site that is the largest habitat for the one-horned rhino. The 5-hour drive on the 4-lane highway is enjoyable with several pit stops (dhabas) along the way. We stopped by at a family farm for a grand luncheon, before checking in for 2 nights at the Diphlu River Lodge, which famously hosted Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge recently. While it doesn’t need any further endorsement after its royal guests, we have to admit that this is one of the best resorts that you could find in the wild. Ranked as India’s 2nd best Wildlife Resort by Lonely Planet Travel Awards in 2013, it offers quite an intimate getaway and is a favourite with international tourists thronging the park.
Nestled on the banks of the picturesque Diphlu River, it has environment-sensitive cottages that are raised above the ground on stilts, with highly personalised services. The staff is courteous and the food is a mix of continental, North Indian and Assamese cuisine made with fresh, locally produced ingredients, some of which are organically grown in-house.
We took the jeep safari and the early morning elephant safari inside the park, which takes you through an expanse of tall grass, marshlands and dense but moist tropical broadleaf forest, with the mighty Brahmaputra flowing in the backdrop. On a good day you could spot the one-horned rhino, wild elephants, wild boar, sambar, swamp deer, hog deer and barking deer. If you get lucky, maybe even a leopard. But tiger spotting is rare.
The afternoon after the safari was a relaxed affair. We visited the local silk weaving hub and shopped around for some exquisite stuff to bring back home. The women folk who run the unit are extremely friendly and always eager to help and show around. We even tried our hand at a bit of weaving. The Orchid Farms nearby are worth a visit too, where we were entertained by the local tribes with some lively song & dance performances.
Day 2 in Kaziranga was reserved for a trip to Majuli, the second largest river island in the world. It is about 100 km away and we left early, driving for about 2 hour before hopping into a ferry across the Brahmaputra. We explored Auniati Satra, a quiet monastery and Kamalabari Satra, where the monks worship Lord Vishnu. Interestingly, the monks here do not cut their hair, nor do they get married. Music, dance, prayers and Bhaona (local theatre) performances keep this happy flock together. Another famous traditional craft here is mask making at Sangri Satra. It was fun to watch the artisans at work, who were only too eager to enact some dramatic scenes wearing their masks.
Next stop was a village on the island, inhabited by the Mishing tribe. The houses here are made of bamboo with thatched or tin roofs and are perched on high stilts to avoid flooding during rains. The Mishing have their own forms of folk music and dance, which they perform during several festivals celebrated throughout the year. A walk around the village gives an insight into the local culture and it was wise of us to take along a local guide who kept us interested with a lot of trivia and anecdotes. On our way back from Majuli we did a quick detour to Jorhat before coming back to our lodge in Kaziranga. Now Jorhat, is a town steeped in history; it was the last capital of the Ahom Kingdom back in the 18th century and is home to the oldest golf course in Asia. Both bits of trivia however, are completely unrelated.
We headed back to Guwahati for a day, and then it was time for our next road trip towards Cherrapunji. The beautiful drive up the East Khasi hills in Meghalaya along winding roads, waterfalls, deep gorges, lakes and some beautiful flat mountains was quite a contrast to the one we took to Kaziranga. This being one of the wettest places in the world, you cannot help but catch some rain along the way. And the pleasure of driving through clouds does have its own charm.
We took a quick stop at the very picturesque Umiam lakeside at Barapani, before reaching Cherrapunji in the afternoon. Nestled amidst acres of rolling hills with some really nice trek routes around, Sa-i-mika Park Resort was our home for the next few days – just the perfect place to switch off, laze around and dive into a world of nothingness.
The landscape around Cherrapunji has sprawling views of flat top mountains dotted with waterfalls, and reminds one of the table mountain in Cape Town. The clouds hang around the lush green hills, and the crisp mountain air and the sound of gushing water is nothing but pure nirvana for the soul. The Nohkalikai Falls here is incidentally the highest plunge fall in India and quite a spectacular sight. We explored around a bit and went to see the Mawsmai Caves, before driving through a beautiful stretch towards Riwai, Mawlynnong and Dawki.
Riwai is a small hamlet famous for its Living Root Bridge. Without a shred of exaggeration, it looks like a frame straight out of Peter Jackson’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. How these bridges were built is equally fascinating. Eons ago the Khasis had to find a way to cross the numerous rivers and streams that flow around the region and they came up with a classic idea of eco-engineering. They started to build bridges out of living roots from a certain variety of rubber fig tree ‘Ficus elastica’ that thrives along riverbeds in the region. Secondary roots from the trees shoot out of their trunks, which are then allowed to pass through hollow sliced betel nut tree trunks, that are laid across the river. As these roots entwine and grow, they form a natural yet formidable structural framework. Once they reach the other end, they are rooted back in the soil. Stones are used to fill up any gaps in the base of the bridge and over time they get embedded in it as the roots continue to live and grow, making the bridge stronger. It takes a good 10-15 years before a bridge is useable and they can have a lifespan of more than 600 years. As they say, necessity is the mother of all inventions.
Mawlynnong on the other hand, is a few kilometres ahead of Riwai and has a story of its own. It was recognized as Asia’s cleanest village way back in 2003. The community here is a living testimony of the willingness of people to adapt to environmental challenges around them and live in harmony with nature. While we may need campaigns like Swachh Bharat to educate people about cleanliness, here is a community that has been practicing it quietly for ages. The 100 odd families living here collect all their waste in dustbins made of bamboo and dispose it into manure pits. Once waste turns into manure, it is used as an organic fertilizer to maintain the flora around the village. Life here is an inspiring lesson on disciplined living and sustaining behavioral change within a local community. Mawlynnong is often referred to as ‘God’s Own Garden’ for good reason and remains one of India’s cleanest villages with picturesque fairy tale surroundings. Like most Khasi communities, this too is a matrilineal society and the spirit of community living is evident, with women in control of much of the proceedings around the village life.
Further from Mawlynnong lies Dawki, a small border town that is a trade route between India and Bangladesh. It is unexplored territory and doesn’t get too many tourists, but here you can indulge in the touristy thing of getting yourself clicked with one foot in India and one in Bangladesh. The highlight at Dawki is the beautiful Umngot river that flows between the hills, offering breathtaking view on both sides. Calm, serene and Zen like, the crystal clear water makes for an amazing visual treat with the boats forming an illusion as if they are suspended in air.
The drive back to Guwahati and our onward flight to Delhi bought our Northeast sojourn to an end. Not for long though, as we are back with a trip to Manipur and Myanmar soon, which is already on the anvil. The depth of this region is mind-boggling and rather than skimming through the touristy places in a single trip, we would rather go deeper into one territory and keep coming back for more. There is much beauty that lies in these far-flung regions of India, which an average traveller is unfortunately quite unaware of.
So the next time you plan a vacation, give a trip to the Northeast a thought. How much of Bangkok, Singapore, Dubai or Goa can you possibly do? The visit by the Royals has already sparked considerable interest in the region globally, but sadly most Indians remain terminally ignorant. All you need to do is Google a bit, put a finger on the map, pack your bags and just go. Come back with magical memories, new experiences, new friends and incredible stories to tell, and it will make you glad that you finally did it.