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North East India is not the same as India on the plains. Connected to the rest of the country by a narrow strip of land referred to as the “chicken’s neck”, North East India is remote. North East India is culturally distinct. North East India is different. And therein lies the adventure. Here we have put together our introduction to North East India. From its turbulent history to its charming hill stations and startling national parks.
And at the centre of it all are the people of North East India themselves. Get ready to be welcomed. Prepare for unexpected encounters. Arrive with an empty stomach. North East India continues to beguile us. Come join us here.
North East India is made up of the “seven sisters” of Assam, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh. West Bengal acts as the gateway to the north east. North of West Bengal is Sikkim – referred to as the “little brother” of the seven sisters
On 16 May 1951 at Kohima, Mr A.Z. Phizo, president of the Naga National Council, stood up to speak.
“It is an undeniable fact that the Nagas are not Indian. We distinctly and unmistakably belong to the great Mongolian family … To live together in peace different people must have the same attitude and the same feeling … Between the Indians and the Nagas, I am sad to say, these are lacking.”
Relations between ‘mainlander’ Indians and the people of the north east have improved since 1951. But still today, the first lesson to anyone travelling in the north east remains. Here in the hills is not the same as India on the plains. The north east is different. And don’t you forget it.
North East India incorporates seven sister states. They are the “North East India seven sisters”. Much of this area was lumped together by the British as ‘Assam’. The Assamese in the Brahmaputra Valley referred to the mountain-dwelling folk to their east as ‘Naga’. When India received independence from the British, the Nagas demanded independence from India. They were granted their own state in 1961. In 1972 the state of Meghalaya was carved out of Assam. Mizoram, after a bloody conflict with Delhi resulting in Indira Gandhi deploying bombing raids, received statehood in 1981.
Bordering Mizoram to the west and east is Tripura and Manipur. They were distinct kingdoms before the arrival of the British. They became princely states and then after Indian independence became union territories first and then fully-fledged states. Arunachal Pradesh – remote, vast, bordering both China and Bhutan – is the seventh of the North East India states. Lekhapani, just over the border in Arunachal, is the last North East India railway station of the country’s entire network.
Mughal Bengal was the richest region of the Mughal Empire. The Nawab of Bengal was stationed in Dhaka. His influence spread over not just Bengal but also Bihar and Orissa to the north and south.
Under British-rule, the Bengal Presidency was the largest administrative unit in the British Empire. At its height it covered parts of Burma, Malaysia and Singapore – and of course the north east. In 1867 it was separated from colonial Assam. The region was divided again with Indian partition in 1947. The east became East Pakistan (later Bangladesh), and the other half, the state of West Bengal.
In the north of the state (up in the hills, not down on the plains) are Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Formerly a Gurkha village, Darjeeling was spotted by the British an ideal escape during the hot Indian summer. The Sikkimese called this nest ‘Dorji Ling’ meaning ‘the land of the thunderbolt’. The cool climate and steep hills made Darjeeling ideal for tea fields. Both Darjeeling and Kalimpong today are largely made up of ethnic Nepalese. And there is a strong tradition of resistance to Bengali-rule.
Either Darjeeling or Kalimpong is a good starting point to reach the mountains of Sikkim. Sikkim is India’s second smallest and least populous state. The Kingdom of Sikkim was founded in the 17 century. It was ruled by Buddhist kings until it became a princely state of British India in 1890. It was a protectorate of independent India until anti-royalist riots in the 1970s. In 1975 Indira Gandhi’s army was invited in and the kingdom joined India as the country’s 22nd state. Today, it is referred to as the “little brother” of the north east.
A multitude of hill tribes live in the north east – many of whom are from the broad Tibeto-Burman ethnic group. The British brought these tribes into greater contact with the outside world. Since India gained independence, certain hill tribes have clashed with Delhi as well as other ethnic and indigenous groups.
Long isolated, it was the British Empire that brought the hill tribes of North East India into connection with the world. It was undoubtably a great shock. Naga nationalist P.E. Ezung wrote that the British arrival left the Nagas “confused, disheartened, and apprehensive of their future.” These areas were governed with a hands-off approach through a system of village chiefs and headmen.
In some areas missionaries converted the people to Christianity and educated an elite. (P.E. Ezung, himself a first-generation Christian, is much sunnier about these later arrivals. “Our praise, admiration and gratitude to the American Baptist missionaries is deeply rooted in our hearts as it is now part of our Christian heritage.”) The advent of Christianity in the Naga Hills saw the eventual end of head-hunting. Today, Nagaland, Mizoram and about half of Manipur is Christian.
The modern-day border between India and Myanmar cuts through the historic homeland of many of these ethnic groups. Nagas live in both India and Myanmar, as do the Mizos, Kukis and Chins. In Arunachal Pradesh, the Khamti use Burmese script and celebrate the Buddhist Water Festival of Thingyan – as celebrated in Myanmar.
Arunachal is the most ethnically diverse state in the north east. There are officially 26 tribes living in the state, and over 100 sub-tribes. These include the Apatai (situated around Ziro Valley and recognizable by their nose piercings) and the Adi, closely wrapped in the furs of bear and deer.
The native Sikkimese consist of the Bhutias and the Lepchas. The Bhutias migrated from the Kham district of Tibet in the 14th century. The Lepchas are believed to pre-date the Bhutias and are the oldest known inhabitants.
The Khasi are one of the most well-known North East India ethnic groups. They predominantly live in the Khasi Hills of Meghalaya. They are among the few Austroasiatic-speaking peoples in south Asia. Some historians trace the Khasis back a Mon-Khmer tribe that once dominated the jungles of southern Myanmar.
The Khasis themselves have a different story …
Khasi mythology tells of a god who originally distributed the human race into 16 families: seven on earth and the remaining nine in heaven. A heavenly ladder connected earth and heaven until one day the Khasis were tricked into cutting a divine tree. This was a grave error which prevented them access to the heavens forever. The descendants of the 7 families are now stranded on earth. This origin story is said to influence the Khasis’ contemporary respect for their natural environment.
The Khasi tribe holds the distinction of being one of the few remaining matriarchal tribes of the world. Khasi oral history says that this came from the days when Khasi men were frequently fighting and dying on the plains of battle. They left behind children to be brought up by mothers who took new husbands, leading to uncertainty over their paternity.
Khasi historian Amena Nora Passah writes:
“Society might have labelled those children ‘illegitimate’. At some point, our ancestors thought that they didn’t want this slur. So, they decided that children should have one last name: the mother’s.”
As a matriarchy, wealth and property passes from mother to their daughters. Daughters have the liberty to live in their ancestral home or move out. Except for the youngest daughter, who is the custodian of the property. Even after her marriage, she never leaves home. She looks after her parents and eventually becomes the head of the household.
Not all of the people of the north east live in the hills. The largest lowland area of the region is the Assam plain. The Assamese people are mainly situated around the Brahmaputra Valley. The Assamese are an ethnically diverse people formed after centuries of assimilation of Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, Indo-Aryan and Tai (that is people from modern-day Thailand, Laos and Myanmar’s Shan State.)
The people of Assam today, often proudly state that the Mughal’s never invaded their land, but instead were held up by the Ahom Kingdom. (The history is slightly contentious, but it is embraced with vim by the current BJP government in Delhi.) The Ahom kingdom thrived from 1228-1826, until it fell with repeated Burmese invasions of Assam. Ruins of the Ahom Kingdom can be visited at Sivasagar. It remains today one of North East India’s best places to visit for those interested in the historical connection between Burma and Assam.
The second predominate valley area of the north east is around Imphal, capital of Manipur. The Imphal valley is dominated by the Meitei people – the term often used synonymously with “Manipuri”. They are largely Hindu are also of Tibeto-Burman ethnicity.
The Meitei’s are not a hill tribe and not given Scheduled Caste status. They are therefore not entitled to the benefits that come with Scheduled Caste status. This has led to tension between them and the Kukis who have come to live in the hills around Imphal. In fact, throughout the north east, the competing tensions between hill tribes, valley-dwellers and Delhi makes for a mammoth political challenge.
In the North East India mountain ranges are the former hill stations of the British Empire. Some such as Aizawl never during the Raj grew to be more than a small outpost or the bungalow of a Deputy Commissioner. Today they are some of the most popular North East India destinations.
High in the North East India hills of Meghalaya, Cherrapunji is the oldest hill station of the north east. The British graveyard remains today where tombstones bare the legend, “Died by His Own Hand”. Cherrapunji’s founders had not anticipated the oppressive effect of rain and isolation on the temperaments of young men sent to administer it.
And in Cherrapunji there is a lot of rain.
Cherrapunji has long been regarded as the “Wettest Place on Earth”, with up to 450 inches of rain each year. When one 26-year old butcher of Cherrapunji was asked if it was hard to live in a place so wet, he responded, one suspects with a little irritation. “We can’t think about that. Here there’s always rain but we have to work, so it’s no good wondering about it.”
Haflong is the only hill stations of Assam. Next to Haflong is Jatinga, one of North East india’s most famous places known as “Assam’s Valley of Death”. This due to the eerie phenomenon of juvenile birds disorientated by lights appearing to commit suicide on winter full moons. In his novel Death in the East, Abir Mukherjee describes the scene.
“ … there came a crashing thud. Something hurtled to the ground, hitting the veranda a few feet from where I stood. It was bird, stunned and broken. […] I looked out across the valley. Everywhere, birds were falling out of the sky […] Behind me a waiter uttered a prayer under his breath … ”
There are many national parks in North East India. These are ideal places for travellers to spot wildlife such as Bengal tigers, elephants and rhinos. For many travellers, the national parks are the best thing about North East India.
The most well-known national park of the north east is Kaziranga in Assam. Kaziranga is dotted with tall elephant grass meadows and swampy lagoons. It is home to the largest population of one-horned rhinoceros. Also here you can see Asiatic elephants and Royal Bengal tigers.
Namdapah National Park is one of the most popular places to visit in North East India. The park acts a natural boundary between India and Myanmar. In 1983 it was declared a tiger reserve and is the only park in the world where tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards reside.
In Manipur is the Keibul-Lamjao National Park – the world’s only floating national park. It is made up of what is called “phumdi” – floating islands formed by decomposed plant matter. The phumdi are home to the Sangai deer, Manipur’s state animal. The Sengai is also referred to as the “dancing deer”. This is due to the way it looks when it runs across the phumdi which undulates under the animal’s weight. The Sangai are elusive and difficult to spot. But at Keibul-Kamjao it is possible to take a boat ride onto the phumdi, an interesting experience in itself.
Other national parks in the north east include Dibru Saikhowa. This is the largest salix swamp in the region and home to wild horses and the Gangetic dolphin. There is also the Dampan Tiger Reserve in Mizoram. Here keen twitchers can look out for a flash of tail of the Asian fairy bluebird.
North East India remains one of the last unspoiled strips of the world. Untouched by mass tourism, it is seen as under-developed by travel agents and too remote by Indian domestic travellers.
And therein lies the adventure. Therein lies the North East India beauty.
In Sikkim, in the foothills of the Himalayas, travellers can knock upon the doors of century-old monasteries and be invited in for steaming cups of butter tea. In Meghalaya, treks can be made deep into the forest. Travellers can clamber over “living root bridges” and find villages where children are given not a name at birth but a whistling tune. A North East India travel itinerary can for the intrepid incorporate staying overnight in Naga villages and trying the home-made whiskey of Manipur.
And although remote, threads of the history of the world can be traced back to the north east. Kolkata once a bamboo village, grew to become the second the city of the British Empire and one of the busiest ports in the world. Manipur, for generations basking in splendid isolation, was invaded by Burmese in the 1800s. This led to the British arriving eventually annexing Mandalay in the Anglo-Burmese Wars. Nagaland became the centre of the world when the Japanese “March on Delhi” was halted at the Battle of Kohima.
But more than any of this, it’s the North East India people themselves that make this such a rewarding part of the world to travel in. Expect to be hustled into a church service in Aizawl by beaming members of the congregation. Get ready to be approached at a train station in Assam by young students keen to practice their English. Even in Kolkata, the people of that city will tell you that this city is safe and friendly, not like Delhi or Mumbai. “Don’t bother with Rajasthan”, they will say.
“This is the North East India culture”, we were told in Kohima. “We take hospitality seriously here.”
That being said, in much of the north east tourism and hospitality, is still in its infancy. This is not Jaipur. This is not Goa. Good guides are harder to find and great hotels needs to be searched for. But they are there.
Calcutta Bungalow in the north of the city and Glenburn Penthouse are both small, exquisitely designed love letters to the city. Mancotta Heritage Chang, Puroni Bheti Farm and the tea estates of Darjeeling allow travellers to recline in the serenity of a tea garden. Abor Country River Lodge boast the fierce rivers and wide ravines of Arunachal Pradesh.
Domestic flights in the north east are mainly linked through Kolkata and Guwahati. Railway tracks do not reach Manipur, nor much of Mizoram. Travelling by car can be bumpy. All this should not put off the adventurous travellers. If you are not sure where to visit in North East India: do some research first. And, of course, travel with an operator on the ground.
Insurgency in the north east started at the dawn of India’s independence, as ethnic groups resented coming under the Delhi. This has largely subsided. Communal conflict flares up intermittently and stalls development.
Why is North East India part of India? Insurgency has sprung from this question. Since the British left, insurgents have fought the central government’s Indian Army in Assam, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.
In recent years, insurgency in the region has seen rapid decline. There has been a 70% reduction in insurgency incidents and an 80% drop in civilian deaths in 2019 compared to 2013. Insurgency has almost completely faded away in Assam, Mizoram and Manipur. While violence is rare in Nagaland, there is still political tension. The Nagas continue to push for their own flag and certain clauses in the national constitution.
There has also been tension in the north east between native indigenous people and migrants from other parts of India. A further strain is illegal immigrants from Myanmar and Bangladesh. The 1980s saw communal violence between Nagas and Kukis in Manipur. Today, there is still tension between the indigenous Meiteis of Manipur and the Kukis up in the hills. Information for travellers in India including travel advice can be found here.
Situated at the juncture between the subcontinent and southeast Asia, the potential of North East India is vast. Development, however, has been slow.
The north east is currently only connected to the rest of India through the narrow Siliguri Corridor. Because of this, trade routes are long. For example, from Agartala in Tripura, the nearest port in Kolkata is a 1,600 kilometre journey through Siliguri. For any cargo truck, this means increased costs that are reflected in higher consumer prices.
Manipur is perhaps India’s most remote state. For centuries, Manipur’s only proper connection to the rest of the region is down the Kohima-Imphal road. In recent decades the state has been held hostage by insurgent groups blocking the road. It is hoped that this will be relieved with the construction of a rail line through the Silchar Hills. This will link Imphal with Jiribam on the border with Assam.
As North East India has become more stable, it has attracted more investment. More businesses are setting up bases in the north east. The Classic Grande hotel in Imphal, the swankiest of their four hotels in Manipur, and the promised flight path between Imphal and Mandalay, are examples of the increased optimism that surrounds the north east.
Challenges still exist. India’s ambitious “Act East” policy has led Delhi with gusto to build Myanmar’s segment of the Asia Highway No. 1. This links Imphal to Moreh to Kalay to Mandalay. With the Myanmar segment completed, and the India segment being expanded, turbulence in Myanmar has meant that the Manipur-Myanmar border gate remains firmly shut. North East India may be looking forward to a more stable future. But it can’t yet rely on the same from its neighbour to the east.
But that, of course, is another story …
Explore more of North East India with some of our partners whose photos we have shared on this page. The Calcutta Bungalow is a lovingly-restored heritage building and our favourite hotel in North Kolkata. If you want that stunning view of the Victoria Memorial, then stay with our friends at the Glenburn Penthouse. The photos of Darjeeling and Arunachal are by hermesmarana (and licenses can be found here and here). Find more photos of Nagaland today with Zhazo Miachieo and Seyie Suohu. That Bengal Tiger was spotted by Rohit Varma. The map is from pngkey.com.
Trek from the plains of Dimapur up to Kohima in the hills. Stay overnight in Naga villages.