The Tribal Frontiers of Northeast India Meghalaya - Assam - Arunachal Pradesh - Nagaland 32D/ 31N
Home to more than 200 tribes, Northeast India is definitely one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet. The tribes here trace their ancestry to faraway lands in Mongolia and Southeast Asia, speak hundreds of different languages, and live in varied landscapes ranging from very fertile plains to the pristine forested mountains of the eastern Himalaya. In simpler words – a tropical paradise!
Due to the difficult terrain of the region, the tribes of the region have till the end of the 20th century been cut-off from the outside world. This has led to a marvelous preservation of both cultures and biodiversity, and a close mutually benefiting relationship between humans and nature of the region. Unarguably, most people of the region survive on the forest and harbor excellent skills when it comes to agriculture, tribal textiles, wood, cane and bamboo craft, traditional medicine and numerous other sustainable methods of livelihood.
In this grand tour of Northeast India, you will travel through the states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Nagaland, visiting various landscapes inhabited by some of the fascinating tribes of the region. Despite the lack of proper infrastructure in many places, the highlight of the tour will be your interaction with the host communities, learning and observing their simple methods of life and witnessing a lifestyle that can seldom be found in today’s rapidly changing outside world. In the process, by visiting these areas you would also be giving back to the communities and thus partake in ethical travel.
Starting from Meghalaya, you will visit Shillong, a charming hill-station with rich colonial heritage and bustling with stylish Khasi men and women. In the village of Nongriat, located at the bottom of a valley, protected by refreshing lush forests and decorated by cascading waterfalls, you will get a chance to observe the rural life of the Khasis. Educated and smart, the people of the village are great enthusiasts when it comes to sustainable living. They genuinely care a lot about nature and live a life almost independent from modern produces, depending entirely on the forest. Your stay will be in a small cozy guesthouse with minimal facilities, run by the villagers, the benefits from which goes in maintaining the village’s cleanliness and the school.
In Assam, you will visit Majuli, a large island which sits right in the lapse of the peaceful waters of the mighty Brahmaputra River. A hotbed of ancient Assamese culture, the island is home to numerous medieval monasteries where monks young and old learn a unique form of arts, music, drama, dance and Neo-Vaishnavite philosophy. The island is also home to other Assamese tribes such as Mishings, Deoris and Kacharis. Other than the monasteries, you can spend time visiting these villages by going on peaceful bicycle rides or walks across the serene countryside of the island. Good bird diversity can also be found in the island, especially in the winter months when migratory species reside. Your stay in the island will be in tribal styled cottages which will have basic amenities in tune with the local way of living.
In the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, blessed with bountiful rain and tropical forests, you will cover the entire tribal belt of the state, starting from the central regions which are inhabited by followers of Donyi-Polo; worshipers of Sun & Moon, to the more remote eastern regions that remain inhabited by worshipers of almighty Nanyi Intaya. While in the central parts, in the splendid Ziro valley you will meet the Apatanis, peaceful hill-people who still give importance to their ancient sustainable ways of life. Land management is a high priority for the tribe as houses are built close to each other and paddy farms surprisingly also rear fish. They also have an indigenous salt for their iodine consumption, prepared from ashes of certain burnt plants. Even today, the elder tribe members can still be seen in their traditional dresses, bearing tattoos, and large nose-plugs when it comes to women. In Ziro, your stay will be in homestay with a local family, thus giving you a deeper insight into the lives of these people. In the Subansiri Valley, you will meet the Tagins. Smoking skillfully handcrafted pipes of tobacco and wearing intricate cane hats, they appear proud, like kings of their land. In the Siang Valley, in the most splendid of countryside, you will meet the Adis, a warrior tribe justly proud of ambushing British influences many a time. Here, the Siang River forms a mighty valley as it enters from the high plateaus of Tibet after having traversed about a thousand miles from its source, the holy Mount Kailash. The Adis have built complex bridges of cane and bamboo to cross the Siang. Sustainable as they are, they have inspired many such as early explorer W Robinson who wrote, “The skill in constructing these bridges is really surprising, and is such as would not to discredit to the more civilized nations.” The Adis are also one of the few tribes who do not practice shifting cultivation, carving beautiful terraced farms in the mountains. In Tibetan Buddhism as well, the Siang River system is considered a very mysterious entity, a beholder of the beyul of Pemako; the most important of Buddhist paradisiacal realms. Eventually, in the east of the state, where the Himalayas truly come to an end from the high peaks of Nepal, you will come across the 3 Mishmi sub-tribes. This region is the most remote frontier in India and the Himalayas. The population here is the sparsest, with just 3 to 4 people living per square kilometer. While staying with the Mishmis, you will find them to be as equally mysterious as the mountains they inhabit. Devoted animists, the Mishmis are superbly skilled craftsmen who use bamboo and cane extensively to live a sustainable life independent of modern influences. Though expert hunters, their culture gives importance to fellow creatures; where the hunting of many wild animals is considered a taboo and guilty are often cast away for days. The Mishmi countryside also has extensive poppy cultivations as the plant is used in medicine, religious rites and recreation.
The tour will eventually enter the verdant mountains of Nagaland, you will cross through the Patkai Ranges and the Naga Hills, lands inhabited by the sixteen ever-fierce Naga tribes. In the remote eastern corner of the state, in Mon, you will come across the villages of the Konyak Tribe. One of the last to leave the practice of headhunting, the Konyak land is still filled with elder tattooed warriors who proudly show their markings and trophies to visiting travelers. Konyaks also are skilled in cane and bamboo works, apart from their unique weaves, ornaments and hunting techniques. In Longwa, you will find the king has many wives and the people share an unofficial status of dual citizenship with Burma. In and around Tuensang, located in deep mysterious Nagaland, you will come across 6 different tribes; Changs, Yimchungers, Khiamungans, Sangtams, Semas & Phoms. This less visited by tourist’s area has an old world charm when you roam in the villages. Also, the diversity in living patterns, housing, folk, dances, handicrafts and attires of these various Naga tribes is something to marvel at. Such as for the Khiamungan Nagas, the traditional attire consists of vivid red and deep blue colored cloths, while for the Chang Nagas, dresses feature distinguishing shawl-like garments and ornamented headgear. Explorer Ved Prakash mentions in his book that Chang shawls “surpass all the Naga shawls in beauty and eye-catching patterns”. In Mokokchung, you will come across villages of the Ao people, whose talents have made the region the artistic and cultural hub of Nagaland. The Aos were one of the first to embrace western brought Christianity, though they still retain many of their indigenous values and customs, and take pride in it.
Cafe Shillong Bed & Breakfast is a standard boutique property housed in a typical old British India bungalow, offering a charming stay to visitors who come to the ‘Scotland of the east’. Belonging once to the Kharpuri family, the place has colorful character and rooms and facilities are updated to the comforts of modern hospitality. There’s a front-yard garden, a quiet spot for a morning tea or an evening drink.
The community run village guesthouse is where visitors can stay in Nongriat. Situated close to a giant living root bridge, it has very simple basic rooms which are clean. Food is cooked homely by a village lady or can be had at charming Byron’s diner located next door.
Amidst a setting of Assamese countryside, bamboo groves and tea gardens, Wildgrass Lodge is a boutique colonial styled jungle lodge with extensive grounds where the enthusiastic owner grows more than 200 different plant species. The spacious rooms are fairly luxurious with wooden floors. The grand dining hall is charmingly old-world and provide an ambient setting for conversations and friendships.
La Maison De Ananda, the ‘house of happiness’, was built by a French couple who fell in love with Majuli and gifted it to a local family as a source of income from likeminded travelers who visit the island. The stilt cottage is built in local ways using bamboo and cane. Interiors are clean and basic, in tune to the village life existing around. There’s a sit-out where one can relax or have pleasant conversations.
Homestays are important in promoting sustainable tourism in Ziro, the land of the ancient Apatani culture, while also engaging visitors to have an authentic experience of staying with an Apatani family and learning about their ways. The rooms are simple, airy, clean, with fairly standard amenities.
In a town as remote and badly administered as Daporijo, Hotel Singhik comes as a savior, a business hotel offering clean modern rooms and standard amenities.
Donyi Hango Camps is run by the Dai family who have been early promoters of tourism in Arunachal Pradesh. The campsite is fairly standard with clean and spacious camps, and Mrs. Dai, a strong Adi lady of her own, is always happy to host travelers from around the world. The property is the best option to stay while in Pasighat.
Located midst breathtaking eastern Himalayan foothills, Mishmi Hill Camp is a delightful airy property run by a local family. It offers basic but clean cottages which have been built sustainably using local ways, apart from a few tents.
It is almost heavenly to find a comfortable abode in a place as remote and faraway as Anini in the deep eastern Himalayas. The property is surrounded by a dreamy landscape of bamboo forests and provides clean rooms with fairly standard amenities. Run by a local Idu Mishmi priest and his wife who are most welcoming and hospitable to see strange faces from our modern world.
With a small town open atmosphere, The Gymkhana Clubhouse in Dibrugarh is run by enthusiastic town folks and provides splendid modern rooms and amenities such a pool and a gym. The clubhouse which was built in 1923 consists of a restaurant and a well stocked boutique barroom.
The Konyak Tea Retreat is a farm-stay located at Shiyong Village near to Mon town. Run by an enthusiastic Konyak lady who is passionate about responsible tourism and her culture, the highlight of the property is its located midst verdant hills, villages, tea estates and fruit orchards. Rooms have a unique decor, are spacious and fairly modern.
Wishpering Winds, located in the verdant hills of Mokokchung, is a cozy minimalistic guesthouse run by enthusiastic locals. Rooms are clean and with standard amenities.
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