The North-Eastern Indian States The Eastern Region has the beautiful Sun Temple in Orissa, designed as a massive stone chariot on twenty four exquisitely carved wheels and drawn by seven straining horses(now a World Heritage Monuments); the beautiful mountain State, Sikkim; ‘The Seven Sisters’ of Northern Eastern Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Darjeeling, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura. the actual tree (still living), under which the Buddha attained enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, Bihar, Nalanda – the ruins of the world’s earliest university founded in the 5th century BC also in Bihar; that vital, volatile, overcrowded, exciting metropolis, Kolkatta in West Bengal; and the Seven Sisters in the North East.
Orissa, the ancient kingdom of Kalinga, lies on the North Eastern extremity of the Indian peninsula, cocooned between the Eastern Ghats (range of hills) on the West and the Bay of Bengal on the East. Still largely unexplored and untouched by modernity, it is a fascinating State to visit where one can see some of the wonders of india’s cultural and natural heritage. There are serene beaches along a 480 km coastline, forests, mountains, waterfalls galore, ancient monuments, hot sulphur springs, a very special kind of zoo, and Chilika lake, a bird watcher’s paradise. The people of Orissa ande the language are both called Oriya.
BIHAR – North of Orissa is the State of Bihar where Buddhism was bom 2500 years ago. In Bodh Gaya, 160 km from the State capital, Patna, is the very same tree, still growing out of its own saplings, under which the Buddha meditated and attained enlightenment twenty-five centuries ago. It is an important pilgrim centre for Buddhists.
At Nalanda, the world’s earliest university, founded two-and-a-half thousand years ago, is now quiet and still. It once housed 2000 teachers and 10,000 students from all parts of the then civilised world. It was patronised by the Buddhist emperor Ashoka who built temples and monasteries here. An International Centre for Buddhist studies has been established.
SIKKIM – Enchey Monastery Standing tall at a height of 8534 mts, the Mount Khangchen-dzonga is a spectacular sight. And situated in the Eastern Himalayas, below the Mount Khangchendzonga, is the small but wonderfully beautiful Sikkim. The Mount Khangchen-dzonga (or ‘Kanchenjunga’ as it is commonly called) holds a special importance in the lives of the Sikkimese people who worship it as their protective deity.
India’s second smallest and least populous State, Sikkim, is a jewel embedded in snow-clad mountains. Barely 100 kms from North to South and 60 kms across, the small State is entirely mountainous with elevations ranging from 250m in the South to over 8500 m. In just a few hours of travelling by road you can leave behind the sub-tropical heat of the lower valleys and get to the cold of the rugged mountains that reach up to the areas of perpetual snow. The third highest mountain in the world, the majestic Kanchenjunga (8598 m), lies in the Northwest and is revered by the Sikkimese as their protective deity.
A land of myths and legends, Sikkim is inhabited by gracious Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis. While the Lepchas were the earliest settlers, the Bhutias made their way here from neighbouring Tibet in the 14th century. The Nepalis, who now form the majority community, settled here during the 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Tibetan Buddhism and Hinduism (practiced by the Nepalis) are the two religions that play a dominant role in the lives of these hill folk.
The closing of the popular Jammu & Kashmir to tourists for a few years in the mid-90s brought Sikkim much more into focus and thousands of tourists looking for a cool retreat have now ‘discovered’ this largely unspoiled, fascinating land. The State has responded by significantly upgrading the accommodation, transport and communication facilities. A regular helicopter service provides an opportunity for sightseeing by air and discovering Sikkim’s mystique and rugged beauty. You can get a most memorable close-up aerial view of the awesome Kanchenjunga as well as the nearby Mt. Siniolchu, believed to be the most beautiful mountain peak in the world.
The capital, Gangtok (1750 m), is a blend of the modern and traditional, where present day concrete multistoreys cling to the hillside amidst chortens, stupas and monasteries; where you see lamas in their colourful maroon and saffron robes mingle among local youth in jeans and T-shirts.
A 40 km drive eastwards, on a narrow road which snakes precariously along steep mountain sides, brings you to the serene Tsomgo Lake (3700 m) which remains frozen for the greater part of the year. However, between May and August it comes alive as rhododendrons, primulas, irises and poppies burst into bloom on its banks and on the nearby hill slopes. Barely 20 km from there, at Nathu La, lies India’s border post with China. Though not open for visitors, the post boasts of the world’s highest Conference Hall (4400 m) where Indian and Chinese military officials discuss points of mutual interest at periodic conferences.
The State is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, notably the Enchey Monastery at Gangtok, Rumtek Monastery 24 km from Gangtok, and those at Pemayangtze, Tashiding and Dubdi – each with its own history and significance for the people of Sikkim. Yuksom, the first capital of Sikkim, where the first Chogyal was consecrated in 1641, lies 32 km from Pemayangtze in West Sikkim. Apart from being considered sacred by the people, it is also the start point for the treks to Dzongri and other places farther North, as well as to the base camp for Kanchenjunga.
Ideal for adventure activities, Sikkim offers opportunities for treks through breathtaking mountain routes, mountain hiking to remote areas to witness colourful festivals and intriguing rituals (including dances in fearsome masks), white river-rafting, and hang-gliding.
The three-month periods before and after the South-west monsoon are the best for visiting Sikkim. However, the monsoon months (May to September) have their own special charm. Rain water cascades down the craggy or emerald green mountain slopes in scores of milk-white rivulets and waterfalls to join the Teesta river and its many tributaries that flow through the State. Snow-white clouds rising from the river valleys come rolling by, engulfing the whole countryside in sublime tranquillity. It is truly an unforgettable experience.
Assam – Travel Seven Sisters of North East Region of India
Tucked away in the North-east corner of India, the States of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura, are fondly referred to as ‘The Seven Sisters’. Off the beaten tourist track, they lie in isolation, a mystery waiting to be unravelled.
Unfortunately, civilian unrest makes some parts of this region unsafe, and so there are some travel restrictions for both domestic and foreign tourists.
ASSAM – Called the Gateway to the North-east of India, Assam, is the most accessible of these States and is the home of the Indian one-horned rhinoceros (found at the Kaziranga National Park). The State is synonymous with tea, being India’s main producer and supplying one-sixth of the world’s tea. Also rich in minerals such as petroleum, coal, limestone, dolomite and refractory clay, it has the country’s oldest productive onshore oil fields.
In Guwahati, the commercial capital of Assam, the tour starts from Kamakhya Temple, Basistha Ashram, Zoo, Gita mandir, Nabagraha Temple, Assam State Museum. The largest city in the State, indeed in the entire region, Guwahati straddles the Brahmaputra river, and adjoins the capital, Dispur. Now the commercial hub, with one of the world’s largest Tea Auction Centres, the city is said to be the legendary Pragjyotishpur, or the City of Eastern Light. It has a number of ancient temples. The Kamakhya Temple, 8 km West of the city on top of Nilachal hill, is the most important and is dedicated to Shakti, Lord Shiva’s consort. Umananda Temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva, and the Navagrah Temple, or the Temple of the Nine Planets, are the other important ones.
Assam is also the world’s largest producer of the golden coloured muga silk produced mainly at Sualkuchi, about 30 km West of Guwahati. Here you can pick up bargains from a wide range of silk dresses, sarees, and dress material.
The Assam is rich in wildlife and has several national parks and wildlife sanctuaries. Kaziranga lies about 150 km East of Guwahati. Manas Wildlife Sanctuary (lying North near the Bhutan border), comes under Project Tiger and is home to the rare Hispid Hare, Pigmy Hog and Golden Langur. The Nameri National Park is Northeast and extends into Arunachal Pradesh.
Bihu or Jhumur, is a lovely folk dance of the spring harvest festival. A drink called ‘lalsa’, is popular here. Meaning red tea, it is a sweetened, light tea without milk.
HANDICRAFTS – Artist and sculptors, masons and architects, and others practicing minor crafts such as weavers, spinners, potters, goldsmiths, artisanns of ivory, wood, bamboo, cane and hide flourished in Assam from ancient times. Every household possesses a handloom used to produce silk and (or) cotton clothes of exquisite designs. The Eri, Muga and Pat are the important silk products of Assam.
FESTIVALS – Assam observes Bhogali Bihu , Rongali Bihu, Kati Bihu, Janmashthami and Durga Puja festivals. Rangali Bihu, the main Bihu festival, is in April. This festival is essentially in celebration of a good harvest and is accompanied with lively dances, music and feasting. Guwahati also celebrates the Ambuchi Festival in July.
West Bengal is where the holy Ganga meets the ocean. It is home to the intelligent, sensitive and cultured Bengalis, the ‘Bhadralok’, as they are called. Equally passionate about religion, literature, music, football and cricket, they adore their saintly personages, Sri Aurobindo and Sri Ramakrishna, and Nobel laureates Rabindra Nath Tagore, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, who was honoured in 1998 for Economics. Also idolised, for their achievements in sports, are tennis player Leander Paes, who partnered Mahesh Bhupathi to win the Men’s Doubles crown at Wimbledon in 1999, and cricketer Saurav Ganguly, whom a well known commentator has named “the Prince of Kolkata” for his sterling performances on the field!
KOLKATA (CALCUTTA) – In 1687, the Mughals granted permission to the East India Company to set up a base at Sutanati, near the fishing village, Kalikata, on the banks of the river Hooghly. Old Fort William, built at the site in 1696, became the origin of the city of Kolkata, named after the village whose lands had become part of the settlement. Kolkata grew to become the capital of British India till 1911 when New Delhi was built and the seat of power shifted there.
Today Kolkata is India’s largest metropolis – overcrowded, alive, vibrant, with a charm all its own. It is the nerve centre of trade and industry in eastern India, and the most important city in the region. Splendid structures intended to reflect the majesty of the ‘Empire’, the buildings of Kolkata evoke a flavour of the Raj. Notable among these are the Writers Building, the seat of government; the silver-domed General Post Office and St. John’s Church, which has a memorial to the city founder Job Charnock.
Kolkata’s lungs lie in a vast expanse of lawns called the Maidan, bordered by the Hooghly river at one end and the elegant boulevard, Chowringhee, at the other. Around it are many of Kolkata’s historical landmarks – the magnificent Fort William, St. John’s Church, the Royal Kolkata Turf Club and Eden Gardens, which has a famous cricket stadium, a picturesque lake and a tiny pagoda. The imposing white marble building Victoria Memorial, built by the British in 1921 and modelled on the Taj Mahal, also lies nearby. A stately, bronze statue of Queen Victoria stands at its entrance and wrought iron street lamps light up its manicured lawns every evening, presenting a charming picture. The National Library in the stately Belvedere House to the South, with its large and very precious collection of books, completes the enchanting circle.
The Botanical Gardens, laid out in 1786, lie on the banks of the river in Howrah. There is a great variety of flora and fauna, all carefully classified. A great tourist draw is the 200-year old Banyan tree with a mind-boggling circumference of 400 meters.
Often jam-packed, Howrah Bridge is a vital link across the river Hooghly. Bright yellow taxis are driven by ‘sardarjis’ speaking chaste Bengali! You can get a better view of this huge cantilever structure, an engineering marvel of its day, if you abandon your taxi and take the faster mode of travel – your legs! A new bridge across the Hooghly, the Vidya Sagar Setu, is the longest cable-stayed bridge in India.
Kolkata’s Metro is India’s first underground rail. It rockets along, completing its journey of 16 km and 17 stations in about half an hour – a welcome change from the bumper-to-bumper crawl on the roads!
Lying to the North, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission, Belur Math, is built to look like a temple, a mosque and a church from different angles.
The main religious festival is the ten-day Durga Pooja in September/October, when Goddess Durga is worshipped and the victory of good over evil celebrated. There is much excitement as people throng the specially erected ‘pandals’ in every locality where beautiful images of the goddess are installed for the ceremonies.
Weekend destinations from Kolkata are the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (131 km); Digha beach resort (185 km); Santiniketan University founded by Tagore with its charming, pastoral, serene atmosphere; Vishnupur – 17th and 18th century terra-cotta temples.
Darjeeling (2134 m), the ‘Queen of the Hills’, is 665 km North of Kolkata. Famous for its tea and crafts, the breathtaking scenery and the ‘toy train’ that goes up from Siliguri, it provides an excellent view of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. The world famous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is also located here. Kalimpong (1250 m), is a quieter and smaller town, 60 km to the East, famous for its orchids and nurseries. Both Darieeling and Kalimpong offer some excellent treks and river-rafting on the tempestuous Teesta river that lies between the two towns.
SHOPPING SPECIALITIES OF KOLKATA – Central Cottage Industries and various State Emporia offer handicrafts and fabrics from all over the country.
Delicate fabrics like Tangail – Burra Bazaar
Exquisitely crafted gold jewellery – B.B.Ganguly Street
Leather shoes from Chinese shoemakers – Bentinck Street
Fine porcelain – Old China bazaar
Arunachal Pradesh, “the land of the dawn-lit-mountains”, is one of the last unspoilt wildernesses now under Indian colonial occupation. It is situated north of Assam extending eastwards from the high Himalaya near Bhutan towards Burma, with the mountains of Tibet away to the north. Scarcely any roads penetrate this vast state, formerly known as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), whose new capital, Itanagar, is just across the border from Assam. Entering Arunachal, the road to Tawang runs through rugged hills, engulfed by virgin forests, with silver ribbons of rivers far below; a complete contrast to the denuded paddy bowls of Assam, though most of the Himalayan foothills must once have looked like this.
Only very recently have foreign tourists been permitted to visit Arunachal. This long-standing isolation is partly due to cultural considerations, and partly to political factors, as the border with the Chinese is still under dispute. The big attraction is the state’s dazzling array of flora and fauna, in a habitat that combines glacial terrain, alpine meadows and sub-tropical rainforests. Namdapha National Park, in the north east, is home to the rare Hoolock gibbon; other animals include the legendary snow leopard, tigers, musk deer, bears, panda and elephant, while Arunachal also abounds in bamboo and cherishes over 500 species of orchids.
The successive river valleys of Arunachal, separated by forbidding north-south ridges, enable distinct micro-cultures to flourish in what can be very small areas. The Monpas, who have a strong affinity with the Bhutanese, occupy the valleys north of Bomdila; their largest town, Dirang, with its dzong (fort), is just before the pass at Sela. Although they practise Buddhism, focussed around the great monastery of Tawang, they retain many of their original animist-shamanist beliefs. They are easily recognized by their dress – a chuba or short cloak, made of coarse wool dyed red with madder.
The Sherdukpens live south of the Bomdila Range, in the valleys of the Tengapani, and have close affinities with their Monpa neighbours. They wear distinctive gurdams, or yak’s hair skullcaps, from which jut tassel-like projections that serve as guttering – this part of Arunachal sees very heavy rainfall. Traditionally Sherdukpen men wear a sword in a scabbard tucked into their waist or on a strap. Although they have a reverence for lama-ism, their religious beliefs are a curious blend of Buddhism and shamanism, with jijis, or priests, practicing witchcraft to counteract malevolent spirits.
Further southeast are the Akas, literally “painted”, who paint their faces with resin and charcoal. East of Kameng, the menfolk of the sturdy hill people known as the Daflas wear a distinctive wicker helmet surmounted by the red-dyed beak of a hornbill. Protruding in front of their foreheads is a bun of plaited hair called podum, skewered horizontally with a large brass pin. The Daflas trace their descent from Abo Teni, a mythical primeval man, as do the neighbouring Apa Tanis, who thanks to the work of European anthropologists are the best known of all the tribal groups. Occupying a 26-square-kilometre stretch of hanging valley in the central region of Subansiri, the Apa Tanis are experts at terraced rice cultivation. They too wear a hat and podum on their foreheads but do not sport the distinguishing yellow ribbon of the Daflas; both men and women tattoo their faces.
ITANAGAR – The town of Itanagar, just under 400 km northeast of Guwahati, has been developed as the capital of the state largely because of its convenient location, and holds little to interest visitors. It is built on a saddle overlooked by two hills, one occupied by the Governor’s house and the other by a new Buddhist temple; new lightweight earthquake-proof houses mingle with older traditional structures, a market and offices. Facilities are shared with its twin town, Naharlagun, 10km away in the Assam Valley.
Consecrated by the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist temple reflects the extensive Tibetan influence in this frontier land, and provides good views of Itanagar and the surrounding countryside. An extensive ethnographic collection devoted to local tribes in the Jawaharlal Nehru State Museum includes wood carvings, musical instruments, textiles, handicrafts and archeological finds (Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm; Rs1), while a workshop in the Handicrafts Centre specializes in traditional cane manufacture. The adjacent salesroom sells tribal handicrafts. The emerald Gyaker Sinyi (Ganga Lake), 6km away, is surrounded by primeval vegetation, providing a small taste of the magnificent forests of the state.