Thrown across the farthest reaches of India, obscured from the greater world by ageless forests and formidable mountain ranges, the northeast states are one of Asia’s last great natural and anthropological sanctuaries. Sharing borders with Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar (Burma) and Bangladesh, these remote frontiers are a region of rugged beauty, and a collision zone of tribal cultures, climates, landscapes and people.
In this wonderland for adventurers, glacial Himalayan rivers spill onto Assam’s vast floodplains, faith moves mountains on the perilous pilgrimage to Tawang, rhinos graze in Kaziranga’s swampy grasslands and former headhunters slowly embrace modernity in their ancestral longhouses in Nagaland.
When you plan a trip to these states, do not miss these experiences, many of which can be termed as once-in-a-lifetime.
1. Kaziranga National Park
Roaming the expansive grasslands in search of rhinos
The famed one-horned rhinoceros, one of India’s best-known tourism wildlife mascots, call the expansive grasslands of the Kaziranga National Park home. The park consists of western, central and eastern ranges, with the central range doubling as the venue for early-morning elephant safaris.
2. Tawang Valley
Touch the clouds at the 4176m Se La pass before descending to the Tawang Valley, a Tibetan Buddhist hot spot
A mighty gash in the earth fringed by hulking mountains, Tawang Valley works a special magic on the minds of travellers. The valley is a gorgeous patchwork of mountain ridges, vast fields and clusters of Buddhist monasteries and Monpa villages. Autumn is a particularly beautiful season for travelling this route, when waterfalls are in spate and cosmos shrubs lining the tarmac come alive in riotous reds and pinks.
3. Ziro Valley
Visiting scenic villages where you can meet and learn about the intriguing Apatani tribe.
One of the prettiest landscapes in all of India, the fertile Ziro Valley nestles within Arunachal’s formidable mountains like a mythical kingdom. A layered landscape of rice fields, rivers and picture-postcard villages of the Apatani tribe, it is an undisputed high point of any trip to Arunachal. Scenery and village architecture apart, the main attraction here is meeting the older Apatani people, who have the traditional ornamentation of facial tattoos and nose plugs.
Gazing down on the plains of Bangladesh from a lofty escarpment
Laid out along razor-like ridges of a high mountain wall, Cherrapunjee (known locally as Sohra) sits at the edge of the Himalayas, overlooking the pancake-flat plains of Bangladesh. It is the second wettest place on Earth, after Mawsynram, because of its prodigious monsoon rainfall.
The most fascinating sights around Cherrapunjee are the incredible root bridges – living rubber fig–tree roots that ingenious Khasi villagers have, over decades, trained across streams to form natural pathways. Three of these root bridges (including an amazing ‘double-decker’) are near Nongriat.
Staring in awe at massive rock-cut sculptures of gods amid the wilderness
Located about 140km northeast of Agartala, the archaeological site of Unakoti is one of northeast India’s best kept travel secrets. Massive rock-cut sculptures of Hindu gods and goddesses (some dating back to the 7th century) adorn the faces of hillocks at the site, including a 10m-tall face of Shiva sculpted on a monolithic rock, and a trio of Ganeshas hewn in stone beneath a waterfall. It takes about two hours to see all the major sights in the archaeological zone, spread across hillocks and jungles.
If you go hunting for more obscure sculptures, it could take you all day. To get to Unakoti, it’s best to hire a taxi from Agartala and organise a day trip. There’s no public transport to or from the archaeological site.
Visiting a quaint WWII cemetery and sampling traditional Naga hospitality.
If not for its crazy traffic and rampant urbanisation, Nagaland’s agreeable capital – scattered across a series of forested ridges and hilltops – could easily rub shoulders with the best hill stations of India. That said, it’s still a nice place to stop by on your tour of the northeast, and the festive Christmas week is a particularly beautiful time to be in town. Avoid Kohima on a Sunday if you can: apart from hotels, virtually everything is shut.
7. Loktak Lake
Exploring the lake’s unique ecosystem and floating islands
An intriguing, picturesque ecosystem, Loktak Lake is one of the few places in Manipur that a foreigner is allowed to visit apart from Imphal. Its shimmering blue waters are broken into small lakelets by (rapidly vanishing) clumps of matted weeds called phumdis, and the lake is inhabited by villagers who build thatched huts on the floating ‘islands’ and make their way about in dugout canoes. Large, perfectly circular fishing ponds are created out of floating rings of weeds. The best view is atop Sendra Island. You can also embark on a boat ride in order to get a closer look at lake life.
8. Namdapha National Park
The staggering Namdapha National Park, spread over 1985 sq km of dense forest in far-eastern Arunachal Pradesh, is an ecological hot spot with a mind-boggling array of animal and plant species, and habitats ranging from warm tropical plains to icy Himalayan highlands. Namdapha is famous for being the only park in India to have four big-cat species (leopard, tiger, clouded leopard and snow leopard). It’s also a birdwatcher’s delight, with around 500 recorded species.
9. Thoh Tim
A unique local sport that doubles as a lottery, Thoh Tim – also known as Siat Khnam (literally, ‘bow and arrow’) – involves a group of Khasi marksmen shooting dozens of arrows into a barrel-shaped straw target. At the end of the shooting session, the number of on-target arrows is counted, and the last two digits of the total are taken as the lucky number. If you’ve bet on this particular number (before the shootout, of course), the evening’s beers are on you. Followers of the sport say that the best wagers are often placed by those who can interpret their dreams from the previous night into corresponding numbers and bet on them! A gently fascinating spectacle, Thoh Tim is usually scheduled around 4pm (though times vary by season), and can be witnessed in public areas of villages and neighbourhoods around Shillong. Deep within Shillong’s Iew Duh market, artisanal shops sell fine handcrafted arrows (khnam) that you can buy as souvenirs for ₹120 apiece.
Knowing Arunachal’s Tribal Groups
An astonishing patchwork quilt of ethnic populations, Arunachal is home to 26 tribal groups, including the Adi (Abor), Nishi, Tagin, Galo, Apatani and Monpa people. Many tribes are related to each other, while some consider themselves unique.
Modernity is slowly making inroads into the local society, but most tribes straddle the boundary between old and new – it’s not uncommon to see a modern concrete building outfitted with a traditional open-hearth kitchen over stilted bamboo flooring.
The traditional animistic religion of Donyi-Polo (sun and moon worship) is still prevalent in the region, although Christian missionaries have had a significant impact on the religious beliefs and way of life in this area. For ceremonial occasions, village chiefs typically wear scarlet shawls and a bamboo wicker hat spiked with porcupine quills or hornbill beaks. Women favour hand-woven wraparounds like Southeast Asian sarongs, while some of the older men still wear their hair long, with a topknot above their foreheads.
The artistic traditions of weaving and wickerwork are very much alive in these hills. Architecture varies from tribe to tribe – traditional Adi villages are generally the most photogenic, with luxuriant palmyra-leaf thatching and wobbly bamboo suspension bridges strung across river gorges.
-Stay informed about the latest political developments in the state you’re travelling to, as there are chances of some parts shutting down due to any violence.
-If you’re with a tour company, talk to the operators to make sure your field guide is up to date with the situation.
-The northeast has a range of tribal cultures. Be respectful towards them.
-Encourage responsible travel by helping to protect the environment.