Category Archives: North East

15 reasons why India’s North East is unique

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There’s more to the North East than pretty orchids, tea plantations and one-horned rhinos. It is a region of astonishing cultural and ecological diversity, geological wonders and unusual traditions, discover ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY. 

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Ima Keithel, Imphal’s all-women market
Long before Mary Kom, Manipur had shattered the glass ceiling through Imphal’s Khwairamband Bazaar, an age-old celebration of womanpower. Founded in late 16th century by Khagemba Maharaj of Manipur, the keithel (market) is run exclusively by more than 3000 imas (mothers), hence its popular name Ima Keithel. Forget men, even young unmarried women are not allowed to run a stall. Hawking fruits, vegetables, farm produce, fish and Manipuri handlooms, the tough mommas drive a hard bargain. A few thousand imas also run the Lakshmi and New Market complexes nearby.

Jet Airways flies to Imphal

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Betting at teer (traditional archery) in Shillong
Archery stakes are an ancient tradition in Shillong that evolved from a tribal sport. Held twice a day (except Sunday) at Polo Ground’s Saw Furlong, archers from various clubs of Khasi Archery Association shoot 1500 arrows within four minutes at a cylindrical bamboo target. Arrows that hit the target are carefully counted before an eager audience. Betters choose two numbers. Say, if you bet ten rupees and get one number correct, you get Rs.800, but if you get both right you pocket a cool Rs.45,000! This legalized betting earns the government tremendous revenue, provides employment opportunities to locals and is a unique experience for visitors and punters.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

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The world’s largest existing family in Mizoram
If you wish to meet the world’s largest existing family that has featured in Ripley’s Believe It or Not, head to Baktawng, a remote habitat in hilly Mizoram. On the town’s outskirts, Pu Zionnghaka or Ziona lives in a four-storied mansion with his 39 wives, 94 children, 14 daughters-in-law and 33 grandchildren, 180 inmates and counting. Ziona is the Chief of Chana Pawl, a unique Christian sect established in 1942 by his father Khuangtuaha that practices polygamy. His wives sleep with him in turns as per a roster. Ziona has named all his children and grandchildren and remembers every family member by name!

Jet Airways flies to Kolkata, which has direct flights to Lengpui Airport near Aizawl, from where Baktawng is 70km

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Mawlynnong, the cleanest village in Asia
Neat rows of houses peep over floral hedges and the village road gleams in welcome. Mawlynnong, a small village of 600 people on the Indo-Bangla border is tagged ‘God’s Own Garden’ for good reason. A conical cane basket for trash hangs outside each home. Dotted with Presbyterian churches and Khasi sacred sites pre-dating Christianity, the area is ironically covered with phool jhadu or broom grass (thysanolaena maxima). Stay at Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan for your local explorations.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Shillong from where Mawlynnong is 90km on the road to Dawki

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The inscrutable phallic totems of Dimapur
Located by the banks of the Dhansiri river, Dimapur was the capital of the Kachari kingdom in 10th century before the Ahoms invaded it in 13th century. Not much of Rajbari remains, barring the brick gateway, with strange phallic totems in a fortified complex that have baffled archaeologists and historians alike. Topped by a mushroom-like hemispherical capital, the towering pillars bear ornamental bands, carvings of swords, daggers, flowers and geometric patterns. These Chessman Figures are believed to be fertility symbols or graves that represent ancestor worship.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur

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The living root bridges of Meghalaya
In Meghalaya’s remote hill tracts, Living Root Bridges are innovative modes of crossing mountain streams. Fast growing roots of the ficus elastica tree are entwined to create a mesh bridge across rivulets. It is an unsaid rule that any passing villager diligently twists fresh tendrils around an older root, allowing it to entangle and strengthen over time. Some root bridges are so strong they have been lined with stone pavers! Meghalaya has many centuries-old root bridges including a double-decker root bridge at Laitkynsew near Cherrapunjee.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

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Spot India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon
Owing to the overlap between the Indo-Tibetan, Indo-Malayan and Indo-Gangetic gene pools, the North East is blessed with great diversity. Besides rare birds and mammals, it is home to an exclusive wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the Hoolock Gibbon, the only ape species found in India. The Hoolongopar Gibbon Sanctuary is also a good place to spot troops of Stump-tailed Macaque, Assamese Macaque, Rhesus Macaque, Pig-tailed Macaque, Capped Langur and Slow Loris.

Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, from where the sanctuary is 27km

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Kohima’s (in)famous Keeda bazaar
Kohima is the bustling capital of Nagaland but nowhere will you find the crowd as lively as its Supermarket or Keeda Bazaar (Insect Market). Wriggling and buzzing wasps, woodworms, silkworm larvae, eels in tubs, frogs zorbing inside plastic packets and insects hatching in the hives, this is ‘live’ action on full blast. The creepy-crawly bazaar is a top draw for tourists. Curious about what they taste like? Catch a local who will cook it fresh at home as restaurants don’t usually serve them.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur, from where Kohima is 69km

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Semoma, the ‘strongest fort in the North East’
Walking through the 700-year-old Angami village of Khonoma near Kohima, the sight of a small fortification of rough-hewn stone makes you wonder why the British called it the strongest fort in the North East. Originally built in 1825, it staved off British attacks in the first Anglo-Naga war in 1850. In 1879, the killing of British political agent GH Damant resulted in the Battle of Khonoma. The villagers booby-trapped the mountain and escaped to the top. After a stalemate, the British settled for a peace treaty, ending half a century of fighting. Each time the fort was destroyed; it was rebuilt (in 1890, 1919 and 1990) and rose phoenix-like, in defiance, a proud symbol of Naga pride.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur, from where Khonoma is 73km

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Ambubachi Mela, Kamakhya temple’s tantrik festival
Guwahati’s Kamakhya Temple is a revered Shakti pitha (seat) where a subterranean rock cleft is worshipped as Goddess Sati’s yoni (vulva). During the rains, the swollen Brahmaputra causes the rivulet flowing over the stone shrine to turn muddy red, symbolizing menstruation. During the fertility festival Ambubachi Mela or Ameti, the sanctum is shut for three days, scriptures are read and devotees do not cook or farm. After a ritual bath, the devi regains purity and angadhak (holy spring water) and angabastra (stained red cloth) are distributed as prasad. Aghoris, babas and tantriks attend the four-day mela in June to alleviate their occult powers.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati

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Headhunting village of Touphema
Right near the entry to Touphema village in Nagaland stands a large tree called Terhütsiibo (War head tree) where enemy heads once hung as war trophies. Local guide KV explained that in the old days of headhunting collecting the scalp of your enemy meant you gained his power. The village community runs an ethnic resort with wood huts bearing Naga symbols like mithun and goblets that represented vigour and prosperity. Sekrenyi Festival (25-27 Feb) is a nicer option than the more touristy Hornbill Festival.

Jet Airways flies to Dimapur and a 2hr bus ride from Kohima leads to Touphema via Botsa

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Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Built between 1879 and 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) is the oldest of India’s Mountain railways. It was also the first of the lot to be declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999. The 88km narrow gauge from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling chugs along at 12 km/hr, a charming journey of loops, reverses, spirals and zig-zags past tea plantations and views of snow-capped peaks. Creak past Agony Point to Ghum, India’s highest railway station as the track bisects fruit stalls in its magical ascent to Darjeeling.

Jet Airways flies to Bagdogra Airport at Siliguri, from where New Jalpaiguri is 17km

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Majuli, one of the largest riverine islands in the world
One of the largest riverine islands in the world, Majuli’s ecological and cultural landscape is unique. Its geographic isolation and serene atmosphere attracted Vaishnava reformer-saint Srimant Shankardev (1449-1568) who set up Majuli’s first satra (monastery) at Belguri. With patronage from Ahom kings, these spiritual centres flourished and ignited an artistic revolution in Assam. However, each year, the Brahmaputra consumes chunks of Majuli’s riverbank, shrinking the island from its original 1,200 sq km to half its size. Belguri has long sunk into the Brahmaputra, but Bhogpur is Majuli’s oldest surviving satra, established by Shankardev in 1528 while Garamur, Auniati, Kamalabari and Chamaguri satras are also noteworthy. Visit during the annual Raas Leela (Oct-Nov).

Jet Airways flies to Jorhat, 12km from Nimati Ghat, from where ferries are available for Majuli

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The fascinating Apatanis of Arunachal
With distinct facial tattoos and cane nose plugs, the Apatanis have intrigued the outside world. The disfigurement was done to make Apatani women less desirable to neighbouring raiders! Unlike other nomadic tribes, Apatanis are settlers who cultivate permanent terraced wetlands instead of jhum (slash and burn) cultivation. They don’t till their fields but use an ancient irrigation technique. Surplus water drains off from one terrace to the next while a nala (drain) running through the fields is stocked with fish. This paddy-cum-fish farming ensures year-round food supply. Hong, 6km from Ziro, is the largest village of the Apatani plateau. During the annual Myoko Festival in March, revellers swing high in the air on jungle vines tied between babos (festive bamboo poles) erected by every clan.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, from where Ziro is 450km

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Meghalaya, India’s top spelunking hotspot
Not many know that Meghalaya is among the world’s Top 10 destinations for spelunking or caving. Record rainfall and a profusion of limestone hills in the south of the state have blessed it with 1350 caves, formed over thousands of years. Running over 400 km, the caves are among the deepest, longest and largest in the Indian subcontinent. Explore an underground realm of stalagmites, stalactites, cave curtains, candles and cave pearls. Maswmai Caves near Cherrapunjee in the Khasi Hills is easily accessible while Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills is riddled with cave passages like Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, which has connections to Umroi Airport, 30km from Shillong

Sikkim Bon Farmhouse

The dothos of Sikkim
The northeast bubbles with hot sulphur springs used as traditional medicine for soothing nerves, body aches and joint pains. Sikkim is known for its ethnic hot stone bath called dotho where stones are heated and infused with Himalayan herbs in a hot tub of menchu, or medicinal water, in the local Bhutia dialect. Neighbouring Arunachal Pradesh has a place called Menchuka, named after these medicinal springs. In North Sikkim, enjoy a natural bath at riverside huts at Yumthang on the River Lachung, Yume Samdong near Donkia-la Pass (25km from Yumthang), Reshi (25km from Gyalshing) on the Rangeet River and Kah-do Sang phu (Cave of the Occult Fairies). Soak in a dotho while staying at Kewzing Bon Farmhouse and Biksthang Heritage Farmhouse.

Jet Airways flies to Bagdogra Airport at Siliguri, from where Gangtok is 126km

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared as the cover story in the March 2018 issue of JetWings International magazine.

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Assam: Chasing the Brahmaputra

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Assam has much more to offer than tea plantations, the one-horned rhino and the Brahmaputra; ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover slow travel while following the course of India’s only male river

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Named after the Ahom kings who ruled the land of the mighty Brahmaputra, Assam is a region of astonishing diversity – ancient temples, UNESCO World Heritage sites, rich wildlife, vibrant culture, delectable cuisine and tea estates that stretch till eternity. Its bustling capital Guwahati, once a haat (marketplace) for gua (arecanut), hence the name, acts as a gateway to North East India.

Like most visitors, our first stop was the Kamakhya Temple atop Nilachal Hill in the western part of the city. Seat of an ancient fertility cult, the temple is a revered Shakti pitha where a cleft in a rock is worshipped as the place where Goddess Sati’s yoni fell. In the rains, when the Brahmaputra is in spate, the rivulet flowing over the stone shrine turns turbid and red, symbolizing the menstruation of goddess Kamakhya.

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The sanctum sanctorum is closed for three days and reopens only after the goddess is purified with a ritual bath. Devotees collect holy spring water and shreds of the angabastra (stained red cloth) as prasad. The week-long fertility festival Ambubachi Mela is attended by mystics and tantriks.

Guwahati’s Kalakshetra, a tribute to Assam’s medieval poet-playwright Srimanta Shankardev, is the perfect primer into Assamese culture. Inside the sprawling campus, housed in ethnic buildings, is a treasure trove of traditional articles – murals, masks, silk saris, jaapi (traditional conical hat) and the red and white cloth gamosa traditionally used to cover the Bhagavad Purana, a holy scripture recited every evening in most households.

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Guests are usually welcomed with a gamosa and tamul (betel nut), often served in a xorai or ornamental bell-metal offering tray, considered a cultural symbol of Assam. An open-air theatre serves as performance space for colourful dances like bihu while the Bhupen Hazarika Museum showcases 4000 objects owned by the maestro.

We stopped by to savour local cuisine at restaurants like Parampara (excellent Assamese thalis) and Khorika, where a choice of chargrilled meats – fish, pork, chicken – is served in khorika or bamboo skewers with piquant mustard chutney. After a quick visit to the Navagraha temple, we caught the sunset on the Brahmaputra as it silently slithered in a wide swathe. Umananda, the tiniest river island in the world stood silhouetted in the fading light. The world’s biggest river island Majuli was also located on the Brahmaputra further upstream.

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A quick halt at the silk-weaving center of Sualkuchi and the pilgrim centre of Hajo to see the Hayagriva Madhava Mandir, and we set off on the Assam Trunk Road following the course of the river. The Brahmaputra is at its narrowest at Hajo (just 1km) but swelled up as we drove along. We marveled at the sight when our driver corrected us, “Ye nadi nahi, nad hai!” In a country where rivers are largely feminine (Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati, Cauvery), Brahmaputra or the Son of Brahma stands out as a rare male river.

As per mythology, Sage Shantanu’s wife Amogha had a child by Lord Brahma. The child took the form of water and Shantanu placed him in the middle of four great mountains — Kailash, Gandhamadana, Jarudhi and Sambwartakka. He grew into a great lake called Brahmakunda. Meanwhile, Sage Parashurama had committed the terrible sin of killing his mother on the instruction of his father Jamdagni. So grave was the offence that the blood-stained axe got stuck to his hand! After visiting several holy places, Parashurama came to Brahmakunda where he axed down the mountainside to release the waters for the benefit of locals. Lo and behold, Parashurama’s axe came loose and the blood was washed off, leaving a reddish tinge in the river, which was called Brahmaputra or ‘Luit’ in Assamese (from the Sanskrit word for blood).

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The history of Assam seemed to be written in blood as we reached Tezpur. Its ancient name Sonitpur too meant ‘The City of Blood’. Here, Lord Krishna battled Lord Shiva and his ardent disciple Asura king Banasura, to rescue his imprisoned grandson Aniruddha who loved Banasura’s daughter Usha. There was so much carnage, entire rivers of blood were spilt and the whole place was stained red.

While not much remains of the Agnigarh fort, Tezpur is a good Launchpad for Nameri Wildlife Park nearby. Amid impeccable tea gardens, we were based in the 1875 angling bungalow Wild Mahseer Lodge at Balipara for our explorations along the Jia Bhoroli river for the prized White-winged Wood Duck.

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But the jewel in Assam’s crown is Kaziranga. Spread over 430 sq km and often compared to African parks for its wide open tracts and quality of wildlife viewing, Kaziranga is the Land of Giants. Home to the Big 5 – elephants, tigers, Asiatic water buffalos, swamp deer and the world’s largest population of the great one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga harbours 15 threatened mammal species. We checked into Wild Grass Lodge, one of the pioneering jungle lodges in the region.

For two full days, we explored the park’s three ranges on jeep drives, elephant safaris, wildlife sightings from machaans (observation towers) and birdwatching trails in buffer zones and tea estates. A magical river cruise on the Brahmaputra revealed Gangetic dolphins, before we continued our road trip to Jorhat. Our base was the heritage tea estate bungalow Thengal Manor, ideal for forays to Hoolock Gibbon Sanctuary, where animated hoots announced the presence of India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon.

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In 1794, Ahom King Gaurinath Singha shifted his capital from Sibsagar to Jorhat but a series of Burmese invasions from 1817 destroyed the commercial metropolis. 1823 heralded the arrival of the British and it was Scottish adventurer Robert Bruce who introduced the Assam tea bush to Europe. While trading in the region he found the bush growing wild and noticed local Singhpo tribesmen brewing tea from its leaves. The British East India Company took over the region from the Ahom kings in 1826 and after leaves from the Assam tea bush were examined in the botanical gardens in Calcutta, the first English tea garden was established at Chabua in Upper Assam in 1837.

From Jorhat to Dibrugarh and Margherita, this is Upper Assam’s premier tea county. Local conditions are ideal for growing tea. The low lying floodplains in the valley of the Brahmaputra river has clayey soil rich in nutrients. The climate varies between a cool, arid winter and a hot, humid rainy season with the lengthy growing season and generous rainfall making Assam one of the most prolific tea-producing regions in the world. Each year, Assam’s tea estates produce nearly 6.8 billion kg of tea!

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An assuming town, Jorhat was the first town in Upper and Central Assam to have electricity in 1923. The first aeroplane landed on north-eastern soil in Jorhat in 1928. Jorhat Gymkhana Club is the oldest golf course in Asia and third oldest in the world. And the world’s oldest and largest Tea Experimental Station Tocklai is located in Jorhat. We enjoyed the life of a retired planter at the Burra Sahib Bungalow and learnt the nuances of tea tasting at Sangsua Tea Factory, before continuing to Nemati Ghat for the ferry to Majuli.

Packed to the rafters with passengers, cycles, motorbikes and cars, the ferry disgorged us at Kamalabari Ghat from where a van deposited us at Garamur. Staying in French-designed huts of bamboo and thatch, we savoured the rustic hospitality of a Mishing family and explored Majuli on a hired bike. Many of the centuries-old satras (Vaishnava monasteries) were established by Shankardev and his followers.

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Each satra was devoted to a particular art or craft – Chamaguri specialized in masks while at Auniati we witnessed apsara nritya and other dances. Our visit during the annual Raas Leela in November was perfect to witness night-long theatrical performances. Sadly, each year the Brahmaputra relentlessly devours the island bit by bit, making it a fragile vanishing ecosystem. The blazing sunsets on Luit Ghat seared on our minds, we reluctantly bid adieu to Majuli and stopped at the ancient Ahom capital Sibsagar with its lakes and temples.

The next morning, it was with a sense of achievement we sipped our full-bodied Assam tea at the Mancotta Chang bungalow in Dibrugarh. It was shockingly late for breakfast but then, tea gardens in Assam do not follow the Indian Standard Time. Bearing in mind the early sunrise in this part of the country, the British introduced a system called Tea Garden or Bagan Time that was an hour ahead of the IST! The moments stretched like the unending tea gardens and our sips were long and languorous. This indeed was slow travel or ‘laahe laahe’ (no hurry) in the local lingo. After all, this was Bagantime.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Guwahati is connected by direct flights to Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai and Bengaluru. Kaziranga National Park is 215km (5 ½ hour drive) from Guwahati

Where to Stay

Prabhakar Homestay, Guwahati
Ph 0361-2650053, 9435033221/2
www.prabhakar-homestay.com   

Hacienda, Guwahati
Banyan Grove & Burra Sahib’s Bungalow, Jorhat
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Ph 0376-2304267/673, 9954451548
www.heritagetourismindia.com 

Wild Mahseer Lodge, Balipara
Ph 03714-234354/79, 98336 31377
www.wildmahseer.com

Nameri Eco Camp
Ph 9435145563, 9435250025, 9854019932
E ecocampnameri@gmail.com

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Wild Grass Lodge, Kaziranga
Ph 0361-2630465, 03776-262085, 9954416945
E wildgrasskaziranga@gmail.com

Diphlu River Lodge, Kaziranga
Bansbari Lodge, Manas
Ph 0361-2602223, 2602186, 2540995
www.assambengalnavigation.com 

Chang Bungalows, Dibrugarh
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035
www.assamteatourism.com

La Maison D’Ananda, Majuli
Ph 9957186356
E danny002in@yahoo.com

For more info, contact
Assam Tourism
Ph 0361-2633654
http://www.assamtourismonline.com
http://www.assamtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

 

Meghalaya: Cloudy with a chance of Meatballs

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY chase the monsoon across the Khasi hills to Shillong, Mawlynnong and Cherrapunjee while relishing local cuisine

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A gnarled bridge made entirely of roots spanned a swift flowing stream in our path. The surreal setting was Tolkienesque to say the least, as we wondered what adventures lay beyond. It was as if some sorcerer had cast a spell, leaving us speechless and transfixed. While we took in the dreamlike scene, two kids chirpily ran across the heavy bridge. Roughly paved with mud and stone, it swayed ever so gently, and the reverie was broken.

This was no ordinary bridge. It was a ‘Living Root Bridge’ of Meghalaya, locally called Jing Kieng Jri, shaped over centuries by entwining the fast growing aerial roots of the Ficus elastica tree. In these remote hill tracts, long before the availability of cement and steel, these were age old modes of crossing streams. It was an unwritten rule that anyone passing by would diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones to strengthen the latticed structure. It was CSR taken to another level.

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We were at the root bridge at Riwai, a 2km walk from Mawlynnong, a remote village in the East Khasi hills on the Indo-Bangladesh border. Our guide Henry explained that his village was named after the rocks hollowed by rainwater – maw was ‘stone’ in Khasi and lynnong meant ‘cavity’. After all, this was Meghalaya, the Abode of Clouds, home to the rainiest place on earth, a title that had passed from Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. With Cherra as our next stop, we were hoping to find out…

For now, we just wanted to float forever in the tranquil sun dappled pools but Henry promised to take us to a better spot. The jump from a little stream to a 300m cascade was definitely an upgrade. The Wah Rymben river tumbled over a wide rock face as Niriang waterfall, ending in a deep pool fringed by reeds. Having a waterfall all to yourself is a rare luxury in a populous country like India. With butterflies for company, we lazed around for what seemed like hours.

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On the way back, we stopped at Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock, an ancient Khasi shrine that existed long before the arrival of Christianity. A trio of monolithic stones or Maw-byn-nah stood outside every home or in the fields to honour ancestors. In the old animist traditions of Meghalaya, stones, rivers, forests, all life forms were sanctified and nearly two centuries of proselytization had not eroded these beliefs. Sacred groves like Mawphlang were still zealously protected as sanctuaries.

The road was lined with broom grass, what we commonly call ‘phool jhadu’ (Thysanolaena maxima). A cash crop for locals, they harvested the inflorescence, which was made into brooms. Not surprisingly, Mawlynnong was pegged as ‘the cleanest village in Asia.’ The locals were indeed sticklers for cleanliness and we noticed cane trash baskets outside every home. Flower-lined pathways led us past Balang Presbyterian Church before we returned to our bamboo perch at Mawlynnong Guest House and Machan.

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All of a sudden, a crack of thunder boomed with the severity of a giant transformer bursting in the sky. We stepped out to witness nature’s sound and light show in all its fury. Flashes of lightning in the dark foreboding clouds above looked like explosions of some inter galactic battle, lighting up the plains of Sylhet below. There was a terrifying beauty to the whole experience.

When we reached Cherrapunjee the next day, it had already received a fresh coat of rain. But then, it almost always rains in Cherrapunjee. And when high rainfall, humidity and elevations of 1000 m rich in limestone come together, you get caves! With 1350 caves stretching over 400 km, Meghalaya has the deepest, longest and largest labyrinth of caves in the Indian subcontinent. Driving through the mist, negotiating dizzying bends, we reached Mawsmai Caves.

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It was a good introduction to the subterranean world of stalactites and stalagmites, formed over thousands of years. There were all sorts of shapes – candles, cave curtains, grotesque shapes and cave pearls. It was apparent why Meghalaya was becoming a spelunking or caving destination with adventure enthusiasts heading to the Shnongrim Ridge in the Jaintia Hills that holds Krem Liat Prah, the longest natural cave in India.

The bounty of nature was apparent everywhere. Waterfalls like Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls plummeted from high perches into aquamarine pools. It was the scenic beauty and cool climes that prompted the British to set up their first base in the North East at Sohra or Cherrapunjee. David Scott, Revenue commissioner of Assam and agent to the Governor General came from the plains of Sylhet and died here in 1831.

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A stone memorial noted his contribution to society. The first missionary to arrive at Cherra was Rev Thomas Jones in 1841 and the Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church was built by 1846. A tablet marked the centenary of the Welsh Mission in the hills. Ramakrishna Mission’s lovely old building dated back to 1931.

After our local sightseeing, following quirky yellow signs, we finally reached Cherrapunjee Resort at Laitkynsew. Our host Dennis Rayen had painstakingly collated meteorological data over the years, with rainfall patterns and weather charts lining the walls of his reception as decor. It was a great base for birdwatching and long trudges into the valley to see more root bridges. But nothing could prepare us for the double-decker bridge at Nongriat.

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Rising water levels in the stream had forced locals to build a second bridge a little higher than the old one, hence the name. Knowing that we would soon be back in the urban sprawl of Shillong, we lingered at the pools, allowing tiny fish to nibble away at the dead skin of our tired feet.

It wasn’t the best way to return the favour, but soon we were nibbling on fish at our lakeside retreat of Ri Kynjai 15km from Shillong. The stunning resort, located on the banks of Meghalaya’s largest lake Ummiam or Barapani (Large Water), used Khasi architecture and décor in cottages built on stilts. We relished the Khasi feast of dohshaiin (chicken meatball appetizer) served with tungtab (spicy fermented fish and garlic chutney), kha rang (pan fried dry fish), doh sniang khleh (pork salad), jadoh (rice flavoured with local turmeric) and Cherrapunjee Chicken, a peppery chicken curry.

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Ri Kynjai was a great base for trekking to Lum Sohpetbneng or The Navel of Heaven, the most sacred mountain for the Khasis. As per local spiritual beliefs, while the Khyndaitrep or Nine Huts people remained in their celestial abode, the Hynniewtrep or the Seven Huts people of East Meghalaya descended to earth – interestingly, using a golden vine bridge atop the sacred peak. A repository of ancient wisdom and values, the peak was an umbilical cord to the Divine. An annual pilgrimage is held on the first Sunday of February.

Shillong, despite being Meghalaya’s bustling capital, had its own charm and all the trappings of a ‘hill station’ – bracing climate, a water body with a jogger’s park in the form of Ward’s Lake, viewpoints like Shyllong Peak, landscaped gardens at Elephant Falls and a clutch of museums for the visitor. Don Bosco Museum, part of the Don Bosco Centre for Indigenous Cultures, shed light on local culture.

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The Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah, a private collection of the Wankhar family, showcased a dazzling array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum was a piece of history by itself. Built in 1928, it was used as a small arms store by the British, in 1944 it housed Japanese POWs during Second World War and was called Dungeon Lines, the 1/8 Gurkha Rifles used it as a magazine and after independence it lay abandoned until it was converted into a museum in 1998-99.

There was a lot to Shillong. Historic churches, stunning architectural gems like the Brahmo Samaj building dating back to 1894 and small tidbits of history. Arundhati Roy was born here. Arthur Llewellyn Basham, author of the tome ‘The Wonder That Was India’ lies buried here. Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore lived here. His summer residence Mitali was being used temporarily as a State Legislative Assembly.

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Tagore’s writing desk and chair adorns the Maharaja suite of Tripura Castle. The erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty, the castle was built in the 1920s and renovated into the first heritage hotel in the North East in 2003! Shillong had lovely stay options like Rosaville, a delightful colonial era bungalow with old furniture and photos.

In the evenings menfolk met at the Polo Ground for betting over the age old sport of teer (archery). The younger generation sported funky hairdos and blasted rock music from their Made-in-China phones. With visits to this little nook in the north east by iconic bands like Mr. Big to MLTR and Scorpions to Sepultura, tiny Shillong was giving major metros a major complex. We polished off a Khasi meal of pork and rice at Trattoria ‘Restauranto Khasino’, a local joint before hiring a cab back to Guwahati. As we walked out, the mist rolled in. Like the Cherrapunjee Resort sign said ‘Heads in clouds, feet firmly on ground’…

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FACT FILE

Getting there
Shillong is 100km/3hrs south of Guwahati. From Shillong, Cherrapunjee is 56km while Mawlynnong is 81km via Pynursla off the road to Dawki.

Where to Stay
Tripura Castle, Shillong http://www.tripuracastle.com
Rosaville, Shillong http://www.rosaville.in

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake http://www.rikynjai.com

Cherrapunjee Resort, Laitkynsew http://www.cherrapunjee.com

Mawlynnong Guesthouse http://www.mawlynnong.com

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Contact
Tourist Information Centre
Meghalaya Tourism Development Corporation
Police Bazaar, Shillong 793001
Ph 0364-2226220

Nakliar Tours
Ph 0364-2502420, 9863115302
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

For more info, http://www.megtourism.gov.in

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of India Now magazine.

Majuli Unmasked: Assam’s rich sattriya culture

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the remote island of Majuli on Assam’s Brahmaputra river to cover its satras (Vaishnava monastic orders), which specialize in centuries-old traditions in mask-making, music, dance and theatre  

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We’re in a room full of decapitated heads. A blue, multi-limbed torso of Narasimha glowers at us from a corner. Close by, Putana, the silver-tressed ogress who breast-fed Lord Krishna poison milk, waits patiently until Som, the mask-making apprentice introduces us to a monster bird called Bakasura. Mohini, Hanuman, Sugreeva, and Ravana are queued up.

At the home of master craftsman and satradhikar (monastic head) Hem Chandra Goswami in the island of Majuli in Assam, traditional art of mask-making has been in practice since the mid-17th century. These masks, used in raas leela and bhaona, an ancient form of Assamese theatre, are the signature craft of Natun Samaguri Satra.

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Floating like a breakaway branch of water hyacinth on the mighty Brahmaputra River, Majuli is a national treasure not only because it is the world’s largest riverine island but also the nucleus of Assam’s cultural heritage – the 15th century neo-Vaishnava tradition. Led by Assamese saint and social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva, this religious movement triggered a cultural rennaisance through music and the arts with the establishment of satras (monastic centres).

Each satra is engaged in distinct artistic and spiritual forms of expression to worship Lord Vishnu through music, song, dance and tales from the Ramayana and Mahabharat. As centres of learning, these institutions also act as repositories of Assam’s history with collections of antiques, utensils, weapons, jewellery besides royal and sacred relics.

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Wrapped in a cotton Assamese chaddor (shawl), Goswami, the humble Sangeet Natak Academy awardee took us through Samaguri’s mask-making tradition. Mukha bhaona masks cover the face, Lotokoi masks are a little larger while gigantic Cho masks usually consist of two parts – a head and a body. Masks are prepared using terracotta, bamboo, wood, pith or metal. The Samaguri technique of mask-making is complex.

First, a star-shaped grid of finely stripped bamboo provides a skeletal framework. Then, strips of cloth dipped in smooth clayey soil from the banks of the Brahmaputra are wrapped and layered over the frame and left to dry. A blend of cowdung and clay is used to create the necessary depth and contour. Bark, fibre  or jute is used for texture, facial hair and accessories. A kordhoni or bamboo file is used to smoothen the surface. Indigenous vegetable dyes are brushed on for colouring and finally, the masks transform into representations of different emotions for mythological characters on stage!

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Being the torch-bearer of a family heritage that has survived for over a century, Goswami recognizes the need to preserve this dying art. He conducts workshops and courses across the state, in West Bengal and Orissa as there is burgeoning interest. Today, smaller portable masks are being created as decorative pieces for homes to add commercial value to the craft. Yet, local youth are wary about learning this art citing the seasonality of raas as an unsustainable income.

The raas was on. We criss-crossed the island on a rusty hired motorbike to witness the rousing drama at Garamur Satra and listen to borgeet (devotional songs) in the naamghar (prayer hall) of the island’s oldest surviving satra at Bhogpur. Throngs of villagers and visitors flitted from one satra to the other like butterflies seeking different flavours of divine nectar.

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At Auniati Satra, the house of celibate monks, we watched young painted boys perform Apsara Nritya (cross-dressed as celestial maidens), Paalnaam, Gayan-Bayan (song and dance) and a stirring Dashavatar Nritya rendition by Khagendranath Lekharu, the doyen of Satriya dance. We made dusty rides to the satras at Natun Kamalabari, Bengenati and Dakhinpat and returned to Samaguri at twilight in time for a visual spectacle. 

As we sat braving pungent betel odour and mosquito bites in a jam-packed hall, a clang of cymbals and drumbeats announced the arrival of satradhikar Goswami and his troupe. In minutes, the masks of Majuli sprang to life on stage like they had for centuries before us. 

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FACT FILE

Getting There: Originally a 1,250 sq km riverine island on the Brahmaputra, Majuli is currently spread over 460 sq km and prone to severe erosion. Drive 14 km from Jorhat to the nearest ferry point Nimati Ghat, from where boats take you to Kamalabari Ghat (20 km), a 1 hr 15 min journey. Local minivans ferry visitors to Garamur, 7 km away. There are regular ferries every day starting at 8:30 am though timings and frequency increase in tourist season. Since most satras on the island are quite remote, hire motorbikes/bicycles to get around.  

Guided Trips: The best time to witness Majuli’s vibrant satriya culture is the famous Raas festival in the 3rd week of November, a 2-day dusk to dawn festival of music, dance and theatre when satras vie to outdo the other by showcasing their speciality. For more details, contact Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority. majulilandscape.gov.in

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Stay: Majuli has a few Circuit Houses, PWD Inspection Bungalows and basic Guest houses for visitors. La Maison D’Ananda or the House of Joy (Doubles Rs800; Ph 99571 86356 Manjeet) in Karpunpuli, Garamur, is a cluster of two bamboo cottages inspired by a Chang ghar (Mishing hut). Do:Ni Polo (Sun-Moon Cottage) nearby is named in honour of the Mishing gods and has 4 rooms (Doubles Rs.300-600). Me:Po Okum or  House of Happiness (Doubles Rs1,000; 94352 03165) at Chitadar, Garamur is a bamboo cottage near the river with 5 rooms and a dorm (Ph 94352 03165 Haren Nora). 

Some satras also run guest houses for visitors with basic facilities. Garamur Satra has 4 rooms at Rs.200 each (Ph 9435203306 Minal Bora). There’s also a Government-run Inspection Bungalow in Kamalabari and a Circuit House in Garamur (For booking contact Sub Divisional Officer, Garamur Majuli Ph 03775-274475)

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the February 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller magazine.

Nagaland: The Far East Journey

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY list out nine more things to do in Nagaland besides the Hornbill Festival

The Hornbill Festival (1-7 Dec) at the recreated Heritage Village of Kisama, 12 km from Kohima, is a celebration of Naga culture, cuisine, art, crafts, song & dance and indigenous games like archery and Naga wrestling. Besides Naga chili eating competitions and climbing up greased poles, here are some things to do while you are in Nagaland…

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See Dimapur’s phallic totems
Located by the banks of the Dhansiri river, Dimapur was a flourishing capital of the Kachari kingdom in 10th century before the Ahoms invaded it in 13th century. Not much of Rajbari remains, barring the brick gateway and a fortified complex with strange phallic totems known as the Chessman Figures. One of the important Megalithic sites in India, the intriguing structures are thought to be fertility symbols or graves that represent ancestor worship. Capped by a mushroom-like hemispherical capital, the towering figures have ornamental bands on the neck with carvings of swords and daggers besides floral and geometrical patterns. Strewn across the compound you also find Y-shaped and buffalo horn megaliths with animal carvings.

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Go grocery shopping at Keeda Bazaar
Explore Kohima’s legendary Supermarket or Keeda Bazaar (Insect Market), though the live creepy-crawly action is surely not for the faint-hearted. Eels swirl around in tubs, frogs jump about in plastic bags, little wasps hatch in hives, pink woodworms pinched and held at end of a split twig wriggle like garlands while Naga ladies chewing betel leaf nonchalantly flip escaping silkworm larvae and fat grubs back on their leaf plates. Unfortunately, there are no eateries around selling readymade insect fare as locals buy them fresh and prepare it at home.

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Read the Kohima Epitaph
“When you go home, tell them of us and say; for your tomorrow, we gave our today”, these immortal words on the memorial of the 2nd British Division are known as the Kohima Epitaph. Located in the Kohima War Cemetery, where 1420 Allied war heroes are laid to rest, the headstones in the terraced cemetery bear poignant messages of grief and glory. Set on the erstwhile tennis court of the old DC’s Bungalow on Garrison Hill, it witnessed one of the fiercest battles of World War II. The hand-to-hand fight in the 1944 Battle of Kohima was pivotal in halting Japan’s Burma campaign and foray into India.

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Explore the Angami village of Khonoma
A heritage walk run by Michael Megurisa is the best way to discover the 700-year-old village of Khonoma. Walk past a kharu (ornamental wooden gate) to hunters’ houses lined with mithun horns and animal skulls, gigantic vats of rice beer, outsized guns and giant troughs and ladles that seem right out of Gulliver’s Travels. The village is divided into khels (residential territories) of various clans with a kuda (fort) or place of defense, surrounded by morungs (residential institutions). In olden days, elders shared stories while lads shared a massive dorm bed carved from a single log. Don’t miss the khwe hou (stone tablets) constructed in honour of forefathers who offered genna (meritorious feasts) and legends of the Anglo-Naga wars at Semoma Fort, described by the British as the strongest in the North East.

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Go on a headhunting trail at Tuophema
A 2 hr bus ride from Kohima to Botsa and a 4 km uphill drive is all it takes to reach Tuophema. A traditional welcome gate leads to the village dominated by a large tree called Terhütsiibo (War head tree) where enemy heads were once hung as war trophies. Local guide KV explains the significance of Ke Shii Di Tsie (Demon Stone), Tsi Khre Tsie (Thunderstorm Stone) and Kipu Tsie (Husband-Wife Stone). Earlier, young lads tall enough to grasp the top of Ke Me Hie Tsie (Clutching Stone) were deemed fit to marry! Stay in ethnic community-run wood cottages bearing Naga symbols like mithun (vigour), cup (prosperity) and an encircled dot depicting a full moon and good harvest. Neat orchid-lined pathways lead to viewpoints, a cosy restaurant and a massive log drum. The Sekrenyi festival (25-27 Feb) at Tuophema is a nice alternative to the much-hyped Hornbill Festival.

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Try Naga cuisine
Unlike the overspiced food of the Indian mainland, Naga cuisine is mostly boiled with the Naga chilli or raja mirchi providing the bite. A typical Naga kitchen has strips of meat smoking above the wood fire. Try smoked pork pickle, Naga style pork curry, lai (leafy greens), steamed quash, chicken and rice as you huddle around a fireplace sipping zutho or thutse (rice beer) from makeshift goblets of green bamboo. And if you can handle the heat, take part in a Naga chilli-eating contest.

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Trek to Japfu Peak & Dzükou Valley
After Mount Saramati (3,840) on the Nagaland Burma border, Japfu Peak at 3048 m (10,363 ft), is the second highest mountain in Nagaland. Located about 15 km south of Kohima, it’s ideally climbed at night to reach the summit in time for sunrise. A 5 hr trek around Japfu leads to the world’s tallest rhododendron tree – the Guinness Record holder stands 130 ft tall and 11 ft wide. Nearby is Dzükou Valley, dubbed as Nagaland’s Valley of Flowers (8,290 ft), carpeted by blooms between June to September. Accessible from Viswema Village (25 km from Kohima) or Zakhma (20 km from Kohima), it is also good for a visit during November and April.

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Spot the endangered Blyth’s Tragopan
Nagaland is a land of warrior tribes who lived off the forest for centuries, hunting game and embellishing their costumes with feather, tusk, claw and bone. During festivals, long bamboo pennants were festooned with colourful dead birds. Nagas can mimic birdcalls (even of the opposite sex) to lure gullible prey. With the annual massacre of thousands of migrating Amur Falcons, conservation might seem an alien concept. But the village of Khonoma has resolved to protect the Blyth’s Tragopan, long hunted for food with its habitat destroyed by deforestation and slash-and-burn cultivation. After Khonoma switched to alder cultivation as a model Green Village for eco-tourism, the Khonoma Nature Conservation and Tragopan Sanctuary (KNCTS) was set up in 1998 and hunting was banned in 2001. In the annual census in 2005, 600 tragopans were recorded, besides endemics like the Naga Wren Babbler. The 25 sq km sanctuary maintained by the village community is a great place for birdwatching.

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Buy Naga shawls & handicrafts
Nagas are exceptional craftsmen who fashion wood, metal, fabric, beads, shells and bone into exquisite works of art. Buy colourful Konyak bead chains and necklaces, Wancho wood-carvings, Phom black pottery or vibrant warrior shawls of the Ao, Angami, Zeliang, Yimchunger and other tribes. Available in a mix of striking red, black, yellow, blue and white hues, Naga shawls have specific names and usages with each tribe having its own unique patterns and motifs.

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FACT FILE

Getting there
By Air: Nagaland’s sole airport at Dimapur is connected to Guwahati and Kolkata by direct Jet Airways flights
By Rail: Dimapur railway station is on the main line of the Northeast Frontier Railway and is well connected to Guwahati.
By Road: NH 39 enters Nagaland from Assam, connecting Dimapur to Kohima, 74 km away (3 hrs, shared cab Rs.150/person). Khonoma is 20 km south west of Kohima but road is patchy. Tuophema is 41 km north of Kohima NH 61 via Botsa (Bus Rs.35/person).

Local tours
Khonoma – Michael 9856559394
Tuophema – KV 9436005002

Permits
Indian Tourists visiting Nagaland require an Inner Line Permit (ILP) issued by Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi (Tel: 011-23012296) and Deputy Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, Kolkata (Tel: 033-22823247). These can also be obtained from Deputy Commissioner of Dimapur, Kohima and Mokokchung. Foreign tourists require a Restricted Area Permit/Protected Area Permit from all Indian Missions abroad; FRRO – New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai; Resident Commissioner, Nagaland House, New Delhi or Commissioner & Secretary, Tourism, Govt. of Nagaland.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was the Cover Story for the December 2013 issue of JetWings International magazine. 

Farm Fresh: India’s Agri-Tourism Trails

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Intern at an organic farm or spend a weekend picking apples or tea as ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY discover India’s latest trend of agri-holidays, eco-tours and farm stays 

The healing sight of green, the touch of moist soil in your hands or plucking vegetables straight off a plant instead of buying them shrouded in plastic; there are many joys of life on the farm. The smell of rain on dry earth evokes similar emotions, unlocking some primordial part of our brains that makes us feel connected to the earth. Oddly, humanity had no word for it until two Australian researchers coined one in 1964. Petrichor, derived from Greek petra (stone) and ichor (fluid coursing through veins of the gods), is akin to the earth’s perfume, its pheromone. Equally surprising is the fact that in a country largely dependent on agriculture, farm stays and agri tours took so long to sprout in India. Coffee, tea, grapes, mangoes, apple, spices and organic farms; choose from these wonderful themed holidays…

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Tea plantation bungalows
(Kangra | South India | North East)

Know your oolong from your pekoe as you trace the journey of India’s most popular brew from leaf to cup. From the dark fragrant Nilgiri Tea to Munnar’s full-bodied Kanan Devan tea, the bold maltiness of Assam or fine Darjeeling the color of Himalayan sunlight, India’s tea growing regions are diverse. Head to Kurseong, home to the world’s first tea factory in 1859 where you can savour Silver Tips Imperial (the most expensive tea) while staying at homestays run by villagers. Grown in the Palampur hills by the British since 1882, the aromatic Kangra Tea produces a weak colour, but the Dhauladhar range’s microclimate imparts a certain aroma after it is sun dried. Visit the Tea Museum in Munnar or enjoy colonial comforts at Briar Tea Bungalows at Meghamalai. Experience tea-themed cuisine and bison in the bush at Tea Nest Coonoor or drop by at Tranquilitea tea lounge nearby. Become a tea taster at Jorhat’s Gatoonga Tea Factory while staying at Heritage North East’s Burra Sahib and Mistry Sahib bungalows. Wild Mahseer, an 1875 British angling bungalow and former residence of the tea-estate manager have been transformed into a classy resort.

Darang Tea Estate, Kangra
Ph 01894-240231, 9418012565, 9816312333
Email darangtea@gmail.com
http://www.darangteaestate.com

The Tea Sanctuary, Munnar
Ph 04865 230141
Email tourism.munnar@kdhptea.co.in
http://www.theteasanctuary.com

Briar Tea Bungalows, Munnar/Meghamalai
Ph 0422 2311 834, 94422 02001
http://www.teabungalows.com

Tea Nest, Coonoor
Ph 0423 2237222, 94439 98886
Email teanest@natureresorts.in
http://www.teanest.com

Sangsua & Gatoonga Tea Estates, Jorhat
Ph 033 2229 9034, 0376 2304 267
Email heritagenortheast@gmail.com
http://www.heritagetourismindia.com

Wild Mahseer Lodge, Balipara
Ph 02267 060881, 91670 38491
Email daniel.dsouza@wildmahseer.com
http://www.wildmahseer.com

Makaibari Tea Estate, Kurseong
Ph 033 22878560, 9733004577
Email makaibari.rajah@gmail.com
http://www.makaibari.com

Tathagata Farm, Mineral Spring
Ph 9932021569, 9775809299
Email navin@tathagatajourneys.com
http://www.tathagatafarm.com

The Tumsong Retreat, Ghoom
Ph 033 3093 6400
http://www.chiabari.com

When to go: Tea-picking season lasts from April-October, making it a good time to visit tea estates and factories.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, Jorhat, Bagdogra and Coimbatore

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Coffee Estate Stays
(Coorg | Malnad)

Head to Baba Budan Giri where a Muslim mystic sowed seven coffee beans smuggled from Arabia from where it spread to the rest of the country. Visit the coffee museum at Chikmagalur and stay at Plantation Escapes’ colonial bungalows at Ossoor Coffee Estate in Sakleshpur, a 1200-acre plantation started in 1866! Nearly 80% of India’s coffee comes from neighbouring Kodagu or Coorg. To compensate fluctuating coffee prices, local planters spun their estate bungalows, fabled Kodava hospitality and delectable cuisine into unparalleled homestay experiences. With the world’s highest density of sacred groves (devarakadu) and fountainhead of the Cauvery river, Coorg is a bounteous land of wildlife and waterfalls. Do a Bean-to-Cup plantation walk at Tata Coffee’s heritage bungalows in Coorg and Sakleshpur. At Rainforest Retreat learn how coffee, pepper, cardamom and vanilla are grown organically in the shade of rainforests. Rediscover nature without TV, mobile and Internet connectivity at Meriyanda Coorg with estate-grown Arabica, clove, pepper and honey available in gift packs. Soak in the luxury of Tamara Coorg with spa treatments, a signature ‘Blossom to Brew’ coffee tour and become a barista at The Verandah coffee shop.

Rainforest Retreat, Galibeedu
Ph 08272 265638/6,  201428
Email rainforestours@gmail.com
http://www.rainforestours.com

Tata Coffee Plantation Trails, Polibetta
Ph 080 2356 0761, 2356 0695-97
Email reach.plantationtrails@tatacoffee.com
http://www.plantationtrails.net

Meriyanda Nature Lodge, Hattihole
Ph 080 4164 3999, 9008163388
Email: reservations@meriyanda.com

Tamara Coorg, Yavakapadi
Ph 88840 00040
Email coorg@thetamara.com

Plantation Escapes, Sakleshpur
Ph 9880668316
http://www.plantationescapes.com

When to go: By Nov-Dec, the red coffee berries are ready to be harvested. Picking season lasts till Feb, before April showers transform estates into blankets of white coffee blossom.

Jet Airways flies to Mangalore and Bangalore

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Spice plantations & coconut farms
(Kerala)

Kerala’s legendary Spice Coast drew Arab traders and colonial powers to Indian shores for cardamom, cinnamon, clove and pepper, prized for centuries as Black Gold. The rich bounty of crops in coconut, rubber, areca and tapioca, coupled with a thriving tourism scene and wide choice of resorts, make Kerala perfect for a farm experience. Inspired by a mountain tribal dwelling, CGH Group’s Spice Village at Thekkady is a good place for plantation walks. Instead of a staid reception desk, a herbal tea counter dispenses fresh tea brewed with the herb of your choice. Shalimar Spice Garden at Kumily offers Spice Plantation Tours with elephant rides through a plantation with bath, feeding and timber dragging rituals. Experience Syrian Christian hospitality at the Tharakans’ Backwoods estate at Nilambur, home to the world’s oldest teak plantation. Or find out how mussel farming is done on coir at Oyster Opera from Gul Mohammed, a recipient of the Karshaga Shiromani (national award for agri-farming).

Spice Village, Thekkady
Ph 04869 224514, 222315
http://www.cghearth.com

Shalimar Spice Garden, Kumily
Ph 04869 – 222132, 223232
http://www.shalimarspicegarden.com

The Backwoods, Nilambur
Ph 04931 200529, 9447748529
http://www.backwoodsnilambur.com

Oyster Opera, Padanna
Ph 0467-227 8101, 94471 76465, 94471 44062
Email oystergul@rediffmail.com
http://www.oysteroperaatpadana.com

When to go: Kerala in the rains is ideal for a romantic escape or a rejuvenating Ayurveda treatment, though October to March is the main season.

Jet Airways flies to Kozhikode and Cochin

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Grape-farming & Vineyard tours
(Nashik)

Nashik, hailed as India’s wine capital, brims with wineries and Tasting Rooms that offer an intimate experience through vineyard visits and cuisine tours. Understand the nuances of terroir, a combination of soil, climate, water and rainfall of a particular area that impart a unique character to wine. From the Sanjegaon valley caressed by the Godavari river to the twin hills of Nhera-Ori at Dindori, Nashik is easily the best place in India to become a wine enthusiast under the tutelage of ace sommeliers. If Napa Valley seems far away, get to Nashik for a memorable stay in farmhouses amid trellised vineyards.

Sula Vineyards, Govardhan
Ph 0253 302 7777, 9970090010
Email visitsula@sulawines.com
http://www.sulawines.com

D’ori Winery, Dindori
Ph 022 65064933
Email winery@chateaudori.com
http://www.chateaudori.com

York Winery, Gangapur
Ph 0253 2230700
Email mail@yorkwinery.com
http://www.yorkwinery.com

Vallee de Vin
Ph 02553 204379
Email info@vdvmail.com
http://www.vallee-de-vin.com

Mountain View Wines
Ph 0253 2392369, 9822056881
Email phadtare@mountainwinesindia.com
http://www.mountainwinesindia.com

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Mango farms
(Konkan)

Maharashtra’s Konkan region is renowned for its delicious hapoos or Alphonso mangoes from Ratnagiri and Devgad. In mango season, enthusiasts can buy cartons of this yellow goodness and even stay in a mango farm. Homestays like Atithi Parinay, set amidst mango, coconut & banana plantations on the banks of the Kusum, offer ‘eat as much you can’ incentives. After a sweet yet scorching summer the rains revive the Konkan in a blaze of green. At Maachli, the stream gurgling through the organic farm is the highlight of the monsoon and guests must wade through ankle deep water to reach the property! Nandan Farms, a 12-acre plantation growing cashew, coconut, banana and pineapple offers stay in earthy cottages with mud walls and terracotta tiled roofs. Enjoy farm fresh organic food and Malvani cuisine at Dwarka Farmhouse, where Dilip Aklekar uses traditional methods for cultivation through go-mutra (cow urine) and vermi-compost.

Atithi Parinay, Ratnagiri
Ph 02352 240121, 9049981309
Email info@atithiparinay.com
http://www.atithiparinay.com

Maachli, Paarule
Ph 9637333284
Email prathamesh.samant@maachli.in
http://www.maachli.in

Nandan Farms, Sawantwadi
Ph 94223 74277
Email amrutapadgaonkar@yahoo.in

Dwarka Farmhouse, Sawantwadi
Ph 02363-266267, 98694 10626, 94225 41168
Email dilipaklekar@yahoo.co.in

When to go: Konkan offers something unique in every season – mangoes in summer, waterfalls in monsoon and pristine beaches from October to March.

Jet Airways flies to Mumbai and Dabolim Airport, Goa

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Organic farmstays
(Sikkim | Arunachal | Nagaland)

Sikkim’s diverse farm stays provide insights into not just local farming practices but also the rich culture of various tribes. Enjoy Lepcha hospitality, food and folklore at Mayal Lyang in Dzongu, with leisurely walks to the Rongyung Chu river for angling. Stay at a heritage farmhouse with a Bhutia family at Yangsum Farm growing seasonal crops and fruits against the backdrop of the Kanchenjunga mountain. At Bon Farmhouse in Kewzing learn about organic farming, harvest millet, maize or seasonal vegetables and consume farm fresh milk, butter, curd and cottage cheese. Ziro, in the Lower Subansiri region of Arunachal Pradesh is known for ancient farming techniques of the Apatani tribe. Stay at Abasa Homestay at Siro nearby with State Tourism Award winner Kago Kampu, who grows organic vegetables and uses them inventively in salads and sautés served with chutneys of sunflower seeds and yokhung (Zanthoxylum acanthopodium). In Nagaland, watch Angamis carry out alder farming and terraced rice cultivation at Khonoma and trek to the scenic Dzukou Valley. Or stay in Shiyong village amid Konyaks learning how to milk cows, pluck tea, pick oranges and helping locals harvest rice in season.

Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS)
Ph 03592-232798, 9733088003
Email ecoss@sikkiminfo.net
www.sikkimhomestay.com

Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing
Ph 9735900165, 9547667788

Email bonfarmhouse@gmail.com
http://www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com

Mayal Lyang, Upper Dzongu
Ph 9434446088 Email gyatso@mayallyang.com
http://www.mayallyang.com

Yangsum Heritage Farm, Rinchenpong
Ph 03595-245322, 94341 79029
Email yangsumfarm@yahoo.com

Abasa Homestay, Ziro
Kago Kampu
Ph 03788-225561, 94024 60483

Shiyong Homestay, Mon
Email phejin@gmail.com
www.shiyongvillage.com

Baby’s Homestay, Khonoma
Angulie Meyase
Ph 94360 71046

When to visit: Though October to March is the main tourist season, during monsoons, edibles ferns, wild mushrooms and bamboo shoots are aplenty in July-August.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati and Dibrugarh

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Broom farming
(Meghalaya)

Ever wondered where the humble phool jhadu comes from? True to its name, it is the flowery inflorescence of Thysanolaena maxima plant, known simply as Broom grass. Though it grows almost wild across the North East, Meghalaya and Karbi Anglong, its neighbouring district in Assam are leading areas of production. Primarily cultivated on slopes by the Tiwa, Karbi and Khasi communities as a mixed crop, the plant serves as a big cash crop for local farmers. In Meghalaya, head to Mawlynnong, which claims to be Asia’s cleanest village. Stay in a community-run house on stilts made of bamboo and thatch. Village walk down squeaky clean paths lined by flowers and fields of broom grass lead to amazing sights – living root bridges, relics of ancient Khasi tradition and Sky Bridge, a viewpoint overlooking the plains of Bangladesh.

Village Guest House, Mawlynnong
Nakliar Tours, Shillong
Ph 0364 2502420, 9436104844
Email nakliartours@gmail.com

When to go: Meghalaya is good to visit post-monsoon. Harvesting starts from February and continues till March end. Almost 90% of the produce is sold during March and April.

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Apple orchard stay
(Himachal Pradesh)

Though India was no stranger to the apple and the Kashmiri Ambri was a popular indigenous variety, Captain Lee and Alexander Coutts were the first to plant English apples in Himachal. But it was an Indianized American Samuel ‘Satyanand’ Stokes who introduced the first apple saplings of the ‘Starking Delicious’ in 1916. Thanedar became one of the first apple plantations in the country and together with Kotgarh, constitutes the orchard region of Himachal Pradesh. Here cherries, strawberries and other fruits abound, processed into juices, jams, preserves and pickles. Stay at Apple Tree Cottage in Kotgarh (73km from Shimla) or the apple orchard inn of Krish Rauni. At Thanedar, India’s apple bowl, stay at Banjara Camps surrounded by terraced fields awash in red…

When to go: Apple harvesting in Himachal Pradesh is from July to October and is at its peak by September. This year has seen a bumper crop.

Apple Tree Cottage, Kotgarh
Ph 9811049847
http://www.appletreecottage.co.in

Banjara Orchard Retreat, Thanedar
Ph 011 2685 5152/3, 2686 1397
http://www.banjaracamps.com

Krish Rauni Apple Orchard Inn, Matiana
Ph 01783 – 225225, 9316115261, 9569115261
Email krishrauni@gmail.com http://www.krishrauniresort.in

When to go: Apple harvesting in Himachal is from July to October with August-September forming the peak season.

Jet Airways flies to Delhi and Chandigarh.

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Sea-buckthorn farming
(Spiti)

Sea-buckthorn first stormed the market as a wunderdrink called Leh Berry developed by DRDO for the Indian army combating Ladakh’s extreme climate. The orange berry possesses a unique mix of minerals, vitamins and amino acids with anti-cancer and anti-ageing properties. In Spiti’s desolate landscape, sea-buckthorn or tsirku (Hippophae rhamnoides) grew wild along riverbanks, with locals exploiting the shrub for fences and firewood. Spiti Sea-buckthorn Society, aided by ‘Nono’ Sonam Angdui, the King of Spiti and Spiti Ecosphere, empowered villagers to harvest the berry through viable conservation means. The community initiative currently has 33 groups from 27 villages with over 500 members producing jam and juice concentrates, available under the brand name Tsering (‘blessings for a long life’ in Tibetan). Dried berry peels are shredded into rejuvenative tsirku tea. Watch villagers grow barley and pea, while staying at India’s loftiest Himalayan homestays in traditional mud-brick homes overlooking snowy peaks. Explore fossil sanctuaries and go on yak safaris on the Spiti Left Bank trek, visiting high-altitude villages like Langza, Demul, Lhalung, Dhankar (Spiti’s old capital) and Komik, the highest inhabited village in Asia.

Ecosphere, Spiti
Ph 01906-222652, 98994 92417, 94182 07750
http://www.spitiecosphere.com

When to go: Like Ladakh, Spiti has a cold, harsh desert environment, best suited for a visit during the main tourist season from May-October.

Jet Airways flies to Delhi and Chandigarh

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Fruit orchards & Bio-tourism
(Uttarakhand)

Snow clad peaks, forests of deodar, buraansh (rhododendron), oak and pine and orchard farms surrounded by untamed wilderness, Uttarakhand embraces you with the warmth of rustic mountain hospitality. Its ecologically sustainable model for Bio-tourism spreads across 13 districts covering 1200 Bio Villages. At Syath, a model village near Nainital, families trained in hospitality provide pahadi meals in village homes, arrange visits to watermills and waterfalls, with hands-on activities like organic farming techniques, milking cows, composting or fieldwork. Himalayan Village at Sonapani near Mukteshwar is a 20-acre organic farm growing apricots, apples, plum, peaches, vegetables and pulses. At Darbar Resort, remnants of the 1815 Purana Darbar palace in old Tehri have been recycled into its architecture. Visit an Angora rabbit farm and Pant Nagar Agriculture University at Ranichori, 3km away. At Ranikhet, try Ayurvedic healing in colonial comfort at Holm Farm or buy ‘Kumaoni’ fair trade products from Umang like Himkhadya (organic grain and nuts), hand-knitted woollens, preserves, pickles and natural honey in eucalyptus, sunflower or lychee flavours.

Holm Farm Heritage, Ranikhet
Ph  9411113263/4 Email holmfarm@gmail.com
http://www.holmfarmheritage.com

Darbar Hotel & Resorts Organic, Chamba
Ph 01376 252660, 9412953297, 9837034329
http://www.darbarresortsorganic.com

Himalayan Village, Sonapani
Ph 8006300100
ashish@himalayanvillage.com

Uttaranchal Organic Commodity Board, Dehradun
Ph 0135 2760770 Email uocb_dehradun@yahoo.co.uk
http://www.organicuttarakhand.org

Umang Naini Shop, Kalika
Ph 05966 240 430
Email umang@grassrootsindia.com

When to go: Rhododendron (buraansh) blooms in Feb-March, though in plum orchards, picking is on till September.

Jet Airways flies to Delhi and Dehradun

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September 2013 issue of JetWings International magazine.

The Battle for Kohima: Heroes of World War II

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit Kohima War Cemetery to understand why the 1944 conflict is hailed as Britain’s greatest battle, telling their story in 1944 words…

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In a recent poll organized by The National Army Museum in London, the Battle for Imphal/Kohima in 1944 was voted as Britain’s greatest battle ever. The fact that it ranks higher than celebrated conflicts like the Battle of Waterloo or the D-day landings at Normandy speaks volumes of its significance to the British.

At a debate, historian Robert Lyman argued that ‘Great things were at stake in a war with the toughest enemy any British Army has had to fight’, hailing Kohima as one of the turning points of World War II. There were 12,600 Commonwealth casualties and 58,000 on the Japanese side in what writer Sir Compton Mackenzie described as “fighting as desperate as any in recorded history”.

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Nearly seventy years after the war, we disembarked at the railway station at Dimapur, the 10th century Cachari capital known for its totemic chessman figures, and bounded on a bus to Kohima. Undulating clusters of tin roofs presented themselves as Angami men cloaked in red striped shawls looked somber like Native Indian chiefs. We watched live creepy-crawlies at the Keeda bazaar in the Supermarket, took a walk around the khels (old colonies), visited local landmarks like the Catholic Cathedral and State Museum, until a gate ushered us into Kohima War Cemetery spread across the battleground of Garrison Hill.

Except for the old man squatting amidst the headstones, weeding, there was no one else. His eyes crinkled against the sun as he turned to see us before he resumed his task in quiet meditation. We stepped forward hesitantly, dumbfounded by the utter size of the garden of remembrance that bore the weight and price of war. Stories of brave soldiers, sons and fathers, grim tales of grit, loss, separation and pain… buried in the ground. And memories, lying like open wounds in a strange clinical geometry of stone tablets. Poignant messages and goodbyes that could bring tears to even battle-hardened hearts…

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Lance Corporal CE Culverwell, The Dorsetshire Regiment, 1st May 1944, Age 24 “Dear Charlie, To the world you were only a soldier, To us you were all the world”

Private AW Evans, The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, 5th May 1944, Age 28 “Come you back, You British soldier, Come you back to Mandalay”

Captain EA Davies, The Dorsetshire Regiment, 4th June 1944, Age 31 “Too Far away your grave to see, But not too far to remember thee”

Row upon row we read names from every corner of England, Scotland and Wales, of young and old, brigadiers and privates, tank-drivers and stretcher-bearers, snipers and signalmen. The terraces led us to the Cross of Sacrifice in a quiet grassy clearing overlooking the valley. Out there in the perimeter of India’s northeast, at 5000 feet in the Naga Hills, Kohima seemed like a charming hill station. Was this really the site of one of the world’s bloodiest battles?

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Kohima was strategically located on the only road leading from the supply depot at Dimapur (40 miles northwest) to Imphal (80 miles south). From 1942, the British Fourteenth Army, under the command of General William Slim, had set up tactical bases at Dimapur and Imphal for an eventual offensive into Burma. In early 1944, Lt General Renya Mutagachi of the Japanese Fifteenth Army was ordered to halt British preparations. As part of operation U-Go, the Japanese planned to split the 31st Division into three columns that would cut off the Kohima–Imphal Road and surround Kohima. Between April and June 1944 Kohima became the location of a bitter bloodbath in the Second World War.

The battle for Kohima was fought in two phases: the siege from 4 April, which lasted for 13 days, and clearing Japanese forces from the area to reopen the Kohima–Imphal road. The second phase stretched from mid-April to 22 June, causing high casualties for both sides. Cut off from Dimapur, the defenders had to rely on daily air supply by the RAF. Despite these obstacles, they withstood the heavy fighting without backing down. The Kohima ridge comprising Garrison Hill, Jail Hill, Field Supply Depot (FSD) Hill, Detail Issue (DIS) Hill and the Deputy Commissioner’s (DC) Bungalow, were used as the main lines of defence.

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The original DC’s bungalow was destroyed in the fighting, but white concrete lines denoted the boundaries of the historic tennis court. With heavy artillery, mortar fire and infantry assaults, this area saw some of the hardest, closest and grittiest fighting. Officers’ diaries recount how sniping duels seemed like ‘unending snowball fights’, grenades were lobbed at point blank range across the tennis court as if it were a tennis match and how soldiers dug holes like beavers for burrowing or tunneling themselves forward using plates, mugs, bayonets, entrenching tools or anything one could find. The hardships they faced were inconceivable, yet the hostility of the terrain was apparent in the steep slopes and dense vegetation… Decades ago, things would have been worse.

As Lieutenant Horner, signals officer of the 2nd Royal Norfolks, 4th Infantry Brigade, described: “The physical hammering one takes is difficult to understand. The heat, humidity, altitude and the slope of almost every foot of ground combine to knock the hell out of the stoutest constitution. You gasp for air, which doesn’t seem to come, you drag your legs upwards till they seem reduced to the strength of matchsticks, you wipe the sweat out of your eyes… So you stop, horrified to be prodded by the man behind you or cursed by an officer in front.”

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Major Boshell, who commanded ‘B’ Company, 1st Royal Berkshires, in the 6th Infantry Brigade reported: “The lie of the land made it impossible to move by day because of Japanese snipers. We were in Kohima for three weeks. We were attacked every single night… They came in waves, like a pigeon shoot. Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counter-attacks… Water was short and restricted to about one pint per man per day. So we stopped shaving. Air supply was the key, but the steep terrain and narrow ridges meant that some of the drops went to the Japs. My company went into Kohima over 100 strong and came out at about 60.”

The 161st Indian Infantry Brigade’s defensive stand at Kohima blunted the Japanese attack. With the opening of the Dimapur-Kohima road, the 2nd Division and troops from XXXIII Corps moved into the area to support the counterattack in early May. On 31 May, General Sato, Commander of the Japanese 31st Division, ordered the first units to withdraw and wrote with a heavy heart: “We fought for two months with utmost courage and have reached the limits of human fortitudes… Shedding bitter tears I now leave Kohima.” 

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Forced to retreat, it was the biggest Japanese defeat in their entire history. British and Indian troops from Kohima and Imphal met at Milestone 110 on 22 June, formally ending the siege. The fierce hand-to-hand combat in the Battle of Kohima, especially in the garden of the DC’s bungalow, was a defining moment in the Burma Campaign and pivotal in halting Japan’s foray into India.

We walked around the terraced cemetery, pausing at a headstone now and then. There were 1420 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War. Some were stark, in the nameless incomplete shock of death itself, others etched in grief by their families and friends. At the highest point of the cemetery stood the Kohima Cremation memorial, commemorating 917 Hindu, Sikh and Muslim soldiers of the British Indian Army cremated in accordance to their faith. At the base, near the entrance, was a memorial to the IInd Division – a massive stone dragged up by Naga tribesmen, etched with the immortal words renowned as the Kohima Epitaph: “When you go home, tell them of us and say; For your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

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The cemetery also contained memorials to the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment, 4th Battalion of the Gurkha Rifles and other regiments. Strewn across Kohima’s landscape were monuments to the Royal Scots at Aradura Spur, the Royal Norfolks on GPT (General Purposes Transport) Ridge and the Durham Light Infantry at Kuki Piquet. The Kohima War Cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which looks after 1,179,000 war graves at 23,203 burial sites in 148 countries around the world.

In a message ‘to all ranks on the Manipur road’, Earl Mountbatten wrote ‘only those who have seen the horrific nature of the country under these conditions will be able to appreciate your achievements’. He described the war as ‘probably one of the greatest battles in history…in effect the Battle of Burma… naked unparalleled heroism… the British/Indian Thermopylae’.

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The Battle for Kohima was critical for many reasons. Its implications were immense; its irony, inextricable. Indian troops fought on both sides – under the Allied forces were Jats, Rajputs, Sikhs, Marathas, Gurkhas and others, while on the opposing side leading the Japanese advance were soldiers of Subhash Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj. Would the possibility of a Japanese-INA victory and unfurling of the Indian flag have prompted the sepoy to switch loyalties and ignite a revolt within the British Indian army? If the eastern offensive through Burma and North East by Japan was coordinated with the German advance through Egypt, Iran and Iraq, could a war on both frontiers have threatened the British Empire? How would an alternate outcome to the war have rewritten world politics?

The questions rose as we trod gently, realizing how the future of great empires lay rooted under the grass below our feet. Some answers we’d never know. Perhaps, no one can comprehend what it must have been like. Perhaps, the ghosts of war are meant to waft in memories of our consciousness. The words of Kohima war veteran Major Gordon Graham of the Cameron Highlanders will return to haunt us. When he revisited the battlefield in 1954, he recorded his feelings in a moving tribute ‘Memories of Kohima’.

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“The trees are all young on Garrison Hill, and in Naga Village children are playing. The wet earth and sprouting shrubs have the same spring-fresh smell. And there is no stench. Grass-filled fox-holes still mark forgotten remains and some rusty ration tins and leather straps have escaped, as too worthless to pick up, a decade of scavengers.

Beneath the Hill, the graves… in orderly, impersonal, endless rows. In this geometrical panorama there is no heartbreak, no rebuke, no regret. It is a design of peace, the pious peace that follows war, the repulsive peace of ‘Never Again’. It is the mute attempt to express the inexpressible by those who, helpless, are left behind. It has the same conscious inadequacy as the ‘Remarks’ column in the Visitors’ Book, where a sudden embarrassment catches the pen which has written smoothly the name and address and then stumbles on to an anti-climactic ‘Very impressive’ or ‘A fitting resting-place for heroes’. But one ex-soldier had written in a flash of perceptiveness, ‘I wish my name were here’.

Statistics can be comforting. Fifty thousand rupees; 200 saplings; 36 tons of cement; 1387 graves; and 10 years. Like the poignant milestones, past which the country bus had driven in as many minutes as the advancing troops had moved in days, these figures measure the thinker, not the thought. To some they are mere computation; to others they are the sight, smell, and touch of a forgotten battlefield. Just as, at the summit crossroads where the bus groans to a standstill, the level space above is to some that which was once a tennis court and is now a war cemetery; to others it was a point of dominating destiny.”

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the June 2013 issue of Rail Bandhu, the in-train magazine of the Indian Railways.

Meghalaya: A Walk in the Clouds

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The quietly beautiful East Khasi Hills are just an indication of the magic that the rest of Meghalaya can weave, discover ANURAG MALLICK & PRIYA GANAPATHY

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At Shillong, the air was crisp and cold with rock music riding the wind, wafting out of street cafés and mobile phones. The 3½ hour drive from the plains of Guwahati to the mountainous expanse of Meghalaya was mesmerizing. Every so often, we’d stop to click old churches, charming colonial bungalows and women in traditional jainsen and blouses. Near the Polo Ground we watched men wager at the age-old game of teer (archery) before digging into delicious Khasi cuisine of jadoh (red rice) and pork in Trattoria, a local joint.

Our base Rosaville was an elegant heritage home in the suburbs, adorned with antique furniture and sepia photos. Over tea and cookies our hostess Trupti Bauri delighted us with stories of burrasahibs and colonial history. The Don Bosco Museum was an eye-opener on the cultural uniqueness of the North East. We hopped over to the privately-owned Butterfly Museum at Riatsamthiah nearby. Run by the Wankhars, SK Sircar’s splendid one-man-collection showcased a brilliant array of butterflies, beetles and moths. The Rhino Heritage Museum, once an ammo store and dungeon for Japanese POWs in WWII, offered glimpses of the Indian Army’s achievements.

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We drove 10km to reach Shyllong Peak for a fantastic view of the East Khasi countryside. Vendors selling farm produce along the road startled us with the size of radish – each, an arm’s length and as thick as a dictionary! About 15km north, the rippling Umiam Lake (Bara Pani) was the scenic setting for the plush Ri Kynjai Resort, a delicate fusion of luxury and tranquility. On a whim we took a bus to Smit, 17km south of Shillong, the cultural seat and royal abode of the Khyrim Syiemship. The thatched wood and bamboo Lyngdoh House was a study in traditional architecture while a massive granary stood as a nostalgic remnant of a prosperous past. In the quiet untouched sacred groves of Mawphlang, conservationist Tambor Lyngdoh shared insights about endemic flora and Khasi animist traditions.

Back in town, the quaint horseshoe-shaped gate of Tripura Castle drew us into the erstwhile summer retreat of Tripura’s Manikya dynasty. Built in the 1920s by Maharaj Bir Bikram, it was renovated in 2003 into the first heritage hotel in the North East! Swaddled in luxury, we mulled over our next move when a chance meeting with Deepak Laloo of Nakliar Tours led us to Meghalaya’s best kept secret. Mawlynnong.

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We rolled the word on our tongues like a toffee, savouring its musical lilt. Was it really Asia’s cleanest village? The winding journey from Shillong to Dawki would tell us. We sped past open meadows where grass glinted like polished gold in the slanting sun. By dusk, we reached the quaint village with neat rows of houses peeping over floral hedges. Bright orange cosmos bobbed in greeting as Henry Kharrymba led us beyond the Balang Presbyterian Church and a rickety bamboo bridge to the Mawlynnong Guest House & Machan. Like baboons in a leafy canopy, we chattered in the balcony, sipping black tea listening to the stream murmuring below.

By morning Mawlynnong looked like a fairytale. Gardens were awash with dewdrops and the village road was clean as a whistle. Was it coincidence that the fields were lush with broom grass or Phool Jhadu (Thysanolaena maxima), which spawned Mawlynnong’s broom-making industry? Each home had a woven basket for trash and everyone from the elderly to elfin children ensured that the town lived up to its tag ‘God’s Own Garden’.

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Patting a boulder, Henry said “This hole is caused by rainwater. We call it ‘maw-lynnong’ in Khasi, meaning ‘stone with a cavity’ which gives the village its name.” Stones play a significant part in Khasi culture. Some homes had Maw-bin-nah, monolithic stones honouring their ancestors. Perched on a stone with the improbability of an elephant sitting on a lemon, the sacred Maw Ryngkew Sharatia or Balancing Rock was an ancient Khasi shrine that pre-dated the advent of Christianity.

The 2km walk to Riwai’s Jing Kieng Jri led to a setting reminiscent of the movie Avatar. A stunning natural bridge created by gnarled roots of the Ficus elastica tree swung over a rivulet. In Meghalaya’s remote hill tracts, the Living Root Bridges are centuries old modes of crossing streams. Nurtured by villagers who diligently twirl new wiry tendrils around older ones, the intricate hardy mesh can even be paved with stones!

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Nearby Niriang Falls, a 300m cascade of the Wah Rymben River fell in a deep crystal pool fringed by swaying reeds. In this paradise where bright yellow butterflies flitted and mud-puddled around wet rocks, we surrendered to the therapeutic power of the tiered cataract splashing upon us. Not satisfied with the day’s adventures, Henry insisted we walk up to Mawlynnong’s Sky View! “Now??” we groaned. He nodded vigorously, urging us up a wobbly ladder. He gestured at the panorama of green rice fields and smiled, “All that…is Bangladesh.”

But no trip to Meghalaya would be complete without halting at Sohra or Cherrapunjee, one of the wettest places on planet earth. In this rain-soaked haven adrift with clouds, nature lovers come to track the Dark-rumped Swift diving along the misty gorges of the magnificent Nohkalikai and Nohsngithiang Falls and admire the limestone formations of Mawsmai and Mawsynram caves. Being the first British foothold in the North East, relics of Sohra’s imperial past lay scattered around the countryside – the David Scott Memorial (1831) and Nongsawlia Presbyterian Church built in 1846.

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At Cherrapunjee Resort, our host Dennis Rayen revealed that bouldering and caving were gaining popularity. His passion for the place was evident. He had painstakingly collated meteorological data and decorated his walls with charts indicating how Mawsynram had dethroned Cherrapunjee as the world’s rainiest place!

A long trudge into Laitkynsew valley took us to an ancient double-decker root bridge. We dipped our feet in aquamarine pools rippling over cradles of rock, indulging in the pleasures of a natural fish spa. As we drove past the resort’s quirky signboard ‘Heads firmly in clouds, feet firmly on ground’ we wondered, if just a portion of the East Khasi Hills held such intrigue, imagine what magic the Garo and Jaintia hills could weave…

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Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article was published on 18 May 2013 in Times Crest newspaper. 

Kaziranga: The Land of Giants

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY visit the Brahmaputra floodplains in Assam’s premier national park in search of the one-horned rhino and other wildlife adventures

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Like two Vikings in the sun, the rhinos faced each other, horn to horn, their stony mantles gleaming like armour. Safe from our howdah, we thought a battle would ensue but the creatures just sized up each other and calmly lumbered across to graze in the vast open grasslands. Nearby, a herd of swamp deer and hog deer nibbled away while a few breakaways lay curled, dozing in a cradle of reeds. Along the fringe of a marshy lake, a sounder of wild pigs rummaged for a meal. In the distance, wild water buffalos coated in mud froze like errant children caught in the act by the school principal. A lone Adjutant Stork surveyed the scene from a tall dry tree stump.

Set against the dramatic backdrop of the Eastern Himalayas, Kaziranga in Assam stretches along the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River, which sweeps its northern boundary while the NH-31 runs along its southern edge, flanked by tea estates. The dense network of ponds, streams, beels (small lakes), grasslands, tropical wet evergreen and semi-evergreen forests have resulted in a rich tapestry of life. The unique topography and biodiversity environment prompted UNESCO to declare Kaziranga a World Heritage Site in 1985. Yet, its history as a protected zone goes back to a much earlier date.

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When Mary Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon visited Kaziranga in 1904, she couldn’t sight a single rhinoceros. Utterly dejected, she coaxed her husband to initiate conservation in the area. The Kaziranga Proposed Reserve Forest was created on in 1905 covering 232 sq km. By 1974, it had evolved from a wildlife sanctuary into the Kaziranga National Park spanning an impressive 430 sq km. Often drawing comparisons with Africa for its wide open tracts, rich natural bounty and quality of wildlife viewing, today, this riverine habitat is known as the Land of Giants. Besides being a safe haven for the world’s largest population of the great one-horned rhinoceros, Kaziranga supports a notable number of elephants, tigers and the large Asiatic Water buffalo.

The presence of numerous jungle lodges and luxury resorts, and the option of jeep drives, elephant safaris, river cruises, sightings from machaans (observation towers) to nature walks on the park’s periphery makes Kaziranga one of India’s top wildlife destinations. About 15 species of India’s threatened mammals abound the region. In the leafy canopies of the forest’s southern slopes, animated hoots announce the presence of India’s only ape, the Hoolock Gibbon. Kaziranga supports nearly 450 species of birds including the Bengal Florican, several species of geese, pelicans and teals, while its water reservoirs draw over 100 species of migratory birds from as far as Siberia.

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Wild Grass, one of the oldest jungle lodges in the region and the swanky Diphlu River Lodge run by Assam Bengal Navigation, stand apart for top quality wildlife experiences – from bird trails with expert to boat cruises tracking river dolphins along the Brahmaputra. With delicious rustic meals at riverside camps, visits to traditional weaving units and cultural evenings under starlit skies with traditional Bihu dancers and drummers, it’s easy for anyone from six to sixty five to have a good time.

Summer trips with kids can be hot and humid, so don’t forget to pack sunblock, hats, good footwear, earthy-coloured cotton clothes, snacks, water, a pair of binoculars and a good book on birds to identify and tick them off the checklist! The park remains closed between June-September.

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Fact File 

State: Assam
Area: 430 sq km
Altitude: 80 to 1220 m
Temperature: Min 5°C – Max 37°C
When to visit: November to May
Where to stay: Wild Grass Lodge, Diphlu River Lodge, Jhupuri Ghar

How to get there: There are regular flights such as Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) and Air India (www.airindia.in) connecting Guwahati to Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. Kaziranga National Park is 215km (5 1/2 hour drive) from Guwahati

http://www.kaziranganationalpark.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared on 26 March 2012 in Conde Nast Traveller online. 

India’s Exotic North East: Amazing places to Stay

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ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY pick the best homestays, tea plantation bungalows, wildlife lodges, heritage hotels, bamboo huts & farm stays across Assam, Meghalaya, Sikkim, Arunachal and Nagaland

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Assam
In the land of the mighty Brahmaputra, the one-horned rhino and the fabled Assam tea, there are hidden pleasures waiting to be discovered. At Majuli, the world’s largest river island with several centuries-old satras (Vaishnava monasteries), stay in French-designed huts of bamboo and thatch as you savour the rustic riverine culture of the Mishing community. Lush countryside, tea plantations and colonial comforts greet you at the heritage tea bungalows around Jorhat. Choose from the majestic Thengal Manor at Jalukonibari, the sprawling Burra Sahib’s Bungalow with a lake and a golf course, or the tranquil environs of the Banyan Grove, named after its ancient arboreal wonder. Live in chang bungalows (traditional houses on stilts) at Mancotta or Chowkidinghee near Dibrugarh and go horse riding or tea picking in the morning. After wildlife safaris and nature trails, relax in the warm ambience of jungle camps at Kaziranga, Nameri and Manas. Wildgrass Lodge at Kaziranga even arranges cultural evenings of Bihu and other local art forms. Spot Gangetic dolphins on boat cruises along the Brahmaputra river while staying in riverside bamboo huts.

Jet Airways flies to Guwahati, Jorhat and Dibrugarh

Hacienda, Guwahati
Thengal Manor, Jalukonibari
Banyan Grove & Burra Sahib’s Bungalow, Jorhat
Ph 0376-2304267/673, 9954451548 
heritagenortheast@gmail.com 
Web www.heritagetourismindia.com  
Tariff Rs.6,500-16,000

Chang Bungalows, Dibrugarh
Purvi Discovery 
Contact Rishi Saraf
Ph 0373 2301120, 2300035
purvidiscovery@gmail.com    
Web www.assamteatourism.comwww.specialinteresttours.in
Tariff Rs.5,200

Diphlu River Lodge, Kaziranga
Bansbari Lodge, Manas
Ph 0361-2602223, 2602186, 2540995
assambengal@rediffmail.com
Web www.assambengalnavigation.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-6,000

Wild Mahseer Lodge, Balipara
McLeod Russel India Ltd 
Contact Mr. Durgadas Sarcar
Ph 03714-234354/79, 9435197650
wildmahseer@yahoo.comwildmahseer@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.6,600

Wild Grass Lodge, Kaziranga
Contact Manju Barua/Deepak
Ph 0361-2630465, 03776-262085, 9954416945
wildgrasskaziranga@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.2,300

Prabhakar Homestay, Guwahati
Ph 0361-2650053, 9435033221/2 
bookings@prabhakar-homestay.com 
Tariff Rs.4,500-6,000

Eco Camp, Nameri
Assam Bhoroli Angling & Conservation Association
Contact Ranesh Roy
Ph 9435145563, 9435250025, 9854019932
ecocampnameri@gmail.com
Tariff Rs.1,100

La Maison D’Ananda, Garamur, Majuli
Contact Manjeet 
Ph 9957186356
danny002in@yahoo.com
Tariff Rs.600-800

Me:Po Okum, Majuli
Contact Haren Narah
Ph 9435203165
Tariff Rs.500

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Meghalaya
Be it rock music, rainfall or nature’s best-kept secrets, Meghalaya has it all. Enjoy the unique hilly region kissed by clouds and swathed in dense green forests with waterfalls thundering down deep gorges. Walk down gnarled root bridges of the Ficus elastica tree, bathe in waterfalls and savour home-cooked meals in a tree-house in the spotlessly clean village of Mawlynnong! Indulge in the colonial charms of heritage bungalows in Shillong. At Rosaville, sip Assam tea with English elegance and browse through vintage sepia photographs or put your feet up like royalty at Tripura Castle. The summer retreat of the Maharajas of the Manikya dynasty of Tripura has a collection of antique Chinese furniture, Victorian objet d’art and a bed graced by Rabindranath Tagore! Soak in true-blue khasi hospitality and cuisine in the swanky resort by the lakefront – Ri Kynjai, a luxurious Eden overlooking the serene expanse of Umiam Lake (Barapani). Its impeccable décor and architecture blends in aspects of khasi culture, textiles and art. Near Cherrapunjee, the old British headquarters of the North East, stay at a lodge that meticulously documents the region’s prodigious rainfall while offering adventure activities like caving, river canyoning and nature trails to Meghalaya’s legendary living root bridges. 

Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort, Laitkynsew
Contact Denis & Carmela Rayen
Ph 03637-244218/9
M 9436115925, 9615338500, 9863079856
cherrapunjee@hotmail.com 
www.cherrapunjee.com 
Tariff Rs.1,800-2,250

Ri Kynjai, Umiam Lake
Ph 0364-2570 45
rikynjai@yahoo.co.in
Web www.rikynjai.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-10,000        

Royal Heritage Tripura Castle, Shillong
Ph 0364-2501111/49
rh_tripuracastle@rediffmail.com
Web www.tripuracastle.com 
Tariff Rs.3,600-6,000

Rosaville, Shillong 
Contact Mrs. Topoti Bauri
Ph 0364-2231248, 9612170858 ‎
Tariff Rs.2,000-3,500

Aerodene Cottage, Shillong
Contact Sharlene
Ph 0364-2224958, 97740 65366
aerodene.cottage@gmail.com
Web www.aerodene.in
Tariff Rs.2,500-3,000

Bo-Ville Homestay, Shillong
M 9863062909, 9436335322
enid@bovillehomestay.com
www.bovillehomestay.com
Tariff Rs.2,300

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Arunachal Pradesh
In high mountainous tracts where yaks roam free, prayer flags rustle in the breeze and hardy Monpas bearing heavy loads strapped across their foreheads trudge uphill, Arunachal’s stunning beauty reveals itself at every turn. From the entry point at Bhalukpong, the road rises past Sessa Orchid Sanctuary and Eagle Nest Camp to the quaint hamlets of Bomdila and Dirang and the quiet pastures of Sangti Valley, visited by black-necked cranes. Spartan accommodation is often compensated by what you wake up to – hot tea and momos, unparalleled views of the snow-clad Himalayas and chants ringing out from nearby monasteries. Beyond the Zen-like calm of the high-altitude lake at Sela Pass, lies Tawang. Looming over town is the 400-year-old monastery with an 8ft high Buddha statue, striking wall frescos and old thangkas adorning the prayer hall. Budget hotels around Old Market, Nehru Market and Old Bazar Line are a good base to explore Singsar Ani Gompa (a nunnery), the 700-year-old Gorsham Gompa, monasteries, craft centres and rows of shops selling Tibetan and local handicrafts, jewelry and textiles. A drive beyond Tawang takes you past several high-altitude lakes like the hauntingly beautiful Sangetsar, created by an earthquake in 1973 and renamed ‘Madhuri Lake’ after the movie Koyla was shot here.

Eaglenest Camp, Tenga
Kaati Tours/Bugun Welfare Society
Contact Ramana Athreya, Mr. Indi Glow
Ph 91-3782-273359, 02132-245770 
kaati_tours@vsnl.net

Hotel Tsepal Yangjom, Bomdila
Contact Rinchen Trashi
Ph 03782-223473, 223674, 9436241432
info@hoteltsepalyangjom.co.in
Tariff Rs 1,600-3,600

Elysium Lodge, Bomdila
Ph 03782-223156, 9402071827, 9436069051
Tariff Rs.1,110-1,600

WelcomHeritage Pemaling, Dirang
Ph 03780-242615
Tariff Rs.2,200-5,000
holidays@welcomeheritagehotels.com

Gakyi Khang Zhang Farmhouse, Tawang
Ph 03794-224647/48/49
info@gkztawang.com 
Web www.gkztawang.com
Tariff Rs 1,300-2,600

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Nagaland
The native land of warriors, log drums, elaborate costumes, vibrant dances and hand-woven shawls, Nagaland is a dream destination for many. Heritage stays in the heart of Kohima like Razhu Pru and Old DC’s Bungalow (now called The Heritage) are ideal to explore the town’s various khels (old quarters). For an authentic Naga experience, try the hospitality of an Angami home in the historic village of Khonoma. Stay in typical Naga huts designed by various clans of Touphema as you get insights into their unusual culture and cuisine. Locals act as guides to nearby sites and you can share a hot brew in a morung (boys dormitory) as they regale you with folklore, stories of ancestral exploits and lavish village feasts. In Mon district, stay at Shiyong, in the home of a Konyak family and understand how their tribe evolved from being headhunters with elaborate facial tattoos to modern day farmers and tea planters. Participate in farm work and tea-picking or trek through the tribal villages.

Jet Airways flies direct from Guwahati and Kolkata to Dimapur, Nagaland’s only airport, from where Kohima is 74 km away

Razhu Pru, Kohima
Contact Jasmina Zeliang
Ph 0370-229 0291
razhupru@yahoo.co.in 
Tariff Rs.1800

The Heritage, Kohima 
Contact Teja Meru
Ph 0370-2241864, 9856972762
info@theheritage.in 
Web www.theheritage.in  
Tariff Rs.1800-2500

Tourist Village, Touphema 
Contact KV
Ph 9436005002
kvls@yahoo.com 
Tariff Rs.1,200

Jah-poh-long Mountain View Resort, Mon 
Contact Shepha & Phejin Wangnao
Ph 9436606212, 9436424210
shepha3@yahoo.com

Shiyong Homestay, Mon
Contact Phejin Konyak
phejin@gmail.com 
Web www.shiyongvillage.com

Meru’s homestay, Khonoma
Contact Khrieni & Megongui Meru
Ph 0370-234 0061

Baby’s Homestay, Khonoma 
Contact Angulie Meyase 
Ph 94360 71046

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Sikkim
Crowned by the world’s third-highest peak Kanchenjunga and bisected by the legendary Teesta River from north to south, Sikkim is India’s least populous state and perhaps one of the best places to lose yourself. Get pampered at the luxurious Nor-Khill (House of Jewels), the summer palace of the Chogyal kings in Gangtok. Experience village tourism with Himalayan homestays at Dzongu, Kewzing, Pastanga, Yuksam and Naitam. Or choose from a bouquet of farm stays – the Lepcha homestead of Mayal Lyang at Dzongu, the heritage Bhutia farmhouse of Yangsum Farm at Rinchepong or Bon Farmhouse at Kewzing, a birdwatcher’s paradise. Dotted by numerous monasteries at Rumtek, Pemayangtse and Tashiding, Sikkim flourishes under the benevolent gaze of patron saint Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), who introduced Buddhism to the region in 9th century AD. The 120 ft high seated sculpture at Namchi is the world’s tallest statue of Padmasambhava.

Ecotourism and Conservation Society of Sikkim (ECOSS)
Ph 03592-232798, 9733088003
ecoss@sikkiminfo.net 
Web www.sikkimhomestay.com

Elgin Nor-Khill, Gangtok
Ph 03592-205637, 200170/1, 220064
norkhill@elginhotels.com
Web www.elginhotels.com 
Tariff Rs.7,200

The Hidden Forest Retreat, Gangtok
Ph 03592-205197, 203196, 9474981367, 9434137409 
kesangforest@yahoo.in
Web www.hiddenforestretreat.org 
Tariff Rs.2,000

Norbu Ghang Resort/House, Pelling
Ph 03595-250173, 258245/72, 9933004491/3/6
norbughangresort@yahoo.co.in  
Web www.norbughangresort.com
Tariff Rs.3,000-10,000

Yangsum Farm, Rinchepong
Contact Thendup Tashi & Pema Chuki Bhutia
Ph 03595-245322, 9434179029 
yangsumfarm@yahoo.com 
Web www.yangsumfarm.com 
Tariff Rs.6,250

Mayal Lyang, Dzongu 
Contact Gyatso & Samsay Lepcha 
Ph 9434446088
gyatso@mayallyang.com   
Tariff Rs.3,800

Bon Farmhouse, Kewzing
Contact Chewang & Sonam R Bonpo
Ph 9735900165, 9547667788
bonfarmhouse@gmail.com
Web www.sikkimbonfarmhouse.com
Tariff Rs.2,150-2,950

Mount Narsing Village Resort, Ravangla
Ph 03592-226822
info@yuksom-tours.com 
Tariff Rs.700-2,100

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the September, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.