Off the beaten path : Stories of life and land in Arunachal, Assam and Meghalaya

After a tormenting flight full of very strong tremors, landing at Dibrugarh Airport in Assam was a bit of relief for me. In fact, the flight made me care even less about the news of insurgency in the region. Soon after landing,  I followed the direction of my friends and I took a shared cab to Tinsukia. On reaching Tinsukia, while I was just meeting my friends who came to pick me up from the market, we heard a loud blast. Luckily, it was only a tyre burst. Every information I had about the North Eastern states, was fed in through the news, which is mostly about the extremist movements and the bloodshed in the region.

The journey started from a tea estate in Tinsukia, where few of my friends were already staying. Me and Max were to travel in some distant parts of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Meghalaya. We had no fixed plan. In fact, the only thing I knew was about rafting down Debang river. It had never been done before and we were invited by a group of professionals who added another raft for us to join them for their first try. Though we could never meet the team, thanks to a series of short delays, we had our share of adventure in just trying to finding them in one of the remotest part of the world. Max even wrote an article for my blog about the experience. (Read it here).

After the search, reaching Itanagar, the capital of the state, was yet another adventure. When at one point we almost thought we were being kidnapped by our taxi driver. The route went through hours of lonely river beds and rivers. To reach Itanagar we had to cross two rivers. As there are no bridges, the only way to do that is by transporting our SUV on a floating wooden object that looked something like a flat ugly boat. While the driver went deeper into the dry and lonely region away from the civilisation, we saw men patrolling around with long swords in their hands, which was not the regular knife everyone keeps in a bamboo shell. After a thirteen hour drive, we reached Itanagar safely. I still don’t know anything about those men with swords.

For Christmas we walked 8kms to Pange from Ziro in the ‘Talle Wildlife Sanctuary’, where we spent a cold winter night in the middle of a thick forest in a bamboo hut. It got so cold, that I had to wake up to start a fire and sit around it till sunrise without sleeping, in the company of cats and two cute puppies.

We also got a chance to experience a unique New Year celebration. People in Jowai, about 60 kms from Shillong, celebrate New Year for two days. On the first day, they have huge bonfires in different neighbourhoods with many cultural events and on the second, they have community feasts in each neighbourhood followed by a parade around the city with their specially composed new year songs playing in cars with loud speakers. We were the only tourists in the town, but the hospitable Jaintia people made us feel at home.

Apart from all this, each day from our month long stay, was full of interesting adventures and we met hundreds of interesting people. Now, thanks to everyone I met,  I know a lot more about the three states and I got rid of so many rumours about the region. Traveling is the most authentic way to learn.

Listed below are the stories we did for The New York Times during our journey. All written by Max Bearak accompanied by the pictures I took.

Hope you enjoy reading them.

Cheers!

In Assam, an Idea Whose Time Has Not Yet Come

ASSAM — In Mumbai, where Jahnu Barua makes documentary films, a normal Indian lunchtime of 2 p.m. more or less corresponds to midday, when the sun is highest overhead. But when Mr. Barua goes back to his home state of Assam, especially during the winter months, the afternoon light is… Read More

Men sitting around a fire after sunset in Hattigarh, in Assam, on Dec. 29, 2013.
Men sitting around a fire after sunset in Hattigarh, in Assam, on Dec. 29, 2013.

A Conversation With: Summersalt, Band from Meghalaya

SHILLONG, Meghalaya — There’s no definitive theory on how Shillong, the capital of the northeastern state of Meghalaya, became known as the rock capital of India. Some say the Khasi culture of most Meghalayans has always celebrated music and is simply continuing to do so. Others cite the hymns brought by Welsh missionaries, while some point to…Read More

Summersalt, a folk band from Shillong, Meghalaya, playing in their backyard on Jan. 4.
Summersalt, a folk band from Shillong, Meghalaya, playing in their backyard on Jan. 4.

A Competition for Converts in Arunachal Pradesh

ITANAGAR, Arunachal Pradesh — Though the event they advertised had passed a month earlier, the neon-colored posters remained, clinging to the state capital’s walls, lampposts and storefronts. On them were invitations to Indigenous Faith Day celebrations on Dec. 1, with slogans like “Culture without faith is body without soul,” and,…Read More

Women attending mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, on Dec. 23, 2013.
Women attending mass at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Itanagar, Arunachal Pradesh, on Dec. 23, 2013.

Hopes, and Homes, Crumbling on Indian Tea Plantations

NAHORANI TEA ESTATE, India — For a century and a half, Madhu Munda’s forebears toiled on the same tea plantation that she lives and works on now. Belonging to central Indian tribes brought to what is now the northeastern state of Assam by the British in the mid-19th century, they and millions of other plantation workers survived as little more than indentured servants, even as…Read More

Madhu Munda lives and works on the Nahorani Tea Estate. Credit Himanshu Khagta for The New York Times
Madhu Munda lives and works on the Nahorani Tea Estate. Credit Himanshu Khagta for The New York Times

‘Cleanest Village’ Questions Its Blessings Amid Influx of Visitors

MAWLYNNONG, India — Anshuman Sen was barely a year out of college when, in 2005, he traveled to Meghalaya, a hilly northeastern state distant both in miles and…Read More

A group of tourists get off a bus in Mawlynnong village, Meghalaya.
A group of tourists get off a bus in Mawlynnong village, Meghalaya.

A Village Brings Down Its Hills as Lure of Mining Grows

NONGTALANG, India — “Bomb, bomb, bomb!” shouted the miner, and his warning echoed off the walls of the decapitated hillock. Seconds later, an explosion sliced off yet another chunk of limestone, which crumbled into a…Read More

Helpme H. Mohrmen, who refers to himself as the “Lone Ranger” in the fight against mining in the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.
Helpme H. Mohrmen, who refers to himself as the “Lone Ranger” in the fight against mining in the Jaintia Hills in Meghalaya.

 

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