Secrets of Northeast India: Waterfalls, Martial Dances and Local Legends

The seven states present a tableau of cultural and geographic gems.  
The women of north india show their talent through dance
The Chong Kedam, a dance that narrates the migration of the Karbis of Assam from China to the northeastern state. Photo: Anshul Mehrotra

Martial Dance in Karbi Anglong, Assam

Chong Kedam is a living memorial to the Karbi people’s origin story.

By Karanjeet Kaur

Chong Kedam is an Assamese martial dance that was traditionally performed by adolescent or unmarried males of the Karbi community armed with swords (nok) and shields (chong). The Karbi people are believed to have migrated to present-day Karbi Anglong in central Assam, the state’s largest district, from western China along the course of the Brahmaputra and Irrawady rivers.

Photo: Anshul Mehrotra

The festival brings together members from different villages. Photo: Anshul Mehrotra

This origin story is usually presented as an oral narrative at the conclu
sion of Chong Kedam. In earlier days, the shields would be fashioned from rhinoceros hide, but given the horned animal’s endangered status, dancers—now both men and women—use steel or aluminium variants.

In the state’s plains, Chong Kedam is reserved for recitals during two of the three Bihu festival celebrations held during a year. But in Assam’s hills, performances often take place during the elaborate funerary festival of Chomangkan. During that time, they tend to acquire an erotic verbal component as well.

The three-to five-day festival brings together community members from different villages across the state, resulting in a rich, vivid display of Karbi culture that community members encourage visitors to witness, but not take part in.

—With inputs from D.S. Teron

The Guide

You can witness a Chong Kedam performance during the Bihu festival celebrations in January and mid-April. In Assam’s hilly reaches, the dance is also performed during Chomangkan, usually held between early December and the first few days of March.


Apatani Grace in Ziro, Arunachal Pradesh

Camaraderie and coexistence, Apatani tribe-style.

By Richa Gupta

Photo: Hemis Collection/ Indiapicture

The Apatani tribe rear fish in their irrigated paddy fields. Photo: Hemis Collection/ Indiapicture

The Ziro Festival of Music catapulted this remote valley in the eastern Himalayas into popular consciousness. However, for travellers who are not musically inclined, Ziro is indelibly linked to the Apatani tribe, whose female members have facial tattoos and wear cane nose plugs. Yet, when I stayed with a local family a few months ago, I learnt that there is much more to the place.

As I made my way into Arunachal, the plains gave way to hilly terrain and a delicate landscape of ferns, orchids, and rhododendrons amidst dense green forests emerged. The temperature dropped, crowds shrank, and the air felt cleaner.

My host was a local Apatani lady in her 50s. Bright eyes dominated her wrinkled, tattooed face, which filled with pride when she spoke of Ziro. She guided me on walks through thick forest and beautiful villages of the green valley.

The Apatanis have distinctive methods of sustainable farming, like rearing fish in water-filled paddy fields. It is for practices like these that the Apatani Cultural Landscape is mentioned on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

My trip coincided with Myoko, a unique festival which celebrates friendship. Each year in March, homes in a few host villages are opened to guests around the clock. You don’t need to know the owners, just walk in to meet them and enjoy local delicacies and fresh rice beer.

I left knowing that Ziro is one of those rare places with the perfect combination of natural beauty and hospitable people, successfully coexisting together.

The Guide

Ziro is 167 km/4 hrs north of the state capital Itanagar. Shared and private taxis are available. Visitors require Inner Line Permits, which are available from the state’s Resident and Deputy Resident Commissioner’s office and Liaison Offices in Kolkata, Delhi, Guwahati, Shillong, Dibrugarh, North Lakhimpur, Tezpur, and Jorhat. Alternatively, you can apply for the permit online here.


Hidden Waterfall in Sohra, Meghalaya

Rediscovering home through a stranger’s eyes.

By Amrita Das

Photo: Lambert Shadap

The Dainthlen Falls are on the road from Shillong to Sohra. Photo: Lambert Shadap

Listening to my brother-in-law complain about the concrete jungle that my city Shillong has become, I decided to take him on a little trip to explore
 the more beautiful side of Meghalaya. We headed off to Sohra, formerly Cherrapunji. I took him on a tour of 
the usual sights like the limestone caves and windswept Shillong peak. They were picturesque, but the intended high point of the trip was a hidden waterfall that I’d heard of but never actually seen.

Only, it was hidden a little too well. After frequent stops to ask for directions, we wound up at the end of a small dirt road. It was a vast green space, with no waterfall in sight and no people to seek further directions from.

Dejected, I wandered aimlessly and came across a scenic old bridge. I realised it went over an empty riverbed; at the same time my sister said she could hear running water. We traced the riverbed until the faint sound of water became a gushing fury and the magnificent Dainthlen Falls came into view.

According to local legend, an evil and monstrous snake known as “thlen” was killed here. Deep scars in the rocks next to the waterfall are said to mark the place where it died. I didn’t see the marks, but I do remember how I felt when I first saw the waterfall. The silently flowing water escalated into a roaring jet as it tumbled over the edge. I could peer down and see it gather into a pool at the bottom. After a few minutes spent lost in the sound of the water, I pulled myself away to find my sister sitting quietly on the rocky riverbed and my brother-in-law busy photographing the soothing greens, blues, and browns of the place.

I realised that day that in my quest to travel the world, I’d never explored my own backyard. In showing my home to a visitor, I had taken an unknown turn that led to a beautiful discovery.

The Guide

Dainthlen Falls is 50 km/1.5 hrs southwest of Meghalaya’s capital Shillong, along the road to Sohra (formerly Cherrapunji). Turn right from Sohra-Shella road at Sohrarim.


Fragrant Blooms in Dzukou Valley, Nagaland

The wild, fragile beauty of a perfumed valley.

By Arkadripta Chakraborty

Photo: Arpan Kalita

Nagaland’s Valley Of Flowers is best visited durnig the monsoon. Photo: Arpan Kalita

On an overcast day you could mistake the landscape of Dzukou Valley for Middle-earth. Between June and September however, Nagaland’s “Valley of Flowers” becomes the only residence for the large, rare, fuchsia-coloured Dzukou lily—even its botanical name, Lilium chitrangadae is poetic. The lily draws botany enthusiasts as well as trekkers, who walk through a carpet of flowers: from varieties of flat-petalled euphorbia, striking lavender aconitum, and wild orchid to several species 
of rhododendron.

A trek across the valley is ideally done over two days, because of the altitude and the occasionally steep gradient. A few streams gurgle through Dzukou’s flat hills, and the ones close to the valley’s rock caves make for ideal camping spots.

Unlike the route to Uttarakhand’s Valley of Flowers National Park, the path to Dzukou is completely devoid of touristy comforts, so it is important to carry food and other essentials from Kohima. Tourists can hire cooking stoves and other utensils from markets in the base villages of Viswema or Zakhama. Less adventurous hikers can head to the government rest house, which offers accommodation in a dormitory and basic food for a nominal charge.

—As told to Karanjeet Kaur

The Guide

Dzukou Valley, located behind the Japfu range at an elevation of 
over 2,400 metres, straddles the borders of Manipur and Nagaland, and is about 45 km southwest of the latter’s capital, Kohima. There are a couple of routes to approach the valley, but the most popular one is via Zakhama village, an 11-km trek of which 7 km is very steep.

It is not advisable to attempt it without a porter and guide; they can be engaged from Zakhama for 
a charge. Visitors require Inner Line Permits. Forms are available from the state’s Resident Commissioner and Deputy Resident Commissioner’s Offices in New Delhi, Kolkata, Shillong, Guwahati, or Mokokchung in Nagaland.


Mother’s Market in Imphal, Manipur

Like a child in a candy shop at Ima Keithel.

By Paromita Bardoloi

Photo: Tarun Saldanha

For many ladies in the market, their stalls are part of their family legacy. Photo: Tarun Saldanha

The moment I stepped into Imphal’s Ima Keithel or Mother’s Market, I felt
 I was in a place where women have asserted their rightful share of public space. All around me in the all-women market, I could see female shopkeepers selling everything from food—fried beans, fish curry, and rice—to photographs of deities, traditional Manipuri attire, and pirated Korean and English movie CDs.

The atmosphere is convivial and friendly: The women pause to share an anecdote or tell a joke as they go about their work, and discuss socio-political issues during their breaks. I noticed that most of the stall-keepers are older women, as young mothers stay home to look after their children. But there are also the very young, who want to do something of their own before getting embroiled in family life.

Most women are dressed in the traditional wraparound, phanek, and inaphi shawl; many have sandalwood stripes on their foreheads. Some of the 3,000 women who work in the three sections of the market begin their day as early as 3 a.m., closing shop only at six in the evening.

For many of the imas, their stalls represent a family legacy. I spent some time with Radha, who told me that she had inherited her fish stall from her mother, and that her daughter will run it after her. Women of a family often help each other out at their stalls. The market has also often served as a venue for Manipuri women to stage protests or voice their concern on issues important to them.

As I left, I realised that I had spent over four hours in the market. I hadn’t made a purchase, but the sense of warmth and belonging that I walked out with was an unforgettable souvenir (Khwairamband Bazaar is a short walk from Kangla Fort, just off Bir Tikendrajit Road).

Courtyard Pantomime

Shumang Leela is one of the oldest, most popular forms of traditional theatre in Manipur valley. Roughly translated as “courtyard theatre”, the history of the performing art form goes back more than 2,000 years. Shumang Leela is performed in the Meitei language by a troupe of 12-15 travelling artists who are invited by families or communities to mark special occasions like religious festivals, a birth in the family, a marriage or any prosperous event. Traditionally, even female roles were essayed by an all-male cast, but now troupes welcome members of the transgender community, locally known as nupi shaabi. The plays are staged on an elevated platform using only two chairs and a table 
as props; the audience is seated around the platform, close to the actors. It is common for viewers to offer money as dakshina (donation), to the performers.

In ancient times, Shumang Leela performances began as enactments of scenes from the Mahabharata and other mythological events. With time, Bengali literature also came to be a source of inspiration. Present-day Shumang Leela though, has transformed into a medium to generate socio-political awareness through comedy, pantomime, and song-and-dance sequences.

—Karen Dias


Cat Condo in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram

Big cats and bamboo-enveloped silences.

By Nimesh Ved

An elusive Dampa cat caught by a camera trap. Photo: Sandesh Kadur

An elusive Dampa cat caught by a camera trap. Photo: Sandesh Kadur

I had spent three lovely years living in Saiha, a town in southern Mizoram, around 2007. So when I returned in 2013 to visit Dampa in Mamit district, Mizoram’s only tiger reserve, I couldn’t wait to embrace the comforting warmth of the people and the place again.

We landed at Lengpui Airport close to Aizawl, the state’s capital, on a Sunday. Everything was shut, so we drove directly to Dampa on very uninviting roads and over a wooden bridge. I stayed in Phaileng, headquarters of the tiger reserve. The evenings here are special, the green and brown hills around seem to rise to greet the night sky. Homes along the meandering roads, when graced by electricity, reminded me of a pearl necklace. The silence was pronounced, broken only by the occasional purring of a cat nearby.

The beautiful tropical rainforest, that stretches over 550 sq km, is bisected by the Tropic of Cancer. There are few walking paths inside the forest, but the terrain is mostly rugged, requiring visitors climb up and down rocks—I narrowly missed slipping several times. On our walks, we collected scat samples that were sent to research institutions for analysis. It is one of the methods, along with camera traps, to determine approximate numbers of the animal species that inhabit these remote forests.

The elusive marbled cat is one of the six feline species that calls Dampa home. In addition, two types of bears—including the rare Malayan sun bear—Hoolock gibbon, Phayre’s leaf monkey, and six other species of primates, roam the wild.

The nights in the forest proved unforgettable. During one excursion, we slept at an anti­-poaching camp beside the Sazuk River. The setting was rendered stunning by the full moon night. On another, we camped alongside a river. I still recall how nervous I felt as I helped light the fire, completely distracted by the elephant tracks I had seen earlier. But deep inside the bamboo­-enveloped silences of Dampa, I slept like I was at home.

The Guide

Dampa Tiger Reserve is headquartered at Phaileng in Mizoram’s Mamit district. The closest airport is at Lengpui near Aizawl (75 km/3 hrs), which has flights from Kolkata and Guwahati. Visitors require Inner Line Permits, available from the state’s Resident Commissioner’s Office in New Delhi; Liaison Offices in Kolkata, Silchar, Shillong, and Guwahati; and on arrival at Lengpui Airport.


Carved Faces on Unakoti Hill, Tripura

Sermons in stone.

By Arkadripta Chakraborty

faces in the hillside

Visit Unakoti during April’s annual Ashok Ashtami Mela for an unforgettable experience. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Unakoti or “one less than a crore” is Tripura’s most dramatic attraction. The low hill bears several gigantic carvings of Hindu gods and goddesses, some of them over 30 feet tall. Even the path to Unakoti, located about 160 km from Tripura’s capital Agartala, is strewn with fallen idols: large boulders that have been etched like the faces in the hillside.

Historians have been unable to pin a date to the ancient Shaiva pilgrimage spot, but most estimates verge between the fifth and the seventh century. The most imposing carving on the hill face is the head of Shiva, referred to as Unakotiswara Kaal Bhairava. The stately sculpture’s headdress alone is over 10 feet tall. Vishnu, Ganesha, Hanuman, Durga, and other deities complete the pantheon.

Legends surrounding the hill abound, but according to the most abiding one, Shiva and a crore other divine beings were passing through the region on their way to Varanasi. They paused overnight at the hill, but only on a condition placed by Shiva that they’d all depart for their destination at the break of dawn. In the morning, however, Shiva was the only one who managed to wake up and made the journey on his own—but not before cursing all the others and turning them to stone. The best time to experience Unakoti is during the vibrant Ashok Ashtami Mela, organised every April.

—As told to Karanjeet Kaur

The Guide

Unakoti Hill is 10 km/30 mins
 from the district headquarters of Kailashahar, which is about 160 km/4 hrs northeast of Tripura’s capital Agartala, connected to Kolkata by flight. Taxis are available at Agartala for a day trip to Unakoti. Taxis and buses are available from Kumarghat to visit Unakoti.

Appeared in the August 2014 issue as “Myth, Mystery And Unexplored Beauty”.

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