My maiden sojourn of enchanting Northeast
Northeast used to hold a special place in my heart and attract me to the utmost just akin to a hidden treasure yet to be discovered!
It was the year 1989. One fine morning, my father announced that we are going to visit the Northeast during Durga Puja holidays! Oh my joy knew no bounds! We had been to many parts of the country, but yet to visit Northeastern India. Now Northeast remained in another plain in my consciousness --- filled with mystery and unknown. Hardly any acquaintance of our family had visited the region. Very few materials about the North-east were projected in “mainstream” media at that age. So right from my childhood, Northeast used to hold a special place in my heart and attract me to the utmost just akin to a hidden treasure yet to be discovered! The names of Guwahati, Brahmaputra, Kaziranga, Meghalaya, Cherrapunji, Nagaland, Kohima, Imphal, Mizoram, Agartala, Bomdilla, Tawang used to constantly haunt my imagination right from my early childhood. Northeast --- the land of Bhupen Hazarika, Ratan Thiam, Bihu, Unakoti Hills, tea gardens, Loktak Lake or Keibul Lamjao National Park(the only floating park in the world) and exquisite Manipuri dance which was brought into the shores of Bengal by none other than Rabindranath Tagore! Now such an opportunity to at last step in and appreciate four of the Eight Sisters has arrived at my doorstep! Am I day-dreaming?
Assam: As the Kamakhya Express departed New Jalpaiguri station on night, we called it a day and went off to sleep. The reverberation of the train crossing a railway bridge awakened me in the dawn. I peeped outside from the lower berth. And what a scene indeed! The sheer magnitude of the river promptly proved that it is none other than the mighty Brahmaputra! God playing with colours in the dimly-lit Eastern sky, Nilachal Hills on the horizon and the “never-ending” river reminding Bhupen Hazarika’s touching ballad “O Bura Lohit tumi boya kiyo” --- Oh what a grand entry to Guwahati, Assam and North-East!
After checking in a Paltan Bazar Hotel and having breakfast, it is Kamakhya time high up on the Nilachal Hills. The temple on the hill top amidst greenery and the scene of Guwahati city with the large expanse of flowing Brahmaputra below are indeed nice, but also I can’t forget the holy ambience within temple premises and the dignified civilized behaviour of the Kamakhya priests. Post-lunch, the visit to Basistha Temple on the outskirts of Guwahati was also a nice experience indeed. The location of the temple along a gallant stream descending from the hills on the background was surreal to say the least. And the evening was spent along the Brahmaputra bank with the Peacock Island(hosting Umananda Temple) on the right and the heritage Guwahati structures like famous Cotton College on the left.
Meghalaya: Next morning we were headed towards Shillong. Passing through villages and small towns of Byrnihat and Nongpoh, bamboo-groves, the large Umiam Lake meandering on the lap of the ranges of Khasi Hills with umbrella of clouds all over and a cool climate engulfing us --- the names Meghalaya(Abode of Clouds) or ‘Switzerland of the East’ are so appropriate and right in place! Though we enjoyed the mystic Meghalaya capital with its winding roads, pine trees, majestic Churches and buildings bearing an amalgamation of British and indigenous architectures; we could not take a bird’s eye view of it from Shillong Peak due to cloud cover. However we got cheered up by the beautiful Elephant Falls. Never had I witnessed any three-storied waterfalls previously! And the lowest one was not only the largest, but most awesome also with gallons of white downpour upon hard rocks and surrounded by green vegetation.
Another Shillong beauty was waiting to be discovered --- the twin Falls named Beadon and Bishop. And the fruitful day culminated amidst colourful flowers and bird life of Lady Hydari Park.
Cherrapunji was the destination next day. Oh what an excitement! Instantly my mind flew back to my geography book of lower class as we had been acquainted with the name of the place for being the wettest place in the earth! And perhaps no pen or painting can portray the scenic beauty of that journey from Shillong to Cherrapunji. By enjoying the sights of cute tiny settlements, fruit orchards, undulating hillsides, playful hide and seek of bright sunlight and free-flowing clouds --- at first we reached the doorway of Mawsmai Cave. A huge “mouth” is beckoning us to explore the cave! We took few steps forward and got awe-struck by the lavish spread of stalactites and stalagmites bearing dimensions and hues of all possible permutations and combinations. Since it was pitch dark inside and the path getting narrower, we could not approach more and had to retreat( perhaps only the Almighty knew at that time that I would be exploring that very cave fully in a lighted state, that too with my son and wife 22 years later!).
As we resumed our journey, suddenly hills along one side of the road yielded place to a valley and vast blue watery expanse of plains down and distant below. Yes, we are reaching at an edge of the Khasi Hills and it is Bangladesh plains lying in front of our eyes on the horizon! That was my maiden glimpse at any foreign land which indeed augmented my excitement. After taking view of the mesmerising Nohkalikai Falls(tallest plunge waterfalls in India)and Nohsngithiang Falls, we halted at Ramkrishna Mission. What a divine place to build up an educational institution! Located above a hilltop with mountain ridges on one side and vast Bangladesh plains on the other with unrestrained sunshine and white puffy clouds above; perhaps the most non-interested child will also embrace books whole-heartedly! Never can I forget that wonderful trip to that picture-postcard named Cherrapunji or Sohra( as the Khasis call it lovingly) --- perhaps the most heavenly gem of Meghalaya!
Nagaland: Following a late lunch on return to Shillong on afternoon, we bade adieu to the eye-soothing state of Meghalaya. Yes, now it is time to respond to the call of Naga Hills! Reaching Guwahati Railway Station on night, we boarded the Dimapur-bound train. As I stepped on the platform of Dimapur station next morning, a thrilling sensation played through my spine. After all it is Nagaland --- perhaps the most unknown and hidden territory of India due to various historic, social and logistical reasons! Moreover we just can’t hop on a bus and start for Kohima! We are required to get hold of Inner Line Permit before commencement of the journey! After acquiring it from the relevant office, we resumed our onward travel to Kohima.
Though we found lot of tourists from West Bengal and rest of India in Meghalaya, but here our family members are the only non-Naga representative in the whole bus! No, a sense of insecurity did not engulf us. Just that we have suddenly landed among a set of people who are all racially, linguistically, culturally, physically(features-wise) absolutely different from ourselves; we realised that due recognition needs to be awarded to the existence of this other India also. Yes, it is high time the self-declared guardians of India and the “nationalist” brigade learn to appreciate all the tenets of this heterogeneous country which are infinitely large beyond the overhyped boundary of Dosa-Idli-Rosogolla-Bollywood-Khans-Hindi-Urdu-Gujarati-Tamil-Mumbai-Delhi-Bangalore-Rajasthan-Kerala-Gandhis-Gomata, to mention a few! After encountering numerous hair-pin bends, virgin green forests and Jhum-cultivated hills; the Naga capital arrived on the scene high above the peaks just like a pack of small toys! It was noon when we reached Kohima --- a picturesque city spread all over the surrounding hills.
The War Cemetery, protecting the graves of the British soldiers who died fighting against the Japanese, is perhaps the most important site of Kohima. But due to certain reason we found it locked that day. The whole evening got spent in exploring the central areas of the city which included a gallant Church and an awe-inspiring tombstone, honouring the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the 1944 Battle of Kohima, and carrying a highly moving inscription as Epitaph --- “When you go home/Tell them of us and say/For their Tomorrow/We gave our Today”. The speciality of Kohima was perhaps the supreme dominance of the youth brigade. In my 49 years of existence till date and travel across almost all corners of India and few neighbouring nations as well, I am yet to experience any city which is as youthful as Kohima. While many young men were seen to be playing football in an open stadium with utmost enthusiasm, others were zooming on bikes with their partners and enjoying themselves in series of cafes and restaurants along the street playing Western music. Indeed Kohima had an unique charm and speciality of its own! However another unique experience was waiting to happen!
Before fall of dusk, we returned to our Hotel for a bit of rest. We had planned to go out for dinner at about 8 P.M. as our Hotel had lodging facility only. As we stepped out of the hotel, a strange silence and desolateness awaited us. Though we were near the heart of the city itself with the main bus terminus close by, yet the street was absolutely lifeless! Not a single person walking by, not a single shop or restaurant open! Does the city retire so early? Where would we have dinner? As we were passing through dimly-lit pavements, two trucks full of armed security personnel passed by. Suddenly the hard reality of grievance, guns and call of homeland and its resistance dawned upon us! We got a bit apprehensive of the environment and immediately returned to our Hotel without exploring more. Few pieces of bread and biscuits, which we were carrying, were utilised to have a working “dinner”! After all it was the matter of one and only night in Kohima as we would be in Imphal the following noon! How could we envisage that destiny was perhaps laughing as it had other ideas for us!
Woke up in the Sunday morning. My father left for the bus stand to purchase tickets for Imphal, only to return a bit dejected after coming to know that no bus would be plying towards the Manipur capital for being a holiday! Again another novel experience! That means we would be stranded in Kohima itself for another 24 hours! No antipathy towards Kohima; but we are bound by constraints of time, reservations and tickets. We were scheduled to fly for Kolkata from Imphal on Tuesday evening. So our Imphal tour was planned from Sunday noon to Tuesday noon(maximum 48 hours). If the full Sunday gets spent in Kohima again, we can’t allot more than 24 hours for Imphal and surrounding areas! No option but to resign to our fate! So we spent the whole day by revisiting the Kohima streets and churches and returned to our Hotel before dusk, of course after purchasing necessary food items so that we don’t have to almost starve as in previous night!
Manipur: Next morning we confidently headed to the bus terminus to avail an Imphal-bound bus as early as possible so as to make up the lost time a bit. But after waiting a couple of hours, we got hold of tickets for Imphal and at last the bus started indeed! As soon as we crossed over the Nagaland-Manipur border to reach a sleepy hamlet named Mao, our bus came to an abrupt stop. It was learnt that a mechanical defect has cropped up. So we will have to disembark as the bus will return to Kohima and again come back after necessary repairs! Hours continue to pass by, yet no sign of the bus’s return! Meanwhile I have criss-crossed the habitation countless number of times to kill time! However, Mao was no doubt beautiful! Surrounded by lofty ranges on all sides, it housed few eateries and a post office perched high on a hill top. We took a bird’s eye view of Mao and the scenic surroundings from there. At last the bus reached from Kohima and onward journey started. But one thing is sure, again a whole day has got lost as we can’t reach Imphal before evening! That means we can spare only the morning to noon hours for our Manipur tour next day as our flight is scheduled at evening! Now let’s enjoy the path to Imphal! Through the dense green cover of Senapati district and negotiating rains and slippery narrow roads, our bus came down from the hills to the valley and reached Imphal as the sun was setting. I can’t remember the location of the Hotel, but probably it was Thangal Bazar. Now I desire to narrate an amusing feeling. Right from our entry in Manipur at Mao, what struck me is the similarity between Bengali and Manipuri scripts. The script was similar in Assam also. But I fully understood the words written over there as differences between Bengali and Assamese languages are negligible. But in Manipur, I could easily read what is written in banners, advertisements or hoardings thanks to the familiar script; but couldn’t decipher its meaning a bit as Bengali and Manipuri languages are absolutely alien to each other! What a Himalayan contrast despite absolute similarities!
Since we were short on time next morning, my father planned for the Moirang trip only. There was a constant drizzle in Imphal that day. But by braving the rains, we boarded a bus for Moirang. And what to speak of Imphal city, it is reign of the fairer sex all around! Women are running markets. The streets are invaded by bikes, majority of them being young girls or women! What I had witnessed in Imphal 1989 do not get reflected in “glamorous” “developed” overhyped Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi or Bangalore of even today as well; the roads of which are still overwhelmingly dominated by men! No wonder Manipur was the land of Mahabharat’s brave princess Chitrangada(daughter of a Manipuri king and married to Arjuna)and now get recognised by lion-hearted ‘Iron Lady’ Irom Sharmila, the undying spirit of Thangjam Manorama, Mary Kom, Kunjarani Devi and Sarita Devi! Hats off to my indomitable Manipuri sisters! Over to Moirang where we reached by relishing the lush green Manipuri countryside with hillocks here and there. And at last the holy place of Moirang where Colonel Shaukat Malik of the INA, along with fellow Manipuris like Mairembam Koireng Singh and other warriors, won the battle against British forces and unfurled the Indian tricolour on 14th April of 1944. After going through the war-time relics and pictures in the well-maintained INA Memorial Complex, it was time to pay respect to Netaji whose awe-inspiring life-size statue stood high on the entrance.
Now we have to rush towards Imphal, pack our luggage and leave for the airport. Waiting at the small but cute airport with a heavy heart as we could not explore Manipur satisfactorily. We could not take glimpse of the world’s unique Loktak Lake with its floating phumdis. But even after the scheduled time of departure, no announcement of the whereabouts of our aircraft! After a long wait, came a declaration that due to adverse weather, our Kolkata-bound flight has been cancelled and it has been scheduled to depart next morning! Oh what a matter of delight, we will stay in Imphal tonight! The very next thing I realised that still it would not serve our tourism purpose as dusk has already set in and it is not possible to explore Keibul Lamjao National Park at this hour to get awestruck by the Sangai deer! The airlines management arranged our overnight stay in a Hotel. I was wondering about the ironical situation as far as our tour of Manipur was concerned. Sunday we got stranded at Kohima for absolute paralysis of transportation on a holiday! The whole of Monday got spent in the journey towards Imphal only due to the delay following mechanical snag in the bus! After a short stint at Moirang in Tuesday morning, we rushed for the airport on afternoon! But destiny saw to it that we had to stay that night in Imphal only, but without any fruitful result!
Conclusion: As the flight ascended from Imphal next morning, I took a last glimpse of the city and the adjoining rural areas below. Next we were flying over Bangladesh, Padma River and green paddy cultivations. The scenes were out of this world no doubt, but I was a bit depressed for our missed opportunities in Manipur. As we landed at Kolkata, I took a vow to make a long trip to Manipur again so as to explore it to my full satisfaction. Meanwhile I had visited Northeast again after 22 years, but it was limited to Assam and Meghalaya only. Five years later ie in October 2016, we went to meet the fifth sister i.e., Arunachal Pradesh. Though my dream of a revisit to Manipur is yet to bear fruit, but I am sure destiny will certainly take me there in this lifetime only and this journey would be turned to reality through my sheer will-power only. Will it be Manipur along with Tripura and Mizoram!