Not many places are further off the mental map of most travelers in India as well as even Indians as the so called “Seven Sisters”, the seven North Eastern Tribal states. This remote pocket of India encompasses Bangladesh and forms borders with China, Bhutan and Myanmar. As those states are home to several cultural groups distinctively different from “Mainland India”, it has been an area of frequent unrest – occasional troubles and tensions remain.
Still, there might be two major factors that could increase the chances of placing these states on more travelers’ itineraries: A) Lots of hassle, paperwork and money can be saved these days as the permit situation clearly relaxed in the last few years. As of now only Arunachal Pradesh still requires a permit to enter, which is unfortunately rather expensive (50$), but the six other states are free to enter. B) For many years there was no way overland from India to South East Asia – the political turnover of Myanmar in 2011 has changed that fact. The remote Tamu – Moreh border now is accessible for overlanders, but still requires a special permit.
The first sister of the seven we traveled extensively was Meghalaya and quickly we came to realize that it is much more than a stop over but probably just our favourite place so far in India!
Is this still India?
Probably everybody who traveled India knows how this country manages to test out personal limits in patience, privacy, tolerance and more till it can be just too much for moments.
As the local bus tried to honk his way free in the outskirts of Meghalaya’s capital Shillong, we felt like arriving in another featureless but traffic crazy and overcrowded Indian middle sized city.
It took just a few strolls along the wide pedestrian (!!) ways of the cities central Police Bazaar area to understand that we should better drop that idea quickly. For once people could stroll in peace, without cars, motorbikes and rickshaws impeding every second step and seemingly half of the city did that with pleasure from morning to evening.
We were greeted by many friendly if slightly shy smiles by people that from their facial features appeared rather ethically drawn to South East Asia already. Even the taxi drivers were nearly hesitant in asking at best once if a ride is required. We waited for our English and Canadian travelmates Gerard and Seth as a few youngsters shily stroke up conversation about where we are from and the usual stuff – but even twenty conversations like that later, we never got offered a tour, a carpet, weed or an ear cleaning – the conversations took place out of genuine interest!
Walking down the hills on small market alleys, fruit selling girls giggled as we smiled at them and older men nodded and “welcomed!” us.
Music mad Meghalaya
Encouraged by the absence of roaring and honking traffic, Maria got out her violin in the pedestrian zone, both of us unsure how things would go. We heard before that Meghalaya is a very musical state and nearly everybody knows how to strum a guitar. But the following session and further ones exceeded all expectations.
Already while tuning the violin, at least 20 people surrounded us and the first donation landed in the box. The crowd grew and grew, more and more people squeezed themselves into the semicircle and listened with greatest appreciation. I was continuously busy answering dozens of questions and was asked to forward compliments and gratitude for the beautiful performance. Young guys suggested that we could meet up to jam together, an older man pleaded Maria to show him some basic techniques of playing violin. As the dust settled, the economical result manifested Shillong as the best place in India so far to busk!
In later sessions, the success only repeated or even increased. In an evening session some teenagers were holding each other arm over shoulder, having tears in their eyes, being moved by the music they listened to.
The possible highlight was meeting two young students named Prank and Haniel, who invited us to a tribal music and dance festival the next day.
Meghalayan village dances in sacred groves
Prank and Haniel are both musicians themselves, students at the Music University of Shillong. The next day they were going on a research trip to a tribal dance festival and we could impossibly refuse the invitation to join in. Unfortunately I had to stay in Shillong (on and around the toilet, more precisely) due to health problems, but Maria was accompanied by Gerard and Seth.
The bus ride to Nangpoh village felt like a merry school trip – a bunch of energetic teenagers singing the whole way – being music students they fortunately knew how to do so! The last part of the journey had to be walked, as the location of the festival was in a sacred grove, disconnected from any road.
Most of the people in this remote area belong to the Khasi Tribe, which forms the majority among the inhabitants of central Meghalaya. The festival is held annually, with the intention to preserve the Khasi culture, which is slowly dying out like most of the tribal customs all around India, and lasts for three days.
A few straw huts have been erected for each clan participating. As Maria and the guys were the only foreigners there and consequently a major attraction, they were invited into each of these huts to taste the local food with the women or the rice beer with the men. Prank translated everything and it was quite amazing to be able to communicate with these people. Women seemed much more relaxed about interacting with men or even touching and shaking hands, unlike in many other places in India. The hospitality could almost be compared to Middle Eastern standards, except that people here were quite shy in expressing their emotions.
After long speeches of some officials, finally the performances began – dances mixed with live music acts of tribal people – worth watching but mildly exciting. No wonder all the men were in the huts drinking, while women were around the stage just to watch for their children.
The king of Shakhoikuna, as he introduced himself, was there as well and took care that the rare international guests receive special treatment including access to the best food, mouthwatering combinations of dishes, from cooked bananas to bamboo-shoot or tofu. Around 4 o’clock women started to leave the grove. Probably they all left their husbands getting sunk into the rice beer which seemed to be the main attraction for many of the male visitors. Still, the festival offered an insight into the deep and soulful nature of Khasi music and it is positive that such efforts are made to preserve the ancient customs of the area.
After extending our stay in Shillong from just one to three nights, we set off to Sohra (or Cherapunjee), from were we tried to reach a mythical place of immense natural beauty – a place that isn’t supposed to exist like that anymore in India, some say. We set off to a knee grinding hike down into magnificent valleys towards the Bangladeshi border to find something many would describe as pretty close to paradise. The name of the place is still whispered by most conscious travelers – and for now we will stay mute, having just arrived back in Shillong after a week surrounded by green, blue and butterflies, figuring out how much of that secret shall be revealed…