If you’re looking for somewhere a bit different, then northeast India might be the destination for you. It has so much to offer, with a rich cultural heritage, spectacular natural beauty which is home to a wide variety of exotic wildlife and fauna as well as wonderful experiences such as river cruises and jeep safaris to discover. And all of this without the bustling crowds of more popular destinations.
North East India stretches from the undulating hills and the amazing heights of the Himalayas in the north to the green lush plains of the Bay of Bengal. The area is made up of seven states - Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura it is known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ along with the state of Sikkim.
Here are ten reasons why northeast India should be on your travel wish list:
The northeast area is less well travelled by tourists but it enjoys diversity and charm all of its own and is quite unlike the rest of India. In many places, outsiders cannot buy land, which has resulted in the strong preservation of the local heritage and lifestyle. A far cry from the hustle and bustle of the Golden Triangle, the northeast offers amazing wildlife, stunning scenery and an expanse of aromatic tea fields to explore at a slower pace.
A visit to this region wouldn’t be complete without the chance to try a cup of freshly brewed Assam tea. Wander through a tea garden or tea plantation to see workers in green fields picking the leaves and buds, observe the process of tea making at a tea factory or get lost in the excitement at a tea auction.
Jorhat is known as the ‘city of tea’ and has some of the most spectacular tea gardens in the state that fill the air with the scent of glorious Assam tea. As well as many tea estates, Jorhat is home to the famous Tocklai Experimental Centre that conducts research into new varieties of tea and its therapeutic effects. Or head to Dibrugarh, where you can stroll through refreshing greenery and enjoy the serene tea estates.
One of the best ways to explore Assam in Northeast India is by taking a leisurely cruise on the mighty Brahmaputra River that winds its way through Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma. The river is home to a variety of wildlife and gives you a view of village life along the way, along with the surrounding ancient monuments, farmland and luscious tea plantations.
Grab your binoculars and spot the famous inhabitants of Kaziranga National Park from the sun deck of your cruise ship, and stop at Majuli Island, the world’s largest river island to see traditional village life amongst the resident native tribes. You can also see villagers producing various handicrafts outside their houses on handlooms or fishing in the hamlets and villages as you glide along.
The northeast is a region of incredible biodiversity and is home to a menagerie of wildlife. Famed for its waterways and lush mangrove forests, Sundarban National Park is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the world’s largest Bengal Tiger reserves.
If you’d like to see a rhino, head to Kaziranga National Park, where more than 2,400 one-horned rhinos account for two-thirds of the world's population. The park contains grasslands, wetlands and forests stretching for around 60km on the south side of the Brahmaputra River.
As you travel through the various states, you might also spot elephants, clouded leopards, gaur (Indian bison), gayal, hoolock gibbons, red pandas and sangai (an endangered subspecies of brow-antlered deer).
Every region and tribe in Northeast India has its own recipes, making it a foodie lover’s paradise.
There’s a wealth of street food to choose from including Laksa, a delicious noodle soup, Kelli chana, spicy chickpeas from Manipur and Aloo-muri, boiled potatoes and puffed rice mixed with papaya skin, oil, roasted spices and tamarind chutney.
Pork is one of the most widely consumed proteins in North East India and is often accompanied by bamboo shoots and bhut jolokia, one of the world’s hottest chillies. Narasingha masor jhol is a signature dish from the state of Assam consisting of fish cooked in a gravy of curry leaf paste and Iromba is a Manipuri dish with dried fermented fish as the main ingredient.
For something sweet, try the popular Kheer made by boiling black rice, sugar and milk, or Awan Bangwi - rice cakes wrapped in lairu or banana leaves which you’ll find cooked and served during major festivals.
Attending a festival is a fabulous way to immerse yourself in the community and culture. The northeast is known as the ‘land of festivals' with something for everyone.
Named after the Indian hornbill, the large and colourful forest bird displayed in the folklore of most of the state's tribes, the Hornbill Festival takes place in early December in Nagaland. Also called the 'Festival of Festivals', it gives attendees the opportunity to experience the food, songs, dances and customs of Nagaland.
One of the most famous and biggest festivals of Sikkim, Saga Dawa is celebrated with great enthusiasm each year. The festival commemorates Lord Buddha’s birth, his attainment of enlightenment and salvation from this physical world, and gives travellers a sneak peek into vibrant Buddhist culture.
Dree festival is a popular agricultural festival in Arunachal Pradesh which takes place over three days from 5th July. Tangy rice and millet beer are served followed by traditional song and dance performances, along with games and sports. Cucumber is distributed to attendees symbolising the sacredness of vegetables and invoking a fruitful harvest.
Bihu is a popular festival marking the beginning of the Assamese New Year and harvest season. Activities include washing livestock, lighting lamps, animal fights and song and dance.
Northeast India is home to a variety of temples, monasteries and buildings that hold spiritual and architectural significance.
The capital of the Ahom rulers from 1228 to 1826 AD, Sivasagar has a wealth of buildings to explore, including the Shiva and Vishnu Temples and the Sivasagar Water Tank where the water remains stable all year round, even during monsoon season.
Also known as the royal observatory, Rang Ghar in Dibrugarh is one of the oldest surviving amphitheatres in Asia where Ahom nobility would watch events such as bull-fights, cock-fights, elephant fights and wrestling. When the building was rebuilt, bamboo and wood were replaced with brick and a paste of rice and egg instead of cement!
In Sualkuchi, the colourful Hatisatra Monastery dates back over 400 years and spreads the message of Vaishnavism culture, and the 85-feet high Shrikshetra Dhaam (or Lord Jagannath Temple) is a popular landmark of Dibrugarh.
The northeast region is incredibly eco-friendly, perhaps thanks to the prevention of overdevelopment. Within the state, the use of processed products is very low.
In 2016, Sikkim became the first fully organic state in the world, following a process that started in 2003. The state aims to preserve the environment, its fragile ecosystem and rich biodiversity, and provide a healthier life for its people.
Mawlynnong in Meghalaya was awarded the title of “cleanest village in Asia” by Discover India in 2003. Since 2007, every house in this village has functional toilets and residents produce manure from rubbish collected in bamboo dustbins. Plastic bags and smoking are strictly prohibited and rule-breakers face heavy fines. Mawlynnong also has a 100% literacy rate and the famous Khasi tribe is very progressive towards women, with children inheriting their mother’s surnames and property passed through matrilineal lines.
Northeast India is a treasure trove of arts and crafts created using traditional skills passed on through families, and made from materials such as bamboo, hand-spun thread, woods and earth. These items also make amazing souvenirs of your visit.
On Majuli island you’ll find locally produced items such as blankets, bamboo crafted musical instruments, shawls, and beautifully painted masks.
On the north bank of the Brahmaputra River lies Sualkuchi, nicknamed the ‘Manchester of Assam’ for its weaving industry. This popular Handloom Heritage Village is the textile centre of Assam and is famous for its high-quality Muga, Pat and Eri silks. These are woven into beautiful Mekhela chadors, the traditional Assamese dress and Gamosas, multipurpose white rectangular pieces of material.
There are some wonderful sights to visit in this diverse region, including tea estates, National Parks and the collection of monasteries on Majuli Island.
For a great variety of sightseeing, you can’t beat a trip to Kolkata, where you’ll find the stunning St Paul’s Cathedral, the Episcopal Church in Asia. You can while away several hours in the fascinating Indian Museum, an impressive showcase of Indian heritage, history and culture. It is the largest museum in India and the Asia-Pacific region and houses rare collections of antiques, armour, fossils, Mughal paintings, mummies, ornaments and skeletons.
No visit to Kolkata is complete without time spent at Mullik Ghat Flower Market, in full bloom with its beautiful flowers around the clock. Visit early in the morning to see the bustling flower auctions, market workers leaving their makeshift shacks to bathe in the river and local wrestlers practice their moves in the nearby ring.
If we’ve inspired you to visit this wonderful region, have a look at our Kolkata and North East India tours, or contact us to create a tailor-made getaway to suit your timescale, interests and budget.