Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Northeast Sojourn - Beauty Beyond Compare

The tiny Maruti 800 labours up the winding roads of Kohima. It is Sunday and most of the city is closed. Beautiful people dressed in their best emerge out of the lanes after the mass at the churches. We are making our way to the top of Aradura Hill. Few hours ago, the train from Delhi has brought me to Dimapur, a railway station, to my surprise is in Nagaland!

The Beautiful Northeast
The Catholic Cathedral in Kohima Nagaland
Cherry Blossom Delight in Kohima

Kohima is the first stop in my maiden visit to the beautiful Northeast. Few more twists and turns and we are at the soaring Catholic Cathedral. Up here, away from the bustle of the growing city, I am in a state of bliss. Northeast brings the first surprise when I see the jewel like pink flowers adorning the tall trees. These are the Cherry Blossoms popularly known as Sakura flowers in Japan. Here on the hill, the tranquility is in total contrast to the times when the fiercest battles of WWII were fought between British Indian and Japanese troops.  The Cathedral was built by the Japanese people to honour all the brave soldiers who died here. Just beyond, on the edge of the hill with the city spread out below, I am treated to a spectacular sunset.

Sunset View of Kohima from The Catholic Cathedral

The orderly streets of Kohima Nagaland

The next day, I head out into the city. Today is a working day and the vehicles line up the city's meandering roads. The traffic is however disciplined and is restricted to single lanes from opposite sides with the empty middle lane reserved for emergency and security forces vehicles. Yes, presence of forces is a constant hope that things will soon get better.

The immaculate Kohima War Cemetery maintained by CWGC (Commonwealth Graves Commission), Garrison Hill, Kohima, Nagaland
Cherry Blossom at Kohima War Cemetery. The battles fought here in Kohima and Imphal between British India and Japan are regarded as the Greatest Battles of Britain in World War II

We turn off the main road to arrive at another serene oasis called the Garrison Hill. This is the Kohima War Cemetery which is the final resting place of more than 1420 Commonwealth soldiers including 330 Indians who died during the Kohima Siege in the spring of 1944. Walking among the immaculately maintained gravestones and reading the moving inscriptions on the graves of mostly young brave men is heart rending. Today the soothing blanket of green grass and flowers seem to comfort the traumatised souls. The WWII memorial is another reminder of the futility of war.  

A performance at the Hornbill Festival, Kisama Nagaland
A Naga Tribe in their finery at the Hornbill Festival
I will call them colour coordinated sisters - at the Hornbill Festival Kisama
In the afternoon, I leave for the nearby Naga Heritage Village of Kisama where the annual Hornbill Festival takes place in the first week of December when all the tribes of Nagaland come together to showcase Nagaland’s culture and beautiful diversity. For a week, the stadium and the adjoining area in the village turns into a carnival as hordes of locals and tourists descend to savour the colours and taste of Northeast India. 

After soaking in the culture of Nagaland, it is time to visit the famous Kaziranga National Park home to the Great One-horned Rhinoceros. I catch a train from Dimapur to Jorhat in Assam. There are buses available at Jorhat that go to Kohora. Kohara is the base to explore Kaziranga and has hotels and resorts to suit all budgets.

Some Rhino Sighting in Kaziranga National Park, Assam
Next morning, it is time for jungle safari. This is tea country of Assam and the road leading to the Western Range of the Sanctuary is lined with glistening tea gardens. Soon we are bouncing along in the bountiful jungles of Kaziranga. In the distance, through the tall grass I am able to see the rhinoceroses munching in the abundant grasslands and wading in the swamps created by Brahmaputra. The driver and the guard are experts and help spot elephants, wild buffaloes and birds too.

Refreshed with culture and wildlife, it is time to head out to Scotland of the East. Catching a bus to outskirts of Guwahati, I take a shared taxi to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya.

The Lovely Umiam Lake, Shillong

The name Shillong conjures up images of waterfalls, dew fresh meadows, lakes and beautiful people. On the way, I stop-over to take a quick look at the Umium Lake. In Shillong, Police Bazaar is the nerve centre and home to hotels and shops. It seems the whole town has descended here on a chilly winter afternoon. I walk the streets enjoying the views and getting smitten with the sharply dressed pretty girls of Shillong. 
The flowery wonderland called Mawlynnong, Meghalaya
The Cleanest Village in Asia - Mawlynnong in Meghalaya
The Living Root Bridge at Village Riwai, Meghalaya

The Meghalaya Tourism office runs day-trip buses to attractions around Shillong. I take the opportunity to visit Cherrapunji hoping to get wet but it is as dry as Marathwada in the winters. Anyway, Cherrapunji has lost the tag of wettest place in India to its neighbour of Mawsynram. I duck through the Mauwsmai Caves with hanging staglacites, and enjoy the Seven Sisters and Nohsngithiang waterfalls. The next day, I cross a river on a living root bridge formed by training roots of trees that spans the entire breadth of the river. Nearby, I am in a flower wonderland called Mawlynnong which is Asia’s Cleanest Village. Walking through the flowery lanes, I wondered why we can’t make our cities this clean.

It has been a wonderful trip. Getting to know the friendly and beautiful people of Northeast has been a revelation. The trip has introduced me to Northeast. In the coming years we hope to get to know each other even more.

A version of the story appeared in the August 2016 issue of NRI Achievers magazine

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