The least explored, most mysterious and arguably the most beautiful region of India, the Northeast, known as the “Seven Sisters”, is connected to the rest of the country by a narrow stretch of land between Bhutan and Bangladesh, and was all but sealed off from the outside world until relatively recently. Arunachal Pradesh shares an extremely sensitive frontier with Chinese-occupied Tibet and, together with Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, a 1600km-long border with Myanmar.
Many insurgencies, caused by a vast ethnic diversity, have fractured the region since Independence, with tribal groups pushing for autonomy as well as fighting each other. A huge influx of Bangladeshis in the last decade and the displacement of many indigenous people has created further tension. Though there has been improvement in security in some areas, others remain disturbed with occasional clashes and armed conflict on the fringes. Permits are required for travel in certain regions, notably Arunachal Pradesh, while some other areas, such as the Manipur hills and Nagaland’s eastern fringes, remain highly volatile. Tourists, however, are not a target of violence and the extraordinary diversity of peoples and spectacular landscapes make a visit to the region well worth the effort. One of the world’s wettest monsoon belts, the area also boasts an astounding array of flora and fauna, estimated to represent fifty percent of India’s entire biodiversity.
Until the 1960s the region comprised just two states, the North East Frontier Agency, now Arunachal Pradesh, and Assam, but separatist pressures further divided it into the seven states, now officially joined by an eighth – Sikkim. Assam consists of the flat, low-lying Brahmaputra valley. Its capital, Guwahati, boasts two of India’s most important ancient temples and is the gateway to the region, while an encounter with a one-horned rhino in the magnificent Kaziranga National Park is a highlight of any trip to the Northeast.
The other six states occupy the surrounding hills, and are quite distinct from the rest of India in landscape, climate and peoples. Meghalaya has beautiful lakes and includes the wettest places on earth, Cherrapunjee and Mawsynram. Its capital, Shillong, retains some of the colonial atmosphere from its days as east India’s summer capital. Majestic Arunachal Pradesh, one of India’s most remote states, is inhabited by a fascinating range of peoples, many of Tibetan origin. In the state’s northwestern corner, close to Bhutan, lies the Buddhist monastery of Tawang, in sight of the mountainous border with Tibet, while in the far northeast is the remote wilderness of Namdapha National Park. To the south, the lush mountains of Nagaland are home to fourteen distinctive tribal groups. Mizoram, in the Lushai hills, is predominantly Christian and has one of the highest literacy rates in India.
Manipur is perhaps the most fractured of all the Northeast states and unsafe for travel off the beaten track, wracked by numerous insurgencies and inter-factional disputes. Tripura, on the other hand, with its long history of insurgency, is far more settled today, with plans a for major rail link and an improved road system; you are still advised to exercise caution if travelling in the eastern hills. The people of Manipur are closely related to the neighbouring Burmese population, while Tripura, bordered by Bangladesh on three sides having been cut off from the Bangladeshi plains during the 1947 Partition, is distinctly Bengali to the west with the hill tribes to the east.
The best time to visit the Northeast is from November to April, although the high mountain areas are extremely cold by December and anywhere in the hills can get cold; winter fog can disrupt journeys in Upper Assam. It rains heavily from May to the end of September. In two weeks you could travel from West Bengal to Guwahati, Shillong and Kaziranga, while three weeks would be enough to cover the main sights of Assam and Meghalaya. A month would enable you to enjoy the two most beautiful and remote states, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland. To take in all the states together, including Mizoram, you’ll need considerably longer.