Stage 9 – Bangladesh & India: The Hill States [2/2]
On the 6th May 2008, exactly one year into my trip, I leave Bangladesh and enter India for the second time, into the North-eastern state of Tripura. I hand my passport to the immigration officer, open at the page of my new Indian visa, only to watch him for three minutes carefully write down the details of a long-expired Kazakhstani visa, which sits opposite the Indian visa in my passport. After he has written a number of details into his ledger, including that fact my Kazakhstani visa had expired ten months ago, I tell him we are in India, not Kazakhstan. This is definitely India.
But this India, in the town of Agartala, capital of the tiny state of Tripura, is quite different from that which I left one month earlier. Though most people here are Bengali, the atmosphere is slightly different from West Bengal; policewomen are directing the traffic from elevated platforms, and women are digging the roads at the edge of town. Men move around town on motorcycles, wearing dark blue hard-hats. I stay a night in this otherwise nondescript town, and leave the following morning. Annoyingly, due to perceived security hazards from the tribal communities who inhabit the jungle either side of the north-bound road, it is necessary to travel in convoy, one which crawls up and down the narrow road in clouds of dust and diesel smoke, and makes only 150 kilometres of progress all day. The terrain here is similar to that in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, though the ridges are far less steep and pronounced. In the afternoon, thoroughly sick of the convoy, I break off in the town of Kumarghat, and find a hotel to rest in. Like Agartala, the town is mostly Bengali, and of no specific interest, but while having dinner in a small restaurant, I am approached by a man of non-Indian appearance. His name is Biakthanga, of the Darlong tribe, he lives in the nearby village of Darchawi, and he invites me to visit him in his village the following day. I of course, accept.
I arrive in Darchawi late next morning, and am welcomed by Biakthanga, and introduced to his wife and three children, Joseph, Ismael and Job. Like all Darlong, a Tibeto-Burman tribe closely related to the Mizo, they are Christians. The Darlong were reached by Welsh Protestant missionaries in the 19th century, and by 1911 were all converted. It strikes me here that, despite having travelled through very traditional areas, of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists, it is only Christians in my experience who feel a pressing urge to impose their faith upon others. Biakthanga tells me there are still Catholic missionaries in the region, though he doesn’t approve of them: ‘I don’t consider them real Christians; if I do wrong, I pray only to God, I don’t confess to a priest who is also a human being. It is my belief, not my actions which will take me to God. Catholics do a lot of good things, no doubt – schools, hospitals, aid – but ultimately they are to buy people. This you cannot do. Faith is in your heart; if I tell you something, you must consider it. If you believe it, that’s your choice. There should be no compulsion by money; this is Earthly redemption, not spiritual redemption.’
Like many Asian Christians, Biakthanga and his wife find it surprising, and clearly disappointing, that I am not a Christian. ‘You must let Jesus into your life!’ she tells me, though with a smile.
Darchawi is a large village, almost entirely Darlong, but is less traditional than settlements of a similar size in the hills of Bangladesh. Judging by the lack of lowland people, it seems that there are stricter limitations on prospective settlers here. All around the village are fields of fruit; lychees, pineapple, betel nuts, coconuts and jackfruits. Biakthanga takes me for a walk through these fields, where his wife is at work clearing a field (he works in the village as a schoolteacher), and down into some clearings in the jungle, where there are familiar looking elevated wooden houses of the Reang tribe, whose women wear elaborate jewellery. It’s a great pleasure to walk here and meet people, but the small villages feel far less ‘untouched’ than those in the Bangladesh forests near Thanchi.
One morning, a bell rings out, and I’m told that this signifies a death in the village of an old Darlong man. In this hot, humid environment, and without the possibility of refrigeration, funerary arrangements are dealt with quickly, and in the mid afternoon, the village shops are closed, and mourners, mostly female, come to observe the body of the deceased one final time. They hold prayers, and sing traditional Darlong songs. A grave is dug at the edge of the village, in the rich, red-brown earth of the deceased’s family’s land where tea, pineapple and rubber are growing. The coffin is brought from the village to the burial site, accompanied by howls of anguish which turn into uncontrolled shrieks of grief as the bereaved catch one final glimpse of their departed relative, while the nails of the coffin lid are driven home. There will be a formal wake; a dinner cooked tomorrow, to which the entire village is invited.
In an attempt to escape the stifling heat and mosquitos indoors, I’m sleeping in the fly-net of my tent on the flat roof of Biakthanga’s house. I’m woken at around 05:00 by a very excited Job (Biakthanga’s youngest son), who tells me ‘They’re going to cut a pig!’, and in the otherwise quiet dawn, I can suddenly hear the unmistakable screams of a pig. We make our way over to the deceased’s compound, where the poor beast that is going to form the basis of today’s lunch, a huge pig, is being rather slowly dispatched. Instead of making a clean, swift cut across the animal’s throat, here, the pig’s blood is prized, and so the animal is killed by a sharpened bamboo stick being gouged into the heart. Three men must stand on the poor animal at times in order to hold it down in its throes of agony, but after perhaps ten minutes, it expires, and is swiftly butchered. I’m not a squeamish person, but when the butchers pull out the pig’s football-sized bladder and throw it out into the street, disgorging it contents only to immediately be carried off by a waiting dog, I decide it’s time to retire back to my tent. Little Job is transfixed by the bloody scenes.
I feel far sturdier by lunchtime, and the whole village is coming to the town hall where a squad of cooks are watching over six large pots of bubbling pig stew. It’s a nice chance to see the entire village, but the highlight is the food. Despite having witnessed the poor animal’s demise, the food is a great treat, especially for a pork-lover who has been so long in pig-hating Muslim and vegetarian Hindu countries.
From Darchawi, I move north out of Tripura, across a small corner of Assam, and into another of India’s tribal states, Meghalaya, whose name aptly means ‘the abode of clouds’. The state occupies a knot of highlands which branch off the easternmost ridges of the Himalaya, and lie immediately to the north of the sweltering lowlands of Bangladesh. As huge, moist bodies of air coming off the Bay of Bengal move north and hit these uplands, vast quantities of rain are released. Officially the wettest place in the world, it can rain almost continuously during the impending monsoon season, from June until September.
As would be expected, the hills of Meghalaya are lush, emerald-green, and the road winds across deeply incised valleys and over rocky passes. As there is so little flat land, the settlements are few, but towards evening I stop in the village of Chiehruphi which is located in the damp, cloudy Jaintia Hills of eastern Meghalaya. As I settle down for the night in a clearing near the church, where the air is alive with the sound of insects, lizards and frogs and dotted with dancing fireflies, two young men appear, surprised to see a European striking a tent on the back of a truck. They are of the Khasi tribe, the majority group in Meghalaya, a modern, matriarchal tribe. They invite me to their home for a cup of tea. The house is typical of the region, a squat, single storey dwelling with a heavy, sloping roof. What takes me aback though is that I’m greeted by the woman of the house, who asks me all the normal questions; where I am from, if I have a family, what the purpose of my trip is, and so on. Her husband, in a complete role reversal to virtually all other homes I’ve visited so far in Asia, sits meekly in the corner, twiddling his thumbs. It’s a strange, though memorable experience.
Next day, I drive west over a wide plateau of rich green grass, dotted with stands of fir trees, which at times looks almost like a golf course. During British times, the state was nicknamed the ‘Scotland of India’. Passing the state capital, Shillong, I turn south, crossing a 1,800 metre pass through pine-clad hills, before gently descending along the side of a wide, gaping canyon filled with lush vegetation and small swirls of cloud. A steady drizzle descends, and the forest gives way to a damp, undulating grassy plateau, occasionally dotted by megaliths, the gravestones of long-forgotten dead. My destination is the town of Sohra, better known as Cherrapunji. Once officially the wettest settlement on the planet, the town has since relinquished its title to Mawsynram in the next valley, but for a long time retained the world record for the highest rainfall in one year, a staggering 22,897 mm in 1861. The town has a distinct end-of-the-world feel to it, perched on the edge of this sodden plateau, overlooking the plains of Bangladesh which one may glimpse through the haze, more than a kilometre below.
Sitting in a small café in Cherrapunji, above the hotchpotch bazaar where traders are permanently installed in polythene covered sheds against the perpetual rain, I look out on a landscape which looks more like Scotland or Mongolia than any part of India I’ve ever seen. I get chatting to the café owner, about, naturally, the rain. ‘Once, in 1987, I remember it rained for seven days and nights, without even a minute’s break. In the rainy season, all your clothes are wet, we try to dry them over a small burner, but they never really dry, and they stink. You can’t see anything, there’s fog everywhere!’ I like Cherrapunji; it’s uncrowded, quiet, hassle free and friendly, and I feel sufficiently unharassed to camp in the middle of town.
Early in the next morning, I drive a little way into the nearby Nohkalikai Falls, which with a single drop of 335 metres is one of the highest in India. The waterfall can be seen from a plateau, overlooking a vast green canyon surrounded by a number of plunging waterfalls, a landscape intensely cut and scarred by the action of huge volumes of water. I leave the car on this plateau, and descend into the jungle on a steep, rocky path cut through the intense undergrowth of the jungle. I’m looking for a very unusual piece of engineering down in the jungle, though I’m not too sure of how to find it. As I descend, the temperature, cool and fresh on the plateau, starts to revert to the close, steaminess of the lowland jungles of Bangladesh. I cross a few rivers, of clear, blue-tinged water cascading over large, timeworn pink granite boulders. Under the tree canopy, rocks are covered in shimmering mosses, and occasional orchids grow amongst creepers. But after a few hours, I find what has drawn me down into this damp, shady world of greenery, near the bottom of a small jungle waterfall just before the tiny Khasi settlement of Laitkynsew; a two-tiered footbridge made from living tree roots, stretching sixteen metres across a rocky riverbed. It’s an astounding piece of bio-engineering; the roots of one huge banyan tree, which naturally emerge above ground and hang down into the river channel, have been stretched in two sections right across to the far bank, where they have naturally anchored into the soil for over a hundred years. The bridges are amazingly stable, far more so than equivalent rope bridges, though every part of the bridge, with the exception of some walking boards, is natural, living tree; there are no cables, posts or struts.
Exhilarated by having found this bridge, deep in the Meghalayan jungles, I make my way back slowly to the car, jumping into clear, blue pools of cool, fresh water on my way. I camp up on the plateau that evening, a wonderfully cool, tranquil night.
Next morning, I begin my journey back down to the sweltering lowlands; though I pause in the capital Shillong once more. The Khasi youth of Shillong, all wearing western clothes and listening to western music, certainly seem to look to the west, rather than to their lowland countrymen, as a cultural influence. The bruised, dark sky of low clouds threatens rain, and I enter a roadside restaurant for lunch. There’s a printed menu, wood-panelled walls, and a smell of faint cigarette smoke and spilled beer. The whole place feels eerily like Britain.
It’s a long, slow descent into Assam, where the roads become terrible, the air hot and muggy, and full of voracious mosquitoes. The Assamese seem an exotic blend of Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman people – the girls are especially attractive – but the crowds, noise, filth, stares and beggars leave me in no doubt that one has returned to India; rather a shock after the cool, tranquil and uncrowded hills of Meghalaya. I leave Guwahati, crossing the greyish waters of the Brahmaputra and head west on broken roads through the impoverished Assamese farmland, towards the Himalaya proper.