By Kajal Chatterjee
It was the year 1989. One fine morning, my father announced that we are going to visit the North-East during Durga Puja holidays! Oh my joy knew no bounds! As my father was attached to Central Government, he used to avail Leave Travel Concession to tour various parts of India. We had been to Northern and Western India number of times. But yet to visit Southern and North-Eastern part of the country. But I didn’t have any craving for South India. Since many close friends and relatives had visited the South of the Vindhyas and there exist no dearth of magazines, articles or photographs highlighting the Charminar, Kanyakumari, Kovalam Beach or Mysore Palace; that region didn’t hold any special appeal for me. But North-East remained in another plain — filled with mystery and unknown. Hardly any acquaintance of our family had visited the region. Very few materials about the North-east were projected in “mainstream” media at that age. So right from my childhood, North-East used to hold a special place in my heart and attract me to the utmost just akin to a hidden treasure yet to be discovered! The names of Guwahati, Brahmaputra, Kaziranga, Meghalaya, Cherrapunji, Nagaland, Kohima, Imphal, Mizoram, Agartala, Bomdilla, Tawang used to constantly haunt my imagination right from my early childhood. North-EAST — the land of Bhupen Hazarika, Ratan Thiyam, Bihu, Unakoti Hills, tea gardens, Loktak Lake or Keibul Lamjao National Park (the only floating park in the world) and exquisite Manipuri dance which was brought into the shores of Bengal by none other than Rabindranath Tagore! Now such an opportunity to at last step in and appreciate four of the Seven Sisters has arrived at my doorstep! Am I day-dreaming?
As the Kamakhya Express departed New Jalpaiguri station on night, we called it a day and went off to sleep. The reverberation of the train crossing a railway bridge awakened me in the dawn. I peeped outside from the lower berth. And what a scene indeed! The sheer magnitude of the river promptly proved that it is none other than the mighty Brahmaputra! God playing with colours in the dimly-lit Eastern sky, Nilachal Hills on the horizon and the “never-ending” river reminding Bhupen Hazarika’s touching ballad “O Bura Lohit tumi boya kiyo” — Oh what a grand entry to Guwahati, Assam and North-East!
After checking in a Paltan Bazar Hotel and having breakfast, it is Kamakhya time high up on the Nilachal Hills. The temple on the hill top amidst greenery and the scene of Guwahati city with the large expanse of flowing Brahmaputra below are indeed nice, but also I can’t forget the holy ambience within temple premises and the dignified civilized behaviour of the Kamakhya priests unlike their counterparts in many North Indian temples who are brute, rude and try to exploit the pilgrims ruthlessly. Post-lunch, the visit to Basistha Temple on the outskirts of Guwahati was also a nice experience indeed. The location of the temple along a gallant stream descending from the hills on the background was surreal to say the least. And the evening was spent along the Brahmaputra bank with the Peacock Island (hosting Umananda Temple) on the right and the heritage Guwahati structures like famous Cotton College on the left.
Next morning we were headed towards Shillong. Passing through villages and small towns of Byrnihat and Nongpoh, bamboo-groves, the large Umiam Lake meandering on the lap of the ranges of Khasi Hills with umbrella of clouds all over and a cool climate engulfing us — the names Meghalaya (Abode of Clouds) or ‘Switzerland of the East’ are so appropriate and right in place! Though we enjoyed the mystic Meghalaya capital with its winding roads, pine trees, majestic Churches and buildings bearing an amalgamation of British and indigenous architecture; we could not take a bird’s eye view of it from Shillong Peak due to cloud cover. However we got cheered up by the beautiful Elephant Falls. Never had I witnessed any three-storied waterfalls previously! And the lowest one was not only the largest, but most awesome also with gallons of white downpour upon hard rocks and surrounded by green vegetation. Another Shillong beauty was waiting to be discovered — the twin Falls named Beadon and Bishop. And the fruitful day culminated amidst colourful flowers and bird life of Lady Hydari Park.
Cherrapunji was the destination next day. Oh what an excitement! Instantly my mind flew back to my geography book of lower class as we had been acquainted with the name of the place for being the wettest place in the earth! And perhaps no pen or painting can portray the scenic beauty of that journey from Shillong to Cherrapunji. By enjoying the sights of cute tiny settlements, fruit orchards, undulating hillsides, playful hide and seek of bright sunlight and free-flowing clouds — at first we reached the doorway of Mawsmai Cave. A huge “mouth” is beckoning us to explore the cave! We took few steps forward and got awe-struck by the lavish spread of stalactites and stalagmites bearing dimensions and colours of all possible permutations and combinations. Since it was pitch dark inside and the path getting narrower, we could not approach more and had to retreat( perhaps only the Almighty knew at that time that I would be exploring that very cave fully in a lighted state, that too with my son and wife 22 years later!). As we resumed our journey, suddenly hills along one side of the road yielded place to a valley and vast blue watery expanse of plains down and distant below. Yes, we are reaching at an edge of the Khasi Hills and it is Bangladesh plains lying in front of our eyes on the horizon! That was my maiden glimpse at any foreign land which indeed augmented my excitement. After taking view of the mesmerising Nohkalikai Falls (tallest plunge waterfalls in India) and Nohsngithiang Falls, we halted at Ramkrishna Mission. What a divine place to build up an educational institution! Located above a hilltop with mountain ridges on one side and vast Bangladesh plains on the other with unrestrained sunshine and white puffy clouds above; perhaps the most non-interested child will also embrace books whole-heartedly! Never can I forget that wonderful trip to that picture-postcard named Cherrapunji or Sohra ( as the Khasis call it lovingly) — perhaps the most heavenly gem of Meghalaya!
Following a late lunch on return to Shillong on afternoon, we bade adieu to the eye-soothing state of Meghalaya. Yes, now it is time to respond to the call of Naga Hills! Reaching Guwahati Railway Station on night, we boarded the Dimapur-bound train. As I stepped on the platform of Dimapur station next morning, a thrilling sensation played through my spine. After all it is Nagaland — perhaps the most unknown and hidden territory of India due to various historic, social and logistical reasons! Moreover we just can’t hop on a bus and start for Kohima! We are required to get hold of Inner Line Permit before commencement of the journey! After my father acquired it from the relevant office, we resumed our onward travel to Kohima. Though we found lot of tourists from West Bengal and rest of India in Meghalaya, but here our family members are the only non-Naga representative in the whole bus! No, a sense of insecurity did not engulf us. Just that we have suddenly landed among a set of people who are all racially, linguistically, culturally, physically (features-wise) absolutely different from ourselves; we realised that due recognition needs to be awarded to the existence of this other India also. Yes, it is high time the self-declared guardians of India and the “nationalist” brigade learn to appreciate all the tenets of this heterogeneous country which are infinitely large beyond the narrow cocoon of Hindi-Urdu-Bhangra-Garba-Dosa-Idli-Bollywood-Khans-Bhajan-Ghazal- Punjabi-Gujarati-Tamil-Mumbai-Delhi-Bangalore-Rajasthan-Kerala-Gandhis-Gomata, to mention a few! After encountering numerous hair-pin bends, virgin green forests and Jhum-cultivated hills; the Naga capital arrived on the scene high above the peaks just like a pack of small toys! It was noon when we reached Kohima — a picturesque city spread all over the surrounding hills. The War Cemetery, protecting the graves of the British soldiers who died fighting against the Japanese, is perhaps the most important site of Kohima. But due to certain reason we found it locked that day. The whole evening got spent in exploring the central areas of the city which included a gallant Church and an awe-inspiring tombstone, honouring the soldiers who sacrificed their lives during the 1944 Battle of Kohima, and carrying a highly moving inscription as Epitaph — “When you go home/Tell them of us and say/For their Tomorrow/We gave our Today”. (To be contd)
The article was originally published in TSE.