The East of India is as exotic and oriental to India itself, as India is to the world. Largely undiscovered by overseas travelers, mysterious to the rest of India, rich in a culture uniquely arresting and mystical in the wealth of forests and rivers and mountains – East India is a journey worth the wait.
The states of West Bengal and Orissa, and the ‘seven sisters’ make up East India. The Bengalis are intellectuals, emotional, vocal and volatile, intrinsically inclined towards the arts, academics and culture. A traveler’s conversation with West Bengal and especially with Kolkatta can turn into a lifelong relationship. While Calcutta, as it was earlier known, was once a commercial hub, and is still an important port and a tea-trading centre, life revolves around art, literature, philosophy and arguments, side by side with a ‘club culture’ which is a quaint hangover from the colonial era. Kolkatta has a soul, and you can only touch it when you are there. Nearby Shantiniketan, set up by Rabindranath Tagore, is a gurukul that miraculously survives in modern India and the beautiful legacy of Rabindra Sangeet music continues to be taught and sung in its environs among other cultural and spiritual teachings. Darjeeling, the window to the lofty Himalayas, and famous for its tea, is one of India’s favourite mountain retreats, commercialised by tourism, yet still unbelievably magnetic.
From the Himalayas to the Sunderban mangroves, this is a land of magical landscapes that continue through the length and breadth of the ‘seven sisters’, the seven states of the East – Assam, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh. Arunachal Pradesh means the land of the dawn-lit mountains; Assam is a lush valley with green paddy fields, dense forests, tea gardens and the powerful Brahmaputra river flowing through it; Manipur is the jewelled land of waterfalls, lakes and orchids, as are Manipur, Mizoram and Tripura – green lands that touch the clouds, redolent with the myth and the magic of nature and the spirit of their people. East India is a treasure waiting to be discovered. From Mount Kanchenjunga to the Bengal Tiger, the toy train at Darjeeling, scones and tea at the plantations, rhododendron wines and wildlife sanctuaries, pagodas and monasteries, nature walks and trekking trails, raging rivers and overwhelming rainfall – this is a land for the lover of nature and a seeker of the soul.
This region is a marked contrast to the rest of India. The legacy of strikingly different royal principalities can still be seen in the architecture and community practices, as can the colonial heritage in the bungalows and lifestyles at the tea estates; yet the local people and the nature of life have an identity apart from these as well. Generally of Indo-Mongoloid stock, the tribes fiercely protect a culture that is exotic, glorious and simple – in tune with the mountains and the forests, the clouds and the lakes. Travelers marvel at the costumes and headgear, at the war-paint still worn during dance programmes and festivals, at the melodious dialects of the languages, the rituals of daily life that make this region markedly different from anywhere else. Every tribe has its own identity and practices. Buddhism and Christianity are the predominant religions of the region. Tripura is a little different. Here the tribes mingle with a large Bengali population creating a hybrid culture.
Sikkim is a little state tucked away between Nepal and Bhutan, a trekker’s paradise and a Buddhist retreat with many monasteries and an elevating panorama.
Along India’s eastern coast is Orissa, one of India’s poorest states, and yet quite startling with the clean silver beaches of Puri, the temples at Bhubaneshwar and the outstanding Sun Temple of Konark – a chariot of the Sun God. The temple triangle receives hundreds of pilgrims throughout the year, and more during the Festival of Jagannath Puri. Orissa also has smaller beach resorts, bird sanctuaries and zoological parks, and the intrepid traveler will find amazing glimpses of India’s heritage, including famous art and dance forms, beneath the plain surface.
The climate of the region is affected by the Himalayan system and is generally warm and humid with the high temperatures ranging from 35oC to 40oC. The upper reaches of the hills can get quite cold. Heavy rains occur between May and September. The best times to visit are October to April.