A group of men huddle around a fire in the middle of a dark bamboo hut, sipping rice beer and talking in hushed voices. In the corner, an older man sits on a low stool, chanting as he waves a tasselled wand over an egg. He is a shaman, and today he has been hired by the family who lives here to make contact with the spirits. A dead chicken lies splayed in front of him. He has removed the liver, and examines it carefully for clues about the health of the house.
In this animist society, where worship of the sun and moon is the norm, animal sacrifices are an everyday effort to appease the spirits. I have to remind myself that I am in India, more typically the land of Hinduism and vegetarianism. Here, in Ziro Valley, home to the Apatani tribal people, that all seems very far away.
The far-flung and remote tribal states of the northeast are not the India you might imagine. You won’t find aggressive touts after your upees, or sweltering chaotic streets moving to the sounds of a blaring Desi track. The area’s eight states – wedged between Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Tibet – are attached to the rest of the country by a narrow swath of land called the Siliguri Corridor, often referred to as the “chicken’s neck.” A history of separatist uprisings, tribal infighting and a penchant for beheading enemies (a tradition no longer practised) means the hard-to-get-to northeast has not exactly been on the tourist map.
Until now. Separatist violence occurs less frequently, and a major effort to draw travellers to the area is under way. Pricey tourist permits, once necessary and difficult to come by, are no longer necessary for most foreigners.
In Nagaland, the most eastern state, the annual Hornbill Festival gives curious outsiders a glimpse into tribal life. Tribes from all over the northeast come to showcase their ritual dances, songs, tattoos and elaborate outfits made of colourful fabrics adorned with feathers, tiger teeth, beads and bright tapestries.
“We want tourism,” says Oliver Tongen, a program officer for the festival as entertainers perform behind him. “We have been so secluded here, we hardly see white people.
“We want to expose our culture to the world and bring in tourism revenue,” he continues. “Tourists who come here, they don’t see this in the other parts of India. Even Indians don’t know who we are. They think Nagaland is a foreign country, they think it is Myanmar.”
Elsewhere in the northeast, others are more cautious.
On Majuli Island, five young boys, each with long lush hair, wearing white pants and orange-and-crimson sashes draped across smooth bare shoulders, perform handstands, back bends and frantic spins to hypnotic drum beats. They are young monks, living in satras, or monasteries, on Majuli, one of the world’s largest river islands, in the state of Assam. Tourism is so rare here that only three people are watching the show.
With its beauty, biodiversity and culture, the island is a prime target for an onslaught of tourism. This worries people such as Beda, a young entrepreneur who owns a guesthouse. His bamboo cottages sit on stilts above a shimmering rice paddy, full of numerous exotic birds.
“Majuli is a peaceful, beautiful island,” he says. “If too many tourists bring too much money, it’s not good for the community. If we don’t plan properly it won’t last. Tourism development has to develop with the community.”
Tourism in the tribal states is just beginning to take off, but no doubt it will catch on fast: half of India’s biodiversity thrives in the northeast states alone. Combine that with spectacular landscapes, including lush mountains, and cultural diversity and it’s easy to see this neglected corner becoming a must-see stop on any world traveller’s itinerary.
At the Hornbill Festival, I asked one French tourist why she came here: “Because no one else is coming,” she said, as though it was the most obvious reason in the world. Give it a couple years.
IF YOU GO
The closest airport is Dibrugarh, then it’s a rugged, 10-hour drive to Ziro Valley. It is best to hire a guide, who can give you access to the homes and villagers. Christopher Nagi is a well-known and reliable local guide who can also help you with a tourist visa. E-mail: email@example.com.
The Hornbill Festival takes place here during the first week of December. The closest airport is Guwahati. Take a train to Dimapur (five hours) and hire a sumo – an SUV that sits eight to 12 people – for the three-hour drive to Kohima.
From Dibrugarh, it is an eight-hour drive to the shore of the Brahmaputra River. Because the island is made of shifting sands, the ferry terminal changes location frequently. A lovely place to stay is Ygdrasill Bamboo Cottage ($22 a night), overlooking a beautiful rice paddy where tropical birds can be heard and spotted. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.