By: Ninong Ering (MLA, Arunachal Pradesh & former MP) & Abhishek Ranjan (Policy Lead, Office of Ninong Ering)
The North Eastern region of India has often been called a ‘paradise unexplored’. Consisting of the eight states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Tripura, this region is one of immense natural and cultural diversity. This diversity brings both opportunities and challenges with it and the region is not very well understood. This article seeks to provide a brief introduction to the North East for all those who are inquisitive about the region.
The scenic beauty of the North Eastern region puts it on every travel enthusiast’s bucket list. Picturesque ranges of the outer and Eastern Himalayas span the region, interspersed with majestic river valleys and lush rainforests. The lofty peaks of Kangchenjunga, the whimsical floating islands ‘phumdis’ of Loktak lake, the rainswept waterfalls of Mawsynram, are all wonders of nature that can be found in the North East. A haven for wildlife lovers, the region is home to rare animal species such as the one-horned rhino, the red panda, the flying squirrel, the Sangai deer, the civet, the hornbill and many varieties of felines, including snow leopards, clouded leopards, tigers, and others.
The region has been blessed with much more than nature’s bounty. The people of the region are as diverse as the landscape. In fact, it is one of the most ethnically and linguistically diverse regions in India with over 400 different tribal communities, each with its distinct culture and traditions. Noteworthy glimpses of the culture of the region can be found in its typical arts and crafts – bamboo and cane products, raw silk handlooms, wool weaving and embroidery, woodworking and more, its myriad dance forms – the classical Manipuri ‘Sankirtana’ dance, the masked snow lion dance of Sikkim Singhi Chham, the Assamese Bihu, the Mizo bamboo dance ‘Cheraw’, the Garo ‘Shad Nongkrem’ dance, its unique musical instruments – the mandolin shaped ‘Sarinda’, the ‘Tamak’ folk drum, the suspended xylophone, the split concussion tube of the Bodos, the Manipuri ‘Pena’ flute, the ‘Gongnima’ bamboo harp and more, as well as its developed martial art forms, puppetry traditions, folk drama schools, etc. Over 200 languages are spoken in the region belonging to three different language families.
The uniqueness of the cultural traditions of the region does not take away from the connection with the rest of the country. In fact, there can be observed a trend of cultural continuity as one moves geographically from the west to the east. The dance forms, handicrafts, festivals and cuisine of the region match with those of other contiguous states. For example, the staple food of the region consisting of rice, usually eaten with vegetables, fish and meat, is shared with other eastern states like West Bengal and Odisha. The production of handloom fabrics made of raw silk is also spread across the broader East, including Eri, Muga, Endi, Tusar silks.
The traditional bamboo and cane industry is another point of continuity across the bamboo-growing region of Eastern India. Similarly, there is a cultural resemblance across all the Himalayan states including the northern states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir. This is best reflected in the common yet individual traditions of weaving of woolen textiles such as shawls and kilts. The motifs used in fabrics and the subjects of music and dance are similar across the subcontinent with a preponderance of religious and natural themes. For instance, masked dances from across the tribal belt are rife with tropes of good defeating evil.
The unique cultural traditions of the North East have persevered and remained relevant over generations, but this does not mean that the region is steeped in the past. Cities in the North East are as developed as similar-sized cities in the rest of the country, if not more. The cities have a cosmopolitan character with shopping complexes, restaurants and night clubs in their repertoire.
There are budding business and IT centres with all the modern urban infrastructure. The urban landscape of the region is marked by planned roads, green spaces, and efficient management. For instance, Aizawl is the first city in the country to have a ‘no-honking’ policy. Like with any other part of the country, the process of development is ongoing and there is a long road ahead. To this end, the state capitals and other major cities of the region are also part of the Smart Cities Mission. The goal is to facilitate technology-driven upgradation, which is also expected to accelerate local economic growth.
The North East today is a vibrant mix of the old and the new. The traditional penchant for the arts has lent way to the region becoming the fashion hub of the nation. Many fashion designers of international repute such as Atsu Sekhose and Mawi Keivom hail from the region. The North East is also at the forefront of the music scene in India. Shillong hosts the ‘NH7 Weekender’ music festival every year. The syncretic culture of the region is epitomized in the Hornbill Festival organized annually with support from the Nagaland government. Its highlights include not only exhibitions for indigenous handicrafts and cultural song and dance performances but also fashion pageants, modern art shows, and musical concerts. The festival has hosted folk singers, local and international rock bands and even K-pop icons.
The key to the North Eastern region is its people who have settled across the country and have shared their lives and culture with people from other parts. Despite growing outmigration, the people from the region are often met with curiosity and even suspicion when they venture out. There is a paucity in the wider public from the rest of the country of an understanding of the potential and problems of the North East.
The history and geography of the North East had not even been taught in school curricula until a few years back. In the absence of common knowledge, there is a tendency towards stereotypes and discriminatory preconceptions about the people hailing from the region. They have been the subject of intolerance in various forms including hate speech, racial slurs, and even physical attacks. The horrific murder of Nido Tania in 2014 comes to mind.
Much needs to be done to change such prejudiced attitudes and bring the North East into the mainstream of Indian public life. Some gradual improvements can be observed. Stories about the culture and society of the region are slowly finding a voice in cinema and television. For example, the Assamese drama ‘Village Rockstars’ by Rima Das has garnered appreciation at popular national and international film festivals. With greater representation and awareness, an atmosphere of tolerance and brotherhood towards people from the North Eastern region can be fostered. As the people from the rest of the country interact more with people from the region and visit the region directly for their travels, the North Eastern region can finally reclaim its special place in the soul of India.