Nestled into a jungle valley side is the village of Nongriat in the Northeastern state of Meghalaya, India. The word “Nongriat” means a village surrounded by cliffs in the local Khasi tongue. True to its name, Nongriat is surrounded on three sides by cliffs that are splattered with magnificent waterfalls cascading down into the valley forming the Umshiang River below. Unknown to even the majority of Indians, Meghalaya (specifically Nongriat and nearby villages) is home to the worlds only (as far as I know) bridges made from living tree roots.
Across the valley was a village known as Thied Dieng, which means “tree roots” in the local language. The villagers were experts on tree roots and specialized in making tree root handicrafts. Over 200 years ago the villagers of Thied Dieng lost a war over a land dispute with one of their neighbors and fled across the valley where they broke into five villages, one of them being Nongriat. The tree root skills they brought with them were the foundation for creating the bridges.
Maintaining bridges made of bamboo and wood was difficult and time consuming for the villages, leading them to look for alternative methods. The first root bridge was built in Nongriat 180 years ago. All of the villagers contributed to the building of the root bridges, much of which was done by pulling and weaving roots of the rubber tree into the right places as they passed by doing their daily tasks. It takes about 50 years for a bridge to be made from living roots. The majority of the villagers who worked on the first bridges did so for the sake of their children and may never have seen a completed root bridge.
Eighty years ago the monsoon swelled the waters of the Umshiang River to unseen heights, raising it above the first tree root bridge that was created. This led to the creation of the famous and one of a kind “Double Decker” root bridge, whose upper level allows the villagers to pass across during the monsoon season.
All in all the valley of Nongriat is simply beautiful. There are waterfalls, streams, rivers, and swimming holes all surrounded by luscious green vegetation, with an astonishing array of beautiful butterflies that guide you down any path you walk. It is incredibly easy to lose yourself in the trails around the village and every corner I turned filled me with an adventurous spirit to wander and explore more. For me it was a paradise. Everyday I was blown away by the natural beauty and thankful for the wonderful homestay that allowed me to stay down in the heart of the valley.
When I entered Nagaland it felt as though I had left India hundreds of miles away. Culturally, the places are incredibly different. The Nagamese prefer jeans and a rock’n’roll t-shirts to saris and dhotis. This is because the people of Nagaland are culturally, historically, and ethnically not Indian. Until Nagaland became an official state in the Indian Union in 1960 it had never been under the rule of a foreign power (and being part of India is still controversial issue). As most of Nagaland’s visible traditions and culture are slowly disappearing, my first destination was the northern hub of Mon, a place where outlying traditional villages still endure.
Mon is not the easiest place to get to, but the reward was worth it. I made the journey more difficult by sleeping outside on the main road on a metal cot with no blanket (i.e. no protection from mosquitos) on a warm sweaty night, waiting to squeeze into an uncomfortable transport truck at 3am. It was a difficult day, but I made it. I was in Nagaland.
After making contact in Mon with a family who I would be doing a homestay with, I hopped into a Sumo (shared jeep) for the two hour journey 41 kilometers east to the Indo-Myanmar border straddling village of Longwa. Home to the Konyak tribe, Longwa and its surrounding villages are a few of the last places where face tattooed headhunting warriors of old still live.
Headhunting was practiced among the majority of tribes in Nagaland. For Naga warriors, taking the heads of their fallen enemies was proof of their courage and skill in battle. It brought respect to your family and ensured a place among the honored in the afterlife. It was looked upon favorably by women in the tribe and was proof of a man’s service to his village. Naga warriors would receive facial tattoos after killing their first enemy in battle. If, on the first battle they did not kill anyone they received a V-shaped tattoo on their chest, respecting their involvement in battle.
While the practices of headhunting and facial tattoos are no longer present (due to the introduction of Christianity), much of the village seemed to operate in a fashion I can imagine occurring for the hundreds of years. The women are in charge of the household and working the fields while many of men spend the day smoking opium. Not exactly a fair distribution of responsibility, especially as the men are no longer fighting to protect the village. When I spoke to many of the women they took pride in being able to shoulder so much of the responsibility for their family. Also, it must be noted that not all men spent their time smoking opium. My host father was busy all day crafting stools, baskets, and other crafts from bamboo and stayed away from opium even while relaxing.
One of the other problems facing many families in Longwa and all Nagaland villages is the absence of the younger generation. Many children leave their villages for a better education in the city and tend to stay in the city to pursue a career. The appeal of farm work doesn’t quite match the elusive businessman dream synonymous with freedom. This leaves many families struggling to cultivate and harvest their fields. It was not uncommon to see an old man or woman all alone working ten hours a day out in their fields. After tiring myself out with a mere three hours of work with a hoe in a rice field in the village of Khonoma, I have a new found respect for their labor. Their continued perseverance in the field is a testament to their strength and resiliency, but it makes me worry about the future of Nagaland villages.
Overall, lifestyle is changing quickly in Nagaland. Traditional bamboo homes are virtually extinct, except in villages like Longwa, and cement and brick construction is happening in everywhere. It’s considered the onset of civilization and luxury, but it is slowly eroding the culture. Many traditions are being lost as much of Naga culture finds no where to take root as the younger generation is more interested in cities and technology than remembering the past. Such transitions have happened all around the world, but when you’re eager to learn about a culture it can be disorienting to hear “I don’t know” to every cultural or historical question you ask someone under 30 years old.
Nagaland was an adventure of bumpy roads, beautiful rolling hills, tribal practices, and mouth-pausing foods. During my travels in Nagaland I did not see another foreigner (which I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed). I would love to return during December for the Hornbill Festival where representatives from all 16 tribes of Nagaland convene in one place for a cultural exchange and competition in dance, music, eating, and more.
Food in the Northeast
An underlying theme around my travel in the Northeast was the food. Many regions have special dishes that I consider to be the most exotic foods of India. So if you’re looking for something new to eat then the Northeast is for you.
Meghalaya – Known for pig intestines, rice cooked in pig’s blood, and pig’s brain, Meghalaya is a one-stop wonder for pork fare. I spent most of my time out in the village of Nongriat and the supply of pork is rather low, but when I returned to the city I ate a portion of pig’s brains. It actually tasted pretty good.
Nagaland – When you have an open mind anything edible can be food. In Nagaland they eat rat, dog, frog, several types of fowl, and various insects. Anything that moves and passes the initial taste test is fair game. While working in the rice fields of Khonoma I found three of the seven types of frogs they eat and none of them looked particularly delicious to me. In Longwa I ate jungle rat, which to be put fairly was neither good nor bad.
Most of the meat in Nagaland villages is smoked over the open fire. After being cured they sometimes keep the meat for up to two years before eating, as was the case with my rat! I have photos of dogs being sold alive and dead at the market, but I can't bring myself to post them.
The Northeast almost never enters the conversation when people talk about visiting India as it is outside general tourist loops.. Nevertheless, some of the greatest places I have seen and people I have met are from the Northeast. More so than the rest of India, the east offers several ways to immerse yourself into tribal and village lifestyles that bring you face to face with some of India''s most beautiful landscapes.