LOKTAK LAKE is one of the most enchanting places in the northeast. Almost twothirds of this huge expanse of freshwater is covered by unique floating saucer-shaped islands of reed and humus, locally called phumdi, which are home to a community of fishernen. The southern part of the lake forms the Keibul Lamjao National Park where contiguous masses of phumdi Form the very special habitat of he endangered Manipur browantlered deer called sangai Theses deer have divided hooves, specially adapted to heir floating habitat, and legantly curved antlers. Only 100 or so of these graceful animals are now left, found in he wild only in an area of 6 :q km (2 sq miles) within the )rark. Sendra Island, at the wart of the park, provides a nagnificent view of the lake, a islands and its rich hirdlife . Visitors can stay here, and the park also offers boat rides through the many labyrinthine waterways of the lake.
MAJULI RIVER ISLAND
PERHAPS THE LARGEST inhabited river island in the world, Majuli covers an area of 929 sq km (359 sq miles). It is easy to forget that Majuli is an island, holding within it hills, rivulets and little islands of its own. This amorphous landmass is constantly being sculpted into new dimensions and shapes by the Brahmaputra. Every year during the monsoon, the river submerges large tracts of land, forcing the inhabitants to move to higher ground. After the floods recede, leaving behind fertile, freshly silted land, the people return to cultivate the area. As interesting as Majuli’s distinctive landscape are its satras, unique monasteries founded in the 15th century by the Vaishnavite reformer-philosopher, Shankardeva. The satras are rich repositories of traditional Assamese arts and crafts, and regularly stage dance-dramas in praise of Vishnu. Majuli’s main settlement is at Garamur which has two satraps. About 20 others are scattered across the island. Visitors can stay in the satras, and should offer to make a donation towards overnight stays or meals.
APITAL OF THE tiny state of Meghalaya , Shillong, with its mist-shrouded hills, pine forests, lakes and waterfalls, is sometimes described as the “Scotland of the East”. Lying at an altitude of 1,496 m (4,908 Kt), it was chosen as the headquarters of the British administration in Assam in 1874. It soon developed into a popular hill station, providing refuge from the searing heat of the plains. The town still retains a distinctly colonial ambience, with its mock-Tudor bungalows, churches, polo ground and beautiful 18-hole golf course. It is also the home of the matrilineal Khasi tribe. The idyllic countryside around the town can be easily explored in short excursions.
This sprawling market offers a vivid glimpse of Khasi tribal society. The stalls are piled high with produce from the surrounding villages – honey, pineapples, piglets, dried fish, wild mushrooms, raw betel nut and bamboo baskets. The market is dominated by Khasi women, who run most of the stalls. Dressed in their traditional tunic-like jainsems and tartan-checked shawls, these cheerful matriarchs can drive a hard bargain.
MUSEUM OF ENTOMOLOGY
This small private museum, situated north of Bara Bazaar, was established in the 1930s by the Wankhar family, and boasts a collection of rare butterflies and insects found in Meghalaya. Among them are huge stick insects, iridescent beetles, and the giant yellow and black birdwing butterfly which cloaks itself in a deadly poison to protect itself from predatory birds. The family also runs a breeding centre for rare species.
In the centre of town, the horseshoe-shaped Ward Lake has pleasant promenade paths around it, paddle boats for hire and a café. A short distance to its south is Lady Hyclari Park, with a pretty Japanese garden and a mini zoo which includes fauna native to Meghalaya’s forests, such as hornbills, leopard cats, and the aptly named slow loris, a ferret-like creature that crawls around as though heavily drugged.
ENVIRONS: The beautiful Bishop and Beadon Falls are 3 km (2 miles) north of Shillong, just off the Guwahati Shillong Highway. Along the same route, 17 km (11 miles) north of Shillong, is Umlam Lake, a large artificial reservon set among forested hills. It offers. facilities for angling, kayaking and water-skiing, and has an orchidarium in the adjacent park. The scenic Elephant Falls are 11 km (7 miles) south of Shillong. The road to Mawphlang, 24 km (15 miles) southwest of Shillong, is richly forested with t pine and oak, and is a good place to see some of Meghalaya’s rare species of orchids in their natural habitat .
SHILLONG TO CHERRAPUNJITOUR
THE ROAD TO Cherrapunji through the East Khasi Hills winds through dense pine and oak forests, full of ferns and orchids. En route are dramatic gorges and ravines, waterfalls and limestone caves. Cherrapunji is one of the wettest places on earth, and established a world record of an incredible 2,621 cm (1,032 in) of rain in 1861. It continues to record an average rainfall of 1,143 cm (450 in) in the monsoon months of July to September.
THE PICTURESQUE town of Ziro in central Arunachal Pradesh, lies in a large, flat valley, surrounded by low pine-covered hills. This area, better known as the Apatani Plateau, is the home of the prosperous Apatani tribe whopractise a unique system of cultivation that combines ricegrowing with pisciculture. The flooded paddy fields are stocked with fingerlings, the two staples of Apatani diet thus coming from the same plot of land. Like the Nishis, the Apatanis wear their hair in a bun on their foreheads, held with a brass skewer. Both the men and women are tattooed and the women sport huge bamboo noseplugs. Northeast of Ziro, three other areas, Daporijo, Along and Pasighat, are now open to foreigners (with permits). The latter two are situated on the Brahmaputra river and are inhabited by the Adi . The drive from Ziro to Pasighat (300 km/186 miles) is wonderfully scenic, through dense virgin forest and tribal villages with thatched longhouses.