Monthly Archives: June 2013

Krishna And The Knicker Snatcher

The Brahmaputra river that runs through Assam, is one of the largest rivers in India, and one of the mightiest in the world during monsoon season. If you’re travelling from Arunachal Pradesh and you need to cross, it’s a right bitch. To travel by road it is a 500km trip to the nearest bridge, the Indian government began building another one over the widest point some years ago, but like a lot of things in this country, the project was simply half baked then left to go stale. Thankfully there are a few wooden ferries than one can embark on from the muddy banks of Sonarighat, an old army bus will take you the rest of the way to Dibrugarh. The whole operation seemed a little under the table to me, but it was by far the quickest way…


The muddy banks of the Brahmaputra, with the half completed bridge

Majuli Island in the middle of the Brahmaputra, is the largest river island in India. The island is low key, here you can enjoy the laid back vibe and eat parathas for breakfast, lunch and dinner as that’s all any of the restaurants sell. If you want to get sweaty you can rent a bicycle and go for a ride along the island’s lush water meadows and rice fields, watch out for the goats…

Majuli (like that Ali G song, ma Julie) is the abode of neo-Vishnuism, a form of Hinduism that was created in the 15th century by Sankardev, an Assamese philosopher. Unlike everyday Hinduism which worships 330,000,000 deities, Vishnuism focuses only on Vishnu mainly in his Krishna carnation. 22 sutras (vaishnavite monasteries) can be found on Majuli Island.


Vaishnavite monks

For many Hindus, Krishna is incarnate, he walks the earth just like you and me, but still can defy the odds of space and time. There’s a tale which claims that Krishna had 16,108 wives, and that he manipulated himself 16,108 times so that he could be with all of the woman at once on his island-city of Dwarka. That many woman at one time? No wonder he’s worshiped, every man in the world would love to be like Krishna!

Garuda, the mount and protector of Lord Vishnu

On our final morning, I woke up to find that all of our underwear had been stolen from the washing line. After a little sleuthing about, the locals seemed to think the culprit was the village madman. Crime is non existent on Majuli except when it comes to garment grabbing, this happened once before, five years ago. I was recommended not to bother reporting the incedent, as the police would most likely be busy playing cards and bribing rickshaw drivers. So I managed to put my disturbing thoughts of a dribbling lunatic wearing one of the compadre’s size 32F’s aside, when the man who owned the lodge said we didn’t have to pay for the room to make up for the inconvenience. I gladly accepted and we left the island having broken the record for the cheapest paid accomodation yet, at a remarkably low price of a pair of kegs, 6 pairs of knickers and a bra!

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Ziro Tolerance

Getting from Tawang to Ziro took two days with various stop offs, one leg of the journey involved an overnight sleeper bus. Sleeper buses in Arunachal Pradesh are like the Rat Ride at Light Water Valley, except there’s no photo at the end, just a stinking headache and a sore neck…

Ziro Valley’s landscape is very different to that of Tawang, tracts of lush paddy fields stretch for miles, the sun shines, the sky is clear azure and the birds constantly sing happy songs for happy people. Descending into Ziro is like stepping into God’s back garden…


Hapoli is the main settlement in the valley, but this is little more than a jump off point for the tribal villages. It’s worth calling into the market and seeing if there’s any weird food stuff that tribal people are well known for…

Bananas, chillies, eggplant, jungle rat…

Ziro Valley is where you will find the Apatani tribe. Most well known for the facial tattooing and nose plugging of the women. Apparently Apatani women were considered the most beautiful of all tribeswomen in Ziro Valley, making them prone to kidnappings by horny tribesman from the rival communities, such as the Nishis. The girls were therefore defaced by their own men to discourage them from being snatched up and taken away. You will see women over forty with facial tattoos and the women over sixty with nose plugs or yaping hurlo as well. Surprisingly the average life expectancy is over 80 for a woman, and it’s not uncommon for some to live to 100+


When we walked into the largest Apatani village, Hong, we happened to stumble across all the women crowded around one of the village lapangs, a large wooden structure used for public meetings. The women were waiting to collect their annual pension, one by one they queued up until it was their turn to stamp their thumbprint (most are illiterate) and collect their 2400 rupees, approximately £25 for one year, they don’t get a bus pass either so think twice before complaining about the U.K state pension.

Hong village street

A babo, large wooden staff. One of these is erected outside every house indicating the clan or family

The women waiting for their pension

The Apatani women aren’t that keen on having their photos taken, it wasn’t their choice to get the facial tattoos, they think it makes them ugly and some have even been to Harley Street to get them removed. I just showed them a photo of some Pennywell girls and they felt a lot better about themselves…


The Apatani religion is Donyi-Polo, which focuses on the worship of the Sun and the Moon. Whenever anything bad happens, the Apatanis believe it is caused by evil spirits that have spat their dummies out. The sacrifice of animals is practiced to keep the huffy spirits on side. Mithun, a type of cow unique to Arunachal, is normally sacrificed on big occasions. If you visit during festival times you will see every animal under the sun being put to the sword, you will also hear ‘Sacrifice’ by Elton John being played on repeat, I’ve heard it’s a hit with the Apatanis…

We saw this man walking around with a freshly sacrificed mithun leg, so something extremely bad had happened, such as a death. Or maybe they’d heard I was in town…

Apatani grave (biyu) with the skull of a sacrificed animal

Apatani bloke flexing

We were invited along to the victory bash of Shri Tillong Sambyo, the Hong village congress party minister. Let me tell you one thing about Indian politics, it is as corrupt as Lance Armstong’s drugs tests. This guy only won the election as he showered the public with ‘motivational’ gifts of fresh meat just before voting. The victory party was just another sweetener for the masses, free drink and as much mithun as you can eat. Being the only white people in the vicinity we were treated like royalty, and were practically force fed cup after cup of home brewed rice beer. Home brewed rice beer tastes like a mixture of dry cider and cheap boxed wine, pretty lifting, but does the trick. All day we stayed and watched traditional Apatani dances and numerous very long speeches by the minister, no one listened, just waited for the buffet to open.



We left Ziro all rice beered up and extremely happy to have come face to face with these unique people, it’s also worth noting that this is the first place I’ve visited beginning with a Z, house!

Our Apatani Aunty and Uncle

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The End Of The Road

Arunachal Pradesh sits in the far North East corner of India and shares a large land border with China. The Chinese have on a few occasions tried to claim AP as their own, so the already fragile Indo-Tibetan border is heavily guarded, there is a strong military presence throughout the state but the peaceful atmosphere remains. This is probably one of the least explored parts of the country and is often dubbed ‘the final frontier’ of India, certain places in the state are still to be named and mapped so the idea of delving into the wild is appealing to me. Let’s hope that the 50 quid I’ve shelled out for the inner line permit to come to ‘The Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains’ will be worth it…

Dirang was a long drive from the Assam border, and we really only stopped here to break up the journey to Tawang. Dirang has only a handful of fly ridden eateries selling nothing but fried rice, but on the other hand almost half the shops in town are hole in the wall alcohol joints, so even though you will go hungry in Dirang, you will never be without a bottle of Bagpiper whisky. Old Dirang is a long walk from the new town, or in my case a 5 minute drive if you can hitch a ride from someone who assumes you’ve met David Beckham, just because you’re English. Old Dirang’s tiny stone Monpa houses reminded me of the village scenes from ‘Cadfael’ the 16th century crime solving monk, and there were more goats than people. Back in new Dirang we checked out the Yak Research Centre, the chief professor kindly showed us around the labs where they are attempting to create a genetically modified super yak that can live in warmer climes. I didn’t mention that I’d eaten yak meat only a couple of weeks ago…


In Hinduism, a deity may be a rock in a cave, a tree growing in an orchard, a cow wandering the streets…or even a banana…

or a goat…

Arunachal’s roads are in a word, appalling. Bus travel here is rare so everybody uses shared Tata sumo jeeps to get around. The roads, if you can call them that, are very muddy, so combine this with the mountain terrain and it’s understandable how it takes an eternity to get anywhere. You can forget about sleeping, reading or doing anything else to pass the time as the journey will be extremely rough, so all you can do is sit and wait, whilst being stuck in the same position with the eleven other passengers. The distance from Dirang to Tawang is a mere 170km, it takes 8 hours. The road twists and turns up and over the 4176m Sela pass and down into the valley. The ‘highway’ continues for some time, the smell of the cannabis plants that line both sides of the road being the only comfort. A final ascent is made to Tawang where you reach the end of the road, literally. It’s just as well this town doesn’t have a football team as a trip to Tawang F.C would be a nightmare away day…

One of the better roads

Normal sight on an AP highway

The trucks have eyes in Arunachal

Tawang was founded in the 17th century and is the last major settlement on the ancient trade route to Tibet, I’m guessing there were a lot of banjo strings sold here and that’s where the town generated its name from. The monastery here is reportedly the second largest in the world after Potala Palace in Lhasa and is a must visit pilgrimage site for any Indian Buddhist. Monasteries can act like schools for young monks who wish to dedicate their lives to finding spiritual enlightenment. The young boys eat, sleep and live here whilst doing all their lessons including Maths and English, just like any other school, bullying is not unheard of as I found out when I witnessed one monk receiving a ‘chalky’ on his robes by the rest of his cohort. Inside the prayer hall is a giant statue of Buddha Shakyamuni, maybe this is where Black Grape got their inspiration for the song ‘Shake Your Money Maker’…





Afternoon prayers

8m high statue of Buddha Shakyamuni

Urgelling gompa, a nice walk further into the valley, is the exact spot where the 6th Dalai Lama was born. The small, colourful monestry has a rather eerie set of hand prints that are worshiped by devotees, I just thought it was pretty cool having a cuppa in a former Dalai Lama’s bedroom…



The Tawang valley is predominantly inhabited by the local Monpa tribe. Some of the older traditional woman can be found hanging around the bazaar selling cow’s blood and sporting yak felt headgear, which looks a little like those cheap Rastafari wigs you can buy at Camden market…


Tawang is Dalai Lama mad

Come to Tawang if you ever want a truly ‘off the map’ experience, no internet, no telephone and most of the time, no electricity. A little further afield from banjo sound, is what they call ‘the lake district’ a series of high altitude lakes near the Tibet border. Unfortunatly foreigners are not allowed any further, as it is too close to China and anything the Chinese are involved in is never simple. So, having reached the end of the long road that started in Madurai, it was time to turn around.

(Up to date info on how to get a permit for AP. It is possible to do it yourself and pay only $50, but this is a lot of hassle and means spending time in either Delhi or Kolkata to make numerous, time consuming trips to their respective AP houses. Whatever anyone says, it is impossible for a foreigner to get it on your own in Guwahati. I strongly suggest just biting the bullet and paying an agent to do it, the extra fee is worth it to eliminate the stress. Shop around for different prices, I was quoted between $80 and $130 dollar per permit. I ended up settling with Rhino travels in Guwahati although it’s possible to find cheaper agents in Arunachal itself but this means possibley having to do bank transfers to pay the fees.)

Arup Barua – Rhino Travels
+91 9864021303

Christopher Michi – Apatani Cultural Preservation Society

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Khasis Remembered

North East India is only connected to the rest of the huge landmass via a tiny slither of land known as ‘The Silguri Corridor’ which has an average width of just 30km. The Seven Sister states were carved out of the Bengal province and sandwiched in between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and China. It is because of the geographically odd placement of the states, that it is the home to over 220 ethnic groups with an equal amount of languages. The North East is one of the most diverse places on earth, each state is unique in many ways and all totally different to ‘mainland’ India. Ancient tribal practices and traditions still take place today, I was looking forward to learning more about the North East, and discovering how the lives of the people are changing in the 21st century.

The Khasi people are the indigenous folk who form best part of the Eastern part of Meghalaya. The main religion in the state is Christianity, this is largely down to the work of a man named Thomas Jones, a Welsh missionary who set out to convert the state to Christ in the 1840’s. The Khasi language had no written system until Jonesy turned up and mastered the local tongue, whereafter he figured out a way of writing the language in Roman script and contrived the first Khasi dictionary. So Tom Jones has been considered the founding father of Khasi literature long before he was dropping sex bombs on the UK charts! Unlike Welsh, Khasi is pleasing to the ear and doesn’t sound like a language that started as a joke and got seriously out of hand…

Meghalayan Fruit Sohphie, the bitterest fruit I’ve tasted

Khasis have had their fair share of problems with the British colonists over the years. Tirot Sing was an 18th century Khasi chief, who went to war with general David Scott’s men during an attempted invasion of the Khasi Hills during the early 18th century. Sing’s army resorted in Rambo-style guerrilla warfare, using only swords and bow and arrows against the English’s arsenal. The Anglo-Khasi war lasted for four years until Sing was captured and left to rot in a Dhaka jail. Tirot Sing’s death anniversary is celebrated as a public holiday in Meghalaya and if it’s anything like a British bank holiday, an excuse to get drunk…

Tirot Sing

On the subject of old school weapons, we were lucky enough to visit the small village of Nongkynrih, which is well known for producing traditional bow and arrows. A project is taking place to teach the local Khasi woman how to make other handicrafts as a way of bringing money and a better quality of life into the smaller rural communities. The chewing of paan is common throughout India, but here in rural Meghalaya it seems to be the local pass time. The betel nut paired with lime acts as a mild stimulant and causes teeth and gums to turn red after prolonged use, most of the woman chew on 50-60 of these per day, so seem to be constantly spitting out a jet of red liquid like vipers shooting their deadly poison…



One of the most interesting things in Khasi culture is the matrilineal system of inheritance, where the children take the mother’s family name. Also, the youngest daughter of any family always inherits the parent’s estate, in return for providing and looking after them once they retire.

Three generations of Khasi woman, spot the odd one out?

In the Meghalayan countryside, apart from looking a bit like the opening scene of Emmerdale, you will find spooky looking monoliths gracing the grassy moors. One of these large stone objects was supposedly erected each time a Khasi passed away as a memoir. If you look really carefully around these moors, you may also spot Eric Pollard walking his dogs and practicing his extremely bad acting…


Having spent only a short time in Meghalaya, I have been thoroughly intrigued by the different aspects of tribal life, it’s mind boggling to think that only a few hours drive away there are more tribes with different practices, cultures, eating habits and languages. I forgot to mention that even though the English won the Anglo-Khasi war and killed their William Wallace, there is no animosity driven towards us, unlike the old and deep seated resentment shown by our Scottish friends North of the border!

The Dkhars, our Khasi hosts, kind thanks!

Kamai Iaka Hok – Earn your bread by the sweat of your brow (Khasi Proverb).

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Hoose Of Cloods

For some reason all the guesthouses in Guwahati, the gateway to the North East, wouldn’t accept foreigners. After spending 30 hours on the move from Sikkim, which included a delayed train and sleeping on the dirty floor in New Jaipalguri station, this wasn’t the time to be trawling the streets looking for somewhere to stay. This gave me a bad first impression, and we happily left the next day with the opinion that Guwahati is nothing more than a busy and dusty shit hole. A word of advice if you ever find yourself with 12 hours to kill at New Jaipalguri and can’t decide which restaurant to eat in, just choose the one with the least flys inside, simple.


The small state of Meghalaya takes its name from the Sanskrit words that literally mean’Abode of Clouds’ because of its extreme rains and rarity of a clear day. The state capital of Shillong served as the base of British founded Assam until 1972 and small traces of British colonialism can still be recognised in Ward’s lake and the Shillong golf club…

In Shillong, when it rains

Shillong Golf Club

The game of Siat Khnam is unique to Meghalaya and tiny betting booths can be found dotted all over the city. The way it works is this – dozens of Khasi men spend three minutes shooting traditional arrows into a stack of hay, a cover is then brought up and the arrows are counted, the winning number is the second two digits of the actual number of arrows that hit the hay eg 267 becomes 67. So basically you pick a number between 1 and 100 then place your bet, the odds are 80/1. So it’s basically just a one number lottery and there is even a Khasi Dale Winton, who also looks like he has been dipped in Ronsill, that sounds a horn to get the archers started. It would have been a whole lot easier drawing a number out of a hat but then again, this is India.




Meghalaya is also known as ‘the Scotland of the East’, I was expecting the streets to be filled with shell suit wearing families, struggling to speak English, but it’s actually because the moors have a striking resemblance to the Scottish highlands. If you’re lucky you will even see a wild haggis…


The East Khasi Hills and the area around Cherrapunjee is surrounded by many lush waterfalls at this time of year, and has a resemblance to Jurassic Park as you drive through the valley, this is the official wettest place on earth with an average 12000mm annual rainfall. The village of Nongriat is a steep climb down 2000 steps into the valley and it’s where you will find the living root bridges. The roots of fig trees have been spliced, diced and left to grow together over many years by the Khasi villagers to make the impressive natural pathways.

These guys walk the steps without breaking a sweat, rock

The Long Bridge

The Double Decker


We decided to spend a night in the valley where I came face to face with Godzilla’s arch enemy, Mothra. Ok, this moth may not have been big enough to destroy Tokyo, but it was at least the size of a small bird. It was here that I was just starting to complain that it hadn’t rained during our visit to the area, when from nowhere came an electric thunderstorm that wouldn’t be out of place on Jupiter. Just as well I’d been watching Bear Gryills lessons on how to handle flash floods…

India is well known for producing fake clothes, I found this out when I bought a pair of underwear in Mumbai only to have a closer look later and see the word ‘Jockiy’ printed on the waistband. Meghalaya is no exeception…

Can anyone remember this Newcastle away shirt? I sure as hell can’t

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