You know you’re travelling in an interesting place when the people you meet are always asking you if you’re an anthropologist. One such place is India’s north-east, which is only joined to the rest of the country by a tiny corridor of land running between Bangladesh and Bhutan. As this out-on-a-limb location suggests the seven states here are very different from the rest of the nation. Much closer, geographically, ethnically and culturally, to the tribal areas of neighbouring Burma, Tibet and China, the north-east is home to a wonderful diversity of traditional cultures that have little, or nothing, to do with the mainstream of Hindu, Hindi India.
Sadly much of the traditional religious culture of the north-east states has been washed away by a relatively recent missionary led wave of hard-core Christianity. However fascinating pockets of resistance remain. One of the best places that I found in which to access the original animist culture of the north-east is in Meghalaya’s Garo Hills, where a traditionally matrilineal culture survives unknown to most in India.
In truth, as with most of the tribes in the area, the majority of Garos have already converted to Christianity. But animist villages can be found within just a few kilometres of the region’s capital Tura. In the village of Chidowgre, located in heavy forest less than one hour’s drive from Tura, the villagers’ still live in traditional bamboo huts with huge logs across the doorways to make them tiger proof. Visitors to houses are welcomed with the beating of a family of drums which are worshipped as gods. The traditional hospitality continues with the villagers queuing up to pour gourds of freshly brewed bitchi (rice wine) down the visitors’ throats while pipes shaped like bayonets and loaded with local tobacco are passed around the fire at the centre of the hut. I’d like to say it’s an unforgettable cultural experience, but given the amount of rice wine that will be forced upon you the truth is you’ll be hard pressed to remember anything the next morning.
Garo culture can also be accessed at the impressive annual “100 Drums Wangala Festival” which aims to preserve and showcase traditional culture including music, indigenous sports, ritual and costume. The festival does attract tourists but on nothing like the same scale as the celebrated and much more choreographed Hornbill Festival of nearby Nagaland. Here you can watch the performance of traditional welcome ceremonies with sword waving warriors and the obligatory gourds of sacred rice wine and see the Garo people united to the shared beat of 100 sacred drums in the awesome final procession.
Garo’s capital Tura is best accessed via Guwahati in neighbouring Assam. Accommodation is available here and the tourist department will be able to help you out with details of villages to visit. Please note Garo does have an ongoing issue with a separatist insurgency and violence can flare up periodically, so check the security situation before travelling.