These Are (not?) Indians: Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya

I grew up believing that America was the most diverse place in the world.  My high school had whites, blacks, Latinos, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians, Iranians, Turks, and almost certainly more that I didn’t know about, and I was just in the suburbs fifty miles away from the state capital.  Imagine what it must be like in New York, or LA, or any other big city.

Not long after leaving Korea (one of the most homogenous countries on the planet), I learned that other countries also contain all sorts of diversity, even if it isn’t counted in terms of nationalities.  For instance, in China, I was surprised to learn the extent to which not everybody is “Chinese.”  I knew that there were a few other groups, like the Cantonese down by Hong Kong, but I had no clue that actually the Han majority is one of sixty or so distinct ethnic groups, each with their own languages, customs, cuisines, and what have you.  And that’s not even counting tiny little Taiwan, where there are ten or eleven more.

Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are the same – out in the mountains you’ll find hill tribes with different dresses, different forms of agriculture, different dialects, different religions, different architecture, different facial features, different dresses, different ways of carrying their babies, different looms, different basket patterns…kind of different everything.

One of the lessons that slow travel has taught me is that the whole idea of a country is pretty much Bullsh*t.  The lines have been drawn, and have taken on a sort of fiat significance to the extent that they’re respected and mutually accepted, but nothing is as monolithic as a map would have you believe.  “Mutually” isn’t even the right word, because it implies that there are only two parties involved.  In reality, there are often two ethnic majorities making decisions and any number of minorities who have to live with them.

In some cases, the boundaries don’t affect these minorities very much.  The governments allow them to pass freely back and forth, to visit their cousins just on the other side of the border, to do business, or to roam around in the forest, all without having to produce a passport or even arrange prior permission.

Then again, in some cases the boundaries mean the difference between existence and extinction.  Paradigmatic example: Tibetans in China, who often aren’t even allowed to return to their province once they’ve left it, and Tibetans in India, who have their own city, their own government-in-exile, and even some schools that teach in their native language.

All this, I had gathered before coming to India.  Then I got here, and…holy shit.  The Northeast is composed of seven provinces, each of them probably smaller than the average American state.  Can you guess how many different ethnic groups there are?  Hundreds.  How many languages?  Around a thousand (details here).  That’s one sixth of the world’s remaining languages, spoken in this tiny little nook bordered by Bhutan to the west, Tibet to the north, Myanmar to the east, and Bangladesh and the Bay of Bengal to the South.  It’s the middle of nowhere, where some villages still seem to be living in the iron age, where headhunting was common up to 50 years ago, where men still carry swords around, where grandmas have facial tattoos and unbelievable nose plugs, where men dress up in loincloths on festival days, where shamans read the future in chicken livers and indigenous creamsicle-colored bovines are tamed with salt and sacrificed at weddings.

And you want to know what the crazy part is?  It’s that you can’t go more than five minutes before running into someone who studied at an English-medium school, speaks just about fluently, and is excited to tell you how they’re not actually Indian at all.

!ncredible !ndia !ndeed.

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Let me backtrack for a moment.  Here I present you with something I think it’s fair to label a “throng.”  If this is your image of India, you’re not exactly wrong.  The country is indeed home to something like 20% of the world’s population, with a landmass and economy definitely on the small side of proportional.

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With such high population density, it shouldn’t be surprising that “personal space” is as rare a concept as “white guy in spandex on a bike that resembles a tank” is a rare spectacle.  This photo was taken on a bridge in West Bengal where I stopped for a swig of water.  I was surrounded before a quarter liter had made it down my esophagus.

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  The people are friendly and all, but THE STARES.  Oh my lord, the stares.  I’m not surprised to find myself an object of interest – indeed, I’m pretty much asking for it – but being in certain towns often feels like being the only fish in an aquarium.  The analogy is a little faulty because fish don’t have bicycles that all the viewers decide to poke, prod, push, squeeze, and even occasionally, mount.

Anyway, in addition to the hordes, here are some interesting people I’ve come across.  Talking to them has been so interesting, confusing, and satisfying that I hardly know where to start with my blogs.  That’s my excuse for being 3 months into India and just getting started now.

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Ram, who runs the Manipur Cycle Club and Indigenous Perspectives, an NGO working on indigenous and environmental issues in the area.  He also hosts foreign researchers and groups of students who want to get a taste of village life.

Choice quotation: “So many people here talk about wanting independence from India.  I think that’s pretty meaningless at this point – we’re watching TV shows from Korea, buying Chinese goods that come through Myanmar, using English as the medium of education in our schools.  Even if we broke off from India, what sort of independence would we have?  I’m trying to get people to think more about other sorts of independence – food independence, energy independence, intellectual independence.”  Right on!

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Boatsmen (Meitei tribe, I believe) who live in the floating villages on Loktak Lake.  Currently in conflict with the government, which wants to build tourist resorts on their tribal land and so is trying to push them to abandon their age-old subsistence lifestyles and integrate with the modern economy.  Which they might be forced to do anyway because of climate change and polluted water supplies.  That’s the side of the story I heard, anyway.  Thanks to Ram and the other IP folks for bringing us out there to celebrate World Environment Day.

More about them in later post, perhaps.

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Pabung!  Ram’s father in law, son of the first medical doctor in Manipur, brother to the first female medical doctor.  Dad had to walk hundreds of kilometers back and forth between home and school.  Pabung (Meitei language for “Dad”) is currently writing his third novel, a biography of his father.

Choice email excerpt:  “Where are you? i have not received any news for the last forthnight, it gives me anxiety and worries being your PABUNG. You know the meaning of this word, it means  DAD. Send mail immidiatly and releive me my pain  before it becomes a hypertension and call a doctor. Whatesoever may be the reason i have no reason not to wish you the best of everything and health.

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I’ll also include a few slice-of-life photos for your viewing enjoyment.

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Group that gathered during my two-minute cookie refill stop.

Oh, that’s one great thing about India.  Every village has at least one Sweets Shop where you can buy all sorts of little snacks, from spicy potato samosas to greasy funnel cakes to perfect little bean balls.  More details in the eventual food post.

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Group of Naga ladies.  How do I know this?  Because I asked them, “Hey, are you Naga?” and they said “Yes, we are, now come take our photo!”

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Group of Koki ladies.  Hard to identify them when they’re just walking around with bamboo backpacks, but easy to pick out when they’re all sitting in a Chai shop with thick-rimmed emo glasses and thicker eyeshadows

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Little Mao kids.  Again with the English!  I asked Dad, “Do you mind if I take a picture of your kids?”  His answer: “Go ahead, take a snap.”

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Managers of the State Bank of India Medzihpema branch; subordinates of David, VP of SBI Northeast, also our couchsurfing host, who let us stay in his hotel in Kohima, in his spare apartment in Dimapur, and with his in-laws in Medziphema.  Ready with a mini-banquet for us when we rolled into town!  Some of them are Nagas, some are Assamese.

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David also arranged a press conference and some newspaper interviews for us.  The crowd gathers as we park all six bicycles (+ 2 belonging to our young guides, members of the Nagaland Adventure Club) against a single telephone pole outside the State Bank of India Nagaland head office.

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Mario, a little Mao boy.  He lives at a “hostel” where his parents house and feed about forty other hill children whose families live too far away from the schools.

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Naga Papa.  I told him that in other countries I hadn’t seen so many daddies doing the carrying, and he answered that it was common here.  Actually several tribes in the Meghalaya region follow matriarchal customs, but that usually has more to do with who inherits the property and who’s responsible for the parents than who does the baby-hauling.

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Chris, every the Shaky (remember that that means “jerk” or worse in Korean) photobombs my perfect shot of Naga Jean-Luc Picard.  Incidentally, he had the coolest laugh ever.  “Ah-chachachachachacha”

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Naga Family.  Not pictured: one more photo-shy daughter.

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Naga Plum Vendor

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Back down in the lowlands, an Assamese Sunday parade. The Assamese are related to the plains Hindus, whereas the Nagas and Manipuris and the other minorities there are descended from the Tibetans and Mongolians.  Still, just like their more tribal neighbors, the Assamese speak a language other than Hindi, practice a different version of Hinduism, and certain groups among them even agitate for independence from the motherland.

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Assamese Vaishivite  temple service, which involved cymbals, drums, clapping, chanting, and of course the ubiquitous, hand-woven red and white “Gamosa” scarf.

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Chris sports his week-old Gamosa with Anush in North Lakhimpur, Assam.  Anush followed us to our hotel because he had never seen White People in person before.  The next day, he tracked us down at the immigration office and helped to translate while we fruitlessly tried to apply for Inner Line Permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh.

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Kids babysitting for other kids while their mothers work on the tea estate.

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Indrajit Sinha (next to Chris; parents originally from Manipur, but he was born in Tripura and is working in Guwahati, Assam), a young entrepreneur in spearheading We Are Young, an NGO working on getting local youth active and involved with political and cultural change.  Pictured: guerilla street interviews on the topic of street harassment.  Other projects include campaigns combating discrimination against HIV patients; campaigns against child labor; campaigns for student-directed educational reform; and a 3,000km bicycle ride from Guwahati over to the Himalayas to raise awareness regarding youth issues.  Rock on!

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Guwahati Couchsurfing host Anindita, a modern girl with a master’s in political science from Delhi, training in Montessori from Chennai, and plans to move to Tasmania to teach for a few years.  On the left: her mom, a traditional lady who wants her daughter to settle down with a nice Assamese guy.  Intergenerational conflict, Indian style!

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Anandita and mama’s house family, for lack of a better word.  The woman is the same age as Anandita but belonged to parents of a different, poorer caste.  They couldn’t take care of her and asked Anandita’s mama to adopt her.  Since that time, she’s taken care of cooking and various chores at Anandita’s place.  She lives, apparently happily, with a baby and a husband arranged for her by Anandita’s mother in a separate hut built in their back yard.  It’s a hard arrangement for me to imagine or condone but…I guess that’s what travel is about.

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Khasi minority kids in Nongpoh.  Their father is the pastor at a Seventh Day Adventist church (where we camped) and their mother cooks killer banana bread!  In a charcoal-powered oven!  Whaaaaaat.

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Dudes from Madra Pradesh (a state near Mumbai) on a road trip, chilling out at Elephant Falls near Shillong.  Don’t ask what they’re smoking…or whether they gave me any.

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Staff and loiterers at a countryside Dhaba (restaurant).

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One of an infinite number of Indian tourists who drive past, wave for us to stop, come take pictures with us, make us their facebook friends, and then go off and live the rest of their lives.  Hope you’re reading this now!  Go plant a tree!

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More Khasis – this time, the family (actually, when I asked them whether they were a family, they answered that they were a “Catechism”) that cooks for the priest and congregation at the Catholic church I crashed at in Mairang.

Interesting fact: the Khasi word for rain is “slop.”

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Khasi dudes on a mountaintop.

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Catholic priest from Kerala (all the way down by the south tip of India) who’s been in Meghalaya (3000km away) for the past 40 years.

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Garo dudes from the market in Songsak.

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No sweat.

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More priests – from Kerala on the left, from Tamil Nadu on the right.

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Sengkham and Puii, my hosts in Tura.  Sengkham is the head tax collector for the East Garo Hills district.  He passed me cycling up a mountain (he was driving), waited for me at the bottom, treated me to tea, invited me to stay at his place, relieved me of 80% of my gear,  and drove behind me with the brights on lighting the way for the last 15km.  Guess he really needed a bit of Fauxbo in his life.

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Two girls from a Garo village who, with incredible gutsiness, flagged me down.  “We’ve never met an American before, please talk to us!  Our English teacher can hardly speak at all.”  I gave them my card but they said their fathers don’t let them use phones, tv, or the internet.  “Our life in the village is so boring!”

The following are courtesy of Chris Buchman at

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Our first churchstay with pastor and Koki kids at a catholic boarding school in Tengnoupal.

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More Mao kids who stay at the hostel with Mario’s family and attend the Catholic school in town.  Their parents mostly live way up in the hills and get by by farming

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Auntie and Uncle, Dimapur, Nagaland.

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“Prince,” a badass little Assamese playboy who took us to a nice Dhaba for lunch and a really creepy (but air-conditioned) bar for a nitecap.

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Last but not least, Mr. Sharma (two to Chris’s left, white shirt), a math teacher in Bisnawat Chariali (Assam) who passed us on the road and invited us back to his place for a tour of his village and the tea factory.  His wife cooked us a cookass dinner and his daughter, who spoke nearly perfect English, laughed at our jokes and even made a few of her own.

Whew, what a few months it has been!  Lovely people, good times, much more to come….

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3 Responses to These Are (not?) Indians: Manipur, Nagaland, Assam, Meghalaya

  1. Anonymous says:

    Mike u really know to keep the read interesting… lot of interesting things about the north east states(esp socio-cultural stuffs) . Btw i loved the spirit of the two garo girls… an interesting piece with lovely images…. consider writing a book soon… or may be even a coffee table book… good luck for future reads…

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bro…..where is our Garo Veg burger photo.
    U gave me u’r card and toll us that surely we will see our veg burger in your website…but its missing I guess?

  3. Rajak sangma says:

    Bro…..where is our Garo Veg burger photo.
    U gave me u’r card and toll us that surely we will see our veg burger in your website…but its missing I guess?