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India's North East: Update from Tim Allen

Community Highlights Asia India's North East: Update from Tim Allen

Tim Allen, the photographer I interviewed last month, sent me an email earlier this week. He has just posted a new gallery of his latest photos, which you can check out at his website (go to his latest work and select Part 3).

As you’d expect, the images are stunning. They were taken in northeastern India, in what are known as the Seven Sister States. Given their geographic separation from India and the fact that they were independent before the British Raj, the Seven Sister States are unique and culturally distinct from the rest of India. Tim was kind enough to write more about the area and the experience of travelling around in a place that is well and truly off the tourist track.

But first, here's a couple photos for your viewing pleasure...

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Tell us a little about the background of these latest photos. From some of the landscape shots I got the impression that this part of northeastern India is quite remote. What was it like travelling around there?

These latest photos represent a selection from the last couple of months of a six month tour around the North East Frontier States of India commonly referred to as the Seven Sister States. More specifically, the majority in this section were shot at Naisingpara refugee camp in Tripura, Mokokchung and Mon districts in Nagaland, and Majuli Island in Assam. This corner of India is enclosed by Bhutan and Tibet in the North, Myanmar in the East and Bangladesh in the south and west. Therefore you will find that the tribal societies there reflect Chinese and South east Asian culture rather than the traditions of 'mainland' India to the west.

To label the North East as 'remote' is a bit tenuous as far as I'm concerned. I think that word is suffering a bit of an identity crisis these days. I mean, would you call the top of Everest remote?... Probably, but then again I often wonder if those climbers who have to wait in a queue for 40 minutes at the summit actually feel like they're in a remote place. If by 'remote' you mean undiscovered by outsiders then yes, I would say that a large part of India's north east is remote, but as far as traveling there goes - it's not that different from the rest of India. Most of the inhabited places are accessible by bus or jeep except for the very northerly regions of Arunachal Pradesh and places along the border regions in Nagaland, Manipur and Meghalaya. Of course, the roads are very bad - that goes without saying but if you've been to India before and you're the kind of person who doesn't mind exploring without a copy of the 'Lonely Planet', then I'm sure you'll find traveling there a really refreshing surprise.

There are two main factors that deter travelers from venturing to the Seven Sister States. The first is the Indian Government's imposition of restricted area travel permits for foreigners in 4 of the states. It's true that this bureaucracy can be a formidable barrier but after six months in the area, I can report back that not once was I ever refused access to any place I wanted to see. In fact, two of the most memorable places I went to didn't require permits anyway and unbelievably, no foreigners had ever visited them before.

Secondly, there is a myth amongst travelers in India that the North East is dangerous and inhospitable to outsiders - this is absolutely not correct in my experience. In reality, I found almost the complete opposite to be true. One thing is worth mentioning though, it is the kind of place where it's essential to embrace your faith in human beings. Without this trust you may find it a tough place to travel. Outside of the towns I pretty much exclusively stayed as a guest in people's houses. Traveling in this manner is not to everyone's taste. By way of preparation, before I left Delhi I filled up one rucksack with simple items to use as gifts - mainly jewelry, beads, batteries and LED torches etc. On a few occasions I paid people for accommodation but on the whole the majority of the families I stayed with were embarrassed at the prospect of financial remuneration for their help - they genuinely appreciated the interaction with outsiders and I found the whole experience completely inspiring. For me, the drawback to sticking to the well trodden paths is that this tends to diminish the quality of your interaction with the indigenous people. Partly because you deal more regularly with people who's job it is to make money out of you but also because it is very easy to let the guide books do the thinking for you and coax you towards the kind of attractions that, by their nature, have lost their authenticity. In North East India, for all intents and purposes there are no comprehensive guide books and very few traveler's guesthouses, so as a visitor you are obliged to discover everything by talking to the locals. Its the kind of place in which you should gift yourself plenty of time and opportunity to be spontaneous.

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I noticed one photo of a kid holding a machine gun. Where was that taken? Was there a lot of political tension and violence around where you were travelling?

In that picture the child is holding a home made wooden toy gun. It was shot in a village near Mokokchung in Nagaland during Moatsu - the Ao Naga festival of sowing. I know its a bit of a cliché photographing a kid with a gun but this boy had a great personality and the light was nice. Nevertheless it was interesting to note that out there parents don't seem to have the same prejudice against toy weapons that our folks do back home. Personally, I don't really have an opinion about that. Needless to say, the kids were all very friendly and well behaved and I never once got the impression that they would grow up with any less respect for the sanctity of life than their weaponless counterparts in the West.

All the tribes of the north east have had a potted history of conflict with outsiders staking a claim to their lands. More recently that has been with the Indian Government but in 1997 a ceasefire was signed in Nagaland, an agreement which has substantially reduced the amount of fighting. The legacy of this history however is a small proliferation of guns in some of the states. In my experience though, the hostility that remains is something you are very unlikely to come in contact with. All sides seem to be united in their mutual respect for foreigners and these days most people want to live a comfortable life at peace - the conflicts that remain are the result of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with travelers and it appears to be well understood that negative press involving tourists is something that would be very detrimental to any cause. There are over 100 distinct tribal groups in the NE States of India and it is definitely true to say that traditionally, some of them were more aggressive than others. However, the majority of the tribes I met have been influenced by Christian missionaries and in most instances their communities still nurture ethics somewhat akin to those of rural Britain in the 1950s. Most of the political tension I heard about was usually centered around the capital cities or secluded border areas. It’s very easy to avoid such places by traveling sensibly and listening to what the locals have to say. I found there to be a genuine concern amongst the people for the wellbeing of visitors. This means that it will be very unlikely that you will find yourself in any dangerous situations. The communities there are still very close-knit and in my experience very little ever goes unnoticed. If you're heading towards something unpleasant, someone will more than likely come up to you and politely advise you that its better to go the other way.

I could fill a whole book with stories of the kindness shown to me by the different communities in the North East Frontier States. To sum up, I would say its a great place to explore - very safe and full of lovely honest people. The culture is alive and magnificently varied and the scenery is spectacular. English is widely spoken and the transport network is extensive. My advice is go there and experience it for yourself as soon as you can.

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Tim emailed me later about a link that he though might be interesting to those of you who'd like to read more about the North East States of India.

I got an email today from a Dutch guy I met in Nagaland who's written a blog about his travels around the NE States of India. He was one of the handful of people I met during the whole six months - I met him on his way into the region and he appears to have visited a lot of the places I recommended to him. Its a good link to include as a post script for anyone who's after some more firsthand info on the places I traveled. Take a look.

All photos used with permission.

By dr.pepper

Posted Thursday, July 05, 2007