Semeri Alva B.Sangma on an enchanting trip in the north east India
In the GPRS era of today, it would seem unlikely that pockets of the globe could remain for the most part, untouched. Ever since the first American Baptists set foot in these parts at the turn of the 19th century, Garo Hills retains much of its pristine glory. Tucked away to the west of Northeast India’s south-western most state, Meghalaya – the Land of the Storm Cloud, the Garo hills are inhabited by an indigenous people who call themselves A•chik – more popularly known as Garos. As in many indigenous cultures the A•chik have their own superstitions and taboos which include belief in spirits embellished by highly exaggerated narrative pulled from a veritable treasure chest of folklore passed down from generation to generation.
The A•chik are among the few remaining matrilineal societies in the world implying that clan lineage derives from individuals take their clan titles from their mother to offspring. Unlike the ‘conventional’ male-dominated lineage norm, it is the youngest daughter or the nokna who carries forward the clan name and property. Traditionally, sons would leave home at adolescence, and would be schooled in the art of warfare, protocol and such matters at the village bachelors’ dormitory – the nokpante. They would leave the nokpante only upon taking a wife and were then required to move into the bride’s home.
An interesting spin on the A•chik form of matriliny is the fact that while lineage and property are passed down from mother to daughter, it is their men who are the decision makers in social or domestic matters. While this system fulfils the inherent need for females of any species to be protected and provided for it confers a degree of responsibility upon the menfolk ensuring a harmonious equilibrium between both sexes. Christianity, however, has played its part in influencing A•chik culture rendering the all-important nokpante all but extinct, with newly-wed couples preferring to set up their own nuclear homes.
How to get to Tura: The nearest International Airport is the Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International Airport at Borjhar, Guwahati. Fliers also have the option of disembarking at the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport at Kolkata then flying into Guwahati on any of Indian, Jet Airways, SpiceJet, Kingfisher Airlines, Deccan or Indigo flights. are some of the airlines that service this route. Direct flights to Guwahati are also available from New Delhi. The nearest railhead Guwahati is well connected from other parts of the country. Trains are available everyday to Guwahati from Kolkata’s Howrah Station and take around 18 hours. Guwahati also has direct trains from New Delhi. India’s fastest train, the Rajdhani Express takes about 36 hours. Trains from the South India include the Bangalore-Guwahati Express, Chennai-Guwahati Express and Guwahati-Trivandrum Express. A word of caution, do check ahead for strikes, road blockades or any agitational programme. The region is politically unstable and getting stranded en route a less desirable option.
Road: Buses ply from Kolkata to Guwahati via Siliguri with the option of breaking journey at Siliguri. Buses to Tura are available both, from Siliguri and Guwahati, although the latter is the better and more convenient option. There are two slots for the bus service; the earliest is 0630 hrs and the latest 2030 hrs. This journey takes around seven hours and a seat for one costs Rs 350. Buses leave from the newly built Inter-state Bus Terminal. Sumo (jeep) shared services are available twice a day (7 am and 2pm) from Baralumukh in Guwahati. A seat will cost Rs 400 per head and take 5 hours. For the heavier built, consider blocking (and paying for) two seats, drivers tend to pack the vehicle pretty tight. Air: The Pawan Hans helicopter service run by the state-owned Meghalaya Transport Corporation flies on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Guwahati (Rs.1700) and Shillong (Rs 1,900). Travel light. The maximum baggage allowed is 10 kg with no hand-baggage; also, children below the age of 10 are not permitted to fly.
Where to Stay: 1. Rikman Continental, Tura Bazaar. Ph: +91 3651 220759/ 223858. Room rates range from 1400 to Rs 4,800. In-house hotel and bar. 2. Hotel Sundare (pronounce: soon-daa-ray meaning rainbow), Tura Bazaar. Ph: N/A. Room rates range from Rs 1400-Rs 4,500. 3. Orchid Lodge, Araimile, New Tura. Ph: +91 3651 232039. Room rates range: N/A 4. Shalome Guests House, Hawakhana,Tura Ph: +91 9436113103 Room rates range: NA 5. Hotel Nataraj, Tura Bazaar, Tura. Ph: +91 3651 223189. Budget hotel. 6. Bed and Breakfast: Bliss Home Stay : Ph: +91 9862475197
One can stay with a Garo family as a paying guest which will be arranged on request.
Eats: Foodies can try out traditional Garo delicacies: like wak | do•o brenga – diced pork or chicken char-grilled in a section of tender bamboo, we•tepa minnow char-grilled in plantain leaf, wak/do•o kapa – pork or chicken cooked with ginger and green chilli in cooking soda, gominda wak – pumpkin pork etc.
The more exotic fare can include entrails, tripe, assorted smoked meat and is highly recommended for the adventurous! For the faint of heart, there is the usual pan-Indian fare including veggie meals.
Places of to see: Hoolock Gibbons: Garo Hills is one of the very few places on this planet that still has a significant number of hoolock gibbons in the wild. Balpakram (Grand Canyon of the East): A National Wildlife Park in South Garo Hills ia about 167 Kms from Tura. There is a great precipice or deep gorge in Balpakram and is popularly compared to the Grand Canyon of U.S.A. It is believed that the spirits of the dead dwell temporarily before embarking on the final journey. It is home to the rare Lesser Panda, the Indian bison and the Stag like Serow. A variety of medicinal herbs locally called “dikge” grow abundantly in Balpakram. It is most famous for its elephants which are believed to be existent in the highest density here.
Best time to visit – Mid-April to mid-June.
Clothes – thin light clothing. Not advisable to venture alone anywhere without a trained guide as wild animal abound and may even come to the premises of the guest house.
Rongbang Dare: These waterfalls in East Garo hills are simply spectacular and make a wonderful picnic spot with a great wade pool.
Emangre :- This is the only village where the traditional wood carving on the posts and beams of the nokpante – the bachelor’s Dormitory still survive.
Dombe Wari: These waterfalls in South Garo hills are not easily accessible. The trek to these waterfalls from the nearest motorable village Emanasak will take you about 4 hours. 3 kms from Eman Asakgre there is a legendary lake on top of the hill believed to have been created by a merman when the eloped away with a beautiful wife of one boastful man. It is believed that Dombe the beautiful woman still lives in the underground water Kingdom. Ask your guide about the beautiful folklore that tells you about how this waterfalls was formed.
Pelga Falls: A definite ‘must-see’ and among the most beautiful waterfalls of the Garo Hills; just located at the distance of 7 kms from Tura has become increasingly hot spot for anglers and picnickers in recent years. A typical traditional Garo bamboo bridge constructed over Ganol river is another added attraction. Asananggre 18 km from Tura is a cultural hub of the Garo Hills. The biggest annual festival of the Garos the Hundred Drums Wangala Festival is organized on the every secondth Friday and Saturday of November.
Flora: The Venus Fly Trap and the Pitcher plant Fauna: Elephants, tigers, clouded leopard, leopard, leopard cats, birds, etc.
Nokrek Biosphere Reserve Forest:- The Nokrek National Park is the highest peak in Garo Hills also called The National Citrus Gene Sanctuary-cum-Biosphere Reserve covering an area of forty seven square kilometres.
Tura Peak: A beautiful and majestic hill stands on the eastern side of Tura at a height of 872 m above sea level overlooking the town of Tura.
Imilchang Dare: Breath taking waterfall with a deep, wide pool at the bottom of the fall, full of fish of varied size and colour, besides being an ideal picnic spot. Chibragre: The confluence of the Ganol and Rongram streams is Chibragre, a picturesque place which is very popular among picnickers and anglers alike just 9 kms from Tura on the Tura Guwahati road. Bhaitbari: This small sleeping hamlet of Bhaitbari came into national focus when ruins of ancient Kingdom dating back 4-8 A.D. were discovered here a few years ago. This place is just 8 kms. From Phulbari in West Garo Hills Rombagre: located about 35 km from Tura is a beautiful fish culture water pool preserved and protected by the local villagers in the Simsang river. Rongbang dare :- is one of the many enchanting falls of Garo hills can be easily viewed from Tura-Williamnagar Road Wadagokgre (a historical place) one of the most interesting and attractive places in West Garo Hills where an excavation proved as one of the biggest cities, a religious centre cast out of the Bramaputra river from the fourth century A.D. or even earlier; a sprawling township with Buddhism, Hinduism and amalgamation of the two being widely practiced in that area. It is 75 km from Tura.
Tasek Lake : – located near Songsak is a large inland lake formed when the great earthquake of 1897 occurred. The lake has immense potential for fish culture. Sisobibra :- 12 km from Williamnagar, amidst the thick jungles of Rongrengiri Reserve Forest, there lies a historical monument dedicated to Pa Togan Nengminza Sangma, a legendary Garo warrior and patriot who was killed by the British army. Baghmara Reserve Pitcher Plants- is located just below the tourist lodge at Baghmara and any tourist interested to see the pitcher plant which also known as insect eating plants and locally known as Memang Koksi or ‘Phantoms’ Basket’ can visit the pitcher plant reserve at Baghmara with prior permission from the Forest Wildlife Department. Siju Caves, Nengkong Caves: These limestone caves are famous for their pristine interiors. However, only a few caves have been explored and chartered. The rest of it is uncharted because the caves run very deep and far. The famous limestone caves of Siju are located near Naphak Lake and the Simsang stalactites in these caves resemble those of the Blue Grotto in the Isle of Capri.
For more details, please see the section on caves below. It is the third longest cave in the Indian sub-continent some of the finest river passages to be found any where in the world. The magnificent limestone rock formation inside christened Princess Di’s Chamber by its British excavators will fill any visitor with awe. Siju
Bird Sactuary: Close by on the other side of Simsang river Siju bird sanctuary is the home for many rare and protected birds and other wildlife. Varities of migratory birds etc can be found here especially the migratory Siberian duck also come here during winter months. At the entrance to this bird sanctuary after a steep climb of nearly 1 km there is a stretch of fantastic rock formations that will take your breath away.
As per the latest report of Simon Brooks and his party of Bristol Exploration Clubs and Orpheus Caving Club from England who visited Siju in 1992 & 1994, the Siju Cave which is 400 mt in length is the most researched and unique cave in the world. Besides, there are lots of trekking, river rafting, angling, community fishing and caving potentiality in and around Siju.
Nengkong :- 14 kms north of Baghmara has 3 well known caves Tetengkol Balwakol measuring 5,033 kms in length is the 2nd longest cave in the Indian Sub-continent. Two more caves-Dobakkol chibe nala almost 2 kms long and another a little over 1 km long called Bok-bak dobakkol are also in the vicinity of the area.
Chitmang Peak- A short distance to the north-west of Balpakram, Chitmang is the considered the final resting place for all spirits.
by Semeri Alva B.Sangma
Semeri Alva B.Sangma is the Editor, Publisher and Proprietor of A’chik Songbad (Weekly Newspaper). She is the recipient of many awards and has participated in the Indo ASEAN Motor Car Rally. She is also a social activist never hesitating from lending her voice for the voiceless. Not one to be caught sitting around, she has made this foray into researching the culture of her people and earning a Ph.D in the process.