As a high school student, I was intrigued by the terminologies called ‘Stalactites’ and ‘Stalagmites’ in my Geography curriculum. ‘These were formations of calcium deposits formed by continuous flowing of water over several years, below the Earth’s crust’, it read.
“These structures are beautiful to see. I had the opportunity to visit one of these underground caverns during my visit to France. We walked down a flight of stairs and then were taken on a boat, to see stalactites and stalagmites, underground”, my geography teacher said. Her voice echoes in my ears even today, because back then my jaws had dropped in awe wondering how beautiful the landscape and topography of the countries outside India were. I wished to see the stalactites and stalagmites someday.
Cut to today, I am so glad that time has been kind on me with so many opportunities to explore my own country, India. These opportunities have opened my senses to realize that “India is a world”. From snow to deserts, mountains to beaches, plains to rainforests, the landscape comprises of EVERY type from across the world! Based on my travels, I have seen some amazing cave systems in India. Without including the caves that have been part of India’s ‘art and architectural heritage’, here are five best places in India where you can explore caves in their natural form.
Top on the list, there are hundreds of caves that are open to explorers, hundreds being discovered every day and maybe thousands that are still unknown to people yet. ‘Krem Liat Prah’, India’s longest cave system is in Meghalaya.
2. Andhra Pradesh:
‘Borra caves’ in Andhra is the largest cave in India. A heritage railway line passes just above this limestone cave. Having such a big cave system is proof and motivation enough to know that several other caves are available in this region waiting to be explored by adventurers and tourists alike.
The state sitting within the mythologically important forests called ‘Dandakaranya,’ these forests are home to several limestone cave systems that are yet untouched by mass-tourism. Only about 57 caves are known to people as of now, and there is immense scope for exploring new caves. The remoteness of the places adds to the joy of the explorer while caving in Chhattisgarh. The video of exploring a cave at Bastar, Chhattisgarh is shared below.
4. Andaman & Nicobar Islands:
This archipelago and Union territory of India is one of the best kept secrets of nature enthusiasts who want to go caving. In fact, this is where I saw a stalactite and stalagmite for the first time in my life. The connectivity of these remote caves located on different islands through a channel of interconnected mangrove forests passing through pristine blue sea water makes it a memorable experience.
While all the above cave systems I have enlisted above are limestone caves, Karnataka is home to some of the beautiful sandstone caves which are scattered across the middle and northern region of the state. Unlike underground, the caves in Karnataka are formed above the earth’s surface and give a completely distinct perspective of exploring this state, which is my home-state as well!
It was long travelling distances leading to high altitude destinations, where cold winds were abundant and oxygen levels lower. For those of us travelling across North and East Sikkim, it had been a long and a tiring trip thus far. Each day of our weeklong travel through this little but important Indian state had been a different experience.
This post is part of our weeklong stay in Sikkim covering Gangtok – Mangan – Lachen – Gurudongmar- Lachung- Zero point – Rumtek – Gangtok – Nathula – Zuluk – Siliguri
Long ago, I had seen a jaw dropping photograph of the old silk-route winding and passing through Sikkim. It had since been my wish to see that view in real. The old silk-route had once served as a major trade route connecting China with the rest of Asia and Middle east. During this trip in Sikkim, we decided to drive along that scenic route during our exit from this tiny state. Hence, the route chosen by us was: Gangtok > Tsongmo/Changu lake > Nathula Pass > Nathang valley > Lungthung village > Thambi viewpoint > Zuluk >Rangpo > Siliguri
Only Indian nationals are permitted on this stretch of East Sikkim and an inner line permit was obtained from Gangtok on the morning of our departure.
It had been a cloudy day since dawn break and the drive for the initial stretch felt pleasant as we passed through the wavering peace flags all along the highway. We learnt about the significance of these peace posts in Buddhist culture while conversing with our taxi driver. The white flags are installed in memory of a deceased person by their kith. Similarly, the multicolored flags are believed to bring good luck. Ideally, these flags are supposed to be installed high up in the mountains where the winds are stronger. The wind is believed to free-up the soul of the deceased or bring good energy, depending on the flag’s colour. With reducing space for hoisting more flags and the ease of finding a hoisting place by the roadside, it is now common to find them all along the highways of this Buddhist majority state.
Sooner, the clouds cleared up making way for a gleaming sun in the blue sky. We arrived at the Tsomgo lake in a while. It is a serene lake that is popular among the tourists. We clicked a few photos with the yaks grazing around its periphery before proceeding towards the Indo-China border at Nathula pass.
Nathula was crowded. People were amok and erratic. They had no idea what to expect at an international border. Some were standing in attention with a salute to the Indian tricolor, some were touching and praying the fence that marked the border. Some were putting their feet across the barbed wire to get a feel of going to China and a few more were busy chasing the men in uniform of the Indian army for selfies. And for us, it was a urge to run back to the warmth of the heater of our vehicle 😛 It was biting cold even during the peak of the day. We walked up to the point, saw the border gates of both India and China, the respective embassy buildings, the Chinese and the Indian army camps posted high up and also got a distant view of the mountains that marked Bhutan. We did a quick walk through, taking in all the good views and returned to our vehicle as quickly as we could.
After squeezing out of the maddening crowd at Nathula, we continued our journey towards Nathang valley, only to be stuck in one of the worst traffic jams we had experienced in Sikkim. The last and the major destination on a typical touristy circuit is the temple of Baba Harbhajan Singh. Baba Harbhajan Singh is a folklore hero and an ex-army soldier whose spirit is believed to be roaming around the place, protecting the soldiers posted at this extreme terrain. There are old and the new temples dedicated to him, both maintained by the Indian army. We managed to find our way out of the choco block and continued towards Nathang valley.
Beyond the army temple, I can conveniently say that it was just us all the way. The roads were deserted, except for some BRO trucks and excavators clearing up the landslide prone path and laying new roads. We passed through what the army claims to be world’s highest altitude golf course, several army camps and tiny discrete civilian settlements along our way. Our drive through Nathang valley, thereafter, was something beyond comprehension for our senses, it was so beautiful!
All that we had envisaged of this journey at the time of commencing this drive was passing through a viewpoint and reaching Siliguri for the night’s stay. But as the journey unfolded, we were in for surprises. That day, the clouds had embraced the valley like never before. The road that we were driving on, seemed as if it was curving around the edge of the land. It was clear blue sky with the sun beaming bright and the thick clouds engulfing the horizon. The rhododendron plants had blanketed the entire valley, which I’m sure must be a visual delight during their blooming season. We stopped, like at every half a mile to capture the landscape in our cameras, alas justice be done to what the human eyes saw.
But by late afternoon, the sun had started to descend to the horizon and the fog had taken over again. Our visibility of the road ahead and the possibility to see the view that we wanted, had both now become zero. Our driver soon pulled off our vehicle at a tiny settlement enroute to enquire for availability of a place for us to stay for the night. Lungthung is a tiny village on the valley, with barely 3-4 houses, that too made with metal sheets. By staying in a homestay there, we were going to be the only outsiders for that night at Lungthung!
The mercury level was already below zero. But as the night rolled in, the winds too got stronger. The clouds cleared up and the stars and the planets shone brighter than ever. It was our last night at Sikkim and the coldest too! Even as we sat inside the host’s dining room, relishing the handmade thenthuk, we felt like our roof was going to be taken away by the winds. No amount of firewood could keep us warm. Even if we simply stood up for a moment to adjust our seats, they would freeze again. But as I said earlier, it was our last evening at Sikkim before we got back to the grind. There was no way we would hit the bed early. We sat outside, counting stars quite literally… The sky was clear, the moon lit up the road below and a lone filament bulb illuminated a roof at a little distance. Apart from an occasional goods carrying army truck that toughed it out on the slope, there was no civilization around us for miles together… It was an experience so wonderful that we hadn’t imagined about remotely, even a few hours ago… Not in my wildest dreams, had I imagined that I would live a day of my life ON the silk-route!!
Anyway, not really being able to sleep due to cold temperature and the noisy sheets fluttering outside our room, we still rolled into our blankets and set an alarm to wake up early. Our host at the homestay had recommended to walk down the road for sunrise…
The following morning, it was almost impossible for me to even think of coming out of the blanket. I snoozed the alarm a couple of times. But then something happened. My eyes had one glance at the window glass, and it was enough motivation for me to get my butt off the bed. It was a breaking dawn…. The sky had a streak of deep red, visible right at my window, seen from my bed…. It was for sure, unusual from any normal day. The view made me forget the cold and barge outside to not miss the complete visuals of an unfolding day… I woke my brother up and my friends and we all raced towards the viewpoint that we were told about. We didn’t mind slipping down a couple of times on the frozen roads.
At such high altitude and low temperature, the running didn’t help to warm us up. As we reached the viewpoint, we were panting for breath and had our jaws dropping. We were gasping, awestruck in amazement at the sight around us, chattering due to the freezing temperature and everything else happened to us at the same time. The moment is inexplainable!
We were standing at Thambi viewpoint and had lost the sense of place for that moment. The Kanchenjunga had lit up in crimson in just a few minutes and the winding roads through Zuluk valley appeared deep down in a while. It was a day and an experience like never before! It was our last day at Sikkim and I could only say that the best was indeed saved for the end!
As I had mentioned in one of my previous stories about my first solo trip, I had tagged along with two Bengaluru boys whom I met at Shillong. After covering Meghalaya, we took delivery of a brand new ‘Maruti Swift’ from a showroom in Guwahati and set out on a random road trip across the North-east. (click here to read the complete story). We finished exploring the Ziro valley and were left with 4 more days before our return flight to Bangalore. We worked out many options to best utilize the available time (4 days were too little to go ahead to Mechuka and return to Guwahati, we would be on a tight time if we did Tawang and had no backup in the eventuality of a car breakdown on those bad roads, Sandakphu was doable but we weren’t equipped with sufficient gears).
That’s when I popped the option of visiting Jatinga. An unheard place for the other two with me, I explained: “It is a place where mass suicide of migratory birds takes place due to an unknown phenomenon. And this is THE season to witness it!”. There was enough curiosity inside the car but no clue on how to get there. We browsed quite a bit, scrolled through several web pages of the forest department and landed on a random contact list of IFS officers in Assam. We picked a random name (it sounded very South Indian, hence we wanted to try our luck). We got lucky and the call got through. A little perplexed at why random tourists may be interested in visiting this place, the IFS officer asked us to call him a day later as he was travelling. We were ok to wait for confirmation, as we were anyway going to reach Itanagar only on the following noon. That’s where we had to pick our route, whichever worked out- Guwahati or Jatinga.
On the following day, we called on the same number again when we had reached a good network zone. The IFS officer got us connected to another forest officer, posted in Haflong. We got in touch with that officer, who then guided us to reach his office in Haflong. He warned us against stopping ANYWHERE along our way and keep updating him every now and then about our location. We relied heavily on Google maps and were driving through Asian Highway no.1. PS: We would be heading towards Dima Hasao district and the entire route was notoriously infested with anti-social elements.
We commenced our drive on a road that would lead us to Thailand (only if we extended our holidays by a fortnight more), guided by Google maps. But for now, it was destination: Haflong, the only hill station in Assam. The under-construction road was patchy every few kilometers, alternating with smooth asphalt and bumpy gravel. At one point, the road with endless stretch of forest cover was so beautiful and intimidating for a photo stop but we were scared for even a pee-stop. We were however, at the mercy of google-Mata’s directions!
“Not all who plan and come here get lucky, as the weather plays a crucial role in being able to see it, even after reaching here. The wind direction tonight is very favorable. You are here at the RIGHT time to witness the mass-suicide of the birds. Be ready by around 12.00.a.m., the jeep will come here to pick you all. The officer and I will join you at my house and then we shall proceed to Jatinga.” The Hotelier said before leaving us. We were all excited! After freshening up, we placed an order for a hearty Dimasa meal for supper. ‘Try Local cuisines, wherever you are’ was a mantra all three of us religiously followed. The must try-dishes were recommended by the friendly chef at the lodge.
The poor car had gone through so much abuse on its very first road trip that it deserved a good shower. While the boys drove out to the town to find a good spa for the car, I decided to stay back at the lodge. The wooden furniture in an open dining space with mellow music playing in the background and cold misty breeze from the green trees around, blowing on my face was enough reason for me soak up some inspiration to write my next story. As a couple of hours passed, the boys returned. I don’t know if the car found a spa, but the boys for sure found a bar 😛 They returned with a few liters of judima, the local brew of rice beer.
We were the lucky few who were to witness nature’s phenomena, one so rare that it is unexplainable by science. We had braved quite an adventurous drive to make it thus far… But the weather was such, that I can’t blame them. The two drank up the stock ignoring all my alerts, warnings and requests! It was now nearing 9.00.p.m. and so, blame it on the ambience of the dining area. While the meal was being arranged on the table, the two were dozing away. Jatinga and the birds were all flying away from me now, faintly to the elusive distance 😛 I tried to keep the two up, at least to finish up the meal and not waste it. The two walked up to their room and had passed out within the next few moments. “See you Jatinga, next time!”, I silently spoke while breaking the roti in my hand.
It did not feel right for me to drive into a forest alone with someone whom I barely knew. Hence, I decided to make ‘Nothao’ my destination for the night. I requested the hotel staff to serve the same food on the following morning (there was SO MUCH food, that neither of us would want to throw it off), informed the hotel owner and the forest officer of my situation and silently slid into the comforting warmth of the rugs in my room.
Anyway, the miss was made up for, by the two boys who had been my travel partners for the last 2 weeks (well… partially). We explored a little bit 9f Haflong. The duo spoke to the officer and a hike to the highest peak of Assam- Hapeo peak was organized. That’s yet another story you might want to read here. Thus, happened our misadventure to Jatinga and the last bit on my fortnight in the north-east.
One of the earliest science lessons we learnt in school is that friction causes fire. We all have grown past reading how the early cavemen generated fire by rubbing two stones together and eventually how this accidental discovery lead to a massive turnaround in the evolution of mankind.
Leaving the past behind, the modern man uses a matchstick or a lighter to create fire, all based on the same science of friction. But, there in Nagaland, the culture still exits where albeit the formal education and access to matchboxes and lighters, the tribes continue to use their indigenous methods of lighting a fire. In order to keep this tradition alive, there are competitions conducted among the various tribes of the state to see who ignites the fire faster. I witnessed one such event during the hornbill festival-2019 in Nagaland.
The traditional method of fire making is done by using wooden log and fiber. Wooden saw dust is placed between small crevices made in the log around which the long fiber is then rapidly pulled along, to create friction. The log and the fiber are the two surfaces creating friction and the saw dust is the fuel/ catalyst. It was a very distinct way of lighting fire to watch. The person who first lights a candle using the fire ignited by him in this traditional method gets to take home the trophy.
Here is a video to see how this fire is made in the indigenous Naga way.
It is that traveling exposes one to a multitude of cultures and people. The diverse geography of India is home to some of the most unheard traditions and untold folklores. During my 10 day stint of backpacking in Nagaland, I was introduced to so many of it all, as this little Indian state, tucked in the far North-east is home to more than 17 tribal sects and sub-tribes; each having their own culture, language, traditions and cuisine. Here, is a small list of indigenous musical instruments used in the folk culture of the Nagas.
Mrabung is an indigenous musical instrument of the Zeliang Nagas. It is a single stringed instrument that is crafted with a hollow/ cured bottle gourd and a fretless wooden neck of about 12 inches long. It is played with hair string bow (Usually a cluster of horse tail tightly tied together to two ends of a thin wooden stick). This bow is used to strike the chords (like a violin) with one hand and the string along the neck is pressed down with the other hand at appropriate places to get the required tune and legato of the song. It is played during merry making in social gatherings and festivals where men and women congregate. I was narrated with a popular folklore of the Nagas wherein, a singer called Arum played the Mrabung. His music captivated the farmers so much that everyone working on the field left their work undone and sat around Arum listening to his songs. Arum had to be barred from playing any songs further just so the people went back to work on their farms. Click below to see an artisan playing the Mrabung.
The Atutu is a handcrafted bamboo trumpet used by the Pochury tribes of Meluri. A particular variety of bamboo is used in making the varied components that are fitted together to make this crafted trumpet. It is played to mark special occasions. For example, blowing of this trumpet towards the end of February means to herald and announce the advent of the Nazhu festival. Also, the male members of the tribe play it in their morungs in the evenings throughout the festival. Apart from this, the trumpet sound is used to ward off birds and animals from the rice fields and prevent from crop damage. In earlier days, trumpeting was a way to alert the collective habitat or a village of a possible enemy attack or as a signal of declaration of a war.
This common musical instrument has its own version and avatar in every region of India. Be it weddings or festivals, it is the most common and almost an essential part of any merry making in Indian celebrations. Similarly, each tribe in Nagaland has its own version of the dholaks or the Indian hand drums. Made with an outer casing of wood, laced tightly with cotton strings and the drumming surfaces made with the locally available materials, more often animal hide. Here are samples of the dholaks used by the Garos (Long slender shaped, narrowing at the ends), the Mech Kacharis (fatter and shorter than the Garos) and the Aao tribes (Shorter and fatter than the previous two types and Uniform sized throughout its length) of Nagaland. (Click the below link to watch the ceremonial dances of the Naga tribes with their dholaks)
This is my humble attempt at documenting some unique musical instruments that are lesser known to the world outside North-east India. These have been listed based on my actual experiences and interactions with the Nagas during the hornbill festival-2020. If you know any such unique musical instruments, please do share in the comments section below. I would be happy to learn it from you 🙂
Rolling hills that has many faces to call it BEST described… Every description depends on who saw it during which time of the year. I was heading to this valley in early winter, 1st week of December to be precise. That’s when the days are warm and nights are cold, but there is no snowfall.
So, as planned my friend and I set foot to see a valley that borders the states of Nagaland and Manipur. ‘It’s a magical place’ is the only thing we had heard. I had done enough research about getting there from Nagaland side and learnt that there are two routes with different difficulty levels. One starts from Jakhama village and the other is through Vishema village. Since we had hired a trek guide, we decided to take the route recommended by her. Initially, not knowing what terrain we would be trekking through, we had carried our large backpacks with all the stuff for our fortnight long trip in Nagaland. But then, our guide asked us to carry just thermals and enough water. “Food and blankets can be bought at the peak” we were told. Anyway, additionally we carried our sleeping bags and some food since we had to utilize what we had carried all the way from Bangalore 😛 We left our luggage at our guide’s house in Jakhama and took a short taxi ride to the start point of the trek. (Watch the video below)
We started to climb up from Jakhama by around 11.30.a.m. and the path was unassumingly steep. The entire trail was encompassed in a thick canopy of trees through which the sun rays could hardly penetrate. Although we were climbing at peak noon, it felt as if it was post sunset. The heat generated by the body while burning the calories seemed insufficient to warm us up. The trail only got steeper at almost 80deg gradient and we kept thanking our guide for telling us to leave our excess luggage at the base. Then suddenly, the forests opened to the blue skies… Before our eyes could adjust to the bright light, we were staring at our first glimpse of the valley. I was at a loss of breath. Not because of the tiring climb or the cold winds that was making it difficult for me stand on my feet, but because I was transported to a different world by the setting sun which had engulfed the green valley. I don’t know if I can express that feeling rightly with words, to simply put it: I was SPELLBOUND!
It was a short walk further from there. The trail along the cliff with the green hills appearing one after the other and the sky changing its shade with every second, kept us going until we had finally made it to the guest house for the night’s stay. At 4.30.p.m., when we reached there, it just got dark with the last ray of white light. But the sky continued to mesmerize us as it turned from red to black, in between illuminating the silhouettes of the surrounding hills. I had started to freeze and shiver by this time as the temperatures dropped to single digits. But I did not want to move from there as I stared at what was the clearest night’s sky I had seen in a long while. So many stars twinkled over the Dzukou valley! As reality started to hit me hard, I had started to get cramps in my feet and had to hurriedly go and warm myself with the thermals and the firewood that was lit to cook food in the kitchen.
As the night passed, the temperatures dropped further. Our thermals and sleeping bags didn’t seem enough and we borrowed additional blankets to help ourselves in the large hall which had just walls, a roof and a wooden floor to sleep on. I could barely sleep through the cold night. Although awake, I was waiting for the alarm to ring at 05.00.a.m. We were supposed to head out to see the Dzukou valley…
At 05.00.am. I was the first one to get up and step out for the hike down to the valley. The morning light was still dim, and I felt the earth below my feet crackle. It did not take me too long to realize that all the grass on which I was walking and the entire valley that surrounded me was frozen. The temperatures had dropped below zero and the frozen valley at a distance looked splendid! Soon, the others joined me, and we walked down the valley to witness what is supposed to be the main reason for our trek to Dzukou. The sunrise! We walked past what the locals call as the cave and walked over a frozen stream. We clenched bits of frozen waterfalls along the way too… And when the sun rose above and shone over the valley- It looked surreal. It seemed like the phrase ‘Frozen in time’ was framed after someone saw this place. The frozen dew drops reflected the lights of the rising sun and the sight was beyond my ability to describe. What I was experiencing from within was a sense of emptiness, accomplishment, happiness- well a medley of emotions. There has been NO place I had been to more beautiful than this, no I’m not exaggerating.
The entire valley has a peculiar kind of bamboo grass which gives it its green color. The same valley looks as if it is covered in red/ pink during monsoon. That’s when the lilies, endemic to Dzukou valley bloom. And come during the peak of winter: The entire valley is painted white in snow. This is a photo my guide had shared with me of how the valley looked just 10 days after we returned. The valley does not fail to mesmerize people irrespective of the season they come. Well, after spending a good amount of time, we returned to the guest house, packed up to head back to Kohima, for the hornbill festival.
By now, we were a big team of trekkers and backpackers who had all bonded over at the guest house and together we decided to take the Vishema route for our return. It was a brilliant decision, I guess! Had we taken the same route for our return; we would have missed the magical sky behind the forest canopy. The sky seemed surreal with every turn in the trail. The valley too looked magical at every corner. It was flat land that we were walking on mostly, apart from a short trail of very steep rocks to slide down from, until we finally arrived at the base. A pre-booked Sumo was waiting to pick us back to Kohima. I want to bluntly end this post because this place is something better experienced than written about.
About the trek in short:
I believe what one calls difficult or easy largely depends on individual’s fitness level and trekking experience. According to me, the distance to the peak is short and could be done in 1-1.5hrs if it was me alone. But it was the first hike EVER for my friend and it took us around 4hours to reach the guest house at the peak.
Although people feel Vishema route is easier onwards, in my opinion- we made a good decision by walking the Jakhama route while going up. Since it is steep, climbing would be slow but the distance is shorter. In contrary, if we took Jakhama route to climb down, the gradient would put enormous strain on our knees which is why I suggest taking the Vishema route for the descent.
Cooked (basic & hygienic) food and potable running water is available at the top, so apart from energy bars for your walk, avoid carrying unwanted luggage.
This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima– Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.
More often than always, the stories we carry back from our travel are about the people we meet and less about the places we see. Our definition of whether our trip is good or bad is defined by the way we are made to feel by the people we come across. My experience in Pfutsero too has been one of those, where the warmth of the people made me fall in love with Nagaland. All I knew about Pfutsero was that it is the largest town in Phek district, and it is the highest inhabited place in the state of Nagaland. High altitude also means that it is the coldest place in the entire state. Having very little information available on the internet only meant that the place is still off the radar of mainstream tourism. This is what got me inquisitive and itched me to visit Pfutsero which would give ample scope to explore and experience something so raw and unknown to the outside world.
From the day I arrived at Nagaland, I had started to talk to a lot of people to get information about getting from Kohima to Pfutseru. With lack of clear information and high cost of travel, I had almost dropped the plan until the end of my 10-day trip in the state. One last try at finding a cheaper travel to Pfutsero, landed me in a small grocery store at Kezekie taxi stand in Kohima. My friend and I realised that we were at the right place. The courteous owner of the store guided us with all the required information and got our seats booked in the shared taxi that plied from Kohima to Pfutsero the next morning.
My itinerary to explore Phek district:
Day 1: Leave from Kohima to Pfutsero (shared taxi), visit Glory peak (Frozen lake trek if time permits), explore Pfutsero town (Night’s stay at the tourist lodge) Day 2: Chida lake/ Lowho, Lazami village (spirited stone), Kami village view point, return to Kohima.
As instructed, we had reached Kezekie by 07.00.am. the following morning to be assured of a seat. But thanks to the traffic, it was 10.30.a.m. by the time we left Kohima. However, there was one ambiguity before leaving for Pfutsero- We hadn’t booked a hotel at Pfutsero for our stay yet. Despite several failed attempts of calling the mini-tourist lodge at Pfutsero, their phone continued to remain switched off. But my friend and I were up for some adventure and decided to travel without a confirmed stay, go there and find one.
Phek district is inhabited by the members of the Chakesang tribes in majority. With the friendliness of the grocery store owner, we had already started to feel the positive vibes of the place we were going to. She had given the contact information of her family who lives in Kezakeno, another village in Phek. She had not just shared the contact info, in fact forced us to stay with her family. We were feeling grateful and partially sorted in the eventuality of not finding a hotel at Pfutsero.
There were both good roads and no roads, all adding up to a patchy drive to Pfutsero. Apart from the mountainous roads that seemed charming outside, the people with whom we shared our drive made our trip indeed a memorable one. One of them helped us to contact the tourist lodge and confirmed our stay at Pfutsero even before we reached. I had clearly started to feel overwhelmed with the hospitality of the people in this part of the country where the locals wanted to make all visitors feel at home. Almost everyone whom we got talking to, was excited to invite us over for a meal with them. Finally, it was 02.00.p.m. when we reached Pfutsero and a cup of hot tea was what we relished at our co-passenger’s house before checking-in at the tourist lodge. A colourful garden welcomed us into her wooden house that was perched on the slope of the hill. Its windows opened out into a majestic view of the entire town and overlooked a lake surrounded by green lawn. The dreamy house seemed to be no less than out of a Bollywood flick. We soon bid her a warm goodbye and headed to the tourist lodge, freshened up and proceeded to the target destination, before the sun called it a day!
Glory peak is the highest point in Pfutsero. A short taxi ride of 3kms through an under-construction road, jaw-dropping view of the surrounding valleys and a climb on a watch tower got us to the top of the town. Mt. Saramati is the highest peak in Nagaland and Mt. Everest needs no introduction. On a clear, bright afternoon, both the mountains can be seen from Glory peak. Since, we had reached there before sunset, the distant mountains were partially hidden by the haze and hence we could get a clear view of only Mt. Saramati. Nevertheless, the 360deg view of verdant hills from the glory peak was something to die for.
For those who have an additional day at hand, a day hike to the frozen lake from the glory peak is highly recommended by the locals. We decided to explore the town a little bit, before it was dark. A hike down the peak was fun as the staircase leading to the town passed through thick forests, strange creepers and colourful butterflies. We spent time exploring the town until sunset. It seemed dusty with poor roads. Apart from a few local snacks, we couldn’t find anything interesting. However, there is one souvenir shop run by an NGO that supports local artisans. One can buy some traditional Chakesang tribal jewellery, textile and food products as souvenirs from here.
The dropping Pfutsero temperature had started to numb our fingers and we decided to head back to the lodge. The lodge is situated on top of a hill and the setting sun looked glorious from the corridor. After wearing my thermals and gloves, I decided to take a stroll around the lodge. It is located adjacent to defence property and that gave me a sense of confidence to venture alone after dark. All the people from the neighbourhood were busy in decorating a nearby church for Christmas. They got me talking to them and eventually I joined them in their chore of setting up the wreaths and light bulbs. It was a fun evening until I decided to head back for the warmth of my room. The lodge was a HUGE property, but we were only two girls staying there that night. Although it was a little scary at the first thought to be the only guests, we were soon occupied in long conversation with the caretaker family of the property living in the same building, later to be joined by the owners. The conversation covered a range of topics and ran into the night. Given the lesser crowd of the cliched tourists, company of comforting hosts and warm conversations, we couldn’t have asked for a safer and a better place to be!
The comfort of the heater, cosy blankets and carpeted floors let us sleep like logs, unaware of the freezing sub-zero Pfutsero temperature outside. We were woken up by the alarm next morning, only to be mind-blown by the view of the rising sun over the clouds from our balcony. We packed up and prepared to leave as that was our last day in Nagaland and we had to make it to Dimapur for the night’s train. Meanwhile, we had booked a personal taxi for our return, since we wanted to explore Kezakeno on our way back.
The first stop was at- Chida lake. Locally called as Lowho, this off-road destination is a favourite hangout among the locals who come here for games like fishing and boating. Some enjoy a trekking trail from glory peak to Chida along the Kapamedzu range as well. There is a Border Security Force camp at Chida and hence, it is also referred as Chida Post at times. Since we had reached very early, we were the only tourists there and the place looked absolutely calm and serene.
From there, we headed to Lazami village. This tiny village is of very high historical importance as it is the site from where the various Naga tribes are believed to have migrated to different parts of the state. A veteran from the village was excited to narrate the legend of Tsotawo, the spirited stone in the village. We were warmly invited by almost every person in this village into their house. We finally settled down at a little traditional house for breakfast and a large cup of tea. We carried back love in the form of guavas and local walnuts given by our hosts from this village. Seeing so much affection in these hills was a wonderful feeling that cannot be expressed, for which a city soul in me would want to come back again.
While continuing our journey from there, we did have a stop at Kami village view point to admire the terraced paddy fields of Lekhromi village, the view looked magnificent under the oblique rays of the early sun.
Making our way through the maddening traffic jam of Kohima is for another story to be written about, some other day! Thus, ended our 2 days of amazement and overwhelming hospitality in the Land of the Chakesang Nagas- Phek district.
Pfutsero is famous for its organic farming and terrace cultivation. We bought fruits (some known and some new) from the local shops that we could eat once we were back in our room.
One would find a lot of bakeries in the town selling local cookies and muffins. Sticky rice cake, banana cake and banana chips are few of the things I recommend.
Daily shared taxis ply between Kohima and Pfutsero. There are limited seats and the taxis leave immediately when filled. The taxi leaves Pfutsero around 6.00.a.m to Kohima and the same returns to Pfutsero on the same day on a first-cum-first serve basis. So, if one is not early enough to get a seat, he will have to hire a full taxi for him/herself or stay back until the next morning to share it. A one-way shared taxi seat costs 300Rs. Per head and a personal taxi would cost 5-6000rs. irrespective of whether it is a 1 or a 2-way journey.
Within Pfutsero, most places are at walkable distances. But internal taxis are available for local commute. Talk to one of the shopkeepers in the town and they must be able to help in finding one.
A very well-maintained tourist lodge and a government run mini lodge are available at a very affordable price.
There are a few homestays available for a more local experience.
This post is part of my fortnight long backpacking in the north eastern state of Nagaland in India, specifically covering Dimapur- Kohima- Phek districts of the state during the Hornbill festival.
Before planning my visit to Nagaland, I had followed a few bloggers who had posted encaptivating photos of what they called the ‘Greenest village in India’. My friend and I had our stay booked at a homestay in this little-known village and were supposed to head there on the first day of our arrival in Nagaland. It was past noon by the time our shared taxi from Dimapur reached Kohima and the temperature had started to drop. Khonoma village, our destination was 20kms away and we stood on the highway, clueless about how we were supposed to get there. The connectivity through public transportation across Nagaland is something that needs the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, without being able to find an honest taxi driver among all those who were quoting higher than what I had read about, we had started to feel stranded.
We finally managed to get a taxi and the courteous driver ensured our ride on the roadless path was comfortable and entertaining. On our request, the best Nagamese songs from his playlist were streamed and he made humble efforts to explain the meaning of each song and its relevance in Naga culture. It was a long ride considering that we took over an hour to cover the short distance. In Nagaland, each district is inhabited by a particular Tribe in majority and each village represents a particular clan within the tribe. Every tribe has its own language and surprisingly, each village has its own dialect which another clan might struggle to understand. ‘Khonoma is inhabited by the Kuthotsu clan of the Angami Tribe’, we were told.
On reaching Khonoma, we registered our entry at the tourism office from where we took directions to our homestay. As a first impression, it felt like it was just another settlement on the hills, something similar to my hometown. But as I began to walk towards the homestay along the narrow lanes and past the tourism office- a new world started to unfold. The entire village is built on a slope, overlooking the paddy fields. The slope makes it a requirement to climb winding stairs to get from one house to another, from one street to another. As you do this, you will not just pass by umpteen number of morungs but also walk through gardens full of colourful flowers and traditional Angami Naga gates. All this, while you are being mind-blown by the gorgeous view of the never-ending terraced fields of paddy and vegetables. If not the same, I bet this is far better and untouched than the terraced farms of Bali that has flooded the Instagram feeds. The guava trees around every corner of the village and the widely covered creepers of the Chayote squash added a vibrant hue of green to the entire valley. The extremely warm and obliging villagers allowed me to pluck a few guavas that tasted like nectar. Those were definitely the best guavas I had in my life till date. We then walked down the streets to our homestay, a cozy simple house that stood overlooking the terraced fields. Since we had little time before sunset (The sun sets by 04.00.p.m.), we dropped our luggage, freshened up quickly and ventured out to explore the village and make the most of the daylight.
As we strolled around the lanes, we were intrigued by the several morungs and the traditional Angami houses that we passed by. Morungs are Naga structures that are comparable to Gurukuls of olden days. The elders of the village would pass on their knowledge about life skills and tradition to the younger generations here, usually in the evenings after finishing their day’s chores. Although the Morung system is slowly passing into oblivion in modern days, Khonoma is one of the few places where these structures are conserved in their entirety. Every Morung and house had animal skulls (ranging from one to hundreds in number) hanging around their roofs and walls. We were quite fascinated with the collection that ranged from Mithuns and mountains goats to boars and other cattle. As we stood there, watching a few women who were busy with their job of de-husking paddy with a large pestle and stone, we were greeted by them with warm smiles to have a cup of tea in their house. I instantly accepted their invitation, jumping into the idea of seeing how a traditional Angami Naga house looked like inside.
Basic mud-smeared walls with knitted bamboo doors and their wooden roofs adorned with hundreds of skulls all around. “These skulls are prized possessions that represent the heroics of our ancestors. The Nagas are primarily hunters and our forefathers saved up the skulls of all their kills. The larger the collection, higher was his societal stature until the government brought a ban on hunting. Given the history of Nagas being head-hunters before the coming of missionaries, don’t be surprised if you bump into human skulls in some of the remote villages elsewhere”, explained a member of that house. Although the other members in that family couldn’t speak English or Hindi, they continued to smile at us for as long as we were there. However, communication is never a problem in Nagaland with almost 90% being proficient in either English or Hindi.
We visited the Naga heritage museum and then walked up to a small hill where the church stands at a vantage point, outside the village entrance, overlooking the entire hill range. From there, we walked back to the village and climbed up a few stairs to reach the highest point of the village. The setting sun let the hills in the background cast their shadow on the undulating green paddy terrace. The view of the range of hills and the entire village from there was a sight to behold for which, we had lost our senses and not to the dropping temperatures that had started to numb our skin 😃 After the sun had called it a day behind the hills, we munched on some local snacks like sticky rice roti, pakora at a café at the village entrance. We grabbed a few packets of Puffed sticky rice and Naga chilli smeared channa from a small shop before heading to the homestay. We hurried up to warm ourselves in the comfort of our homestay’s kitchen where firewood was setup to cook the night’s supper. Sips of hot tea and long conversations with our Angami host and other guests culminated with a delicious Angami meal that comprised of boiled vegetables and steamed rice with vegetable stew- all grown organically in our host’s backyard. The country chicken curry was a bonus for the non-vegetarian in me 😊
The plan for the next morning was to catch the sunrise from the paddy fields by walking along the stream that flowed down the valley. However, the freezing temperature made it impossible for us to get out of our cozy layers of blankets. The plan that had to follow our breakfast was a visit to Dzuleke, a quaint little village located 10kms away. It consists of merely 32 houses and the residents are also from Kuthotsu clan who decided to move out from Khonoma to a more secluded place when the land on the outskirts were open for new settlements. Today, it is supposed to be one of the prettiest villages that is promoted by the state’s tourism board and accessible only by foot or one’s own vehicle. Since a one-way ride was costing us 1500Rs., we dropped our plan of a day trip to Dzuleke.
There is one NST bus (Nagaland State Transport) that connects Khonoma to Kohima every morning. But the state is largely shut on a Sunday and it is an important note to consider if you are planning your travel/stay in Nagaland. After the day got a bit warmer, we packed our bags and headed out in a personal taxi to our next destination- Naga heritage village at Kisama, the main arena of the Hornbill festival.
Meanwhile, some interesting things I found in this village:
Large bird feathers are made into a garland and hung high around the farms. “It is just for decoration purpose”, I was told on asking what it signified.
There a large stone erected which signifies the previous rift between the Nagas and the Indians on the mainland (It is quite an interesting read how the Nagas fought the Indian army)
Stone pulling Ceremony is an annual traditional event held across the Angami villages to commemorate a certain important day. It takes place in one village per year on a rotational basis. So that way, it takes about 5 to 10 years by the time this ceremony reoccurs in a particular village. This event is usually timed around the Hornbill festival as there will be people from across Nagaland and outside visiting Kohima (The region where the Angami tribe is a majority).
The stone referred here is a large monolith that weighs several tons and the size and shape is not fixed. It is at the villagers’ liberty to pick the monolith they want to use for the occasion and can be either quarried from the village itself or bought from somewhere else depending on the resources. The large stone slab is then placed on a sled that is made of tree trunks and pulled using thick entwined vines from the forest. Thousands of Angami Naga men pull the large monolith over a few kilometers to finally errect it upright, engrave the details of the event and mark the day.
This year, the stone pulling ceremony was held at Mima village. It was organised to commemorate the 75th anniversary of christianity in the village. The monolith was symbolized for forgiveness, friendship and peace to the enmities that the village had with various villages before the coming of the gospel to Mima village.
The typical stone pulling ceremony (Click here to watch the complete video) is solemnised by the pastor from the village’s church with recitals from the Angami bible before the start. It is then followed by firing a round of shots from the muzzle loaded guns in the air. The captain stands on the slab and shouts Angami cheers through a loudspeaker to motivate the pullers. While all the strong and younger men folk of the village join hands to pull the stone, The eldest two men of the clan walk, leading the tribe. The women get dressed in their traditional attire and walk with a khophi (an utility basket woven with bamboo or cane) hung on their back and they stay around as a mark of support to the pullers. A few of these women carry cotton in containers made of dried bottle guard and walk ahead of the pullers as a part of the tradition. And yet, the remaining women go around distributing gruel made of ‘Job’s tears or Chinese pearl barley’ to all the passersby and the participants from their traditional Aluminium pots. It is served in bamboo cups that are carried in the baskets hung around their foreheads. The gruel provides an instant boost of carbohydrates for the toiling men in the hot sun.
In a Christian majority state, the tribal traditions are still thriving. It was a different experience watching the entire village dressed in their ethnic best and gathering to pull the stone uphill from the starting point to its destination. I somehow drew parallels with the chariot pulling tradition of the Puri Jagannath and several other temples of South India.
Isn’t it true that we all somehow follow the same way of life, only with different names for our faith and the process we follow to achieve it?
Biriyani is one dish that needs no introduction. Although the earliest roots of Biriyani can be traced back to middle-east, Biriyani was brought to the Northern India by the Muslim rulers who largely settled there and the Arab merchants who came to the southern India for trade. Today, Biriyani is more of an emotion for every foodie. Hence, an essential part of Indian food culture. Anybody visiting India has one thing to strike off in their list of ‘To do in India- Eat Biriyani’. But, India is a country of diversity and in no way can the humble Biriyani be left behind without being different.
While Biriyani is a very generic moniker for this spicy, aromatic and delicious preparation of rice, it comes in various forms. These forms are born out of the local influences of available ingredients, regional cuisine, rice variety and flavor preferred. There are mainly 2 types of making it: Kucchi (Raw marinated meat is cooked together between layers of raw rice) and Pakki (Meat and rice are separately cooked with all the spices and served together). While Biriyani is predominantly a non-vegetarian dish, it has been over time tuned for the vegetarian masses. Some versions are named after the place it originated from and some are synonymous with certain families or shops that created the variants.
So, while you enjoy exploring India, here is something for you to try out at each of the 29 states of this huge country- Biriyani.
PLEASE NOTE: There are a few states in India where I have not yet visited and hence do not have sufficient information about the local Biriyani flavours. It will be greatly appreciated if you can help me fill up these empty spaces by dropping your suggestions in the comments below.
Andhra Pradesh– Doodh ki Biriyani is something that stands out from the rest of the list in flavor and colour. Here, the meat and the rice are cooked together in milk instead of water. Vegetarians can drool over Avakaya Biriyani. This is made by mixing a raw mango and mustard oil pickle with steamed basmati rice.
Arunachal Pradesh– (**Need help)
Assam– Kampuri biriyani is a delightful recipe that has originated in a place called Kampur in this north-eastern state.
Bihar– Champaran is a culturally important region in the country that also gives its name to the popular non-vegetarian dish of the state. The flavours of Champaran mutton or Ahuna mutton goes well great in our list. What makes its preparation stand out is the usage of black pepper corns, desicated coconut and whole bulbs of garlic cooked along with the meat. The garlic pulp is then squeezed into the preparation.
Chattisgarh– (**Need help)
Goa– With a large number of influences from the erstwhile Muslims, Portuguese and the Saraswata Bramins of Konkan, Goan traditional food is an amalgamation of many cuisines. The Goan fish biriyani is a must try (the fish used may differ) which derives its flavour from coconut and red kokum. It is light on spices.
Gujarat– In a state where vegetarianism is largely preferred, Memoni biriyani comes as a surprise for mutton lovers. It has its origin from Sindh, the region in Pakistan with whom the state shares its border.
Haryana– Although, this state doesn’t have a biriyani it reckons itself with, its long association with the capital city, Delhi can be spoken about. Delhi Biriyani itself has so many versions depending on the part of the city it originated in and the purpose it was created for. Nizammuddin biriyani, Shahajanabad biriyani are a few to name. There is yet another twist to it in the form of the Achaari biriyani. Here, rice is mixed with pickles (Achaar in Hindi). Karim’s biriyani is served from a kitchen that dates back to the mughals (contributed by trippin_on_life).
Himachal– (**Need help)
Jammu & Kashmir– Its large association with the Muslim rulers has lead into the creation of the Kashmiri Biriyani (non-veg) or the Kashmiri Pulav (vegetarian dish). Mutanjan biriyani is a dish that stands out in the entire list as it is a sweet form of the otherwise spicy biryani.
Jharkand– (**Need help)
Karnataka– Susprisingly, my homestate has all the influences. The Northern part of the state is known for the Kalyani biriyani that was created by the Nawabs of Kalyani who ruled the areas around Bidar district. This is a delicacy cooked with buffalo meat. The coastal part of the state has its influence from the middle-eastern traders who eventually invented the local forms. Beary biriyani is named after the coastal trading community and Bhatkali biriyani with its taste influenced by the Navayath cuisine.
Kerala– The Northern Kerala (Malabar region) is known for its Thalassery biriyani and Kozhikodan biriyani, the middle part of the state has its lesser known dish called Rawther biriyani, created by the Rawther family who lived around the Palakkad area. The Kuzhimanthi biriyani, a form of Yemeni rice is slowly catching up with the locals in and around Cochin. All variants have been largely influenced by the immigrants and traders from the middle-east. Vegetarians, don’t worry. You can dig into delicious plates of Kappa biriyani (tapioca) and puttu biriyani.
Madhya Pradesh– Although this state does not have its own biriyani form, Tehari biriyani is prepared all over northern India. It is the vegetarian version of the Mughlai biriyani which goes by different stories of its origin.
Maharastra– While the Mughals have influenced the spicy Aurangabad biriyani, the Bombay Biriyani is a world apart with its tangy and sweet taste derived from the kewra, potatoes and plums used in its preparation. The Bohri patra biriyani, a name derived in combination of two words- Bohra (the sect who created this recipe) and patra (leaves of colocassia) is a hidden secret of Mumbai.
Manipur– (**Need help)
Meghalaya– Although this state doesn’t have a dish called ‘biriyani’ on its menu of khasi cuisine, Jadoh is a dish that’s very close. It is a spicy preparation of rice cooked either with pork or chicken. What sets it apart is that all its ingredients are cooked with the respective animal blood (pork or chicken) instead of water.
Mizoram– (**Need help)
Nagaland– (**Need help)
Odisha– while there is nothing specifically called the Odiya biriyani, what comes close is the Cuttacki Biriyani, created by a restaurant in cuttack. With the flavours largely derived out of Bengali influence, the ingredients are cooked in Rose water.
Punjab– Punjab doesn’t have its own biriyani recipe. Its proximity to the Pakistan borders gets it the Sindhi biriyani and the Bohri biriyani.
Rajasthan-Jodhpuri Kabuli is a vegetarian recipe deriving its name from the city of Jodhpur in Rajastan and Kabul in Afghanistan. Mewa biriyani is another local taste that’s slightly sweet and garnished with nuts and dehydrated fruits.
Sikkim– (**Need help)
Tamil Nadu– While the Nawabs of Arkot influenced the famous Ambur / Vaniyambadi biriyani; the thalapakkatti family created the Dindigul biriyani and the business community of Chettiars brought in their knowledge of spices giving form to the Chettinad biriyani.
Telangana– Hyderabadi Biriyani needs no description. Available in both the kacchi and pakki forms, it was patronized largely during the nawabs of Hyderabad.
Tripura– Although not a native dish, it can still be recognized with chevon biryani due to its proximity to Bangladesh. The chevon biriyani or Dhaka biriyani is the Bangladeshi twist to this incredible rice preparation.
Uttar Pradesh– Influenced by the Awadhi cuisine, the Lucknowi biriyani is flavourful and a burst of cinnamon to your tastebuds. Its lesser known relative is the Moradabadi biriyani.
Uttarakhand– (**Need help)
West Bengal– Last on the list, but one of the most popular forms in the country is the Kolkata biriyani. With potato as it’s key ingredient, this preparation of subtle flavours is influenced by the Awadhi cuisine.