"This land is not like our land, its sky is not like our sky.
Its sky sends rain down without the origin-ating cause of clouds;
On its ground the green grass sprouts up
without any aid from the soil.
It stands outside the circle of the Earth and the bowels of the enveloping Sphere.
The seasons all begin here at the time of their conclusion elsewhere.
Here there is heat in our winter and chill in our summer.
Its roads are frightful as the path leading to the Nook of Death;
Fatal to life is its expense like the unpeopled City of Destruction.
Its forests are full of violence like the heart of the ignorant,
its rivers are beyond limit and estimate like the minds of the wise...”

In such eloquent way the Mulla Darvish of Herat, writer of the Raja of Assam, described his impressions of the mountainforests on the Northeastern border of India during a campaign threehundred years ago. True: Much of the vast territory, which 50 years ago had been almost completely unadministered and unexplored and was summarized under the name “Assam” is much better accessible today in comparison to the times of Darvish – his lyrical descriptions though have not lost much of their authenticity. Still mysterious, fierce and almost immeasurably vast the modern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam present themselves to the visitor today.

Politically they are a part of India. Together they are forming a triangle, which is called India’s Northeast or the “Seven Sisters of India”. Framed by Tibet in the north, China in the east, Burma in the south and Bangladesh in the west the expression “Seven Sisters of India” has been chosen appropriately – evoking associations of a certain connection to the motherland India, but also feelings of distance and remoteness.

The Northeast of India is a region of magnificent natural and cultural multitude. From the icy Himalayan peaks with their highest elevation in this region, the Kangto (7.090 m) in the Western Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, to the humid plains of Assam and Tripura, Northeast-India houses almost every climate-zone on earth. Only deserts are not to be found in this area belonging to the rainiest regions in the world. The “Seven Sisters of India” consist almost entirely of hilly terrain rich in forest, which has been formed through the collision of the Indian subcontinent with the Centralasian plateau. The Himalayas find their final eastern limit in the state of Mizoram in countless mountain-chains that run in a north-southward direction. The area riven by deep gorges is interwoven by numerous rivers rich in fish. One of the mightiest streams of Asia, the Brahmaputra, breaks through the Himalayas at the Indo-Tibetan border between the mountains of Namche Barwa and Gyala Peri in an inaccessible and therefore unexplored gorge. By the name of Siang it winds through Arunachal Pradesh in a district of the same name before it reaches Assam.

A multitude of species of plants and animals was able to survive in the almost entirely untouched rainforests mostly in Arunachal Pradesh, among them the Takin (budorcas taxicolor), the Mithun buffalo (bos frontalis) and the Hoolock-Gibbon (hylobates hoolock). It was only in the 1950´s that several expeditions headed out to Arunachal in quest of finding a fabled animal called `Buru´, supposed to be roaming the rainforests of the Subansiri-district. 32 territories in the Northeast of India have been declared national parks and sanctuaries.

Northeast-India is one of the rainiest regions on earth, upon which the watermasses of two monsoons come down. In the Lohit district of Arunachal one has measured a yearly precipitation of 12.000 mm/sqm. The town of Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya was holding the world record of precipitation since 1861 with 22.987 mm, in this century it is being held by the town of Mawsynram, 10 km away from Cherrapunjee, with 12.163 mm. That is why the windy highlands of Meghalaya have been called the “Scotland of the East”. Every year the rainmasses make the great streams of Northeast-India grow to a dangerous degree and to a great degree are responsible for the floodings of Bangladesh. They should be a guaranty for good crops, but usable soil is only available in some of the lower regions of Assam and Tripura, the soil of the rainforests and mountainforests mostly is only little fertile.

Next to the exuberant beauty of the country and its richness in rare animals and plants the uniqueness of Northeast-India consists of its peoples, its many different ethnics, that kind of like in the Amazon territory were able to sustain their own cultural identity under the protecting roof of the rainforest or in the loftiness of their impassable mountainworld. What has been formed culturally in this vast landmass is only very little comparable with what is associated as “typically Indian”. The main part of the population living here is not Indo-Aryan by origin, but consists of peoples that have migrated here centuries ago from Mongolia, Tibet, China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. They follow their own unique, mostly animistic-shamanistic or polytheistic religions and their mentality and life-styles vary greatly from that of the Central Indians. Culturally unique they have built strong intraracial bounds and many a times complicated and complex tribal relationships. The clan and the family are dominating the society. Peculiar forms of society such as the matrilineal descendance have pertained their existence here as well as life in longhouses, ritual tattooing, animal sacrifices or cults connected to the customs of head-taking.

Because of the natural inaccessability of the region, the support given to the “Seven Sisters” by the Central Government has been difficult to be put into effect. The tasks of building of a communication system, the economic and educational development of the area are difficult tasks. On the other hand corruption and mismanagement also prevent the region from its flourishing.

Out of reasons of internal unsafety, that the Northeast of India until some time back was “terra incognita” for all foreign visitors. Only in 1995 the Ministery of Home Affairs loosened the travel restrictions and opened certain routes through its “Seven Sisters”, countries of unbelievable beauty and cultural multitude, for group travelling.

From the first chapter of "The Seven Sisters of India" by Aglaja Stirn & Peter van Ham.

Northeast India is the subject of three books by Peter van Ham:

Tribal Worlds Between Tibet And Burma

Living Traditions In Northeast India And Burma


Indiens Wilder Nordosten

Click below to reach the more detailed pages
on Northeast India:

Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf
& Verrier Elwin