The North-Eastern states, fondly titled ‘The Seven Sisters of India’, are a treasure-chest of distinctive architectural marvels, built by humans and nature alike. The vastly unexplored paradise is home to various indigenous tribes and ancient civilizations whose traditions and cultures are proudly painted across the region’s mesmerizing landscapes. While the states are closely related in terms of their food, art, religion, and lifestyles; they are equally unique and generously bring their takes on life to the table.
Guarded by the Himalayan range and nourished by the Brahmaputra-Barak river systems, the land shelters biologically diverse flora, and fauna, which have shaped communities and their heritage. The region is made up of eight states in total after the inclusion of Sikkim- Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim, and Tripura.
Travel through this part may prove difficult with atrocious roads and long distances, but the listed destinations are worth the effort, and will always give you a warm welcome:
1. The Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya
The Living Root Bridges are built by the intuitive Khasi tribe of this land who have been practicing community-architecture much before the term was even coined. Through the practice of ‘tree shaping’, the locals train the roots of the native rubber trees to form ties and twists, resulting in these ‘natural bridges’.
Meghalaya is known for its intense monsoons which often induced decay in wooden bridges, to which the root bridges were a perfect alternative. It is a common sight to see people thread stray roots into an existing bridge as they move along it. It takes anywhere between 10 to 30 years for a bridge to be fully formed, usually allowing a maximum capacity of around 35 people.
Traditionally, the roots are nurtured and cared for until they grow enough to reach the roots growing on the opposite side of the bank, where they are entwined with each other to form this marvelous structure.
2. Tawang Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
The sacred Tawang Monastery is the second largest monastery in the world, and is also known as the Tawang Ganden Mangyal Lhatse which roughly translates to ‘the celestial paradise of the divine site chosen by the horse’. The monastery is said to be around 400 years old and has control over 17 gompas in the region. Build amidst the Himalayan ranges with mesmerizing views of the Tawang-Chu valley, this monastery shelters over 300 monks.
The majestic building can be entered from its northern side through the gate ‘Kakaling’ which is a stone-walled hut-like structure. An archetype of traditional Buddhist architecture, Tawang Monastery contains several buildings within its premises, the most prominent one being a three-storied assembly hall called ‘Dukhang’. An ornate 8-meter high statue of Lord Buddha dominates the inner sanctum, amongst the exquisite interiors showcasing paintings, murals, carvings, sculptures, and decorative fabrics.
3. Unakoti Hill Temples, Tripura
Hidden in the backwoods, spectacular rock-cut sculptures and temples are found scattered around the Unakoti region of Tripura. A popular legend reveals that the sculptures are a result of Lord Shiva’s curse on ‘Unakoti’ gods and goddesses- meaning one crore minus one or 99,99,999- turning them into stone. One of the seven wonders of India, the temple presents two kinds of sculptures- the ones carved on rocks and those etched on stones.
Most of the bas-relief works are 30-40 feet high and have a rawness that is more akin to a tribal style than to the classical Indian style and is nothing short of brilliance. The rock-cut images of Hindu pantheons are said to date back to the period between the 7th and 9th centuries, some archaeologists believe it may have even been a Buddhist meditation center. The splendid mountains and scenic waterfalls further add touch magic to the atmosphere.
4. Ujjayanta Palace, Tripura
Once a royal palace of the Tripura Maharajas, the Ujjayanta Palace is favorite of the Indo-Saracenic style admirers across the world. This present-day museum is gracefully placed amidst Mughal-style gardens on a lakefront of the capital city Agartala, with most of the city’s hustle-bustle appearing around this hub. The gleaming white palace is capped with the large domes and includes public halls, the throned room, the Durbar Hall, the Chinese Room, and the reception hall.
The architecture and museum exhibits of lifestyle, arts, culture, crafts, and traditions of North-East communities starkly reflect the history of Tripura as well as the Liberation War of 1971. The distinctive features of the architecture involve stunning tile floors, carved wooden ceilings, and crafted doors. The exotic palace is ringed by several Hindu temples dedicated to the deities, Lakshmi Narayan, Uma-Maheshwari, Kali, and Jagannath, which attract visitors by themselves.
5. Talatal Ghar, Assam
Talatal Ghar is the largest monument of the ruins of Tai Ahom architecture, characteristic of the medieval Ahom kingdom that once ruled present-day Assam. This underground structure contains two secret tunnels and three floors below ground level that were used as exit routes during the Ahom wars. The underground structure along with the four storeys built above it, is collectively known as the Rangpur Palace, which served as the capital and military station of the kingdom for over a century.
After the death of the first king, Rangpur Palace experienced several architectural alterations in its structure, thereby producing its irregular shape. An interesting discovery of the Ahoms was a form of cement made of crushed rice powder and swan eggshells and was used in this structure. The monument was inspired by Mughal architecture and imitated its signature arched doorways, large terraces, and octagonal structures.
6. Rabdentse Ruins, Sikkim
All that remains of the second capital of the Kingdom of Sikkim, Rabdente, are ruins that hint at a stately empire. The ruins consist mostly of chunky wall stubs whose heritage value is accentuated by its location on a ridge, unmasking views of the Kanchendzonga hill ranges on one side and mountains and valleys on the other. An ornamental yellow gate grants entry to the site, holding the decimated fortification amongst opposingly vibrant and manicured lawns.
An appreciable detail is the pulpit of the kingdom’s judges which takes the form of three standing stones called Namphogang. The ruins of the palace are composed of the northern wing which had the residential palace along with an open quadrangle for prayer, and the southern wing where common people were addressed by the king in his austere brick throne.
7. Solomon’s Temple, Mizoram
Tucked away in the clouded hills of Chawlhmun stand Solomon’s Temple, a white-marble architectural spectacle, known to be the largest church in Mizoram. The majestic church is built to face the cardinal directions and is fenced with a natural park of various forest trees.
The single-space structure is laid with red sandstone flooring and the highly polished ceiling enables light to create fascinating reflections on the interior surfaces. The placid facade of the building is adorned with seven gold stars, a cross and a crown beneath it. The church was intended as a sort of reconstruction of the original Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem that has been destroyed.
8. Mawlynnong Village, Meghalaya
Earning the appellation ‘the Cleanest Village in Asia’, Mawlynnong Village sets an example for aspiring sustainable cities of the future. This picturesque hamlet boasts of houses with functional toilets, bamboo dustbins carefully scattered across the village and compost systems. The houses are built in the vernacular style, made up of bamboo, cane, reed, wood, and mud.
Most houses are built on stilts, allowing the lower space to be used as storage while acting as a flood-preventing structure. They all have sloping roofs due to the excessive rainfall and are often centered around courtyards that witness cultural activities. The population is mostly Christian and they enjoy the 100-year-old Church of Epiphany which still holds an old-world charm. The Sky View is a fantastic 85-feet high bamboo structure constructed by the villagers that captures stunning views of the village as well as neighboring Bangladesh.
9. Kamakhya Temple, Assam
Kamakhya Temple is a famous pilgrimage site built to symbolize and honor the deity Sati, representing the feminine energy ‘shakti’ and fertility. The temple sits atop Nilachal Hill in Guwahati, holding an air of mystery at its high elevation.
One of the oldest of the 51 ‘Shakti Pithas’, the temple underwent reconstruction in the 1660s after the original was destroyed. The building is of the Nilachal style- a cruciform base is topped with a hemispherical dome and the building has four chambers flanked by seven spires. It is heavily adorned with sculptures of Hindu deities. The inner sanctum called the Garbhagriha, is an underground cave and consists of no idol but a rock fissure.
10. Bomdila Monastery, Arunachal Pradesh
Dating back to the year 1965, the colorful Bomdila Monastery is an important spiritual center of the Lamaistic faith of Mahayana Buddhism. Nestled in the mountains, the peaceful abode of monks is believed to be a replica of the Tsona Gontse Monastery in Tibet.
The monastery is made up of three layers- the higher gompa, the central gompa, and the lesser gompa. Inside the gompas are a prayer hall used by the Lamas, a temple of Lord Buddha, quarters of the monks, and a school for young monks. The land of Bomdila is famed worldwide for its natural beauty, Buddhist traditions, and scenic landscapes.
11. Kangla Fort, Manipur
Close to the banks of the Imphal River lies the Kangla Fort, the seat of governance of the Meetei monarchs and a symbol of Manipur’s glory. The fort is said to have existed since 33 AD when the mythical God, King of Manipur- Nongda Lairen Pakhangba- first ascended the throne. The construction and subsequent improvisations of the fort are closely associated with its rich history and portray the culture and traditions of the Manipuri people.
Several sacred places and halls like the Coronation hall and the Darbar hall were enclosed by the inner citadel, which had 3 entrances. It was made of red brick walls with a semi-circular portico supported by pillars that form a domed archway with wooden beams. The fort was believed to have been surrounded by large moats, which have now degraded with time. The ancient fort holds immense archeological, historical, and religious significance to Manipur and the world.
12. Kachari Ruins, Nagaland
The rich heritage of the Kachari kingdom of the 10th century still breathes through its ruins. A series of mushroom domed pillars seem to sprout out of the archeological site, otherwise covered in grass and weeds. While the original intention behind these structures remains a mystery, studies and speculations suggest that they were used as chess pawns with some being as large as 22-feet tall.
They are meticulously sculpted on, reflecting indigenous Aryan elements like the lotus, the deer, the elephant, and the cow. Three types of structures have been identified by archeologists: the chessman type, the Y type, and the Buffalo Horn type. Historians have termed the site as ‘Brick City’, after discovering scattered stones and bricks that are believed to be the remains of temples, embankments, and reservoirs. The impressive architecture speaks volumes about the quality of engineering and the development of art in the ancient Kachari kingdom.
13. Pemayangtse Monastery
Pemayangtse meaning ‘Perfect Sublime Lotus’ is an ancient premier monastery representing one of the four plexus of the human body, built for ‘pure monks’ (ta-tshang). The highly revered institution was designed and founded by Lama Lhatsun Chempoway, originally built as a crypt but was later expanded.
The triple storied structure is enriched with typical Tibetan roofs and patterns of marbles, flanked by immaculate gardens. Intricate sculptures immortalize the legendary saints, the seven-tiered painted wooden statue portraying Guru Rimpoche’s Heavenly Palace ‘Santopalri’ being the most notable. The large main prayer hall is decorated with traditional paintings, and the doors and windows are adorned in the Tibetan style. The sumptuous essence of Sikkim is captured by the rich architecture of the monastery and the unwavering faith of the Buddhists in this meditative environment.
14. Neermahal, Tripura
‘The Lake Palace of Tripura’ or the Neermahal is the largest palace of its kind, carried on a marshy island in the middle of Rudrasagar Lake. The striking white palace with a red base was the summer abode of Maharaja Bir Bikram Kishore Debbarman, its ornate structure showcasing its glorious past. Inspired by the Mughal style of architecture, the marble and stone material palette, projecting balconies, bridges, and pavilions render the palace an architectural splendor.
The palace is an establishment of the Maharaja’s idea of blending medieval Hindu and Muslim traditions and cultures. The palace is composed of the western residential wing and the eastern wing hosting an open-air theatre featuring cultural events held for the royalty. Neermahal houses one of the most beautiful terrace gardens and also has two stairways that lead down to a landing on the water of the lake. Every year in August, the palace welcomes the Neermahal Water Festival, spectating boat races, swimming contests, and colorful cultural activities.
15. Buddha Park of Ravangla, Sikkim
The Buddha Park of Ravangla is a serene landscaped eco-garden built by the Sikkim government in an endeavor to promote religious tourism in the state. The garden remains flower-laden throughout spring while offering views of Mt. Kanchenjunga and the Greater Himalayan Range.
The park reveres a 130-feet tall statue of Lord Gautama Buddha which was built to commemorate his 2550th birthday in 2006. Also known as Tathagata Tsal, the site was selected within the larger religious complex of Rabong Monastery, a centuries-old point of pilgrimage. The park also includes a museum that details the story of Buddha’s life as well as a meditation center open to both monks and tourists.