Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
For photographer Annapurna Mellor, five weeks navigating India’s northeast, from Assam to Kolkata, provided ample time to produce a photographic ode to this stunning, rarely-visited region.
I’m staring at the giant map of India which hangs above my desk. I’ve been three times before, and I want to go again. But where? I know very little about the northeast, aside from tea—Darjeeling and Assam are staples in every British cupboard. I make a mark on my map. And with that, the fate of my fourth trip is sealed.
It takes me four flights to get to Gauhati, the capital of Assam and the gateway to the region. I’m on assignment with the Indian tourism board for my first week. They pile me and a group of camera-clad journalists into a couple of jeeps and we leave Assam’s dusty capital to head north, into the wild state of Arunachal Pradesh. Our destination is Tawang, a mountain town claimed by both India and China, on the border between Tibet and Bhutan.
Roadside Assam rolls past my window, and I see the sights I’m familiar with from my travels in the rest of India. Hindu temples, grazing cows, women in colorful saris, fluorescent barber shops and freshly-fried pakoras steaming from streetside shacks.
There’s no official border crossing to Arunachal Pradesh, but I know we’ve reached the state when we start to climb. From Gauhati to Tawang, it’s a long, two-day drive up some of the world’s highest roads. From the warm plains of Assam, we enter the Tawang Valley through the 13,680-foot (4170-meter) Sela Pass, where snow covers the ground and we gasp to breathe whatever oxygen we can find.
As we dip down into Tawang, the grand Eastern Himalayas frame the matchbox houses of the towns and villages below. Perched on the hillside is the Tawang Monastery, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside of Lhasa.
I’ve traveled on my own extensively in India—despite the fact that I’m blonde, small and everyone has always told me that it’s a bad idea. But I continue to do it, safely and confidently.
The next morning, we’re up before dawn, photographing Tawang’s monks in prayer. The hums of melodic mantras float out of the monastery and through the hills. From a ledge in the monastery, I watch the sunrise over snow-capped peaks and the first rays of morning as they flood the valley. Soon, the young monks run from the prayer hall and clamber together to line up for breakfast. Their classes begin, and we head back down into the valley to explore the rest of Tawang.
The northeast of India is made up of numerous tribal groups. The first one I encounter is the Monpa tribe, who live both in Tawang and across the borders in Tibet and Bhutan.
We are greeted by a group of women in pink traditional dress, who serve us bowls of rice, paneer (Indian cheese) and momos (dumplings), before pouring us endless cups of arra, the local wine made with millet and butter. Their smiles and songs are infectious, and at that moment, between the mountains and verdant rice paddies, I’m convinced that the Tawang Valley was modeled on heaven itself.
From Arunachal, I’m solo. I’ve traveled on my own extensively in India—despite the fact that I’m blonde, small and everyone has always told me that it’s a bad idea. But I continue to do it, safely and confidently.
After the relative luxury of traveling in a group, I head to the local tourist jeep park where men shout city names and pile as many people in their vehicles as physically possible. My jeep for five ends up fitting 14. From the mountains of Tawang, I’m heading south to the jungles and rolling valleys of Meghalaya, a state on the border with Bangladesh.
I’m fascinated by this place because of the unusual role of women. The Khasi people, who live in Meghalaya, have a matrilineal culture, meaning the family name and fortune is passed down from the female lineage.
In a country criticized for its women’s rights record, it’s both surprising and wonderful to see a society where women are valued and powerful from birth. But as I’m coming to realize, the northeast is hardly India at all.
From the town of Cherrapunji, I hike through mist-filled valleys to the village of Nongriat. It sits on a hillside, with tall palm trees framing the wooden houses, and locals ready with a smile for the visitors who wander up and down the narrow pathways. A few minutes from the village is one of the famous living root bridges, one of many found in the area.
Despite the language barrier, we smile and laugh together. The experience reiterates all the things I love about being a solo woman photographer in India—the ability to connect with other women and share their stories.
These wonders have existed in Khasi land for generations and were created when ingenious locals learned how to harness the strength and malleability of the native rubber trees. Nongriat’s bridge is unique because it is double-decker—it looks like it grew from the pages of a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. I stay for a few days and spend my time hiking up and down paths and along root bridges to swimming spots and waterfalls.
When I finally head back to the Assam capital of Gauhati, the chaos of the city comes as a shock. However, I want to see more of Assam, and I hear of a place in the far east of the state which can be reached by a seven-hour, often-delayed train.
I’ve always loved India’s trains, and as usual, opt for sleeper class, filled with locals and families and with wide-open windows. The 11 hours aboard turns into a series of friendly faces, curious about who I am, where I’m from, and why have I come to the northeast. Train conversations are always accompanied by refills of sweet milky chai and train snacks.
After a boat ride, I finally arrive on Majuli Island, which sits in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. Majuli is the world’s largest river island, but it’s slowly shrinking due to the rising river levels of the Brahmaputra caused by climate change.
RELATED: How has traveling in India changed?
I hire a scooter and set out to explore. I visit the satras—or monasteries—which are the religious hearts of the island. In each one, monk-like devotees of the Hindu God Vishnu live and in the early morning, they sit in large prayer halls and sing mantras before devoting their day to their art.
A few miles down the road, I arrive in a village of potters. Outside their bamboo homes, women carve clay pots and invite me to watch and photograph them while they work. Despite the language barrier, we smile and laugh together as they show me their art.
In Kolkota, life exists on the streets. It’s often called the ‘City of Joy’, and despite the harrowing traffic, I feel every bit of that elation.
It’s an afternoon that reiterates all the things I love about being a solo woman photographer in India—the ability to connect with other women and share their stories with the world.
After a long train ride and some time in Darjeeling, my final stop is Kolkata. It feels like a series of small Indian towns plastered together, each with their own personality.
Life exists on the streets, with street food stands on every corner, flower markets tracing the banks of the Hooghly River, and crumbling British colonial buildings. Kolkata is often called the ‘City of Joy’, and despite the harrowing traffic, I feel every bit of that elation.
After five weeks in the northeast, I’m well aware that I’ve not even scratched the surface of this corner of India. As with every trip I take to this country, I leave the area feeling a mixture of exhaustion, exhilaration and an intense desire to return to see more, do more, eat more, and photograph more.