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Eastern India is often characterized as the ne’er-do-well corner of the country – a region set in its ways, with a penchant for extreme politics and a population mired in perennial poverty. Poor its rural hinterland certainly is, but the east also boasts some of the most spectacular and diverse landscapes in the subcontinent, and a cultural life as vibrant and distinctive as any in Asia.
Its two dominant natural features are the vast chain of mountains rising to the north, and the mighty river delta to the south where the silt-laden Ganges and Brahmaputra flow into the Bay of Bengal. Between the two unfolds the alluvial plain of West Bengal itself, whose fecundity and strategic position, exploited by a string of powerful regional dynasties in medieval times, first enticed European traders up the Coromandel coast.
It is to admire the grandiloquent piles left behind by the Raj on the banks of the Hooghly at Calcutta, where the British established their first capital in India, that most foreigners venture east today. But the remains of much older kingdoms survive upriver, languishing amid the rice fields and fringes of small towns where, if you’re lucky, you might encounter troupes of wandering Baul musicians performing at country fairs, or on the trains trundling north up towards the Himalayas.
A wheezy steam locomotive chuffs up the final, steep leg of the journey to Darjeeling, the hill station where Calcutta’s Europeans used to take refuge from the summer heat, and from where you can admire Kanchenjunga’s snow fields for the first time, seemingly afloat above rippled horizons of tea gardens and lush valleys.
Eastern India’s other main artery veers along the course of the Brahmaputra through Assam, home to one of India’s flagship national parks and some of its finest tea estates. To its south, the remote Northeast Hills states are officially the wettest place on earth, and one of the most fascinating thanks to its population of indigenous tribes.
Orissa, the coastal state tapering south from Bengal, is another region boasting a sizeable tribal minority. En route to the interior forests where these communities survive, you can pause at Konark to see the famous sun temple, and sample the heady intensity of Puri, eastern India’s foremost pilgrimage town.
Whichever itinerary you follow in the East of India, you’re guaranteed a journey with frequent surprises, great cultural variety, world-class monuments and glimpses of traditions that are fast disappearing – in some cases quite literally, as levels of the region’s rivers continue to rise at alarming rates.
Surrounded by the silty waters of the Brahmaputra, Majuli Island is a bastion of a rare and vibrant form of Vishnu worship centered on 22 monastery-temples, or Sattras, where you can attend mesmerizing music and dance recitals performed by local monks.
Arunachal Pradesh, literally “Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountain”, is one of India’s last unspoilt regions, and the Tawang Valley in its southeastern corner a veritable Shangri La of snow peaks and picture-book Buddhist monasteries.
Many travellers come to Kolkata (Calcutta) expecting to endure a rite of passage, but find themselves enthralled by the special atmosphere of its streets, lined by some of the grandest buildings ever erected by the British in India.