Mountains, meat and matriarchs – Northeast India’s Markets

Northeast India's markets are unlike anywhere in India, says India Handbook author Vanessa Betts.

Northeast India's Markets: Spices in Aizawl, Mizoram (c) Vanessa Betts

Travelling around India’s Northeast Hill States is always astonishing. Culturally as well as geographically, it’s a world away from the rest of the subcontinent – a region of distinctive and age-old tribal cultures, in essence more like Burma or Bhutan. Many tribes are Christian, others practise Buddhism, and several follow the Sun-and-Moon religion of their ancestors. 

Youth in Nagaland’s capital Kohima might look to Korea for their fashion and cultural direction, but in Arunachal Pradesh many Aptani tribeswomen still have tattooed faces and wear bamboo nose-plugs. In Mizoram and Manipur women take a leading economic role, and Meghalaya’s three tribes are all matrilineal, passing down wealth and property through the female line. 

But it’s not just in matters of faith and culture that this region stands out – the diet of the Northeast states is also dramatically different to the rest of India. Meat is a staple (sometimes meat of a rather bizarre kind) and people are basically non-vegetarian. Herbs, vegetables and roots unique to the region are added to dishes, while fermented beanshoots, soyabeans and fish make some foods an acquired taste. This profusion of unusual ingredients is of course reflected in the region’s famed markets. A glimpse in the ‘Burra Bazar’ of any city is to be confronted with heaps of unrecognisable vegetables, piles  of curious looking spices and clouded jars of nameless liquids.

Here follows a guide to some of the best markets the Northeast Hill States have to offer those who dare.

 Northeast India’s Markets: New Market Aizawl Mizoram (c) Vanessa Betts

Aizawl, Mizoram

In Mizoram, it seems as though everyone chain-smokes and chews khuva (betel) – both men and women. Here, more than anywhere India, there is a sense of equality between the sexes. This is reflected in the immense Bara Bazar, down one of Aizawl’s agonisingly steep streets. It’s mainly women who gather at the New Market, often wearing traditional clothes, to sell produce from their farms and homesteads. The dingy multi-levelled complex is friendly and fascinating, with unknown vegetables, piles of textiles, and heaps of tobacco leaves in an endless array. Small eateries on the fourth floor provide the chance to dabble in local cuisine, while active Zion Street outside is lined with stalls selling Mizo CDs. 

Northeast India's Markets: Kohima Nagaland market (c) Vanessa Betts

Nagaland

In Nagaland, it seems any meat can make a meal, and the rather gruesome markets reflect this. It’s not just pork and beef on the menu, but snails, worms and snakes. Stemming from their warrior past, the Nagas are keen hunters of wild animals and nothing is left to waste. At the Wednesday market in Dimapur, steal yourself for the bodies of butchered dogs. Nor is it uncommon to turn a corner in a Naga village to find someone singeing the fur off a dog with a blowtorch. Bags of frogs and miniature crabs are popular in Kohima’s market, but should this not be to your taste there’s a fruit-and-veg section to browse through as well.

 Northeast India's Markets: Imphal Manipur market (c) Vanessa Betts

Imphal, Manipur

Always maintaining independence from surrounding tribal areas, thisprincely state was finally subdued by the British in 1891. Manipuris were renowned as fierce warriors and their womenfolk were feisty too, staging a social revolt in 1939 against monopolistic traders. This legacy lives on today in the Khwairamband Bazar, or Ima Market, in Manipur’s capital Imphal. The largest women’s bazar in India – some say in Asia – up to 3000 women gather here every day to sell fish, vegetables, pickles, orange honey and all other foodstuffs. Also for sale are excellent regional handicrafts and handloom goods. Don’t haggle too hard – first price given is about 20% above the final cost and the ladies are not too cut-throat. All over Manipur, older women and grandmothers run the markets, allowing younger mothers to stay at home to look after children. 

Northeast India's Markets: Tamu market in Myanmar(c) Vanessa Betts

Moreh, Manipur

Invaded by the Burmese countless times over the centuries, now Manipur enjoys India’s main trade route with Burma, as a steady stream of Chinese goods flows over the border at Moreh. Basically a giant market, this town has an interesting mix of cultures and plenty of beer for sale (the rest of Manipur is dry). Crossing over to the massive market is simply a matter of paying a 10 rupee fee (no visa is required) to be submerged in mountains of trainers, electronics, toys and coffee-sachets. It’s also possible to visit the more traditional produce market at Tamu, a 5-km rickshaw ride further inside Burma. Women are the main vendors here, their faces painted with pale-yellow thanakha, which acts as a sun-block as well as decoration. 

Northeast India's Markets: Shillong, Meghalaya (c) Vanessa Betts

Shillong, Meghalaya

Shillong has the mother of all markets – the Bara Bazar (“BB” or Iewduh), the largest market in the Northeast. It attracts thousands of tribal people each day, mainly women, to buy and sell giant fish, piles of pots, chickens in baskets, and even bows and arrows.

Northeast India's Markets: Cherrapunji, Meghalaya (c) Vanessa Betts

Cherrapunji, Meghalaya

The extraordinary Eighth Day Market (Ka Iewbah Sohrarim) in Cherrapunji is worth timing a visit to this “Scotland of the East” around. Also known locally as “Sohra”, Cherra Bazar is a stronghold of the Khasi tribe whose womenfolk wear a checked-gingham apron tied over one shoulder. If it’s chilly, both sexes wrap up in a plaid blanket – the Welsh were active missionaries here and left more than just Christianity behind. As the Khasi all chew vast quantities of kwai , betel nut is one of the main goods for sale, and in the winter season look for the local orange flower honey. Numerous tiny food stalls serve up Khasi food such as jadoh (red rice and pork). There is also a smaller market every fourth day, but the real crowds descend every eight days.

Permits

In 2011, a decades-long ruling by the Indian government that stipulated foreigners must get an Inner Line Permit (ILP) in order to enter Manipur, Mizoram and Nagaland, was lifted on a year’s trial basis. The only requirement currently is to sign in at the Foreigners’ Registration Office (FRO) in each state within 24 hours of arrival.


Vanessa Betts is co-author of the India Handobook.
This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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