When teaching Indian prehistory and archaeology, the Northeastern states are often ignored or understudied. This goes from school textbooks to college syllabus. This dearth of knowledge about the 7 sisters results in students growing up to falsely believe that the Northeast has little to no history worth studying and researching. But this is far, far from the truth.
From the Willong Khullen “Stonehenge” of Manipur to the Vangchhia and Thembang villages in Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh, respectively, the Northeast has resplendent prehistoric sites which have fantastic stories to tell… but only if you listen closely …
Here are five archaeological sites which reveal a fresh perspective on Northeast India’s ancient past.
Willong Khullen Megalithic site, Manipur
Did you know that Manipur has its very own Stonehenge? Located in the Willong Khullen village, a group of massive stone erections lies on a hill slope only 39 kms from Maram village. Following a prehistoric tradition of megalithic symbolic stone structures, the tallest one stands proudly at 7 metres high and 1 metre thick!
It is said that it’s impossible to identify the exact number of megaliths on this site due to spells casted by the spirits which live in these stones. Everytime someone attempts to count them, they will get confused and lose track. Legend says that once upon a time, a Japanese man tried to count the stones but a white wild boar chased him away. According to an unconfirmed report, the stones are 123 in total.
The stone spirits are thought to be the ancestors of people who live in the Willong Khullen village today. Villagers say that at night, male voices of the spirits are heard calling out to each other by names like Kala, Kanga and Hila.
No one is quite sure why the megaliths were propped up there and what they mean. But a story goes that the strongest men of the village used to find the biggest stones from across the land. Then they bowed down in front of the stone and prayed to it, asking for blessings. Only when given the permission to pick it up, the mighty men carried them to this place and erected them. The villagers sometimes helped them.
Due its resemblance to England’s Stonehenge (and similar dials of the ancient past), some have guessed it to be a calendar or sundial.
Some elderly folks of the Willen Kullong village harbour poetry, oral stories and riddles about the megalithic site, as well as about the tribe that lived here. But due to falling interest among the younger inhabitants for learning and preserving these narratives, the village’s oral culture is dying.
Today, the Willem Khullong megalith is a fascinating tourist spot, and an idyllic place to picnic at thanks to the hill slopes.
Thembang Fortified Village, Arunachal Pradesh
The Thembang Village is a 12th century fortified village in West Kameng district, Arunachal. The village is inhabited by the indigenous Monpas who are credited with respecting and sustaining Thembang’s ecological richness.
Thembang is home to many historical structures, with the most important being the 12th century Dzong (fortified building). Its architecture is similar to that of Bhutan and Tibet as it incorporates composite stone masonry and wood architecture. Ornamental features are carved on stone blocks and mani walls (stone walls engraved with prayers), and there’s traditional wood carvings, and paintings and manuscripts along the exteriors that present as murals and graffiti.
Thembang is one of the oldest towns in Arunachal which is still inhabited. The Archaeological section of the Arunachalli government has recovered prehistoric tools from the site like neolithic celts, axes and other tools etc.
Notably, Thembang used to sit at the Sat-Tsi river valley, which is 10 km away from the present location. But this all changed when an epidemic wiped out 90% of the villagers, causing the survivors to abandon the settlement and relocate to the present day area.
Legend says that an all-powerful king called Cha-Cha-Nye ruled Thembang. He collected taxes from many lands such as parts of Darrang district, Mishamari, Udalguri and Mazbat of Assam. Stories of misunderstanding, betrayal, curses, executions and village rebellion surround the grand personalities associated with the village.
The village has been caught in the crossfires of war throughout history due to its grand, tough structure and important location. Some of these battles include: the struggle between the Bapus of Thembang and the Miji tribes of Deojing (present day Rurang), and the 1962 Indo-China War (the war bunkers of the Indian army remain to this day). The government has even constructed a war memorial near the village to commemorate the brave soldiers.
Vangchhia Village, Mizoram
This gorgeous village could possibly be home to the remains of the oldest and biggest Neolithic civilization of India!
Vangchhia which is situated in Champhai district near the Indo-Myanmar border, boasts of the Kawtchhuah Ropui (Great Gateway) and Pipute Lamlian (Ancestors’ pathway). It is known for its huge menhirs (megalithic stone erections) which stand tall and are carved with intricate tribal designs, such as ornamented men holding a spear. These menhirs are common symbols of Neolithic culture which are found around the world.
The Ancestor’s Pathway is a clear path cut across the village which splits into three different directions: north, south and east. The path is lined with large stones with designs on them which portray tribal life; these carvings are said to portray the migration of the ancient village dwellers from Myanmar to Mizoram. These designs are valuable in understanding tribal Neolithic life.
Another outstanding feature of this purportedly thriving civilization is the Circular arena of stone which was, perhaps, used as an amphitheatre for social ceremonies. The discovery of this glorious structure convinced archaeologists that the people who built these structures were more advanced than previously thought and were members of a thriving society.
And lastly, there is an intriguing sight nearby where holes are bored in the ground made of stone. This is said to have been a method of rainwater harvesting as the water would seep into the holes and be collected underground below the stones. The ancient villagers preferred this strategy to open reservoirs because the former prevented potential poisoning by enemy clans during wars.
Daojali Hading, Assam
Daojali Hading is a major Neolithic site in the Dima Hasao district of Assam.
Excavations since 1961 have led to the recovery of sandstone, ceramics, pottery shards, fine red ware with cord patterns, as well as stone tools such as grinder, pestle and mortar. A jadeite (green stone) was also found which archaeologists suspect was a Chinese import.
Previously estimated to be a few centuries old, the corded pottery and polished stone tools are now confirmed to be dated back to at least 2,700 years! This extraordinary excavation makes the site the first evidence of an Eastern Asiatic Neolithic complex in India, due to the discovery of double-shouldered Celts and cord-marked pottery. This project was the first to put Northeast India on the Neolithic world map.
The findings of polished stone tools like mortars and grinders suggest that the people who lived here two millennia ago were growing and storing grains, and preparing food from the harvest. Although the Neolithic began globally in 10,000 BCE and ended for many societies by 4,500 BCE, according to historians, the Neolithic phase in Northeast India may be as late as early Common Era centuries.
Chungliyimti Village, Nagaland
Chungliyimti lies in the Tuensang district of eastern Nagaland.
Considered a Neolithic settlement, recent excavations have found remnants of earthen pots and huts. The team also discovered a settlement with deep incision marks on clay and sandstone; they are believed to be made by poles and footprints. A stone staircase (which led to a house) was also discovered nearby. That’s not all. Some half-weathered pottery pieces and grinding stones were excavated too. For historians, Chungliyimti’s discovery has pushed back the beginning of the Neolithic era in the region.
According to legend, the great ancestor of the Jamir clan, Yimsenpirong, was said to have spotted the first fresh water in the region. The village is believed to be the originating place of the Sangtam tribe and the six clans of the Ao tribes. According to oral tradition, Chungliyimti was once the ancestral home of the Aos, as well as some Chang, Phom and Sangtam families.
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