Home > Going Places > Story E-Mail this page || Print this page

Savouring Arunachal

India’s dawn breaks in the green and spiritual state of Arunachal Pradesh, but hardly anyone is aware of this unknown land. Hugh and Colleen Gantzer discover this unchanging, ageless Shangri La

The Monastery of the Gontse Gaden Rabgeling

For us it was terra incognita: the unknown land. We had once, long ago, visited the capital of the state, Itanagar. It had been little more than an administrative shantytown, then. Today, we were assured, it has improved considerably; but a new capital needs many generations to absorb the character of its hinterland. We were advised to take another route to really appreciate the feel of this green and spiritual state. We landed in Guwahati, drove across a bridge spanning the broad, brown, flow of the Brahmaputra, along the disgracefully potholed National Highway 52, through Tezpur, to the gateway town of Arunachal: Bhalukpong.

Main Street, Bomdila

There’s an Inner Line check-post at Bhalukpong, manned by the APP, the Arunachal Pradesh Police. We realised that we were in a very sensitive, north-eastern state so we accepted their abrasiveness with good humour. Hopefully, as the tourist flow increases, much of their sand-paper manner will be rubbed away!

One of the many waterfalls cascading down

We stayed in the Inspection Bungalow (IB) in Bhalukpong, beautifully situated above the Kameng Chu river which is the colour of moss-darkened bark: a blackish green. It gushes out of densely forested mountains, softened with swatches of mist snagged in their trees. Then the Kameng flows southeast, between broad and shingly banks, into the hazed horizon. The VIP suites in this IB are acceptable, but it won’t be easy to get them. Your best option would be to spend the night in Assam’s Tezpur where they do have at least one hotel in the two or three-star category.

Bhalukpong, however, is a good introduction to Arunachal. It’s a foothills town: humid, wooded and with the faint, green aroma of stacked vegetables. It’s a primitive, but oddly reassuring fragrance evoking a time when vast forests covered the earth and the air was still clean and unspoilt.

The sun rose a little after four in the morning. India’s dawn breaks in Arunachal, and by 7.15 am we had driven out 3 kilometres to the Orchidarium at Tipi. The forests of Arunachal are a treasure trove of these beautiful flowers.

They are, to the vegetable kingdom, what mankind is to the animal kingdom: the acme of evolution. Here, in Tipi, there were orchids in greenhouses, seedling beds, mist-chambers. Botanists fan out from Tipi into the jungles, searching for native and endangered species. They rescue them, propagate them, sell half to orchid fanciers, return the rest to the wild into the 100 sq km Orchid sanctuary in Sessa. We chose the plants we wanted to take back, on our return trip, and then began our voyage through the most magnificent forests we have ever experienced.

Driving through the mist forests of Arunachal

We should really call them Mist Forests. We drove through cool mist virtually all the time. Sometimes it was a mere suggestion, as if we were looking at this burgeoning green world through a soft-focus lens; at other times it was a pea-souper obscuring everything beyond the bonnet of our Sumo van. But always, always, there was the forest hemming us in, embracing the road, spreading over the mountains like thick, furred rugs. Sometimes, thickets of wild bananas flapped their varnished paddles, at other times slim-trunked trees spread canopies of white flowers, once a creeper cascaded garlands of pale, cream, trumpet-shaped flowers with vertical strips of rich maroon.

Further on, bamboos clothed the slopes as thick as elephant grass. Feathery ferns had colonised the sides of the road and, just beyond, their giant cousins, the tree ferns towered. They were descendants of the first leaf-bearing plants that appeared on the earth 390 million years ago. Their fallen trunks formed out deposits of coal and oil as they were carried into the depths of the earth by upheavals, roaring rivers and thundering waterfalls.

An orchid at the Orchidarium at Tipi

There were many such waterfalls, pouring down the wooded slopes and we wondered if the fossil fuels that they were creating would be of any use to our descendants, 400 million years in the future. These forests, by their sheer timelessness, inspire such epochal flights of fancy. This is probably why the Border Roads Organisation has cleared a patch of forest and built a temple to the timeless Mother Goddess, Durga. It has also set up a small snack kiosk and two clean loos: very welcome on a road with no other ‘comfort stations’.

The presence of the BRO and the army is pervasive and very reassuring. Little memorials at the sides of the road commemorate the men who give up their lives to build, maintain and guard this lifeline through the Himalayas. After we passed Jamiri, at river level, and began to climb again, we saw the Dedza bridge, and a Nag Temple, bright with bunting. The temple, obviously renovated and enlarged by our men in uniform, guards a narrow cutting through which the road arrows before winding through the valley beyond. Here, we met a group from girls on a study tour from Fergusson College, Pune. They said that the Monpa people of this area are very friendly and very religious often to the point of being superstitious. We believe that superstitions are pragmatic practices fossilised in time.

Colossal Crescendos - The Peaks

For instance, somewhere on the road ahead, a sign said that it was dangerous to stop there. Our guide said that, often, poisonous snakes crossed this section of the road. Possibly. More likely, however, there was a sensitive army facility nearby and the snake superstition had grown up to explain the prohibition! A little later we drove into the district headquarters of Bomdila.

It’s a pleasant little town spreading across slopes feathery with conifers. Prayer flags and banners flutter in the breeze and rather characterless modern buildings vie for attention with more traditional architecture. The Tourist Lodge is a pleasant place set in a garden nodding with flowers. It’s the best located accommodation in town and is likely to be upgraded.

All tourists would find the Handicrafts Emporium and Crafts Centre interesting. Arunchal has a rich tradition of weaving, wood-carving and painting. Women sat at their looms, the religious scrolls called thankas were on sale in the Emporium along with traditional robes, caps, shoes, carved and brightly painted tables, and carpets. Most of the designs are influenced by the strong Mahayana Buddhist roots of the Monpa people. In fact, because we were in Arunchal during the Monpa Spring Festival, when they do not eat meat, mutton and chicken were off virtually all menus. Happily for us, as non-vegetarians, eggs and fish are not embargoed!

Intrigued by the sound of festive chanting, we followed it into the grounds of the yellow-roofed Thubchgo Gatsel Ling Monastery. We were told that, during this festival, the monks would not eat or speak every alternate day. If this rule of abstinence applied to the young acolytes in strawberry-coloured robes, it certainly hadn’t dampened their spirits at all. They pushed and tumbled over each other on the green grass in front of the temple as mischievously as school-boys anywhere in the world. In staunch Buddhist areas, monasteries serve the same purpose that they did in medieval Europe: centres of scholarship, tradition, spiritual guidance and the preservation of the community’s artistic heritage. In the verandah of the monastery’s temple, brass butter-lamps illuminated the austere features of a grey-haired woman while a monk recharged other lamps and a mural of protective deities spread across the wall behind.

Women weaving in the Handicrafts Emporium & Crafts Centre, Bomdila

Seeing our interest in the traditions of her people, the vivacious young manager of the Tourist Lodge, Tsering Dekey, said that there was a most unusual activity going on in another monastery: the Gontse Gaden Rabgeling, on an eminence high above Bomdila. We drove up to it to find that the forecourt and grounds were being renovated, but the temple did not have the usual stream of pilgrims and devotees. Tsering told us that she had been informed that most ceremonies had been curtailed because a very special sort of renovation was going on inside. We got the impression that visitors were unwelcome. We were wrong. A monk opened the ornate doors of the temple and welcomed us in.

Lighting butter lamps in the Thubchog Gatsel Ling Monastery

We missed the familiar scent of incense and spluttering butter lamps. In its place was the faint aroma of wet earth. A table on the left was piled with tightly rolled scrolls and religious objects. A curtain was spread across the far end of the room. The monk led us across, and drew the curtain aside. On the stage behind it, a sculptor was at work putting the finishing touches to a number of statues made of glistening, brown clay. We recognised a Buddha and another protective deity. Their faces and the expressions on them, the proportions of their bodies, the gestures of their hands: everything was amazingly life-like even though they were much larger than any human.

Phuntsok Tsering was a professional statue maker, trained in Dharamsala. The postures and gestures of the statues had been prescribed by tradition, but the expressions on their faces were Phuntsok’s creation, and they were superb. He told us that he first made the form out of copper wire. This was then covered with well-kneaded brown clay mixed with handmade paper: we got the impression that it was bark paper. The clay tended to crack as the inner and outer layers dried at different speeds: these cracks would be filled up and smoothed. Then would come the most important part. All statues were hollow. Every bit of space inside would be filled with Nangsung: scrolls of mantras, holy pictures, small plaques of divine beings. There were special Nangsung for specific statues, and for specific parts of those statues. Only then would the statues be painted and consecrated for installation.

Clearly, the sacred objects within the statues, empowered them, gave them a personality worthy of devotion, enabled them to be invoked by believers.

We stepped out of the monastery’s temple and looked over the valley of Bomdila. The setting sun dusted a golden pollen of light over this green and serene place. Doves cooed softly, insects strummed. At that moment, Arunachal was as close as one could get to an unchanging, ageless Shangri La.

Basics

Inner Line Permits are necessary for Indians to visit Arunachal. These can be obtained from the DRC Office, Parvartinagar, Tezpur, Tel: (03712) 20241.

Protected Area Permit is required by foreigners visiting this area. This can be obtained from the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi, Tel: (011) 4611430

Getting There:
Air: Tezpur - 165 km - IA flights from Kolkata
Guwahati - 337 km - International airport and served by domestic flights from Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai.

Rail: Tezpur - 165 km - is served by the Arunachal Express (meter gauge) from New Bongaigong Station. This station is on the main line to Guwahati from other cities in the country.

Road: Tata Sumos and bus services from Tezpur which is in Assam. Recommend hiring a Tata Sumo for your trip. It costs Rs 1,500 per day plus petrol costs. We found Baburam Tamang an excellent driver. He is available at Tel: (03782) 22809-23136.

Clothes: Light woollens in summer and heavy woollens in winter.

Accommodation:
In Tezpur: Recommend night halt in Tezpur, if you have arrived by air from Guwahati and have to drive to Tezpur.
Hotel Luit, Ranu Singh Road, Tezpur - 784001. Tel: (03712) 22083-84, Fax: (03712) 21220.
Non-A/C deluxe - Rs 500 (single); Rs 600 (double)
A/C deluxe - Rs 650 (single); Rs 800 (double)
Super Deluxe - Rs 800 (single); Rs 900 (double)

In Bomdila:
Hotel Siphiyang Phong - Tel: (03782) 22373-22286
Standard (EP) - Rs 400 (single); Rs 650 (double)
Standard (AP) - Rs 1,200 (single); Rs 2,250 (double)
Deluxe (EP) - Rs 500 (single); Rs 750 (double)
Deluxe (AP) - Rs 1,300 (single); Rs 2,350 (double)
Tourist Lodge - Suite - Rs 400; Double Room - Rs 150
Travel Agent: Himalayan Holidays, Tezpur. Tel: (03712) 25290-23558.

For further information contact:
Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal
Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New
Delhi.
Tel: (011) 3013915, 3013956