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
Monastery of the Gontse Gaden Rabgeling
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.
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
of the many waterfalls cascading down
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 wont be easy to get
them. Your best option would be to spend the night in Assams
Tezpur where they do have at least one hotel in the two or
however, is a good introduction to Arunachal. Its a
foothills town: humid, wooded and with the faint, green aroma
of stacked vegetables. Its a primitive, but oddly reassuring
fragrance evoking a time when vast forests covered the earth
and the air was still clean and unspoilt.
sun rose a little after four in the morning. Indias
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.
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
through the mist forests of Arunachal
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
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
orchid at the Orchidarium at Tipi
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.
Crescendos - The Peaks
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!
little later we drove into the district headquarters of Bomdila.
Its 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. Its
the best located accommodation in town and is likely to be
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 hadnt 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 communitys artistic heritage. In the verandah
of the monasterys 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.
weaving in the Handicrafts Emporium & Crafts Centre, Bomdila
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
butter lamps in the Thubchog Gatsel Ling Monastery
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.
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 Phuntsoks
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
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 monasterys 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.
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
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 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)
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)
For further information contact:
Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal
Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
Tel: (011) 3013915, 3013956