Travelling through Arunachal Pradesh, I was able to experience the Apatani tribe’s way of life in Ziro Valley and Buddhist Monpa culture in ethereal Tawang.

Arunachal Pradesh literally means “Land of the Dawn Lit Mountains” in Sanskrit. The largest state in Northeast India brings to mind a mysterious land cut-off from the rest of the world where hill tribes live in a way little changed through the ages. Reality is not that far removed except for a few incongruities – like instant noodles and smartphones. There are about 26 tribes in Arunachal and at least as many languages are spoken here. Perhaps to protect the indigenous tribal culture from the ravages of modernisation or perhaps because the state is the theatre of a long standing territorial dispute with neighbouring China, access to this state is heavily regulated by the government. There are restrictions on non-natives purchasing property here, and tourists have to apply for “Inner Line Permits” to visit each district. But it is well worth applying for those permits to spend some time in a place which seems to be all but forgotten by time. My travels through Arunachal Pradesh were split into two halves – the first spent in beautiful Ziro Valley, home to the Apatanis, and the other in Tawang, home to the Monpas.

Arunachal Pradesh Travel Diary Part 1: Ziro Valley and the Apatanis

The lush, serene expanse of Ziro Valley is a sight for sore eyes. At the time I went, in early May, the paddy fields were in the stage of transplantation when seedlings are taken from nurseries and sown in fields filled with water. Vast parts of the Valley were thus covered by still reflective pools of water, peppered here and there by Apatani villages, and ringed by pine-clad mountains on all sides.  I stayed with a family in Hong basti, the largest village in Ziro, in a traditional “homestay” arrangement. While this maybe less comfortable that a modern hotel it offers the invaluable experience of seeing how the Apatanis live and being a part of their daily lives.

The Apatanis are the dominant tribal group in Ziro. They don’t have a written script for their language, so its difficult to date how long they’ve been around though references have been found in historical records dating as far back as the 13th century. They live in close-knit communities. Each village is sub-divided into clans; each clan erects its own T-shaped totemic pole called “Babo” in its neighbourhood every year during the Myoko festival.

They live in houses built of bamboo and cane. The main “living” room has a large hearth in the middle and each house has a kitchen garden in which the family grows vegetables and rears poultry and pigs. The food is simple – boiled rice with meat and steamed vegetables. They grow or rear everything they eat and only go to the shops to buy salt and chilli. Nowadays the houses have a few modern touches like televisions and electric boilers but these seamlessly coexist with ancient traditions. Like the totems fashioned out of bamboo, grass and egg shells that stand in a little “altar” area in the front of each house to ward off evil spirits. This altar is also where families sacrifice pigs during important occasions and festivals.

Their religion is shamanistic and nature-worshipping. Its name is Danyi-Pilo literally meaning Sun-Moon, and its common to see white flags with a red sun fluttering on street corners. I went along for Sunday prayers with my host. Their “temple” was a simple, functional room with a large poster of the sun at one end. The priest led the congregation in chants and melodious songs which related folklore and myths passed down through the generations.

These days most men, rather disappointingly, wear fairly modern clothes. Some older women can still be seen sporting facial tattoos and round black nose-plugs. These were allegedly worn to make the women less attractive to other tribes who may be tempted to attack or abduct them, though this reasoning was vehemently denied by my host. In any case the practice was outlawed by the village councils sometime in the 1970s. A lot of the women still wear the traditional dress however, colourful wraparound skirts with zigzag patterns that they weave themselves, along with peasant-style blouses and beaded necklaces.

Apatanis are renowned for their sustainable farming practices using organic waste and an extensive system of watershed management developed over the centuries to preserve soil nutrients. Being nature-worshipping makes them very conscious about environmental conservation. They have strict customs that protect the hill forests and bamboo groves around them. To make the best use of the land available, they grow paddy and rear fish in the same fields. They even use the little strips of humped land which serve as boundaries between the plots to grow millet. Villagers form groups which cultivate fields together in a rotation system, entirely by hand with no use of machinery or animals.

Arunachal Pradesh Travel Diary Part 2: The Journey to Tawang

The second half of my journey entailed the long drive from Guwahati to Tawang through the district of West Kameng, stopping along the way in Dirang and Sangti Valleys. While long and arduous (for the driver!), the drives are made easier by the fairly spectacular scenery along the way. The highlight of Dirang is its lovely gold-trimmed monastery. There is not much to do in Sangti but laze around on the pebbled river bed that meanders through the valley.

The border between West Kameng and Tawang districts is marked by the iconic gateway at Sela pass, an oft photographed spot that is often the first image conjured up in peoples’ minds at the mention of Tawang. Its well worth stopping here to marvel at Sela lake framed by snow-flecked mountains on all sides, and to enjoy a steaming cup of tea and bowl of spicy Maggi at the Army canteen.

A bit further on from here is Jaswant Garh – a memorial to a brave hero of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. Even after his regiment was ordered to retreat Jaswant Singh, of the 4th Garhwal Rifles, refused to desert his post. According to legend two local girls Sela and Nura helped him build bunkers and open fire on the Chinese from alternating positions to fool them into thinking there was a greater number of Indian troops in the area. He fought them off thus for three days before being shot and captured. The Chinese beheaded him, but later out of respect for his valour, returned the head along with a bronze bust of his likeness. The memorial has his bed carefully made and uniform carefully ironed. He is treated like a living legend, with tea, breakfast and dinner served to him everyday. He’s even been regularly promoted by the Army over the years as though he were still on active duty!

Arunachal Pradesh Travel Diary Part 3: Tawang and the Monpas

The people of Tawang belong mainly to the Monpa tribe. The Monpa kingdom which dates back to 500 B.C once spanned across Tawang, Kameng, as well as parts of Bhutan and Tibet. Sometime in the 11th century they adopted Tibetan Buddhism. By the 17th century they were completely under Tibetan administration. In fact in 1697 a Monpa boy born in present day Tawang was named the 6th Dalai Lama. He was quite a colourful character and broke the monastic mould in more ways than one, being fond of his drink and of women, and a writer of romantic poetry.

Sino-Indian War of 1962

There is an astonishingly heavy military presence in Tawang. We often passed lumbering convoys of army trucks on the roads, and sprawling army camps and townships when driving through Tawang valley. The Sino-Indian war of 1962, albeit brief, left an indelible mark on life here, so I’ve briefly summarised my understanding of what happened below. For those already familiar or not interested, you can skip to the next section on Tawang Monastery.

In 1914 when India was under British rule, the Brits with their typical audacity drew something called a McMahon line which split the land of the Monpas into two and claimed the lands south of the Line (including Tawang) as being part of British India. This part was then claimed by India post Independence. And so the newly formed People’s Republic of China and Independent India inherited a contentious border dispute at birth. India claimed the Himalayan range as its natural northern border and China claimed they never acquiesced to the drawing of the line and the region was by extension a part of China since their annexation of Tibet in 1950.

In 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled to India and was received warmly by the Prime Minister himself, Jawaharlal Nehru, it worsened relations which were already frayed. And the final straw was the “Forward Policy” initiated by the Indian Army under which they started creating military outposts north of the McMahon Line in an attempt to cut off supply lines to the Chinese army stationed there.

In October 1962 China invaded and briefly occupied Tawang (amongst other territories) timing it perfectly with the Cuban Missile Crisis so neither the US nor the Soviets could intervene. About a month later they withdrew their forces and both countries returned to the negotiating table. The issue was never conclusively resolved but over the ensuing decades both countries seemed to lose interest in favour of other more productive priorities. The military presence intensifies as you go towards the icy wilderness of Bumla pass which marks the border with China. A few times a year there is a joint cultural exchange between the Chinese and Indians at Bumla. Civilians are allowed to cross the border and enjoy a night of dinner, dancing and other festivities hosted by the other side.

Tawang Monastery

Tawang itself is like some fabled lost kingdom of Middle Earth. The hilltop town is surrounded on all sides by steep ravines and towering snow-capped mountains. It is crowned by the gleaming yellow roofs of the 400-year old Tawang Monastery, the second largest in the world, and home to some 450 monks. The monastery is reminiscent of a medieval citadel, ring fenced by a fortified wall and made up of a jumble of narrow alleys and whitewashed buildings. The entrance gate (Kakaling) is a stone passageway with beautiful mandala paintings decorating its ceiling. Mandala, literally meaning circle in Sanskrit, is symbolic in Hinduism and Buddhism of the cosmos and is represented here as a circle within a square, peopled with deities. Within the main shrine are fine examples of other common themes in thangka art like the Wheel of Life, Dharmapala and Tara. (for more on these see the section on Tibetan Buddhist Art in the previous blog post on Sikkim). The small museum next to the main shrine is well worth a visit, if nothing else, for the ancient Buddhist texts scripted in gold and the elaborately carved butter lamps.