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Arunachal Pradesh – The lure of mystic mountainsand untamed beauty

For most part of our school-going years, the state of Arunachal Pradesh did not exist. At least not on paper.It was known to us as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) till 1987, when it received official statehood. Studying in a private school in the capital city of Delhi, it did not warrant much attention in the recesses of our small minds. The stories that we heard only evoked visions of a far away land, dotted with dark jungles, lonely mountains, incessant rains and ancient tribes. Hardly enticing to an urban, dreamy eyed youngster! Cut to three decades later, and this is precisely the kind of place the resurrected traveller in me was looking for. And so I decided to make the ‘forbidden’ (in the days of old, visitors were wary of traveling to NEFA because of the rough terrain and unforgiving climate) journey to this mysterious land.

Arunachal Pradesh, located in the remotest corner of northeast, is India’s best-kept secret. Truly it is. The land of the ‘dawn-lit mountains’– given that its villages of Dong and Vijaynagar receive the first rays of the sun in the country -it has remained largely untouched by the evils of urbanism and crass modernism. Its location and virtual inaccessibilitykeeps it off the beaten path, and has helped preserve its untamed beauty and mysterious allure. Mind you, even today it is not an easy destination to reach.

The nearest airport is about 60kms away from the state capital of Itanagar, in Lilabari in the neighboring state of Assam and the nearest railway station at Naharlagun is about 15kms outside Itanagar. I of course, decided to drive from Assam and as luck would have it, it was the best decision I could have made.A bit of caution here: Given the tricky terrain I suggest you hire a local cabbie and a four wheel, which I am grateful I did. It made each scenic bend, each delightful turn and picturesque corner of the spectacular journey worth the trepidation!

I started my journey from Guwahati in Assam and drove to Tezpurto finally enter Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong. (Note: All tourists visiting Arunachal Pradesh need to procure the Inner Line Permit –ILPissued by the state government). The meandering roads of the plains and dense rainforests soon started giving way to steeper climbs and plenty of hairpin bends as we traversed up the mountains.  The air was cleaner, fresher and had this sense of mystery, a quietness that was soothing and alluring at the same time. I was almost giving in to a trance like state lulled by a full stomach and freedom from technology (cell phone signals are thankfully scratchy here) when lo and behold! The most wondrous sight awaited – A beautiful waterfall, bang on the mountainside, its rushed waters a welcome sight to my tired eyes. Little was I to know, this would be the first of many, many such waterfalls that I was to encounter en route. We were reluctant to move on, but the road beckoned. As we climbed higher the air became thinner and colder and the quietness, even louder.  The prayer flags fluttered in the cold mountain breeze, silently beckoning.

The journey from Bhalukpong to Tawang takes about 9 hours by road subject to travel conditions. It was just gone 3 pm when we reached the town of Bomdila (about 8000 ft) – where evidences of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen in the various monasteries – the Lower Gompa and The GadenRabgyeling – scattered around. Our driver suggested we break journey here as night was about to fall.  Eager to reach my destination, I protested, happily forgetting that we were in the far-east now, and night falls by 4 pm. I was gently reminded by fellow passengers and decided to call it a day.

The next morning dawned bright and early. After a hearty cup of hot, yak butter tea (a specialty) ingeniously procured by my driver and a nourishing breakfast we hit the road. A couple of hours into our journey, it started getting pretty cold and the greenery gave way to a more sparse, and stark landscape and rooftops dusted with snow.

The driver advised us to save our breath, literally. We were at almost 11000 ft, and climbing towards Sela Pass.  At 13700 ft it is the highest and toughest motorable pass in this part of the country and pretty much connects the Buddhist town of Tawang to the rest of India.According to an old legend, an Indian soldier – Jaswant Singh Rawat – was holding fort against the Chinese troops in the 1962 Indo-China war. A tribal woman named Sela used to bring him food and water regularly and is said to have killed herself on seeing his dead body. Singh was awarded posthumously for his courage and there is war memorial nearby in his memory.  Of course, we were oblivious to any of this as we greedily drunk in the sight that beheld us. It was as if Sela, if ever there was such a woman, had decided to sprinkle a bit of magic. Just as we entered the pass, powdery flakes of snow fell quietly to the ground and in a matter of minutes had us all walking in a winter wonderland! Marveling at the beauty that lay before us, we spent a short time at the pass sipping some piping hot tea and acclimatizing to the high altitude.As we descended the pass we came across the most serene and beautiful mountain lake – the Sela Lake, which is one of the many lakes revered by the Buddhist community.

It was close to evening when we reached Tawang, located at about 10,000 ftagainst the backdrop of dramatic snow covered mountains. Close to the Tibetan and Bhutan borders this religious town is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama and inhabited largely by the Monpa people. A major holy site for Tibetan Buddhists, the town centers on the Tawang monastery, said to be the biggest Buddhist monastery outside Tibet. It is also believed that when His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama fled Tibet it is here that he took refuge before reaching Assam.

Indeed the monastery, the Gompas (Urgeling and Taktsang), and Singhur nunnery lenda certain mysticism to this part of Arunachal Pradesh, that has retained it Buddhist traditions unlike the rest of the state. It is a totally different world. We were fortunate enough to be a part of it for a while.

From Tawang we climbed down to the picturesque Dirang Valley – snow covered passes, rolling meadows, pristine lakes, magical forests and gushing rivers are all we had for company plus some grazing mountain yaks and of course, hospitable tribal folk who kept feeding us with pots of tea, steaming hot thukpa and homemade rice beer called Apong, along the way. In fact, the hospitality of the local tribes (there are 25 major tribes and more than 100 sub tribes in the state – the Adi, Apatani, Mishmi, Monpa, Nyishi, Galo, Tagin are some of the major ones) nourished our bodies and our city worn souls better than any tonic that we could have ever asked for.

Dirangturned out to be a charming little hill town, with breathtaking views of the Kameng Valley and plenty of apple orchards and kiwi farms. Our one night stay turned into two nights thanks to a landslide that had blocked the main highway. But we didn’t mind. While the BRO officials worked tirelessly to clear the debris we spent a leisurely couple of days strolling in the orchards and gorging on freshly plucked fruits and partaking of the warmth and hospitality of our hosts.

Our journey to this mystic land ended here. But yours needn’t.  Arunachal has so much more to offer.  It’s a paradise for bird lovers and accounts for nearly 60 percent of India’s bird population, largely found in the Namdapha National Park. The park is one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the country and worth a visit if you want to spot some exotic and rare species of flora and fauna like the Hoolock Gibbon, the Wren Babbler, or the beautiful Hornbill.

For those of you looking for a bit of adventure, the state offers some of the best sites for rafting in the world – down the fierce Siang river that cuts through its verdant valleys. Like much of the northeast, the people of Arunachal love their music and celebrate this love with the Ziro Music festival. Arguably one of the coolest festivals for independent artistes in the country, it is held annually in the lush Ziro valley, home to the Apatani tribe and some beautiful pine forests and paddy fields. In fact, wherever you may turn the state offers picture-perfect vistas for your camera. Be it the district of Roing, the last major township in the northeast frontier and home to the Adi and Mishmi tribes to the plains of Tirap district in the south, bordering Myanmar. At the core of each district of course, are its tribes.

Indeed, one of the soul stirring experiences of this trip has been the interaction with the indigenous people. Of course, I realized that I would have to come back if I really wanted to experience their way of life and understand their simple ways and traditional customs. But they gave me a glimpse of their world. A world where man and nature can live in harmonious interdependence – even in rapidly changing times, nurtured by their religious belief systems (largely animistic) and ancient customs and practices. A world that opens up their hearth and heart to many a weary traveler and embraces them with openness and genuine warmth that seemed to radiate from the depths of their souls. Just like their land.

RADHIKA DAS

A media professional with over 15 years of experience, I specialize in writing and editing across platforms. I have written extensively on lifestyle and entertainment for several publications and mediums – newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. I author a blog called HighTimes that focuses on lifestyle, parenting, education and giftedness. Do drop in @https://www.facebook.com/shareinspireempower/

In addition to writing, I am a compulsive traveler with decidedly itchy feet! Of course, parenting a demanding tweenager doesn’t leave much time to spare, but when possible, I indulge in a bit of hobby baking and cake art and am a Le Cordon Bleu certified cake decorator.

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