A journey in the Eastern Himalaya: Anil Yadav
“The mountains lands, and the Himalaya in particular, are visited by travelers, explorers, climbers, naturalist, pilgrims. These are who people who are evanescent, who come and go and vanish, occasionally giving us their impressions in the books and journals which describe their personal experiences, but they tell us little or nothing about the people who eke out a living on hostile mountain slopes. only a very few people have left enduring and insightful records of their experiences.”#Ruskin Bond
And Anil Yadav is one such traveler, not just a tourist, who brings forth an experience of that untouched, unseen, unheard quarters of Himalayas, that a very few of us have a chance of experiencing, in our whole lifetimes. A journey in the Eastern Himalaya, part of a larger account of travels in northeast India.
On to Namdapha and Tawang
By Anil Yadav
My new-found brother Rupah-da turned me over to Nature’s Beckon in front of the Tinsukhia Railway Station. When the Tata 407 mini-bus finally left—after having waited interminably for flustered passengers arriving from god knows where—fowl stuffed into a wicker-basket underneath a seat cackled. There was a sack of potatoes with a hole in it; potatoes popped out and rolled about on the floor. We were eighteen passengers in all, including a ten-year-old, travelling with a group of experts who worked for Nature’s Beckon, an NGO working to build environmental awareness. Our destination: the jungles of Namdapha on the Changlang plateau in Arunachal Pradesh—Namdapha is the highest peak in the region. These jungles, abutting Burma, rise up from swampy wetlands in the plains to snow-covered mountains and spread over an area of 2,000 square kilometres. There is such geographic diversity here that multiple seasons co-exist over contiguous territory. From the jhapi hats, binoculars, packets of crisps and the keen desire to hear the opinions of strangers on the varieties of forests found in different geographical regions of the world, it was clear everyone had done their homework well.
The young director of Nature’s Beckon, Soumyadeep, tried to lighten the atmosphere with timely jokes and tales of travels in the wild but his narration was stolid, and his manner that of a tour guide in a hurry. No tales were told him in reply. A freshly minted young journalist, Pem Thi Gohain, launched an interrogation: What was my salary break-up at the paper I worked for; and who was the editor brilliant enough to send me on this assignment? I distanced myself from him by speaking in English and by shrinking into myself and looking out the window, pretending to be absorbed in the landscape. It was impossible to tell any more lies.
A tyre punctured in Digboi. The diver propped the vehicle on a makeshift jack built out of a pile of bricks and stood on the side of the road, thumbing down trucks to borrow a tyre-iron from. This was going to take a while and I left for a short walkabout in town. Digboi is full of oil-wells; neighbourhoods are named after the bends in the roads next to which they stand. Small hills are dotted with bungalows from the British era. Each bungalow once occupied by a single British family is now shared by many households. Digboi is a sleepy town; one where from the looks of things a heavy breakfast is all that is needed to send one back to bed.
We left and soon after the driver stopped in Margherita. While the rest of us ate, he went off to have the puncture repaired. Santwana Bharali, aka Poppy, was our tour coordinator. She had an MSc in Botany; her cheeks dimpled prettily when she smiled. On of our co-passengers was a psychology nut.According to him, Poppy had followed the driver to the puncture-repair shop only because she wanted to see the tyre-tube fill up with air and become tumescent. I concurred. But when she opened her purse and paid the mechanic, I silently chided the influence of Freud on the manner in which I had agreed with his assessment of Poppy. Archana Niyog, another co-passenger, was what you might call a homely girl; she was serving food to her fellow passengers, urging each to eat some more.
The large yellow signboard which marks the beginning of the Stilwell Road flashed past us near the railway crossing in Lido. The road, built during the Second World War at enormous cost in terms of the lives of soldiers and labourers, begins in Jairampur in Arunachal Pradesh, enters Burma, spans Kachin territory and terminates in the Kunming province of China. One of the longstanding demands in the region is the reopening of the Stilwell Road so that trade may flourish, but our relations with China remain rocky.
Lido is a vast colliery. Coal dust rained upon me from impossibly tall heaps in a black billowing mist. It is the practice of open-cast mining which gives the town its mysterious, suspicious air.
The olive-green of battle fatigues became increasingly more concentrated once we entered Arunachal Pradesh. A state of high alertness has become the norm in the state after 1962 when China defeated India in war. We were stopped at every checkpoint for interrogation and for our permits to be examined; it was night by the time we were done. When twilight fell everyone looked up at the sky in complete silence. Perhaps its colour reflected their most inward moods. Afterwards, everyone dozed. Red points of light flickered deep within the forests. To avoid the telltale thwack-thwack of axe on tree trunk, a small hole is drilled and a fire set within. The embers smoulder for many days before the tree finally comes crashing down. In many places forests were being burned down to make way for jhum cultivation. Those fires were much more widespread and malignant. Only two per cent of land in the state is under permanent cultivation; either as small terraced fields or as bigger plots in the lowlands.
The bus entered one of the gates to Namdapha. A shaggy animal bolted across the front of the truck and was spot-lit by its headlamps. Eyes opened wide, shoulder joined shoulder in anticipation and heads came together as everyone peered out the windows. Poppy quacked in a sleep-laden voice ‘Porcupine! Porcupine! I know very well that was a porcupine.’
The hedgehog vanished under the bushes on the side of the road. The ten-year-old found his long-awaited opportunity to lay hands upon his father’s binoculars—so what if it was dark? The mini-bus halted near a waterfall. The air was rank with the odour of swamp deer, of which there must have been a herd nearby. Jain-ul-Abedeen, aka Benu Daku, is an experienced hunter who quit his hereditary profession to become an environmentalist. He said, snorting, ‘They are foolish animals. Once spooked by torches they can’t run. Hunters get them easy.’
It was a four-kilometre hike from the waterfall to the resthouse. Bags on backs, we trooped into the darkness in single file, our path lighted by torches. The drone of crickets vibrated through the forest. On our left was a deep gorge at the bottom of which rushed the Dihang River. The pauses in between the crump-crump of footsteps were defeaning in their silence. In those moments it was easy to imagine the act of measuring time as a joke which man plays to keep himself deluded. Elephant dung, a deer’s hoofprints, tyre marks became mysteries to be deciphered at leisure. Benu shone his light into the gorge, looking for something. He stopped, then said sotto voce, ‘There might be a tigress nearby.’
A commotion followed, which crumpled up our single file and transformed it into a huddle. The effect of torch-light on tigers was discussed in whispers, with books being quoted and their publishers and prices mentioned. This was a serious moment but something seemed out of joint. I don’t know why a thought occurred to me: ‘This is a new profession for Benu. He and Soumyadeep are injecting a dose of excitement into these middle-class nature-lovers so their trip becomes memorable.’
As soon as we reached the rest house, the sweat-soaked trekkers called out to their gods and collapsed, using their backpacks as cushions upon which to straighten their strained backs. Bricks were collected, makeshift stoves hurriedly set up, and rice put on to boil. A safe corner for the women to sleep in was scouted. A whistle went off shrilly and at length; everyone gathered round and the experts answered questions on Namdapha in the dim light of a kerosene lantern.
The tiger and three species of leopard inhabit Namdapha: the common leopard, the clouded leopard and the rare snow leopard. The red panda is also to be found here.
The Namdapha Tiger Reserve was set up because this area is the perfect habitat for felines: it has flowing water, shade and abundant prey. These make up the ideal environmental cycle.
Some creatures such as the flying squirrel, the white hornbill and the howler monkey make the reserve their home because of geographical features which are unique to the area.
Chakma refugees from Bangladesh have been rehabilitated in the Gandhi Gram village located inside the forest. They hunt and eat elephants. Hunting has put the elephant population under stress.
Lisu refugees from Burma live in the jungle, too. They are skilled at hunting tigers.
Tiger-bone liquor is much in demand in China. Tiger whiskers are used to manufacture sex toys.
The wide expanse of the jungle is manned by just thirteen employees who can’t even manage to shut all the gates of the reserve. There is no electricity and all the drinking water must be brought from the Noa-Dihing River…
After these stark truths were underlined in many different ways, the dancing flames reflected on the walls took on a new meaning. The deep silence of the forest invaded our tired minds. The whistle went off again, shrill and long; rice and flat-bean curry was served. Later, everyone pitched in to wash the dishes in candlelight. Soon I could hear snores.
It was raining in the morning. Binoculars and cameras jumped out of their carrying cases and kept waiting for a long time. Later, we were ferried across the Noa-Dihing in two batches under a steady drizzle. Vimal Gogoi and Mridul Phukan identified birds and animals from their calls. The deep silence of the forest made itself felt once more. In a crowd, one loses the ability to feel because each is trying frantically to communicate something or the other and this takes up all our attention. However, walking underneath the dripping forest canopy on the thick carpet of fallen leaves and sodden mulch, I felt regret: This place had everything but that which I find in a tree standing alone on the side of a road, it couldn’t give me.
Poppy showed us a twig on which grew a layer of what looked like white mould. She said, ‘Look, there is no pollution here. This lichen is proof.’ She picked up a berry from the ground and said in chaste Assamese, ‘The pahu eats the flesh of this fruit and the porcupine its pit. In this manner they help propagate these seeds all over the forest.’
‘This pahu, is it a bird?’ She laughed. I understood I had made yet another mistake in wringing meaning from the Assamese language.
‘Pahu is not a bird. Pahu is Assamese for deer.’ Archana corrected me.
We had climbed from a height of forty metres to two hundred and fifty metres over rocky, uneven terrain. Thin red leeches swarmed up our shoes. They soon began to crawl into our socks and everyone started to look for salt—the best antidote for leeches—which we had all forgotten to bring. Tikendrajit, from Barpeta, had long been scratching his head. A leech had fastened itself to his scalp and was turgid with blood. I pulled it off.
A tribal, Lat Gam Singpho, was accompanying our party as guide. Using his dao he cut green cane into strips and and fashioned himself a hat. When everyone crowded around demanding a hat, he made one for each. A lengthy photo session ensued. The hats which adorned the people’s heads deranged the balance of chemicals within their brains. They capered about spouting gibberish: ‘He hai hua, chi chai chung!’ In those green-cane hats they had found an excuse to express their truest, innermost reactions to the Singpho’s illiteracy and backwardness. Later, all the men took turns to wield the keen Singpho dao on the surrounding trees.
The sun came out in the afternoon and the forest took on new colours. We heard the cracking of bamboo. A small herd of elephants was crashing through, though we saw them only in our imaginations. A sudden shower drenched us in the evening and we didn’t need the services of a boat to cross the Noa-Dihing on our way back. Many other environmentalists came to us at night and—eating chicken curry and rice—gave us much useful information on crocodiles, hornbills and elephants. In one later session, people narrated their experiences of the jungle. Someone was terrified by the sight of an elephant brought up close by his binoculars, another slyly transformed anecdote into personal experience. Archana told us the heartrending story of the death of a calving cow and her attachment to the orphaned calf. Soumyadeep often dreamt of wild elephants surrounding him and of a forest-goddess who would come to his rescue. Lat Gam Singpho, who now lived in the forest, had once been ward boy in a hospital. He had a remarkable story to tell.
‘I can face down a tiger with a dao in hand but ghosts scare me to death. There were some doctors in the hospital who conspired so I would lose my job. They put a new shirt on a corpse and propped it against the wall. A burning cigarette was wedged between its fingers, some loose change was inits pocket and a dao slung from a belt at its waist. The corpse was pointed out to me from afar and I was sent to summon it. When he didn’t hear my calls I put a hand on his shoulder and then took off running. That day, for the first time in my life, I drank a boiling cup of tea in one breath.’
This was the first true story of a tribal wandering about in a jungle of dead souls.
Amid the marathon of snoring, the ten-year-old snuggled up to me and demanded a story. He seemed unhappy and was unable to sleep. I scoured all the corners of my memory but found no tale suitable for a young child—all my stories were rated ‘A’. I first felt a surge of self-pity, then came a glimmer of self-realization: As a child, I would doubt every story I heard. And because I kept neglecting them, kept hating them, they had evaporated from memory. The child said to me, ‘Let’s go for a stroll outside. Maybe you will remember one.’
Outside the resthouse, a furry creature floated across the milky-white beam cast by the flashlight, followed by another—a pair of flying squirrels were playing catch. An entire team of experts tramping about all day hadn’t been able to spot even one. A thin membrane connects the fore and hind legs of the rodent on both sides. Using tree branches as a runway, it gathers speed and launches itself. The membrane fills up with air and the squirrel glides from tree to tree.
My work had been made easy. I adorned the boy’s shoulder with the cloak of a forest-god, slung a Singpho dao around his waist and put him on the back of a flying squirrel. Now he could himself describe the mysteries of the jungles to me.
The first batch of one thousand plastic replicas of hornbill beaks had arrived from Delhi which had been distributed in the Nyishi villages around Namdapha. Lat Gam Singpho had a question for Bharat Sundaram, project officer with the Asian Elephant Research and Conservation Centre, Bangalore: ‘Will elephants made out of plastic be distributed among the Chakma refugees living in the west of Namdapha?’ The Chakmas hunt elephants with poisoned arrows. It takes them half an hour to bring down an animal but preparation for the hunt lasts many days.
Young Bharat Sundaram was then on a trek in the Northeast, accompanied by porters laden with provisions and tents. He was tracking footprints and sampling elephant dung to determine their numbers. A nationwide elephant census was underway. The Northeast was a special zone where the very existence of elephants was under threat in many areas; many of their old stomping grounds and corridors of passage had been wiped out. However, it was the hornbill Bharat was interested in because of those traits in the bird which are only expected of humans. Bharat had photographed a Rufous-headed Hornbill in Namdapha. This species of hornbill had never been spotted in India and the event was being treated as a new find.
The hornbill is a colourful, beautiful bird with an extraordinarily large beak. When the female lays eggs, she takes maternity leave of four months. The young emerge from the nest only once they are able to fly. During this time the male guards the nest. He brings food for his wife and children. Some species of hornbill form cooperative societies. Many pairs get together to hatch eggs and to look after the brooding mothers. Pairs mate for life, and remain faithful to each other.
The beauty of the hornbill is its curse. Nagas use their feathers to adorn their headdresses. Many tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, including the Nyishi, use hornbill beaks as ornaments on their crowns. They stalk the male as it returns to the nest with food for its brooding mate and kill it. The flesh of the hornbill and oil extracted from its fat are considered aphrodisiac. Unani hakims, wandering ayurvedic vaids who examine people on roadsides in full view of curious gawkers, quacks of all varieties possess hornbill beaks with which they lure the loveless and the superstitious. This bird is rapidly dwindling in numbers; it is a rare sight even in dense forests.
Forest officers and the World Wildlife Trust of India jointly came up with the idea of plastic beak replicas after a great deal of thought. The beaks distributed in the Nyishi villages had been manufactured in Delhi on order. Each had cost 15 rupees to make. Since one can’t make money off hornbills, they were being distributed gratis. The officers and the NGOs were certain that the tribals would reconcile these plastic toys with their religious beliefs and stop hunting the hornbill. Some organizations felt that plastic is harmful to the environment and the tribals should be given wooden beaks. Even better, they should be trained to carve beaks so that they could find employment.
Some people in the villages had accepted the plastic beaks, but the ones with the original article made fun of them. Now the danger was that the remaining hornbills in the forest would also be wiped out due to this conflict between the villagers. This was why Lat Gam Singpho wanted to pose his question to Bharat Sundaram.
Bharat had also visited Gandhi Gram, the furthest village on India’s frontier, in the far south of Namdapha. Lisu refugees from Burma have been settled there. Anyone who visits with kerosene and sugar is welcomed in the village as an honoured guest. The nearest weekly market is a three-day walk each way. They barter goods with local fish which they hunt with an anesthetic. The Lisu examine the moss growing on rocks standing in the river. From the marks made on the moss by the fishes’ mouth as they graze upon them, they gauge the size of the fish. They then take the leaves of a particular tree which has narcotic properties, grind them and stir the paste into the water. The drugged fish belly-up on the surface. They were not for sale but, yes, they could be bartered for kerosene.
The Apatani tribe was yet to come across that important invention known as the wheel in the year Kuru Hasang was born in the Ziro valley. Still, the Apatani are considered to be the most modern among the tribes of Arunachal for having innovated the concepts of fixed—non-jhum—cultivation and irrigation. When Hasang was admitted to the Army School, Bhubaneshwar, in 1963 his father ritually sacrificed an egg on the village border before letting him go out into the limitless, unknown world. Within five years of leaving his village, Hasang was commissioned into the Air Force and became a fighter pilot and flew MIGs. He came back to his village in Arunachal in 1978—once the state was formally formed—having retired as Flight Lieutenant, to try his hand at politics. When I was travelling in the area, the middle-aged Kuru Hasang, after having lost multiple elections, was the chief secretary of the Arunachal Pradesh Congress Committee. His wife ran a medical store in the Hapoli neighbourhood of Ziro.
Many tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, including the Nocte, the Khampti, the Nyishi and the Tagin, have their own tarnished heroes who, because of coincidences, have managed to cram many lives into one. They have vaulted distances which takes the rest of humanity many thousands of years to trudge over. More than sixty tribes live in Arunachal and there are more than fifty known languages. Yet the written history of the area is merely three hundred years old. Every old officer who served in the area has a story which begins: ‘When we first came here, accustomed as we were to the sensations which nudity arouses, we wouldn’t even look at the tribals. And, when we began to look at them, what happened was…’
The state of Arunachal has itself similarly launched headlong into democracy. Before Independence, the region was officially known as ‘Tribal Area’. A few British surveyors would travel in the area accompanied by armed battalions, scouting for opportunities to build roads and lay down railway lines. They wanted to extend trade possibilities for East India Company further into countries in the east. In 1954 the Kameng, Siang, Subansiri, Lohit, Tirap and Tuensang divisions was combined into the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) which was administered by the Foreign Ministry for a long time. After 1972 Tuensang went to Nagaland and the rest of the divisions coalesced into Arunachal Pradesh. Post 1962, after the debacle with China, the Central government invested blindly in roads and communication networks, and the investment shows. A population of merely nine lakh lives in an area of 78,000 square kilometres but telephone poles stand tall in every jungle. The Army regularly flies sorties from bases in Siliguri and Dibrugarh, ferrying rations, political leaders, officers and soldiers—an exercise that costs an average of 4 crore rupees per day. There are close to one hundred helipads in the state. In all of India, the maximum number of mishaps—mainly due to helicopters losing their way in fog and crashing—in which ministers, chief ministers and pilots have lost their lives have occurred in Arunachal.
I wanted to visit Hapoli and meet Kuru Sangma and his wife. The idea was to conduct a long interview on his memories of the time when he came back to Ziro on his first furlough from the Air Force. But I got distracted and reached Tawang instead.
That day in Bhalukpong, the remains of a poet interred within the soul of a Mahayani Buddhist monk decided to draw breath. All he said was: ‘Tawang will have played for two hours in the light of the new sun by the time dawn breaks over the rest of the world.’ I also had the names of lamas given to me by friends in Benares, those who had gone to Sarnath to study theology and who now lived in monasteries in Arunachal. So, naturally, I set out on a very long, serpentine road which was shrouded in fog and which threaded through a desert of snow and ice. I have never seen more shades of blue in the sky since.
Before Bomdila, I could never have imagined that a Tata Sumo, grinding along in the first and second gears, can be like a faithful horse which responds to its rider’s most urgent wishes, his most fleeting whims. It takes a special set of ears to drive on these remote mountains; ears which can discern the whispers, wails and sobs of an engine underneath its overpowering roar. And it takes a special kind of sensitivity which detaches the accelerator and the brake from the car, makes them part of the driver’s being and transmutes the smallest tremor, the least vibration, instantaneously into crystal-clear thought. It is not without reason that in the couplets and verses inscribed on windscreens and bumpers—usually dismissed as slight and even cheap—the vehicle is often cast in the role of lover or mistress. At their base is the living, breathing relationship between man and machine, and their pact to live and die as one.
Descending from the 6,000-feet-high Nechi Phu pass, many a time I would visualize the Tata Sumo drifting down the gorge like an unmoored kite and children standing at the bottom of the valley, waving, imagining it to be a helicopter. At each instance I would stare hard at the driver: Was I projecting my innermost fear and influencing him in any way? But he was in deep trance. Lost in a time and space where passengers had no existence any longer.
From Bomdila (8,500 feet) an infinite variety of clouds billow and play. Fog descends without warning and obscures the world; when it parts the dazzling Himalaya stands tall and close. Bomdila is the district headquarters of West Kameng district, home to the Monpa, Sherdukpen, Aka, Mijia and Bugun tribes. The dogs of Bomdila are infamous—they roam about on sub-zero nights and can easily take down a man and feed on his flesh. There is an abundance of flora. Some quite lucrative. A truckload of Taxus baccata—from which the anti-cancer chemical Taxol is extracted and exported to Europe—delivered to Guwahati fetches enough money to buy a brand-new truck chassis.
There was an old man in Bomdila market who said to me in the manner of one demonstrating an invisible monument: ‘The Chinese had marched down to here during the war.’
I found a place to bed down in a slate-roofed dhaba in the Dirang valley. A wild wind sprang up and whistled as night descended; the temperature dropped sharply and it was difficult to keep one’s feet in that gale outside. I piled two quilts over my sleeping bag but the cold bore into my bones. The mistress of the dhaba allowed me to move my sleeping bag close to the fireplace but before going to bed issued strict instructions to her terrifying mastiff: ‘Keep sharp; no one should go outside!’ I’d make a move to walk out, driven by the desire to view the silvery Himalaya in moonlight, but the dog would bristle, bare its teeth and growl imperiously: ‘A fleeting glimpse, cooling balm to the eyes; or your life. Make up your mind about what you want.’ I’d resign myself and come back to my sleeping bag.
In the morning I made my way to a gompa—established by the Buddhist guru Padmasambhav in the eighth century inside an ancient fort, the Dirang dzong—to look for Lama Nawang Lamsang. In this area, which seems more Tibet than India, Padmasambhav is known as Lopon Rimpoche. Young novice monks were seated in the sanctum sanctorum of that small gompa, reading from ancient scriptures. An elderly monk informed me that monk Lamsang was travelling outside the Dirang valley. After a moment’s thought he opened a battered tin box, took out a very old piece of stone and placing it on my palm, said, ‘This is the heart of a demon which was killed here. After it was killed, the Mon people converted to Buddhism.’
‘How did its heart turn to stone?’
‘What then, if not a stone… It was a demon!’
Now there was no reason for me to doubt that symbol of the victory of Buddhism.
As one travels from Dirang towards Sela Pass, the vegetation thins out, disappears and is replaced by snow-topped granite mountains and in a very few places by densely growing grass which appear soft as mattresses. Hidden in dense fog, Army trucks scream and wail their way up in an ant-crawl; grazing yaks occasionally heave into view; the lack of oxygen makes breathing difficult. The Sela (14,000 feet) is the second-highest motorable pass in the world. These winding high roads, made possible by the prowess of the Border Roads Organization, resemble kite cord wound around one’s fingers and then carelessly tossed aside. To the left, immediately after the Sela gate, was a lake which had frozen inwards from its shores. In the middle was clear blue water which seemed to reflect the universe itself. Some fresh Army recruits were playing with snowballs and taking pictures. From the window of a small, stone-hut teashop near the gate I could see valleys shimmering through gaps in the layers of cloud which covered them. A family made its living from the shop, selling tea to tourists and soldiers. Looking out at the soldiers, the tea-maker said sagely even as vapour billowed from his mouth, ‘The more difficult a place is to reach, the more its beauty is enhanced… But for how long?’
The most reassuring sight in this bleak, mountain desert were the white flags which flapped restlessly in the icy wind. This is a custom in these parts: Whenever one asks for something from the gods he erects a white flag. Perhaps he lives with the conviction that his prayer will some day ride the winds to its intended address.
The driver slipped into a trance once more as the descent commenced. It had rained recently. The water dripping off the rocks and boulders on the sides of the road had pooled in the middle and frozen over, creating strange shapes—mostly in the shape of daggers. Greenery made an appearance after Jaswantgarh. In Jang we stopped in an old Monpa house where a bottle of rum stood next to a kettle of water bubbling on a wood fire. A cat was perched on a stool next to the stove to keep count of the pegs consumed. The valleys which endured the relentless assault of the wind sighed and moaned. The owner of the establishment sat outside; she was convinced that life-threatening cold is enough to ensure honesty.
We caught occasional glimpses of the golden roofs of the Tawang Monastery—one of the most important and famous centres of Mahayana Buddhism—in the falling twilight as our vehicle rounded corners; the Collector had already been contacted and a grand suite booked in the Circuit House.
Gulping pure mountain air in the pauses afforded to me by my lungs which struggled in the thin air, I reached the monastery in the afternoon, looking for a Sarnath-returned lama. The prayer-wheel mounted on the front gate was freezing. Teenaged monks were sitting in the lawn in front of the prayer hall, eating porridge. The prayer-flag towering above them was straining in the wind, blowing with sufficient force to sway the sixty-foot pole to which the flag was attached. Behind them was the Tawang Monastery museum. Among the exhibits were an enormous elephant tusk, ancient musical instruments, monks’ belongings, and human skulls covered over with gold and silver leaf and exquisitely carved. There was also a library which included silk-wrapped religious manuscripts seven centuries old. The prayer-hall was awash in the glow of a statue of Buddha that had been brought from Tibet three hundred years earlier. On the walls were murals depicting tantric scenes.
There used to be many legends about how such a massive statue reached Tawang. About half a century earlier, when a strong earthquake jolted the region, the statue split and many new stories added to the legends and fed into them. In 1997, His Holiness Dalai Lama visited Tawang Monastery; under his orders, skilled sculptors were called in from Nepal to restore the Buddha statue. During the restoration, certain documents were recovered from the belly of the statue; from them it was learnt that different parts of Buddha’s body were interred separately in southern Tibet by followers of the Gelugpa sect, which had been brought there on horseback.
I asked the lama in-charge of the museum why so many skulls were displayed. He pointed out Panden Lhamo, the guardian deity and protectoress of Tibet, in a mural and said, ‘Earlier, lamas used them to offer liquor to the deities during tantric worship; but Pepsi or Coke is offered nowadays.’
‘Where do you get that from?’
‘From the general store in the bazaar, of course!’ the lama said, staring at me in astonishment.
After the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tawang is the oldest monastery in the Mahayana tradition which was established in the seventeenth century by Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso. He is said to have been inspired and guided by his horse to do so. In the Tibetan language, Tawang means ‘chosen by a horse’. Tawang is world famous as a centre of Tantric worship; seventeen monasteries fall under its direct administration. Until not very long ago, collectors from Tibet used to come to the villages in Tawang to collect land tax. For China, Tawang is northern Tibet. It was on this basis that when Arunachal Pradesh became a state in the Indian union, China registered an official protest about India’s claim on certain parts of the area.
That evening in the bazaar I met a red-robed monk astride a motorcycle. He told me that Jaspinder Narula, a Bollywood playback singer of Punjabi origin, would be performing at the Buddha Purnima festival. Udit Narayan—another Bollywood playback singer—had already performed once. He also told me that the actors Shahrukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit had shot scenes for the movie Koyla here.
I asked the monk, ‘Why is multinational Pepsi offered to the gods instead of homebrew?’
He winked, and looking like a man enjoying himself, replied, ‘Buddhism is also a multinational religion, where’s the problem!’
Anil Yadav is a vagabond writer and journalist. His book include a collection of short stories Nagar Vadhuyen Akhbar Nahin Padhatin, collection of articles, essays, memoirs and journalistic writings Sonam Gupta Bewafa Nahi Hai and the acclaimed travelogue Woh Bhi Koi Desh Hai Maharaj!
And this Himalaya’s experiences excerpted here from Himalaya: Adventures, Meditation, Life; An Anthology Edited by Ruskin Bond and Namita Gokhle and published by Speaking Tiger, New Delhi, 2016.