Any mention of Arunachal Pradesh rekindles memories of my childhood days spent in unfretted and no-holds-barred rendezvouz in the company of my tribal Monpa friends. Winters were always very special and we took to the game of playing “football – on – ice”, much to the consternation of my possessive Mom.
I can still vividly recall my school holidays. Every day my younger brother and I, would wake up early in the morning and my Mom would dress us both with lots of heavy woollens, including the indigenously produced “Alipuddum Jacket” and after breakfast, it was time to go playing hide and seek with our Monpa friends.
My father was posted in Tawang and worked for 3 years as an Agronomist at the Government of India funded Potato Farm Project. Although 3 years is not that long a time frame, they were easily the most fascinating periods of our lives. The tribal Monpas were and still are very innocent as compared to those in the plains. Life at this high-altitude paradise was entrancing as it was exciting.
The breathtakingly beautiful Northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is ideally positioned between 26o28′ and 29o30′ North latitudes and 97o30′ and 97o30′ East Longitudes and covers an area which is all of 83743 sq. Km. Geographically speaking it is nestled in the Eastern Himalayan province, which incidentally happens to be one of the richest bio-geographical prefectures of the Himalayas. The topography of the state is conspicuous by its complex hilly arrangement and the altitude varies from 50 meters in the foothills that progressively ascend to heights of 7000 meters and is crisscrossed by numerous swift-flowing rivers and rivulets.
In terms of the sheer beauty of the landscape and the anthropologically fascinating tribals, the state of Arunachal Pradesh was declared as one of India’s best states in terms of Nature-Based Tourism by one of the world’s most prestigious Travel Exhibitions – ITB Berlin. The state has also drawn the attention of the discerning world travellers at the annual World Travel Mart (WTM) London for a number of years.
The new age Responsible tourists who are always on the lookout for authentic and immersive experiences that India has to offer, have univocally endorsed Arunachal Pradesh as one of the best immersive holiday destinations. It is an India you never knew existed – slow, uncluttered and unspoilt. The essence is on slowing down your pace of life to witness and savour something that is out-of-the-world – stunning mountain panorama, a fascinating gamut of tribal diversity and warm hospitable people.
Arunachal is India’s “Hassle-Free Immersive Tourism Zone” and when you have somebody like Oken Tayeng curating your mountain holidays, you can rest assured of quality and diversity. Oken for all proverbial reasons is India Tourism’s poster boy – founder of Abor Country Travel & Expeditions (www.aborcountrytravels.com), one of India’s premier adventure and mountain holiday operators, having been featured in global luxury lifestyle and travel magazines like Nat Geo Traveller, Lonely Planet, Conde Nast and what have you……
As a Travel Journalist, I was sifting through a maze of travel literature on India’s North East and The Economic Times travel page entitled “The Adi boy from Pasighat” got me transfixed. Who is this blue-eyed guy? What does he do in the tourism domain? What is so outstanding about this guy? These questions cropped up in my mind and once I was through with my readers, I prepared a cuppa Assam Tea and the unfathomable joy that crept inside me for at last finding an outstanding young Tourism entrepreneur from my native place – the North East, was simply profound.
The Economic Times travel report quotes – “Three years ago, when Oken Tayeng got to know that India’s superstar Aamir Khan had zeroed down on his property for a family holiday, he was stumped. He is unlikely to ever forget that feeling of “excitement and nervousness.” He gushes with joy even to this day. The Adi boy from Pasighat, a small town that’s referred to as the oldest town of Arunachal Pradesh, perhaps by virtue of it being a former British settlement founded in 1911 A.D. and got washed away by the river Siang, is striving hard to position his home state as a bankable tourist destination.”
Once I was sure about Oken’s inherent client-friendly Responsible Tourism attitude, it didn’t take me long to embark on an epic road journey to Tawang – The Land of the fascinating Monpa tribals, with whom I and my family were so lovingly knotted, way back in the late 70s.
Formerly, the state was a Union Territory and was conferred with statehood on 20th February 1987. Arunachal Pradesh has a long international border and is thus a very strategic region. No wonder, the Indian Army has a sizeable presence here. In the west, there is the Kingdom of Bhutan. China is strategically positioned to its north and northeast while Myanmar is located to the east.
Among all the seven states of the Northeast, Arunachal is by far the largest in terms of area, even larger than Assam, which is the gateway to the Northeast.
There is quite a bit of history attached to Arunachal. The earliest mention of Arunachal Pradesh is found in the Kalika Purana and also in the epic Mahabharata. The Puranas refer to this place as the Prabhu Mountains. According to Hindu epics, sage Parashuram is believed to have washed away his sins here. It is also the place where Vyasa was absorbed in deep meditation. Furthermore, King Bhishmaka is believed to have founded his empire while Lord Krishna entered into a matrimonial alliance with his consort Rukmini.
The sheer size and diversity of the state mean that an endless number of tourist places are well spread out over this fascinating state, among which the Bomdilla-Tawang region is by far the most popular in terms of tourism.
Nature has been gracious to Arunachal Pradesh and has blessed her with the choicest of natural wonders. What strikes the attention of the first time visitor to this state is the sheer richness of its flora and fauna – 5000 plant species, 85 species of mammals and over 500 species of avian life can be found in this jewel of a state.
As one embarks on the captivating journey by road from Tezpur in Assam all the way to the rarefied atmosphere of Tawang, the topography changes dramatically from tropical to sub-tropical in the foothills (Bhalukpong) and Alpine forests in the higher reaches.
Most tourists who visit the Bomdilla-Tawang trail are captivated by the journey by road that starts from Tezpur in Assam and covers all of 400 Kms. to reach Tawang. The first 100 Kms. is pretty light and covers mostly the Himalayan foothills as you drive through one of India’s renowned sub-Himalayan Wildlife Sanctuary – the Namdhapa Reserve Forest and reach Bhalukpong. Here you better beware – you are traversing through Elephant country where the tuskers rule supreme. Once you produce the Inner Line Permit at the Bhalukpong border check post, you are on your way to paradise crisscrossing places like Sessa and Nechifu Pass (5694 feet). The prospect of journeying through fog-laden hills can be a touch poignant for the first time traveller to this region.
As your vehicle starts gaining altitude, courtesy of the road linking Nechifu to Tenga, which can be arduous at times, the spectacular scenic vistas of the Eastern Himalayas begins to unfurl. By the way, the high altitude stretch up to Bomdilla was constructed during the infamous Chinese aggression of 1962. As you travel another half-an-hour from Nechifu, you will come across a cluster of roadside eateries. Fill your belly here because as you climb uphill, the population becomes sparse and it is difficult to locate roadside eateries elsewhere. In the higher reaches of the Eastern Himalayas, you don’t have much to choose from since the terrain is unforgiving.
As you proceed further upfront, you will come across the bewitchingly beautiful Tenga Valley perched at a height of 4884 feet above sea level. The real adventure or the uphill climb starts from Tenga Valley all the way to Bomdilla and finally Tawang. Bomdilla is situated at an altitude of 8134 feet and the journey from Tenga Valley to Bomdilla is fraught with hazards and only expert drivers can navigate this stretch.
Most visitors choose Bomdilla for night halt and there are numerous decent private hotels as well as a government-run Tourist Lodge. If you find the weather too chilly for your liking, you may opt for a room with a fireplace or “Bukhari” as it is referred to in the local parlance.
You have the option of staying for a couple of days at Bomdilla and explore the many charming sights surrounding Bomdilla. However, if you desire to proceed all the way to Tawang and decide to halt for a couple of days at Bomdilla during your return journey, that too is a good option and most visitors actually resort to this itinerary.
From Bomdilla, the journey to Tawang is the most memorable as you cross Dirang (5500 feet), Sapper-Sange (9177 feet) and ultimately the awe-inspiring Sheela Pass which is situated at a colossal height of 13,714 feet above sea level. The domain from Sheela Pass all the way to Tawang is what I call the “Marlboro Country”. The atmosphere is rarefied, the temperature freezing and the landscape desolate. Even the weather in this part of the world is unpredictable.
I have seen many visitors spending long hours at Sheela Pass, unable to fathom the untamed beauty of nature at such a rarefied height. There is snow everywhere and the snow-clad mountain peaks literally stand like sentinels. If you have come armed with your Cannons and Nikons, this is the place to download your entire stock.
Allow yourself some time at the monument of Jaswantgarh and pay homage to one of India’s brave soldiers – Jaswant Singh who laid down his life here fighting the might of the Chinese Army. At any given point in time, you will find a few soldiers of the Indian Army at the Jaswantgarh monument. Out of courtesy, they offer piping hot tea and munchy pakoras to visitors.
As you leave the Jaswantgarh monument behind with a sentimental yearning for our men in the barracks, you are entering the fairy tale domain of Bollywood inspired landscape. Remember the Shah Rukh Khan inspired the movie – “Koyla”! The breathtaking Jung Falls is where Shah Rukh Khan shot a few scenes for the super hit film – “Koyla”. If you have an adventurous streak in you, you would do well to go to the base of the Jung Fall. In the past, the sheer enormity of the Jung Fall has captivated many a discerning traveller to this region.
As your vehicle reaches Lowe, you know for certain that your ultimate destination – Tawang is within close proximity. As you glide past the narrow roads all the way to the Tourist Lodge, a sense of admiration engulfs you. You feel as if you are in a very fortunate place.
Tawang is popularly referred to as the Land of Monpas and over the years, thanks to the wide publicity in the travel media, any mention of Tawang reminds one of the remarkable mountain views, secluded mountain hamlets, old-world villages, mysterious Gompas, shimmering lakes and a whole lot more. At Tawang, visitors have a wonderful opportunity not only to rendezvous with nature but also the chance to appreciate its eventful history, ancient religion and legends.
Legend has it that the name Tawang was given by a renowned Buddhist monk – Merak Lama way back in the 17th century. Tawang and its neighbouring areas are inhabited mostly by the Monpa tribes.
The peripheral areas of Tawang are inhabited mostly by Monpa tribes. The only exception is the quaint village of Shyo, which is dominated by people belonging to the Tibetian stock. The Monpas have Mongoloid features. They are robustly built and are fair complexioned.
It may be mentioned that Tawang was an integral part of Tibet till the year 1951. Tawang was handed over to India on 21st February 1951. The Chinese occupied Tawang in the Sino-Indian War of 1962 but later on was again handed back to India. After Siachen, Tawang undoubtedly is one of the most strategic bases of the Indian Army. In the past, the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation with the two armies used to be a regular feature in this border town.
One of Tawang’s most enduring landmarks is the magnificent Tawang Monastery. This one-of-its-kind monastery is not only the principal place of the Buddhist congregation but is also linked intimately with the social fabric of the Monpa people. The official name of the Monastery is “Galden Namgyel Lhatse” and is easily the biggest Lamasery of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism.
This majestically fortified Gompa is well spread out over an area of 135 sq. meters. A visit to the premises of the Gompa reveals an intricate complex of residential edifices numbering around 65. The well-stocked library is replete with rare collections of old scriptures. This Gompa was built sometime in the 17th century A.D.
The monastery is located at an imposing height of 10,000 feet above sea level and houses more than 600 lamas. The monastery comes alive during the Monpa festivals. There is an exclusive courtyard inside the monastery where the main ceremonial functions are held.
The assembly hall is the cynosure of all eyes and is conspicuous by the colossal 8.3 meters high statue of Lord Buddha. Legend has it that in the year 1706, the then Chinese ruler – Kang Xi was cheated by one Lhazang Khan with the aim of deposing the 6th Dalai Lama. It is believed that during Lhazang Khan’s rule of Tibet, an army of invaders were sent to Tawang with the primary reason of capturing the kingdom of Bhutan. In their quest for supremacy, the Khan’s army completely ransacked the monastery of Urgelling, which was restored to its former glory by the Dalai Lama.
The colourful Monpa tribes that inhabit Tawang and its neighbouring areas are Tibetan Buddhist by religion. Even now, an impromptu visit to any of the surrounding villages of Tawang will reveal traces of “Shamanism” and pre-Buddhist “Bon” traditions.
In the present times, Tibet is under the occupation of the Chinese. Ever since 1950 the indigenous people of Tibet – “Tibetans” as they are popularly referred to, have spread out of Tibet primarily to escape the atrocities of the Chinese Army. Many have found asylum in affluent Western countries like the USA, UK, Canada, Australia etc….. where as a result of this migration of Tibetans, the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism has gained in popularity. So much so that in every major US cities like California, Los Angeles, New York etc…. there is a dedicated Tibetan Buddhist centre. The popularity of this particular form of Buddhism has been given a further boost by Hollywood stars of the stature of Richard Gere, Brad Pitt and co. openly embracing Tibetan Buddhism.
The best time to visit Tawang is during the Monpa festivals of “Losar” and “Torgya”. Check out with the Department of Tourism prior to your departure. Generally, the festival of “Losar” is celebrated at beginning of the New Year. Both these festivals are celebrated with gay abandon at the impressive Tawang Monastery.
To attract the attention of the discerning Global Tourists, the Government of Arunachal Pradesh has been celebrating festivals like the Buddha Mahotsava, Parasuram Kund Mela and Brahmaputra Darshan. There is also an exclusive “Festival of Arunachal” held every year on 20th February to celebrate the statehood that was conferred to the people of Arunachal Pradesh by the Government of India.
The essence of these festivals is to showcase the rich cultural tapestry of the people of Arunachal Pradesh. It is a sheer delight to observe the colourful song and dances of the various tribes of Arunachal Pradesh at these festivals. Each District of the state is provided with a full day in which to showcase its stunning array of cultural programs.
If you make it in time for the colourful Choskar festival, the scene of the village folks holding their religious scriptures and trudging along their cultivated fields under the supervision of a senior Lama makes for a truly surreal setting. There is a deep implication to this utterly strange phenomenon on the part of the Monpa tribes in that the procession is taken out so as to pray for a good harvest and for the all-around prosperity of the Monpas.
Apart from the usual Song & Dance programs, some new age entertainments like Food Festivals as well as Tribal Fashion Shows are an outright hit with the crowds who come from all over India and abroad.
A visit to the Bomdilla-Tawang tourist trail is not only about high mountain peaks and alpine forests. It is also about the fascinating Monpa tribes who have for centuries been the inhabitants of this region.
“No visit to Tawang is ever complete without a trip to a traditional Monpa village” is what my Master Expeditioner – Oken Tayeng’s take on the matter and so we embarked on the Monpa trail, diving headlong into a fascinating world of tribal culture.
A characteristic feature of a Monpa family is that it is patriarchal. They have for a long time attracted the attention of anthropologists in that they practice both Monogamy as well as Polygamy. They practice Mahayana Buddhism and a distinguishing feature of a Monpa household is the presence of altars with statues of Lord Buddha.
Their age-old tradition of offering water to the holy spirit in their small-sized cups and the ethereal scene of lighting butter lamps have captivated the hearts of a million tourists. Their belief in Buddhism is rock solid and if you can strike up a conversation in Hindi with an elderly Monpa, you will be mesmerized with their discourse on “Reincarnation of the soul”
I was told by Oken that their unique lifestyle has been a subject of great curiosity from anthropologists the world over. I met one Dr Anthony Pumpkin from the University of Minneapolis who had come to carry out research on the Monpa tribes of Tawang. He summed up the rich anthropological landscape of Arunachal thus –“As a researching Anthropologist, I have been fortunate to visit many exotic locations in the world but nowhere in the world have I found such a rich diversity of tribes. Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh will vie for the attention of the global anthropologists in the coming millennium”.WOW. Pure WOW!
The Monpas rather harmoniously complement their colourful lifestyle with their rich artistic inclinations. They are adept in weaving absolutely gorgeous carpets and designing wooden vessels that are unmatched by any other tribe in this part of the world.
Weaving in particular is the principal domain of the Monpa womenfolk. Their sense of embroidery would put to shame even the most high profile Fashion Designer. They weave magic with their needles and their sagacity in terms of colour combinations is something worth going miles to see. The designs are mostly geometric but there may be an aberration once in a while.
As far as the fine art of Carpet-weaving is concerned, the once with Dragons is by far the most popular with the tourists. In the days of yore, carpet weaving for the Monpa womenfolk used to be meant exclusively to meet the domestic requirements but given the unprecedented demand from the tourists, carpet weaving has today become a profitable cottage industry for many Monpa women.
When it comes to Wood carving, there are very few tribes that can match the Monpa women’s expertise. A wide range of utility items in the form of fruit bowls, cups, dishes as well as intricately designed masks exclusively meant for tribal dances is a part of the repertoire.
The Monpas are infinitely more eco-friendly than the most modern eco-tourist. An ample reflection of their sense of harmony with nature can be gauged from the fact that they use handmade papers extensively when it comes to the printing of religious hymns.
Please be informed that the Bomdilla-Tawang tourist trail is conspicuous by its mountainous topography. A vast majority of the tourist trail falls in the higher mountain zone. Conspicuous by their presence in the western Kameng region are the three imposing mountain chains – the awesome Sheela Range, the Bomdilla range and the Chaku range.
In terms of popularity as a tourist destination, Bomdilla has a lot of catching up to do with Tawang. Although, in terms of scenic beauty it is second to none. Visitors would do well to spend a minimum of 2 days at Bomdilla and explore the varied charms of this mountain town. It is perched at an imposing height of 8000 feet and on a nice and sunny day, one can bask in the uninterrupted sight of the snow-clad Eastern Himalayan ranges. Make it a point to visit the Bomdilla monastery as well as the Crafts Center.
Of World War II and Allied Aircraft Losses:
During the Second World War, the Allied soldiers lost hundreds of aircraft carriers, particularly in the China-Burma-India zone. The losses were mostly involving aircraft belonging to the US Air Force as also the British Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force.
According to Clayton Kuhles, a US citizen from Prescott, AZ who has been spearheading the search expeditions, most of the Allied crashes were caused by “inhospitable weather, mechanical failure, or navigational error”.
Kuhles is on a mission to recover the remnants of those long lost American airmen who took part in World War II. Apart from Burma, Bangladesh and China, his area of the search operation is the upper reaches of Arunachal Pradesh. On average, he has been able to unearth two MIA Aircraft per month.
Oken’s Abor Country Travels & Expeditions is actively assisting the US’s Dept. of Defence in finding and identifying U.S. fighter aircraft belonging to the World War II era.
He has single-handedly been unearthing the wreckage sites and reporting to the Joint POW / MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) of the US Dept. of Defense. He is hoping that in the foreseeable future the US Dept. of Defense would mount an investigative mission to each of the wreckage sites to recover any US remains that might be found here.
By this noble search mission, Kuhles is helping to bring about closure to the existing relatives and friends of those airmen who have for a long time been reported as “Missing in Action”.
Traveller’s Fact File:
From mainland India, one can reach Tawang from Guwahati and Tezpur in Assam. Guwahati the capital of the state of Assam is well connected by air, rail and road to the rest of India.
Leading airlines like Indian Airlines, Spice Jet etc… offer regular flights to Guwahati from Delhi and Mumbai.
Guwahati is also well connected by Rail and is linked to Delhi by Rajdhani Express, North East Express etc. There is also a direct Express Train linking Guwahati to Mumbai vis-à-vis the Dadar Express, Chennai by Coromandal Express, Calcutta by Kamrup Express and Saraighat Express.
From Guwahati, one can travel by road to Tezpur. Hired taxis and cabs are readily available at Guwahati airport as well as Guwahati Railway Station.
From Tezpur, one has to travel by road to Bomdilla via Bhalukpong, which can be covered in 6 hours. After a night halt at Bomdilla, one can reach Tawang in a matter of 5 to 6 hours.
Places in the North East like Guwahati and Tezpur in Assam have a plethora of decent hotels along with government-run Tourist Lodges. Bomdilla too is well served by private hotels as well as the government-run Tourist Lodge. At Tawang, there are a few good hotels that offer accommodation that is at best sketchy. A good option is the government-run Tourist Lodge.
For foreign tourists Protected Area Permit may be obtained from all Indian Missions abroad, Home Ministry, Govt. of India and Home Commissioners, Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh, Itanagar, for a period of 10 days for a group consisting of four or more persons.