The Arunachal Odyssey - 3 Weeks in India's vastly Diverse & stunningly Beautiful State

Saturday, November 25, 2017


Nuranang Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the country
{ Nuranang Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the country }

Arunachal Pradesh, India’s frontier state, sharing border with our hyper aggressive neighbour, China, that often claims that a part or whole of it belongs to them, is stunningly beautiful and bewitchingly diverse. With more than 85% of the land under forest cover, it comes as no surprise that Arunachal Pradesh fosters incredibly rich biodiversity and looks like a land where humans forgot to plunder. Home to 26 major tribes and several subtribes, it is also one of the last tribal states to retain much of its ancient animistic religion. Even though Christianity is slowly making inroads into this wild frontier, the tribal culture is largely intact making it an interesting time to visit; It’s a state in flux where the past is fast catching up with the present.

On invitation from Arunachal Pradesh Tourism Department, I spent the past few weeks in what’s turning out to be my favorite state in all of India. From the Himalayan highlands of Tawang to the dense jungles of Siang, it’s been quite a journey. Here’s a quick glimpse of what I saw before I tell you more in detail about how Arunachal consistently delivers when it comes to travel that invigorates your mind, body and soul.


Tawang - The Land of Monpas and countless Lakes
Madhuri Lake aka Shungetsar Lake in Tawang
Madhuri Lake aka Shungetsar Lake in Tawang

The most famous region of Arunachal thanks to a brilliant stroke of luck and Bollywood, Tawang is the state’s only beacon of tourism as of now. Wild beauty is not unique to Tawang but tourism infrastructure set in place surely is. So it was perhaps a good decision to start our odyssey from this place of comfort before we were thrown into the heady hinterlands of Arunachal.

What started as a mild amusement snowballed into full-blown fascination by the time we were out of Tawang. The thing that intrigued me most was the number of lakes dotting this high-altitude landscape. I learnt much later that Tawang is one of the state’s biodiversity hotspot supporting a wide range of high altitude flora and fauna. On our way to Madhuri Lake (made famous by a prancing Madhuri Dixit in the 90s movie Koyla) and Bum La, the high altitude pass that witnessed the historic crossing of His Holiness the Dalai Lama into India in 1959, we saw countless lakes and ponds of all sizes right by the roadside. It was surreal to be in a landscape blessed with incredible natural beauty yet be marred by human presence in the form of several army settlements because of ever-running high tensions with our volatile neighbour. It seemed we just scraped the surface now but I’d love to come back again for deeper travels.

BumLa, a pass on the Indo-China border in Tawang
The road to BumLa, a pass on the Indo-China border in Tawang

Monpa tribe in picturesque Shinup village
Grandfather-grandson duo of the Monpa tribe in picturesque Shinup village

Yellow-roofed Tawang Monastery
Yellow-roofed Tawang Monastery

Also read - The remote Lake that was made famous by Bollywood

*****

Seppa - The Land of Nyishis and unchartered Mountains
Dramatic sunset over the hills in East Kameng district
Dramatic sunset over the hills in East Kameng district

If I have to pick one place that blew my mind on this trip, it’d have to be Seppa. Only because this detour literally came at me out of nowhere and swept me off my feet. I’ve seen a fair bit of Arunachal in my earlier three visits to be vaguely familiar with the lay of the land and the landscapes within. But driving to Seppa from Tawang opened a new region altogether, one where serpentine rivers meander through deep valleys of immeasurable beauty, flanked by mountains covered in unyielding jungles.

A stronghold of Nyishis, the fierce tribe of Arunachal that’s also the largest ehtnic group in the state, East Kameng district is full of sylvan villages and fascinating people living with a rich folklore full of legends of haunted waterfalls and hallowed forests. Seppa is perhaps the only big town in this remote corner, which became our base for visiting few Nyishi villages. Although our visit was rushed and only skin-deep, that thrill of visiting a place about which Google couldn’t throw hits back at us was deeply enthralling. Remote, demanding and difficult to explore on your own; that’s East Kameng for you but it is also a region ripe with phenomenal possibilities for the adventurous.

Nyishi men showing the warrior stance, Seppa
Nyishi men showing the warrior stance, Seppa

Welly house family standing on the porch
The family at Welly House, the largest house in the valley

Lush greenery of Papu Valley in Seppa
Lush greenery of Papu Valley in Seppa

Also read - A fierce tribe with a soft heart?

*****

Ziro - The Land of Apatanis and boundless Hopsitality
Sunset over Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh
Sunset over Ziro Valley, Arunachal Pradesh

Arriving in Ziro after the wretched cold of Tawang and the bone-breaking roads of Seppa was like the welcome warmth of a burning hearth inside an Apatani home. I have incredibly warm memories of Apatani hospitality from my earlier visit and I was only glad to have returned again. But unlike the festival time where houses are buzzing with friends and family, winter was a quieter time to be in Ziro. Young people were back in their city homes and old dwellers were busy with tending to their farms. Irrespective of the lack of acitivity unlike my earlier visit, I still enjoyed the warm Apatani hospitality in our limited encounters. I’m going to go out on a limb here and proclaim Apatanis are perhaps the warmest and most welcoming tribe in all of Arunachal Pradesh.

Between wandering the villages and hinterlands, the most memorable day in Ziro came in the form of an initially unplanned hike to Pange Valley, an Apatani style picnic with chicken barbeque amidst gorgeous forests of Talle Valley Widlife Sanctuary. (More on it soon on the next blog.)

An afternoon amidst Bamboo groves, Ziro
An afternoon amidst Bamboo groves, Ziro

Armadillo armour on wall inside an Apatani Home
Armadillo armour on wall inside an Apatani Home

Apatani women
Apatani women, separated by few generations between them

Also read - The Ziro Problem

*****

Siang - The Land of Adi Minyong and prettiest Villages
Bamboo Bridge over Siang, central Arunachal
Bamboo Bridge over Siang, central Arunachal

After a little over than 2 weeks in Arunachal, after having seen so many different cultures and fascinating landscapes, after having broken down due to exhaustion and sleeplessness, it takes a certain kind of magic to still manage to enthrall you. And that was Boleng to us, an Adi Minyong settlement in Siang distrcit of Arunachal Pradesh.

Situated bang on the banks of a deep blue Siang river, Boleng is a rather large town with a hidden settlement feel to it. We spent our days attending a welcome ceremony put together by an entire village for us, discussing their animistic religion, visiting old Shamans and marveling at the clearest nightskies we had seen on the entire trip so far. For this next proclamation, I do not have to go out on a limb because I am so sure of it - that Adi Minyong villages are the prettiest of all villages in Arunachal Pradesh. Made entirely out of wood, bamboo and other trees, Adi Minyong villages are basically clusters of thatched-roof houses built of raised platforms, delicately perched on mountain slopes with as much grace as supermodels on a ramp.

Adi Minyong Tribesmen in their warrior attire
Adi Minyong Tribesmen in their warrior attire

Terraced fields in Central Arunachal
Terraced fields in Central Arunachal

Siang River near Boleng village
Siang River near Boleng village

Also read: Feast with Arunachal's Adi Tribe: A Lesson in Sustainable Living

*****

With that, the 3-week Arunachal Odyssey ended for us. Charting a route from the west to the central part of the state, we barely scratched the surface of the enigma that Arunachal is. But this only has strengthened my resolve to spend even more days in the land of rising sun in future. And I’m saying this after concluding a fourth visit to the state, that should give you an idea of how endlessly fascinating this remote frontier state is!

Note: I travelled to Arunachal Pradesh #OnAssignment, my travel was sponsored by the tourism department.

Come along with me, on a virtual journey! Find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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4 comments

  1. Wow.. Arunachal (if I go by your pictures) is truly beautiful Neelima. I had planned out a trip to Arunachal earlier this year, but it got cancelled as I fell sick. Hopefully, 2018 takes me there..

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  2. Lovely style of narration, the stunning pics add to the narrative! Enjoyed, now have to act on it

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  3. I've been to Arunachal Pradesh just once and I returned feeling a lot like you've just expressed ... so I can only imagine what four trips to this gorgeous state would be like!

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  4. Wow, what a beautiful locations in Arunachal Pradesh!!!. Wonderful narration. Thank you for putting this together Neelima!.

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