Published: July 9th 2008June 17th 2008
The road to Bomdila
Buses that evade and roads that vanish. A fall from this height leaves no trace other than a tombstone on the spot of the accident.
Dileep Muktan pulled over his car at Bhalukpong, where soldiers watched over every vehicle entering Arunachal Pradesh. After the driver entered his name and car number in the register, the army clerk inspected our inner-line permits. All clean. Two shops farther, a liquor shop awaits us. Arunachal Pradesh was the cheapest of all our destinations, when it came to foreign liquor. But what bowled us over was the ingenious brew called rakshi, lower in price but higher in spirit.
After chasing a bus which left us at a roadside dhaba in Orang and fleeing from a group of rickshahwallahs in Tezpur last night, we terribly needed a drink. We fix it in the speeding car, reminiscing our nocturnal adventure. We were sipping lal tea (black tea) at the dhaba when the conductor smiled at us and went out. Even as the waiter assured us that the bus won’t start till every passenger finished dinner, the engine revved up. Before we could wash our hands the bus resumed its journey to Tezpur, with our bags.
As the boys tried to console us that it was the first time such a thing happened, the dhaba manager phoned the local police station,
When a lens sparked off a celebration.
which was on the bus route. We saw where we were stranded. Blocks of paddy fields revealed in the lightning. The road from Guwahati to Tezpur stretched from darkness to darkness. Then the bus came back. The four seats were still empty and the conductor, despite being chided by the cops, still on a high.
Roadblocks continued even after we reached Tezpur at midnight. We sought shelter at a dingy lodge near the bus stand. When I woke up in the morning, I had a vague memory of someone knocking at our door to see if we wanted to go to Bomdila. The first vehicle had gone. Nobody at the bus station knew if there was a bus to Bomdila. One must have left in the morning, some say. There is no bus at all, others say. We waited till 9.30 am for an Arunachal Pradesh Transport Corporation bus which never arrived. Finally, we left the plains of Assam for the hills of Arunachal in Dileep’s car.
While we were waiting at the army checkpoint at Bhalukpong, an APTC bus from Itanagar to Bomdila arrived, via Tezpur. The state capital is not directly connected to this godforsaken place.
Kumari ki maa
Stranded in jungle, living by the highway, two sisters and their offsprings.
Bomdila and Tawang are tucked inside green mountains and hidden in mist for most of the year, especially when it rains or snows. Shared taxis are the only mode of conveyance for the local people, who rarely leave their hamlets. Very few wait for buses which hold daily trips from Guwahati and Itanagar.
Tezpur is the last stop in Assam before venturing into the most inhospitable hills of Arunachal Pradesh. From Bhalukpong, about 50 km from Tezpur, the winding ascent begins. Nechiphu, Tenga, Bomdila, Dhirang, Sengi, Sela, Jung and finally Tawang, famed for its 400-year-old Buddhist monastery. The Kameng River, which joins the Brahmaputra near Tezpur, originates somewhere on the Chinese border. It has named the two districts flanking it, West Kameng and East Kameng. Our first destination, Bomdila, is the headquarters of West Kameng district.
Within minutes, Arunachal revealed its exotic features. An angel with black wings. The tribesman has a long knife in a bamboo sheath tied to his waist. The wings of the man seem to be made of yak wool. Most of the tribal myths credit the origin of species to mysterious eggs. It’s natural to envy and emulate birds in these inaccessible heights.
Migrant labourers from Nepal keep the roads motorable in this season of rain, slush and landslides.
The red river flows on a rocky bed between green hills. We got bored of waterfalls. “In Cherrapunjee, you have to pay to see waterfalls,” Dileep says. We admit we did. The idyllic sights don’t last. Mist embraces everything. Whenever the veil lifted to reveal the green hills and blue valleys beyond them, we force Dileep to stop the car. He is in a hurry. If bandits were to be feared in the Assam plains at night, landslides are a greater danger on this hill path. Traces of landslides scar the hills, like dried-up waterfalls.
We had been warned of the rash driving on the treacherous road to Tawang. To experience it was another thing. These guys didn’t even bother to honk at the turnings. A couple of times our car screeched to safety on the face of another careless vehicle. Negotiating a sharp curve, Dileep explained the stone slabs put up at the edge of the cliff. Once a vehicle falls into the endless depth, there is no recovery. A tombstone can be erected at the spot of the accident.
(The clerk had noted down only Prem’s name and he shortened Prem Udayabhanu to P U
Circle of life
Infants, secured to their mothers' backs, go in endless circles around the lower monastery in Bomdila.
Bhanu. The rest of us would be the unknown travellers in an epitaph beginning ‘In Loving Memory of…’ The memorials of the known and unknown travellers don’t seem to frighten our driver in the least.)
The entire route is a memorial to the Chinese aggression of 1962, when columns of military flowed into what was then NEFA (North East Frontier Agency). After weeks of siege, the People’s Army retreated, releasing Bomdila and Tawang. Indian Army, recouping from its most humiliating moment, has spread all over the state bordering Bhutan, China and Myanmar, with its military bases. Military trucks are no longer the menacing presence we have been facing since the landing in Guwahati. We get used to it like the people of these states threatened by insurgency and foreign aggression and its natural corollary - military might.
At Saiddle Point, 5100 feet above sea level, we are almost acclimatised to landslides and soldiers. We have crossed half a dozen roadblocks caused by nature’s fury. Border Roads Organisation, the government agency which keeps the hills connected, is quick to react to roadblocks. The engineers supervise labourers breaking up boulders, chopping off trees and shoveling away mud. On the next
The cloud-capped hills of Arunachal Pradesh.
bend in the road, a Nepali migrant girl dresses a wound on a young jawan’s chin and laughs at a joke by his comrade.
The labourers have set up their shacks on the rubbles lining the road, prone to more landslides. But it is a daily business to them. Women with infants tied to their back work on the road, each thrust of the shovel rocking the baby on the back. Children are there too, unaware of the government notices in roadside dhabas banishing child labour.
We are fortunate enough not to get stuck in landslides, Dileep says. But soon luck ran out. The Tata Indica hit its bottom against a muddy bumpy stretch in the road. While Sreekanth helped the driver inspect the vehicle, I drift away. Labourers playing cards, boys revelling under a waterfall, and finally a settlement. I asked if there was a tea shop around and was told by an old woman (old women don’t have names, she said.) that they had only country liquor to drink. Soon children gathered around me, posing for the camera. I was about to ask for a glass of rakshi when I heard a car coming. If I were a second late in coming out of the hut and shouting at my fellow travellers, I would have been lost in this forest highway.
Dileep is in a hurry. His car is acting up. We have to reach the nearest settlement with a garage before it breaks down. We are again travelling parallel to the river. From high hills we descend to a valley occupied by the army. Indian Army’s IV Corps, in charge of the Chinese frontier, has set up its bases all along the green vale. Soldiers keep an eye on the road. Tenga Valley is the divisional HQ of the IV Corps. The Ball of Fire Mountain Division, guarding the McMohan Line, is based in the valley.
The car is judged unfit to climb the hills to Bomdila, just 20 kilometres away. Dileep hands over the baton to Sanjay, a boy who avers he has a driving licence. The Maruti Omni gets us on target with frightening speed. We check into a hotel, where we relish the best chicken momos we ever ate. Local boys and girls employed in the hotel make us feel at home. They cooked us excellent food and guided us on where to roam around in the hill town.
It’s hardly five in the evening but darkness falls. So does the chill. The jackets and caps are no longer unwanted baggage. Upper monastery is four kilometers away. So we follow the chants to the lower monastery. Gesge Ngawang Tashi Bapu aka Lama Tashi, nominated for the Grammy Award in 2005 for his album, Tibetan Master Chants, comes from Bomdila monastery. Little monks in red robes throng the gompa (Buddhist temple). They circle the gompa holding the hands of bigger girls from the town. An ascetic is not necessarily a recluse.
Inside the gompa, which smells of incense and butter candles, girls are cleaning up the remnants of the offerings. The cylindrical prayer wheels turn perennially, powered by endless caresses of the chanters. A senior monk keeps count of his chants on a bead chain. As I approach him to ask something he crosses his index fingers over his lips and points to another monk. The ascetic’s vow of silence, however, does not hamper the playful monks and their friends. The gompa is like a town square, where the youth gather in the evening under the watchful eyes of the Buddha.
After a day of crossing military installations, we feel liberated in the serene air of the gompa, where young monks crack jokes and tease each other. It was dark. Outside, armed policemen were forcing the shop owners to go home. After years - perhaps the first time in recollected life - I went to bed at 7 pm.