THE SPUR THAT CAUSED me to familiarise myself with the easternmost province of the Himalaya was sheer ignorance. I had been compiling a quiz book of the entire Himalaya but when it came to posing 100 questions about Arunachal I could only come up with two — the name of the capital (Itanagar) and the name of the Brahmaputra (Dihang). Actually the second was wrong (it should be Siang!) but this appalling lack of knowledge about one of the most intriguing parts of the range made me seek a remedy. Luck was on my side in that inner line permits for tourists in October 1994 were issued to coincide with my arrival from Tezpur at the western border post of Bhalukpong. As with Nepal the administrative districts of Arunachal follow the dividing flow of the rivers and one's first impression of the new state (formerly the North East Frontier Agency) was of the unspoilt beauty of the Kameng river. The complicated tribal equation that results in some 26 separate languages can hardly be noted in a three-week tour let alone digested but wherever I went I was bowled over by the courtesy and hospitality of the local people.

Owing to the lack of cross-country communications the visitor on motorbike has to make return journeys to the plains of Assam and then re-enter Arunachal through other border posts. In the easternmost parts where several mighty rivers mingle, the roads come in for severe mauling from floods, and ferries are necessary to see you through.

I was helped in my planning by Romesh Bhattacharji who had covered most of these routes on government duty. He also told me about the Indian Air Force sorties that fly civilians to forward areas from Dibrugarh. This would have given a fabulous overview of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra but unfortunately I lacked the time to sit and wait while the weather improved. From Delhi I put my bike on the train to Guwahati and then drove across the Brahmaputra to Tezpur.

It is a pleasant day's drive from Bhalukpong to Bomdila where the visitor is plunged into a dramatic initiation of Arunachal's mind-blowing flora. At the Teepee orchidarium just outside Bhalukpong you see the marvellously rich variety of growth in these pristine jungles. All the tribesmen wear long knives at their waists and when you pass the impenetrable bamboo jungles you understand why. Bamboo is the presiding plant and you find it growing high on the Sela, the pass over to the Tawang valley which I did next day in pouring rain. Although there are few tourist facilities in Arunachal a permit allows the visitor to stay in the inspection bungalows along the way.

Tawang monastery makes a fine sight across the Sela though it lies a few hours away by a steeply spiralling road. Arriving as I did in the afternoon the clouds had billowed up to block out the peaks but I was shown a valley leading out of Jang where an expedition from Darjeeling had recently set foot.1 Unfortunately I couldn't avail of the freedom to drive around the exhilarating border roads of Tawang owing to a petrol shortage. But the monastery was fabulous and the local Monpas the nearest to a Shangrila population I have met. As a collector of Himalayan headgear I was fascinated to see both men and women sporting a black star-shaped hair-style that appeared to be the result of a high-voltage perm. In fact it was a very pricey hat made from yak wool and to confirm it I met a young lama walking back to Bhutan with a rucksack full of these original hats. (Apparently they keep the head warm and drain off the rain in five different directions.) Another of the lasting impressions of the tribals of Arunachal is their muscularity. Most dress largely above the thighs so that the lower parts give off an athleticism that quells any would-be argumentative visitor.


  1. See note in this issue. – ed.


The further east I drove the more truculent the tribes appeared to become and at Pangin (where the road from Along hits the Brahmaputra i.e. Siang) is a memorial to British administrators who fell foul of tribal suspicions. The self-sufficiency of the tribes has enabled them to stand aloof from the empires of East and West though now the motor roads (which are excellently maintained) have ended the isolation.

Back in Tezpur my second foray was to Itanagar which reminded me of Chandigarh, an overrated bureaucratic watering hole, conspicuously nondescript. From there I rode to the most interesting part of Arunachal in cultural terms, the Apa Tani plateau. From Ziro a pleasant hill station of thatched bamboo huts, the road plunged down to Darorijo through the most astoundingfy lush jungle leading to the Subansiri valley. As scruffy as any hill parav anywhere in the Himalaya the bazaar in Daporijo sold local textiles most beautifully woven. Here I had a knife made to keep up with the macho-Joneses.

The winding road across to Along brought one to the impact of the plains on hill life. The villages on their bamboo stilts were bigger but all around the land was eroded and colossal evidence of clear-felling of jungle jarred the view. I was also to see tribal religion during a procession at Along and the modern tendency to ape more sophisticated faiths by the construction of temples has divided the generations. As a compromise the temples are used only as meeting halls and the original animistic impulse to worship Donye Polo (Sun and Moon) directly is encouraged. I was surprised by the degree of sophistication with which the tribal faith was followed. Great regard is shown to the hereditary priests who wander like shamans in the jungle learning the mysteries of life. Also wandering sometimes in front of your motorbike are the sacred mithun, the semi-wild bovines that mean as much in the Arunachal pecking order as an American Express credit card in city life.

The highlight of my arrival at Pangin was to enjoy the majesty of the Brahmaputra all the way down to Pasighat where she leaves the hills. Not even a puncture on that section could diminish the grandeur of this river. And to complete my geography lesson I caught the ferry from Pasighat to Dibrugarh and passed the great but anonymous confluence of the Siang with the Lohit and Dibang in Assam, where the name Brahmaputra is used. However the sacred source of the river lies upstream where the Lohit emerges from the hills and turning the bike towards Tezo the easternmost district town of Arunachal I managed to reach this Brahmakund where Hindus aver that the Brahmaputra rises. Oddly this area is populated by Buddhists from Burma and Thailand and I was astonished to see Thai stupas gracefully interspersing the broad acres of paddy.

I suspect nowhere else in the world does the student of comparative religion find such a happy hunting ground as Arunachal. Not only does it host Tibetan Buddhism but that of the smaller vehicle followed in South East Asia. Both Hindu and Christian missionaries are active but the independent spirit of the tribes suggests that their own Donye Polo cult will continue to thrive with borrowings from both. Islam is the odd man out in these tracts largely because of the tribal enthusiasm for pork and liquor.

The mountaineering challenges of Arunachal are exciting but because of the sensitivity of the MacMahon Line it is likely the only expeditions to be allowed will be joint ventures led by Indian climbers. Logistics remain a problem in the central and eastern areas, but for the west one can catch a daily bus from Tezpur that, incredibly, runs the whole year round to Tawang.


A visit by the author to the lower hills of Arunachal Pradesh in October 1994.


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