Arunachal Pradesh, “the land of the dawn-lit-mountains”, is one of the last unspoilt wildernesses now under Indian colonial occupation. It is situated north of Assam extending eastwards from the high Himalaya near Bhutan towards Burma, with the mountains of Tibet away to the north. Scarcely any roads penetrate this vast state, formerly known as the North-East Frontier Agency (NEFA), whose new capital, Itanagar, is just across the border from Assam. Entering Arunachal, the road to Tawang runs through rugged hills, engulfed by virgin forests, with silver ribbons of rivers far below; a complete contrast to the denuded paddy bowls of Assam, though most of the Himalayan foothills must once have looked like this.
Only very recently have foreign tourists been permitted to visit Arunachal. This long-standing isolation is partly due to cultural considerations, and partly to political factors, as the border with the Chinese is still under dispute. The big attraction is the state’s dazzling array of flora and fauna, in a habitat that combines glacial terrain, alpine meadows and sub-tropical rainforests. Namdapha National Park, in the north east, is home to the rare Hoolock gibbon; other animals include the legendary snow leopard, tigers, musk deer, bears, panda and elephant, while Arunachal also abounds in bamboo and cherishes over 500 species of orchids.
The successive river valleys of Arunachal, separated by forbidding north-south ridges, enable distinct micro-cultures to flourish in what can be very small areas. The Monpas, who have a strong affinity with the Bhutanese, occupy the valleys north of Bomdila; their largest town, Dirang, with its dzong (fort), is just before the pass at Sela. Although they practise Buddhism, focussed around the great monastery of Tawang, they retain many of their original animist-shamanist beliefs. They are easily recognized by their dress – a chuba or short cloak, made of coarse wool dyed red with madder.
The Sherdukpens live south of the Bomdila Range, in the valleys of the Tengapani, and have close affinities with their Monpa neighbours. They wear distinctive gurdams, or yak’s hair skullcaps, from which jut tassel-like projections that serve as guttering – this part of Arunachal sees very heavy rainfall. Traditionally Sherdukpen men wear a sword in a scabbard tucked into their waist or on a strap. Although they have a reverence for lama-ism, their religious beliefs are a curious blend of Buddhism and shamanism, with jijis, or priests, practicing witchcraft to counteract malevolent spirits.
Further southeast are the Akas, literally “painted”, who paint their faces with resin and charcoal. East of Kameng, the menfolk of the sturdy hill people known as the Daflas wear a distinctive wicker helmet surmounted by the red-dyed beak of a hornbill. Protruding in front of their foreheads is a bun of plaited hair called podum, skewered horizontally with a large brass pin. The Daflas trace their descent from Abo Teni, a mythical primeval man, as do the neighbouring Apa Tanis, who thanks to the work of European anthropologists are the best known of all the tribal groups. Occupying a 26-square-kilometre stretch of hanging valley in the central region of Subansiri, the Apa Tanis are experts at terraced rice cultivation. They too wear a hat and podum on their foreheads but do not sport the distinguishing yellow ribbon of the Daflas; both men and women tattoo their faces.
ITANAGAR – The town of Itanagar, just under 400 km northeast of Guwahati, has been developed as the capital of the state largely because of its convenient location, and holds little to interest visitors. It is built on a saddle overlooked by two hills, one occupied by the Governor’s house and the other by a new Buddhist temple; new lightweight earthquake-proof houses mingle with older traditional structures, a market and offices. Facilities are shared with its twin town, Naharlagun, 10km away in the Assam Valley.
Consecrated by the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist temple reflects the extensive Tibetan influence in this frontier land, and provides good views of Itanagar and the surrounding countryside. An extensive ethnographic collection devoted to local tribes in the Jawaharlal Nehru State Museum includes wood carvings, musical instruments, textiles, handicrafts and archeological finds (Tues-Sat 9.30am-5pm; Rs1), while a workshop in the Handicrafts Centre specializes in traditional cane manufacture. The adjacent salesroom sells tribal handicrafts. The emerald Gyaker Sinyi (Ganga Lake), 6km away, is surrounded by primeval vegetation, providing a small taste of the magnificent forests of the state.