Mysterious Arunachal Pradesh

By GRAHAM SIMMONS, The Star, Dec 1, 2007

Discover the hidden wonders of this remote north-eastern Indian state

Arunachal Pradesh, India -- Visiting an unspoiled place has its risks. To be the first spoiler could be just a little too much for the conscience to handle. So, the visitor has to keep a low profile, attempting the impossible task of noticing without being noticed.

<< A local Monpa lady at a roadside mani (prayer wheel) near Lumla

In the village of Singchung in Arunachal Pradesh, a remote north-eastern state of India, I met up with Ratan Subha, who teaches English and computer skills.

“I’ve never seen another foreigner in Singchung,” he said. “But I met a group of Canadians in Dirang town a couple of years ago.” 

The 1,000 residents of Singchung eke out a living from farming the rocky slopes all around the village, while dice games and whisky help to while away the evenings. They also fondly recall the visit of the Dalai Lama to the village in 2003.

But sadly, Singchung has been through tough times. In 1962, the Chinese invaded Arunachal Pradesh, over-running the major town of Bomdila and getting as far south as Singchung. Here they stayed for over two months. 

“Fortunately, they did no real harm,” says Subha. “All they wanted from us was a little maize and chillies and a lot of rice wine.”

Further along the road, I encountered at Jaswantgarh a memorial to the legendary Lieutenant Jaswant Singh, who (so it is said) single-handedly held off the Chinese invaders near the 4,150m high Sela Pass. 

“But what you’ll see at Jaswantgarh is only half the story,” says Subha. “In fact, Jaswant was betrayed by the people of the nearby Jang village. When Jaswant’s assistant Sela heard that he’d been captured by the Chinese, she jumped from the cliffs to her death. That’s how Sela Pass got its name.”

This was just the first of many mysteries surrounding people, places and events in Arunachal Pradesh. The name “Arunachal” comes from the words Aruna, meaning “the first ray of sunlight” and Achal, meaning “mountain”. 

A prayer wheel at the Gorsam Stupa  >>

To a visitor like myself, getting across the border from Assam into Arunachal in the first place felt like the first ray of hope after having climbed a bureaucratic mountain just to get here (see sidebar for permit requirements).

My guides to the wonders of Arunachal Pradesh were Wangchu and Zangmo, newlyweds who somehow seem to relish the chance to be on the road. Their enthusiasm for explaining their local culture soon became infectious. Maybe their newlywed status accounted for Wangchu’s relatively sedate driving – unlike the rest of his countrymen who seem to have learned their skills by crashing cars in a video-games parlour. 

Along the road from the Bhalukpong border post, the Indian military presence in Arunachal Pradesh was overwhelming. The Ball of Fire division is one of the crack elites keeping the Chinese hordes at bay, a full 43 years after the Chinese invasion of north-east India. But there is already a railway line in place from eastern Assam to China, which needs only to be restored to its pre-World War II condition, so it seems strange that the world’s two most populous nations have not managed to get cross-border trade happening. In these elevated climes, it seems that the Cold War is taking unusually long to thaw.

The village of Rupa is an important hub to the local Sherdukpen People. Somewhat incongruously located next to an army base is the Guru Rinpoche Independence Park, commemorating the renowned teacher (a. k. a. Guru Padmasambhava) who brought Buddhism to this region in the ninth century. A roadside picture of Guru Rinpoche totally dominates the approaches to the village. 

Rupa is also home to the outstanding Pema Chholing Monastery, established by the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. It would have been nice to have met the head Lama, the reputedly charismatic Kunzang Dechen Lingpa, but I was told that he was away teaching in the US.

This is especially true if you’re talking about Monpa whisky.
Lining the road into Bomadila, prayer flags flutter in the gale force breeze, dispensing their felicitous solicitations to passers-by. Bomadila itself, at an altitude of 2,591m, tumbles down the mountainside as though the ground has suddenly dropped away to one side of town.

From Bomadila through to Tawang, the locals belong to the Monpa tribal group. They live in houses made of either mud layered on bamboo, or more substantial stone buildings. The Monpa are renowned for their happy disposition; this is due not least to their copious imbibing of rice wine. The average villager starts the morning with a glass of rice wine – the near undrinkable bangchhang or the tastier distilled version ara – and proceeds to get progressively more plastered throughout the day. 

The town of Dirang is an important administrative centre near the border of West Kameng and Tawang districts. An impressive structure near Dirang is the Palyu Jangchub monastery, also belonging to the Nyingma order. The town itself is great for just walking around – or take a trip out of town to the Dirang hot springs (with totally trashed changing rooms). 

Past the town Dirang, the road starts to climb steeply heading up to the Sela Pass. Along the way, the Hotel Samjhana offers the best food on the road, as evidenced by the big crowd of truckies eating there. Two Monpa ladies make their way along the roadside, one of them helping her drunken friend out of the gutter – and it’s only two o’clock in the afternoon!

Coming from the plains and 35° temperatures, I was unprepared for the biting cold of Sela Pass. At 4,150m high, Sela Pass is said to be the second-highest motorable road in the world – but that is of little comfort to an idiot who had failed to bring along sufficiently warm clothing. 

And here’s another mystery – how is it that the Border Roads Organisation, responsible for maintaining the roads at these heady heights, is known by the name Vartak? In the local Monpa language, a Vartak is the lowest of the low – a person responsible for dismembering and disposing of the corpses of those whose lives were particularly evil. I was just hoping that fate was not about to deliver me into the hands of the Monpa Vartaks.

At Jaswantgarh stands the previously-mentioned memorial to Jaswant Singh, of the famed fourth Garhwal Regiment. But, as foretold by Subha, there is nary a mention of Sela or her companion Mudang, both heroic local Monpa women who are accorded a far greater place in local legend than in the official Indian Government records. 

Tawang town, high on a hilltop at around 3,200m above sea-level, makes the sea-lubber just a little breathless. There are correspondingly breathtaking views over Tawang Monastery, which is said to be the world’s second-largest Buddhist monastery (after Lhasa’s Potala). Guests at the new Tawang Inn can enjoy six-star vistas over the monastery and surrounding mountains.

Our getting to Lake Pankang Teng Tso (aka PTSO) came as another mystery. The lake lies on the strictly off-limits Tawang-Lhasa road (which also bears the intriguing signpost “Beijing 4,306km”). The guard was as stony-faced as the mountains all around; but his demeanour later changed. 

“Go and see the police commissioner and get a road permit,” he said. 

An hour later, armed with a laboriously handwritten permit, we were on our way.

Lake PTSO, at over 4,100m, has an ethereal beauty that entrances the many Tawang residents who picnic there. Further along the same road is the famous Taktsang Monastery, founded by Guru Padmasambhava in the eighth Century. But despite my pleas to pay a visit, Wangchu demurred. 

“The road past PTSO Lake is no good,” he said. “And in any case, the monastery is currently under reconstruction.”

But all was not lost. Our trip to Zemithang, in Pangchen Monpa territory in the far north-east of Arunachal Pradesh, was to yield more mysteries than an extraterrestrial sleuth could ever hope to unravel. Dan Brown, of Da Vinci Code fame, would have had a field-day here.

Surprisingly, an extra permit is not required to visit Zemithang, despite lying just 12km from the India/Bhutan/Tibet triangular border. Near Zemithang village, Gorsam Stupa is an extraordinary structure – a replica of the Swayambunath Temple in Kathmandu and of two similar stupas in Bhutan and Kham (eastern Tibet). Completely dominating a river valley, its eyes seem to penetrate the most hidden depths of the soul.

“This whole region was once a beyul, one of the 108 sacred places specially chosen by Guru Padmasambhava,” explains Pema Yeshi Gyamo, a schoolteacher in Zemithang village. 

“The whole of Pangchen was a special place, where nature yielded everything without anyone needing to work. The people were called beymir, meaning ‘citizens of Shangri-la’.”

Pema Yeshi proceeded to show us the stone throne of the legendary demon Queen Hashang, hidden deep in the forest near Zemithang. According to a famous Tibetan opera, the Queen wreaked her fury upon her husband King Kala Wangpo upon his taking a second wife (Drowa Sangmo), but was finally vanquished in the sacred land of Pemachen. Whether Pangchen and Pemachen are the same place is beyond my competence to answer.

Pema Yeshi also pointed out a sacred lake, Lake Beluktsi-Sor, inhabited by a naga (serpent-being) that has to be placated every now and again. 

“Seven generations ago, the naga came out of the lake and gave a precious stone to one of our villagers. The stone is still being worn by Mrs Dorjee Chhon of Medpaye village, up on that ridge over there”, he says, pointing to a seemingly inaccessible hilltop hamlet. 

I never did get to meet Mrs Chhon. I rationalised this total dereliction of duty by the fact that it would have taken a half-day’s walk to get there. But Lake Beluktsi-Sor holds other mysteries, too. A recent visitor was a locally revered Tibetan lama, T. G. Rinpoche, who is now also the Tourism Minister of Arunachal Pradesh. 

During a drought a couple of years ago, T.G. Rinpoche visited the lake, performed a certain ceremony, and (so they say) the region was subsequently drenched with rain.

I was still scratching my head over all this. But Arunachal Pradesh offers more than just riddles. Alongside the all-pervasive mystery and magic of the place, the visitor is liable to be completely won over by the kindness of people here, who give of themselves and expect nothing in return. 

And would the locals like to see an influx of tourists, or do they think that tourism would spoil Arunachal Pradesh? 

“We would like more and more tourists,” said one local. “We can learn a lot from them.” 

So, maybe I wasn’t spoiling an unspoiled place, after all. In any case, who are the spoilers and who are the spoiled? Whatever the truth, Arunachal Pradesh is now spoiling to share its hidden wonders with a modest number of visitors from across the globe.

Getting there

Thai Airways flies regularly to Kolkata (Calcutta) via Bangkok. Alliance Air flies Kolkata to Tezpur (Assam) on Tuesday and Saturday. From Tezpur, Himalayan Holidays can organise onward arrangements, or, alternately, hire a taxi with driver (around Rs 1,500 (RM125) a day including fuel) or catch one of the regular buses provided by the Arunachal Pradesh State Transport Service. Tezpur can also be reached by bus from Guwahati which has daily flights and trains to Calcutta and Delhi.

WHERE TO STAY The following provides meals: 

# Dirang Resort Hotel: +91 3780 242352

# Tourist Lodge (in Bomdila): +91 3782 222049

# Tawang Inn, +91 3794 224096, between Nehru Market and the Old Market in Tawang, is so new that the signboards haven’t gone up yet. Top service. 

# The Inspection Bungalow (in Zemithang), high on a hill overlooking the village, is good value at Rs300 (RM25) per person, per night. Rooms have heating and hot water, and meals can be supplied. Chances are, you’ll have the whole place to yourself.

PERMITS The permit situation is rapidly changing, but at present, a restricted area permit is still needed to visit Arunachal Pradesh. This can be issued either to married couples or a group of four or more. Apply at least a month in advance through your nearest Indian consulate. The permit is issued for a maximum of 10 days, but can be extended (with some difficulty) for a further 10 days while in Arunachal Pradesh. Contact Himalayan Holidays for further advice: Himalayan Holidays, ABC Bldg., Main Market, Bomdila, Arunachal Pradesh, India 790 001, tel: +91 3782 222017 (Mr Wange), fax: +91 3782 223191/223159, or visit

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