Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains: A Journey Across Arunachal Pradesh — India’s Forgotten Frontier (Simon & Schuster, United Kingdom, 2017, 384 pages)
Located in the far north-eastern end of India, the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh sees the first rays of the morning sun in the country; thus the name, “the land of the dawn-lit mountains.” Lately, the state has been a point of contention in the often lukewarm Indo-China foreign relations. The political dispute between the two neighbours started with the creation of the McMahon line in 1914 that formed the border between India and Tibet. China, to this day, rejects the McMahon line. Both the countries stake their claim on the state to such as an extent that they include the state in their respective official government maps: China refers to it as South Tibet, while in India’s map, it is Arunachal Pradesh. The diplomatic faceoff flares up occasionally; the most recent one was when China objected to the defence minister of India’s visit to Arunachal on November 5, 2017. Nirmala Sitharaman, the defence minister, dismissed China’s objection and reiterated that the north-eastern state is a part of India.
A Region of Conflict
The Chinese issue is not the only one that has shaped the frontier state in the far north-eastern part of India. Innumerable insurgent groups and liberation fronts have persistently caused disturbances since independence. Most of these groups had spilled over into Arunachal Pradesh from the Naga insurgency in the neighbouring state of Nagaland. A lot of these groups, which have been factions of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland, used and still use Arunachal Pradesh and the forests surrounding the state as a transit zone to gain access to their hideouts in Myanmar.
Over the years, the number of insurgency cases have dwindled in the state due to proactive action from the armed forces and police. Yet Arunachal Pradesh and the entire North-eastern region have since quite a long time been regions of conflict and disturbances in popular narrative and news. This has been mostly due to the diplomatic issues between India and China. However, over the last few years, the region has started shedding its conflict zone image and is slowly emerging as one of the hottest tourist destinations. With its verdant mountains, winding passes, gushing rivers, and tranquil monasteries, Arunachal Pradesh is now marketed as the perfect holiday spot for those looking for serenity and peace.
In her book Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, travel writer and producer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent gives us a glimpse Arunachal Pradesh while it is in the midst of this transformation.
Uncovering the Unknown
Due to its strategic importance and presence of insurgent groups, Arunachal Pradesh had mostly remained isolated from the rest of the country and the world in general. Bolingbroke-Kent informs us in her book that it was only in 1998 that the Indian government started allowing foreign tourists into the state. This required special and expensive travel permits that restricted their movements. Special permits are still required for foreigner visitors now.
Arunachal Pradesh has become more open to visitors, both domestic and foreign, in the recent years. However, the state remains largely unexplored. Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains shows that tourists barely skim the surface of what this place has to offer. An experienced traveller, Antonia Bolingbroke goes beyond the standard tourist pamphlet places of Arunachal. Armed with a two-month permit, she uncovers the hitherto unknown side and stories of the state. Through her book, Bolinger-Broke does with Arunachal, what legendary adventure traveller Dervla Murphy did with Afghanistan in her debut book Full Tilt: Ireland to India on a Bicycle. In Full Tilt, Murphy opened up the western world’s eyes to a woman’s experience as a solo traveller across Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were countries that westerners had barely explored beyond the cramped cities. Murphy travelled from Ireland to India through Slovenia, Vienna, Afghanistan, and Pakistan staying with locals and travelling across hard roads and mountains.
It should not with be surprising to find a resemblance in Bollinger-Kent’s journey across Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet with Murphy’s travels. Bollinger-Kent considers Dervla Murphy as one of her inspirations as an adventure traveller; the other solo women travellers in this league include Lois Pryce and Joanna Lumley. Like Murphy showed the world the lives of local Afghans, Bolingbroke-Kent gives us a glimpse of the way of life of people in Arunachal Pradesh. Her book documents the fragile ecosystems of indigenous tribes and immigrants of the land of dawn-lit mountains of India and the seemingly magical worlds they inhabit.
Battling blood-sucking dam dum flies and barely-there roads, the author takes readers inside the villages and houses of the Idu Mishmis and Apatani tribes. She interacts with people from the Chakma community. The Chakmas are refugees who fled from neighbouring Bangladesh to India six decades ago and have been granted ‘limited citizenship’ after persistent struggle over the years. Limited citizenship implies that the Chakmas will not be recognized as Scheduled Tribes and will not have any rights to own property. This has been a struggle that has caused a stir in Arunachal Pradesh over the past year with the indigenous people of the state opposing the Chakmas’ demands.
Rarely do outsiders gain access to these secluded settlements. Bolingbroke-Kent not only enters their homes but gets to closely observe their way of life. On her short stay in the Idu village of Atunli, she witnesses the Idu festival of reh, a five-day festival of animal sacrifices, shamanic chanting, drinking, and feasting. She tastes their locally brewed liquor, learns the local greetings, and meets shamans and a tribal elder who narrates the history of opium addiction among the tribals. In another Idu village Alinye, she meets the chief shaman or Igu of the reh festival. Interacting with Sipa Melo, the chief igu, Bolingbroke-Kent notes that these are a group of people who are trying hard to reconcile their ancestral culture with the new world:
…Sipa is a disappearing breed. The younger generation aren’t interested in becoming igu, and there are very few of them left. Sipa had four children, sons and daughters, and none of them wanted to learn the art. Or maybe it worked both ways. Maybe television and mobile phones and modernity were tuning the Idu to a different frequency and severing their contact with the spirit world. After all, it was said that you couldn’t choose to become an igu, but that the spirits chose you. Perhaps the spirits were losing interest. When we left the next day, Sipa held my hands in his and thanked me for recording his stories. They needed to be written down, he said, before it was too late.
In the book, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent reports that development, the lack of which had sheltered these tribes from the outside world until recently, seems to have become a double-edged sword for the state. While the construction of roads and dams have brought in relatively better accessibility and essential amenities to these places, it has been more of a flawed development than a holistic one:
Many people I’d spoken to in Roing were strongly opposed to these dams. The deals were rife with corruption and money laundering, they told me, and the Dibang Valley’s sandy, unstable soil made it unsuitable for such projects. The valley had been the worst-affected in the 1950 earthquake, the violent tremors unleashing massive landslides and floods that wiped out half of the Idu population, a catastrophe from which their numbers have never recovered. It was madness, they said, to even consider building dams in unstable mountains prone to such seismic activity. The structures would also be built by tens of thousands of labourers from Assam and beyond, many of whom would remain there.
‘You’ll need a microscope to find us Idu after that,’ one man lamented.
Roing is where a majority of the Idu Mishmi people reside. Their population settled down in the region and their settlements extend from the base of the Mishmi Hills up the Dibang Valley and towards the Tibetan border.
Adventures on a Motorcycle
While Dervla Murphy’s chosen mode of travel on her maiden adventure was the bicycle, Antonia Bolingbroke chose a 150 CC Hero Impulse for her solo adventure trip across Arunachal Pradesh. She gets it fixed up with a top box made with measurements taken with hands rather than with measuring tape, in the Indian jugaadu-style. The Oxford dictionary defines jugaad as “a flexible approach to problem-solving that uses limited resources in an innovative way.” This use of limited resources does not really guarantee that the solution will be reliable or last long, as the author discovers:
There was one other small problem: only two of the four bolts [of the top box] were in the right place. A tape measure might have been useful after all. We clustered around, tools and sticky box in hand, sawing and drilling, our efforts attracting a crowd of curious passers-by. It was almost midnight by the time…I drove away, my smudged, fingerprinted, bodged box held on by three bolts, rattling in the night air. The whole episode was a perfect microcosm of all the maddening brilliance of modern India.
A faulty top box notwithstanding, she embarks on her adventure with her trusted Hero Impulse. Travelling by motorcycle is a form of breaking the fourth wall. Every sight and sensation is experienced close to the skin. No one put it better than Robert M. Pirsig in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
You see things vacationing on a motorcycle in a way that is completely different from any other. In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.
Starting her journey on her motorcycle from Guwahati, Assam on 1 February 2016, Bolingbroke-Kent travels through jungles, passes, barely-there roads in tribal villages, and treacherous highways with typical Indian erratic traffic. Most of her routes were unmapped and unknown; she notes in the book that the half of the places in her itinerary were “ominous blank” in her smartphone map application. Most of the time she helped along the way by guides and random helpful strangers. True to what Pirsig said in his book, the author of Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains too becomes the part of the scene as she rides from Assam to all across Arunachal Pradesh and close to Tibet:
From Tawang I span down towards Jang through slopes dotted with crimson rhododendrons and puffs of white blossom, the silver thread of a river becoming a foaming torrent beneath a clanking Bailey bridge. In the villages women were laying out wide flat baskets of onions, garlic and red chillies to dry in the sunshine, waving as I passed. Climbing beyond Jang, the view was even more fantastic, and I stopped by a friendly yak to imprint the moment on my memory.
A hidden river meandered north between steep, pine-furred escarpments and mountains that heaved and tumbled in a mosaic of every imaginable green. Stone villages dripped down slopes felted emerald with fields of young barley and rice. I could hear dogs barking, children shouting, yaks’ bells. There were frothy copses, grassy knolls and black dots grazing around brokpas’ huts. The occasional house stood alone at the end of a ridge, around which prayer flags flapped in the breeze. To my far left, the golden roofs of Tawang glinted on the crest of a green wave and, behind, that perfect line of white. How thankful I was that the weather had given me this chance to witness the magic of the place. The yak stood beside me as I took it all in. Perhaps he was enjoying it too.
Through Foreign Eyes
Beautiful landscapes, mystic rituals, and majestic monasteries are not the only things that the author of Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains experiences. As she travels across states, she is often accosted by random people, mostly men, to pose for a photograph or a selfie with them. A hangover of British colonialism, a major part of the Indian collective consciousness is obsessed with colorism, especially in smaller towns and cities. Another inconsiderate tendency is a total lack of personal space. Whether she is in a museum or in the middle of the highway on her way back from Sela Pass, Bolingbroke-Kent often finds herself pulled in for the irksome selfie:
[In the coal museum] there were glass cabinets stacked with different varieties of bricks, a boat engine, a pile of old typewriters, random collections of coal mining ephemera…But by far the most photographed exhibit of the day was the lone Westerner.
‘Please, Madam, one click,’ they said, sidling over with banks of smartphones.
‘Your good country?’ asked young men, slipping their arms around my shoulders.
‘One selfie?’ ventured shy teenage girls, their pretty faces slathered in make-up.
Despite a few misadventures, Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent keeps the reader engaged with a generous dosage of historical anecdotes related to the region. She talks about stiff-upper lipped British explorers and adventures who attempted to explore the region. She narrates stories related to World War 2, when Arunachal Pradesh was one of the crucial frontier posts for the British imperialists.
One of the few travelogues on India, written from an outsider’s perspective that comes to mind while reading Land of Dawn-lit Mountains is William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. This is mostly because the writers of both the books entrench themselves deep within their environs. They adopt the way of life of the places they are in. They become temporary residents of the place they are in; Dalrymple in Delhi and Bolinger-Kent in Arunachal Pradesh. Their books embody the true essence of travel that goes beyond being mere tourists. Perhaps, this is what makes these travelogues quite engaging, although Dalrymple’s City of Djinns is one-of-kind travel book that has more movement in time rather than across places. However, the common thread running between both the books is that they both recount the histories of the places the writers are in.
Also while Dalrymple is a highly perceptive observer and an empathetic narrator, Bolingbroke-Kent tends to meander towards the occasional prejudice with her tone bordering on condescension. In the beginning of the book, as she slowly eases the reader into her narrative by giving a background of the region she is travelling, she focuses a lot on exoticism. This factor is a bias towards India harboured by a lot of foreigners, and Bolingbroke-Kent occasionally forcefully projects scattered cases of superstition and dark magic as a common phenomenon of the country. May be she uses this factor to warm up the reader to the shamanic rituals and animal sacrifices she narrates in the later chapters of the book. Yet, it might seem a bit overdone to readers familiar with the region.
Aside from this one incongruous aspect, Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains has a quality of a personal memoir, similar to City of Djinns. While Dervla Murphy rarely let readers into her private life, Bolingbroke-Kent does not follow her idol’s style in her travelogue in this regard. She is quite open about her life. In between thinking about traveling across Arunachal Pradesh and actually executing the idea, the author of Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains suffered from chronic attacks of panic and anxieties. Gripped with insomnia and panic episodes, she puts Arunachal Pradesh on the backburner:
It was only then, after months of burying all thoughts of it, that I again considered Arunachal Pradesh. I still desperately wanted to go, but was I capable, after everything that had happened? There was only one way to confront my lingering demons, and that was to commit to going in the spring, to throw a grappling hook over the lip of the abyss and see if it held. If it all went pathetically wrong at least I’d have tried.
We are glad Antonia Bolingbroke tried and succeeded. The result is her book Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains, a chronicle of a relatively unknown place with a touch of whimsy and realism.
This work was first published as part of the Sage ~ December 2017 Issue, of the Coldnoon journal.