The land of the dawn lit mountains

I went to the Himalayas a few years ago and when I left, with stirrings in my soul, I told the mountains, “I will come back again and again and again”. And the mountains remembered. For I have kept the pact. And this time I chose the Eastern Himalayas. Arunachal Pradesh. It means the land of the dawn lit mountains.

I had worked myself to a standstill the previous days and weeks. I got on the plane to meet those mountains again – an intimacy that I felt was akin to what you feel when you go to meet someone you love. Someone whose presence enlivens you. Someone whose hands and breath and embrace you missed.
In the plane, Sahana and I were reading our books and she suddenly said, “look there” and I responded, “oh the clouds” and she said, “No the white mountains” . Yes they were there and through the plane window I could see them. And it brought back memories and moments I will never forget. And I wondered, “what will you gift me this time, to this daughter of yours?”.

We landed in Dibrugarh and went to Roing our first stop in Arunachal. Amidst pouring rains we saw the first glimpse of this land. And after many gruelling hours we set foot in the most coveted hills Anini – The land of the Idu Mishmi Tribe and their beloved Mishmi Hills. I had seen the images of people with mongoloid features, shining yellow skin, brightly coloured clothes, animistic adornments with a certain other – worldly feeling in books. And for someone like me Tribal people mean many things – Sons and daughters of the land, people whose spirit communed with the world in which they inhabited, people to whom the mysteries were still revealed. Also people I don’t know intimately. People who did not have access to what I think of as progress and modern.

In the mountains we walked, hiked, bicycled, shivered, thrived and survived. In its rivers, we rafted in the cold freezing water with frames of deodar trees and powdery mountains wherever you turned. And the mist and fog making each vision like a painting – ethereal and mystical.
I could only think of Walt Whitman’s lines in the song of the open road, The Picture alive, every part in its best light. We were accompanied by a man from the Idu Mishmi Tribe Timai, who we now call a friend. We sensed the reverence in his relationship with the land and that drew us into conversations – deep, profound and revealing. He felt we were searching for something beyond the adventure – beyond meeting the mountain with our bodies measured by endurance and fitness. We were lovers of his land and its mysteries. He then allowed us gently into her wonders. He took us into a forest. I had heard of the Japanese art of forest bathing. This was a bathing experience – in sunlight, in the drizzle from the waterfalls, in the magic, in the mystery. We grew inwardly silent and he showed each fern, each mushroom, each leaf, each bark with such tenderness with which one might touch a newborn. He told us many stories. One that I was touched by the most – In many trees there were small cuts on the trunk and he said when they need to cut a tree to make a home or another human need, they take a small piece of its trunk and place her in their home. And speak to her and ask for permission to cut the tree. The forest mother then speaks to them in their dreams and sometimes is a Yes and at other times No and they respect it. How can they not? She is Asha – the spirit of the forest and they worship her. We could feel her energy permeated in the forest. They have forests which are called the Sacred Forests. And as strangers to the land we could not go there. These forests are permeated by the ancestor spirits for they bury them there. What we call a burial ground is a sacred forest to them. The Mountain Spirit is called Golo. They are their gods and protectors. When we began talking about spirits we meandered into Shamanism and I asked him, “Will you please take me to meet a Shaman?” And he was non-committal.

As we walked and cycled through these mountain passes we had to stop. A hundred times over. Sometimes to drink some tea, sometimes to find warmth over the fireplace, sometimes to make a picture, sometimes to just sit and cry at the beauty of what was in front of us. There was a certain sacredness to the land that engulfed us. We camped briefly in a place where the tribe meet for their ceremonies. All around were mountains and waterfalls from every corner, a stream, white mountain tops afar. A kind of echo you could hear that told you this place was a temple of a kind.

And as you walk amidst the white and the green you will see the flaming rhododendrons. And the white orchid trees. And in the valley the cherry blossoms and the peach blossoms. In the same day you could see winter in the white avalanche, spring in the rhododendrons and the peach blossoms, autumn in the fallen red leaves and summer in the sun that shone on us. In response to our song all morning manifesting the sun – Mr Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun, Please shine down on me. It was a silly song that had become a chant and a prayer for we really wanted the sun that morning.

I felt in those mountain passes that I was drinking in everything – the river, the air, the sky, the waterfall, the green, the red, the meandering road, everything animate and inanimate. The wildness, the rawness, the purity. This is what Thoreau must have meant when he wrote –“We need the tonic of wildness”. It was the tonic of wildness I ever came close to.

In the evening when the sun was slowly setting we were driving to Timai’s family where he invited us to stay that night. And the jeep went into a valley, away from our path and as I looked at him, I asked, “Shaman?”. And he said “Yes”. This was going to be my first encounter with a Shaman. I was excited. Madly. I have grand ideas about a lot of things. And so was it with this one. But it was a simple human encounter. A simple home and a seemingly simple man. When we walked in, there was fire burning at the centre of the room. And there was the Shaman in his tribal coat, skeletons of bisons and other animals on his wall and some plant herbs around him. He spoke warmly. Timai translated for us. We spoke about our curiosity, asked for incantations and chants and a ritual, asked of his childhood and his shaman journey. He spoke briefly. He told us about how he took this path as an 18 year old. About how his mom and dad who wanted him to be a Shaman never lived to see it. And how he never went to school but only learnt the art of Shamanism. And how he now trains young people who are growing less and less in number to walk this path. He spoke of the ceremonies for the dead briefly. After a time of silence, he took a special root and narrated a story about the power of the root and its mystery. A story goes that when all the world was gone, this was the only plant that remained. He began the ritual with incantations and chants. Into the evening and night we sat there eyes closed, witnessing and allowing our own souls to speak. He offered each one of us the root and his blessing. We called him fondly as Naba – father and he reciprocated the warmth with his eyes and heart and some words of comfort.

For the night, we reached Tamai’s house. To the fireplace. Every home here, has a hearth with a fire alive, all day and night, all seasons. We met his mother, sister and the whole family. We spoke of tribal wars, the invasion of Tibetans, the bloodshed, the folk lore of the tiger as the brother to humans and many things that at once moved us. And took us to the heart of their culture, their trials and their stories. Some stories spoke louder than others. I asked Timai how long their Bamboo House will last in the falling snow and the falling rain. He said, Seven years. And I asked, “what after that?”. He said, every seven years they rebuild their homes. The whole village came and built it for them and at the end, the family throws a feast. And they have a new home – bamboos that were held in the hands of their lot. Now a new home proclaiming the truth of their lives – the crucible of the village. I walked around their bamboo house imagining members of the village, singing and building. And Timai sang a song. Only a song could coat the air of this moment of imagination in my head. Of the village, building their house and every house.

That night we slept deeply cradled by the mountain, the mysteries, Naba’s blessings and the stars that spoke to us.

The next morning we asked Timai’s sister for some Idu Mishmi food. And when we came from our hike, she looked her hair wet and her face glowing. And she told us how she went into the forest to gather the herb- fiddle heart to cook for us. It was fiddle heart, indeed. The people of the land, feed their guests with a generous and warm hand and heart. The experience is not merely of eating but feels like a different kind of communal experience – sitting by the fireplace, listening to their stories and an odd cat that sits along. The plate with its many portions, each one announcing its travel from a faraway forest or the kitchen garden behind.

We had to leave. All good things come to an end. We made a circle – our friends planned somethings for a circle, Chitra stitched and embroidered Nanri a Tamil word that means gratitude, Vijaya found a stick which they could hang it, I gathered some peach blossoms, Geetanjali planned a song and Hari a warm sharing. The children spoke from their heart and we had a circle around the fire for farewell. It moved them deeply. And a part of us did not want to leave.

We set out on our way through the lashing rain to the warm plains of Pasighat. We could remove all the layers and perhaps jump into the river with ease. Our trip came to a grinding halt because of a landslide. The landslides were part of the Arunachal experience, we later learnt. A small hut opened its doors, set a fireplace and provided a home to all passers-by. Their beds became dorms for people that night. Their living room a place for the fire, their kitchen a brewery of tea and their creaking old dishevelled hut – a congregation for stranded souls. Strangers invited us to rest in the beds that was offered to them. People checked on each other, their supplies, their journey. Moments like this show us the spirit of being human. How kindness and generosity flows through our veins and how it finds expression on an extraordinary cold and uncertain day and night like this. We spent several hours in uncertainty, in cold, in hunger and yet in a strange warmth with each other, the mountain and its people.

Leaving this land left me with a strange feeling of leaving a home I found. A place in the soul I touched and felt. Like many indigenous people I met a people who believed that each human being has a place in this world, they call exclusively theirs. A small patch of wilderness or forest that is uniquely, tenderly and intimately that person’s alone. They are each given it when they are born. Some choose to be buried there. They hunt around that piece of land and call it their own. I don’t have a place like that where I live that I call my own place in the world. But people of this land have one. I didn’t envy them for it. But I felt their richness and their abundance. Their well-being and their inner life. Having touched that in this time there, was their gift to me. As a traveler I love places and their beauty. But people of the land and their stories are what brought me alive, are what punctuated the land. I used the word Tribe with a certain superficiality when I came and now as I leave I perhaps have a new narrative. A new kind of reverence. And to that I am grateful.
We have now come to Assam, a warmer place with tea gardens and Assamese stories. I wanted to write of my experience before the knots in my hair can be untangled, before the cracks in my lips could heal and before the freshness in my eyes begin to fade. Before the stories lose their lustre and the land and its people begin to recede in my heart with the everyday business of life that I will soon embrace. I want to share this sojourn with people in my life who could travel with me vicariously through my words and pictures. Through my eyes, through the lens of my yet again stirred soul. The Himalayan Vistas – ” What gift did you give this daughter of yours?”
Picture of Santhya Vikram

Santhya Vikram

She is the founder of Yellow Train School, which is inspired by the principles of Waldorf education and founded on the dream of creating a loving and nourishing environment for children. When Santhya traveled with us to Eastern Arunachal Pradesh, she brought the same passion and enthusiasm, engaging deeply with the local culture and environment, enriching her commitment to holistic education and community interaction.

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