Land of Dawn-lit Mountains
"The austere serenity of Shangri-La." describes James Hilton in his 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, "allured by a land of milk and honey in a hidden valley in the Himalayas." Over the years, this has led edgy explorers to venture deep into the Himalayas, scouting valleys after another, finding their own perceptions of a paradise on earth. For some, this search brings them to Arunachal Pradesh.
Arunachal Pradesh, due to the state's easternmost location on the map of India, is called "the land of dawn-lit mountains". The entire terra firma falls under the eastern Himalayan landscape, a land of supreme natural beauty and rich ancient traditions. The altitudinal and climatic variation of the state results in a variety of landscapes and forests which harbor one of the planet’s last great biodiversity.
In the sense of topography and ethnicity, Arunachal Pradesh feels like an entire world of its own. Nine large Himalayan rivers flow through the state on their course to the plains of Assam, including the mighty Brahmaputra. These rivers and their tributaries form spectacular valleys which remain disconnected from each other and the outer world, due to very poor infrastructure and densely forested mountainous terrain which is hard to conquer. Even today, many villagers in the state have to trek for days to reach the nearest grocery shop. This separation due to geographical extremities has ensured the preservation of a great diversity of ages-old cultures, flora, and fauna found in the nine river systems. Arunachal Pradesh
is definitely the wildest frontier of India!
The cultural identity of Arunachal Pradesh is significant, especially in a rapidly urbanizing world. Its history is mystified, passed down the ages through fables and folk tales. The state is home to more than 26 major tribes and over 100 different sub-tribes, many of whom trace their indigenous history to faraway places in Mongolia and Southeast Asia.
The isolation of each tribe and culture has allowed for an amazing linguistic diversity with 90 different languages spoken in the state. Arunachal Pradesh has attracted cultural anthropologists and explorers for a long time, who come from faraway countries to study the treasure trove of traditional knowledge.
Geographically, the cultural diversity of Arunachal Pradesh can be roughly divided into cultural spheres, based on tribal identity, religion, and language. Then there are transition areas where clusters of less dominant tribes reside. The western cultural sphere is rooted in Tibetan Buddhism and early Bon animist traditions with the presence of tribes such as Monpa, Aka, Brokpa, and Sherdukpens. The Aka are traders and paint their faces with fascinating black marks. The Brokpa people are semi-nomadic herders who roam the highlands during the summer. The Monpa weave excellent carpets and take pleasure in wood painting.
In the central and eastern parts of the state, the culture is influenced by animist traditions and lineage from faraway lands like Mongolia. The major tribes that live here are the Nyishi, Hill Miri, Apatani, Galo, Adi, and Mishmi. The Nyishi are a powerful tribe, excellent craftsmen of cane and bamboo. The Hill Miri men wear a unique hairstyle, while the women wear cane blouses, fashionable and made from nature. The facial tattoos and nose plugs of the Apatani women have been well documented and remain fascinating. The Apatani are excellent in land management, farming both rice and fish on their farms and building houses close to each other. The Adi have colorful dancing rituals with clothing that have exquisite patterns and designs. Their intricate cane bridges over large Himalayan rivers are a testament to their ingenious skills. The Mishmi are excellent bamboo craftsmen and hunters. They remain an incredible repository of traditional knowledge which has been passed down through shamans, folklore, dances, and religious rituals.
The southeastern cultural sphere traces its lineage to Southeast Asia, where tribes such as Khampti, Singpho, and Tangsa have been influenced by Theravada Buddhism. Sharing this sphere are the Nocte, Lisu, and Wancho with animist influence. The Wancho have beautiful dresses and ornaments. Along with the Nocte, they were excellent headhunters in earlier times. The Khampti and Singpho are rich traders. Their rulers had mutual relations with the British Empire in the pre-independence era, along with connections that stretched to Southeast Asia.
Donyi-Polo is the major religion of the animist people of the state. It is the belief in the worship of the Sun and the Moon. Endogamy between tribes and exogamy between clans is practiced in societies. Polygamy is accepted and practiced in some of the tribes. Naive, amicable, and friendly, the tribals of the state are democratic; each tribe has its own structured institutions that revere the elders, maintain law and order, settle disputes, and care for the welfare of the villages.
To quote renowned 19th-century anthropologist Verrier Elwin "In NEFA (erstwhile Arunachal Pradesh) we are not aiming at mere preservation of culture, the freezing of social life at its present level. We are striving for a renaissance of art, music, beauty, color, the joys, and graces of living." This dream is slowly being realized today. As Arunachal Pradesh opens up to the world, we are seeing the promotion and preservation of tradition through festivals, sustainable tourism, and knowledge houses.
Much of the Land of Dawn-lit Mountains falls in the Eastern Himalayas, except the southeastern corners of Arunachal Pradesh which fall in the Patkai Hills. Biogeographically, the state is the richest province in the entire Himalayan range. The geography of the state is a complex hill system with an altitudinal variation ranging from 50m in the foothills that gradually ascends to peaks as high as 7000m, cut through by numerous rivers and rivulets.
The state receives large amounts of rain, spread over 8 to 9 months every year starting from spring to autumn. The higher elevations receive a lesser amount of rainfall. This variation in climate and topography has favored the growth of massive forests where a delicate and symbiotic relationship exists between the tribes, the forest, and wildlife.
Nature has indeed been exceptionally kind to Arunachal Pradesh. The state has five different forest types and a sixth type of secondary forest – tropical forests, subtropical forests, pine forests, temperate forests, and alpine forests. These forests harbor extremely important biodiversity with the presence of over 5000 plant species, 86 land mammals, 500 birds, and an equally diverse insect and reptilian life. Such unparalleled diversity of life can be credited to the unique location of the region, falling at the intersection of three different bio-geographic hotspots; the Paleoartic, Eastern Himalaya, and the Indo-Burma regions.
Amongst the fauna in the foothills and adjoining plains large herbivores such as elephants, gaur, and wild buffalo inhabit the jungles. The state is perhaps the only place on the planet where 7 wild cats are found together - tiger, leopard, clouded leopard, snow leopard, golden cat, leopard cat, and the marbled cat. The jungle canopy of Arunachal Pradesh is home to seven primate species such as the hoolock gibbon, slow loris, Assamese macaque, rhesus macaque, pig-tailed macaque, stump-tailed macaque, and the capped langur. All the three goat antelopes of India are found in the state; the serow, goral, and the mysterious takin. The jungles also have a lively and chattering population of smaller mammals with species of squirrel, porcupine, civets, mongoose, linsang, shrew, and bats. In the higher altitudes, exotic species such as goral, Himalayan black bear, and red panda can be found.
With over 500 species of birds, from the weird to stylish and colorful, Arunachal Pradesh is a birder's dream. Some endangered and endemic birds found here are the white-winged wood duck, Sclater's Monal, Temminck's Tragopan, black-necked crane, Bengal florican, Indian hornbill, and the Mishmi wren.
The colorful Torgya is an important festival of the Monpa tribe who reside in the western cultural sphere of Arunachal Pradesh. It is celebrated in monasteries for three days, from the 27th to 29th of the eleventh month of the lunar calendar. Torgya’s significance is to bring peace, good health and welfare of the people.
The ‘Solung’ is celebrated by the ‘Adi’ community. Adi’s belong to the agricultural community and thus this festival is connected with the agricultural activities of the people. Various myths, stories, and beliefs are associated with the origin of the ‘Solung’ festival.
Celebrated during February and July, Reh is a vibrant festival of the Idu Mishmi community, observed to seek prosperity and welfare of families and crop. Rituals, dances, cuisine and folklore are important during this the celebrations.
“Losar” or The New Year festival, is the most important festival of Tawang District in Arunachal Pradesh. The Monpa Tribe celebrate this as the coming of a new year. The Monpas are the major portion of the population in the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh.
The Dree Festival involves the sacrifice of fowls, eggs and animals to the Gods. Gods worshipped during this festival are Tamu, Metii , Danyi and Harniang. The festival, a part of Apatani culture of Arunachal Pradesh, is celebrated to appease these Gods so as to avoid famine in the society.
Celebrated during January, Si Donyi is a significant festival of the Tagin people. It is rooted to the tribe’s believe that the sun, moon, earth and natural elements play a vital role in the daily lifestyle and tribulations.
The climate of Arunachal Pradesh varies with elevation. Areas of high altitude near the Tibetan border have an alpine-tundra climate. At mid-elevations, the climate is temperate. At the foothills and plains, the climate remains humid subtropical with hot summers and mild winters. The state receives heavy rainfall of 2000 to 4100 millimeters annually, with most rain during the summers from April to October. For this reason, winters remain ideal to travel in the state. The maximum summer temperature is around 35 Celsius. The minimum winter temperature can drop below 0 Celsius in higher inhabited areas.