The road from Tezpur to Bomdila is treacherous. It is a mountainous journey into the high altitudes of westernmost part of Arunachal Pradesh. To make matters worse, it is raining this morning. The tracks are muddy. There is ample evidence of landslides. Rockfalls are not far behind. We get stuck in mud for many minutes. Later, there is a traffic jam on this lonely road because a fallen rock has stifled traffic to a single file.
‘A rock fell on the bonnet of a Tata Sumo, not many weeks ago. The driver was alright but the guy next to him got stuck. It took many hours to get him out. Huge rock,’ says our driver. Our own Tata Sumo is packed and I’m sitting uncomfortably at the back. From the looks of everyone else, I happen to be the only tourist. There are buses on this route but they are said to be unreliable and slow.
This part of Arunachal Pradesh is a wild landscape. The mountainous terrain is thickly forested. Often a spectacular waterfall suddenly comes into full view. Sometimes a gentle cascade and sometime a plummeting torrent, these waterfalls are the true jewels of this route. When they dash onto rocks, the sound is thunderous. When they roll down gentle slopes as if in slow dance, they join their voices in chorus. In one case, a waterfall throws itself down mossy cliffs in a free fall till it plunges deep into a river below.
Rivers flow swiftly in deep forested valleys. Somewhere high above, a road winds, our little vehicle, possibly a dot in this immense landscape, makes it slow journey. Sitting in my seat, I view the wonder of these mountains. The rain continues to fall.
The first clear view of a patch of blue sky comes to me at Tenga. It is a village set in a wide valley surrounded by hills. After the wild scenes I had passed earlier, Tenga is pretty and calm. It feels safe. A river flows through it. The Indian Army has a considerable establishment here. Their Fikar Not Fourteen is based out of Tenga. Even the clouds that have followed us from Tezpur have been held back by the hills. Tenga appears today to be a place of fair weather.
Bomdila is laid our beautifully on gentle slopes surrounded by pine woods, low forests and pathless impenetrable shrubland. I am hoping to find good and cheap accommodation at the Buddhist monastery on the high slopes. It is a steep climb to the Upper Gompa but I am disappointed. Bomdila is not Himachal’s Tabo. There is a guest house with rooms but at Rs. 700 it is not for my budget. I head back down to the bazaar and check into a dormitory for Rs. 100 a night.
‘Where is the bathroom?’ I ask the old man. His round wrinkled face, wrinkles even more when he smiles.
‘Here,’ he points to a tub of water at the back of the building. The tub is next to a drain that empties into the street drain few meters away. I think it’s a good idea to postpone bath for another day.
Opposite the hotel is a local craft market. Pulses and spices are available in great variety. They say most of them are locally grown. Tender shoots of bamboo are sold. I am told they are used in local cuisine. Wooden ladles, colourful handwoven bags, cane baskets and beaded necklaces are some of the handicrafts on display. Business at this hour of late afternoon is languid. I look curiously at one of the handwoven satchels. A woman comes over and quotes Rs. 350 for it. Other vendors are sitting in a circle near the entrance and playing cards. I take a few pictures. The women acknowledge with smiles, giggles and jokes I don’t understand.
Few paces down the road is the Lower Gompa. The prayer hall is busy. The blow of horns, the ringing of cymbals and the sound of drums fill the gaps between Buddhist chantings. Many monks, young and old, are assembled inside for this prayer. Outside, some devotees are walking around the building, rosary in hand and prayer on their whispering lips. A woman is turning prayer wheels near the entrance gate. Boy monks are playing on the front lawn.
I step into a restaurant. It is too late for lunch and too early for dinner. I should have something light. The place has nothing except momos. I order some. To call this place a restaurant would be an exaggerated honour. Whatever it may be called, the thing about these eating joints of small towns is polite and quick service. The steamed dumplings are crimped neatly. The fillings are shredded cabbage and onion. There is little taste but the dumplings go well with chilli chutney. I think I’ll now go for a walk.
Soon I’m on a steep dirt track climbing to higher slopes. The town is left behind. I am walking through broken clouds in my path. Bomdila comes and goes out of view as the clouds roll. Not even the call of birds disturb the silence that prevails here. Some crickets are all I hear occasionally. I pick a handful of little wild strawberries along the path. I’ll have them later. Quite unexpectedly, I pass a man going downhill.
‘What’ that?’ I ask pointing to his thin backpack. The backpack is made of cane. Over it he carries a shotgun. Slung across his chest is a dagger stored in a wooden scabbard.
He mumbles something in a local dialect. I point to the backpack and long black fibres, almost like hair, that dangle somewhat stiffly down his back. I repeat my question.
‘Ramba… from tree,’ he explains.
Communication is sometimes a problem in remoter parts of India but just getting a word out of him feels like a decent success. He smiles shyly. I think he is quite puzzled at my interest in something so mundane.
I walk as far as time would allow and return by a different route. I pass the Upper Gompa once more but I take time to study it this time. The main prayer hall has Buddha in bhumisparsha mudra. He is flanked by Padmasambava and Tsongkapa. Many recent thangkas decorate the walls. The art of making thangkas is not a dead art. The hall is flanked by wings housing a school and administrative offices. Nearby is a large hostel. Beyond that is the guest house.
‘What did you have for dinner?’ I ask a small child monk. It is only half past five. It is common practice in these monasteries to finish dinner early. They go to bed by ten and wake up at four.
‘Chawal,’ he says and after a pause adds, ‘daal.’
‘Very good. Baingan is good.’
The boy and his fellow monks run away laughing.
There are about 250 monks residing here. The monks all belong to Gelupka sect of Tibetan Buddhism. I walk down from the monastery through mist filled pine woods. In a hole propped up by exposed roots of a tree is a little nest with three eggs. I wonder what bird’s nest is it?
When I arrive at the hotel, the old man is sitting on the open verandah, eyes closed, fingers turning the rosary and lips moving ever so slightly.