In the foothills of the Eastern Himalayas, surrounded by the sun, clouds and earth, there is a sense of calm; calm that the eyes can see, the body can feel and the mind can transcend.
This image of Sangti Valley holds secrets, secrets that unravel themselves a little more each time I look and recollect the feeling of transcendence I feel amidst these mountains.
Like the best love affairs, the best trips never end… Farewell for now and see you soon.
Shergaon is a small picturesque village located in West Kameng district. It is nestled in a valley punctuated by three streams and the fertile land on their banks is well suited to horticulture. Walnuts, pomegranates, kiwi and more than a dozen apple varieties thrive in the mild climate here.
Shergaon has two Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the lower one called Lhagang and the upper one called Zengbu. Zengbu Gompa dates back over 400 years and houses sacred books, artwork and a beautiful mural that depicts auspicious Buddhist emblems.
The craft of cheesemaking came to Arunachal Pradesh together with Tibetan Buddhist culture over 2000 years ago. Nomadic herdsmen once stored milk in animal skin bags where it was allowed to ferment, a step in the process which remains very similar today. Raw cow’s milk from animals that graze on pristine pastures and the seasoned hands of cowherds or Brokpas are all that go into the making of ‘Moo Chura’, the ultimate organic cheese.
Many Brokpas are still semi-nomadic, moving with their herd across alpine meadows and taking shelter in simple huts. And the ones who make cheese often do so in cabins that are far away from the nearest village. So we were all the more lucky to find a sedentary Brokpa with a cheesemaking workshop located just one kilometer outside of Sanglem, a tiny hamlet near Shergaon in West Kameng district where he and his family are residents.
We walked for 20 minutes along a footpath that weaved its way through the brush and came out onto a beautiful glade covered in ferns. We spotted a wooden cabin standing on a small rise where the Brokpa was waiting for us.
Thupten Choigey welcomed us warmly into his humble abode. An open hearth took up a large part of the single room where we sat on low stools and were served hot milk that was rich and sweet. Then after drinking his, the Brokpa began his story.
For the better part of his 49 years, Thupten has been herding cows and turning their milk into cheese by a method handed down in his family over the generations. He recalled how earlier, Moo Chura was like currency and was used to barter. And even today, the best cheese is gifted to Lamas as a sign of gratitude for their blessings.
The Brokpa continued, resting his hand on his churn as if for emphasis, telling us that while some now use a machine to make the cheese, Moo Chura made the traditional way is still widely deemed superior. He then described for us in detail how he goes about fermenting, scalding, draining and finally ripening the cheese, showing us all of the various utensils used.
Ultimately, the cheese is wrapped in a skin where it stays for up to two years. But this amount of aging is very rare – because there are so many orders to be filled!
Older Moo Chura is very hard and has the consistency of parmesan. The more aged the cheese, the more odiferous it becomes. It would therefore never be found on a cheese board, but features very prominently in Arunachali cooking.
In Arunachal Pradesh, there is a strong connection between people, the land and the bounty it provides. In the absence of wide scale commercial farming and supermarkets, it is common to grow some hand-planted produce in one’s own back yard. And wild-harvested foods are plentiful too – without being considered exotic. Here, going to the forest to pick some naturally growing greens is like tapping into any other food source.
Coming back for a second home stay in Bomdila, I really looked forward to the food especially one curly green vegetable which I had assumed was a local spinach variety. I loved the taste and crisp texture. So what was it exactly?
“Dangsum”, my host told me, like it was the most normal thing in the world “are edible wild ferns. They grow all over. Anyone can take them.”
At first I thought to myself, “wow, ferns…” but then it dawned on me how urbanized and hence how out of touch I was with nature’s pantry. This realization inspired me to seek out this indigenous food that tasted so amazing.
Ferns thrive in rich, moist soil near shady stream banks, wooded areas and forest fringes and are thus very abundant in Arunachal Pradesh. In Bomdila, Dangsum is the name for the unfurled new leaves of a fern. The part gathered and eaten is the young, tender shoot with the curled tip.
Dangsum is seasonal and the best time to gather is in the spring. Given the number of similar-looking but inedible wild ferns here, foraging for Dangsum is a task requiring a trained eye. Luckily, an uncle of ours who knows how to tell the Dangsum apart agreed to help us find it.
Only minutes into our drive, he stopped the car next to a low fence. The field beyond bristled with bright green ferns. Reaching down between some nettles, he pointed to a 15 cm tall stalk with a tightly coiled rosette on it.
“This is Dangsum. You can tell by the groove here”, he said confidently as he fingered it.
Eager to see how the Dangsum is prepared, we drove back to town where we purchased two bundles of it from a roadside seller.
Naturally, the first step is to wash it thoroughly. Then, remove any remaining chaff and cut off the stems.
Next, heat some ghee in a wok. Add chopped onion, red chilies and salt to taste. Fry the Dangsum over medium heat for several minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve with butter – they are simply superb!
Tangkha painting is a traditional form of Tibetan Buddhist art. Learning this craft can take three years and is part of a monk’s education. Monks who have left monastic life can continue painting Tangkhas in craft centers like the one we visited in Bomdila.
In the workshop we met Tenzin, a former monk who once studied in Bomdila Monastery. He sat cross-legged near a window through which a shaft of pale sunlight fell on the canvas suspended before him. Happily he showed us the Tangkha he was working on, a picture of the eight auspicious signs of Tibetan Buddhism.
It would take him three days to complete it, Tenzin explained. The composition was one of many religious themes he had learned to paint according to a prescribed set of rules that govern colors, proportions and content.
And so we realized that, despite the aesthetic beauty of a Tangkha, the technique is not a means of creative expression for the artist. Rather, a Tangkha is intended to be a meditation aid that conveys a precise arrangement of images and symbols to the practitioner, thereby strengthening his or her focus and concentration.
Think of bananas and tropical images may first spring to mind. But bananas also grow in Bomdila, at an altitude of 2200 meters, and cooks here have devised a clever way of using their huge leaves. These have a light grassy scent and cooking food wrapped in fresh banana leaves infuses it with some of that subtle flavor while sealing in delicious juices. There is no fat added making this a very healthy means of food preparation.
INGREDIENTS (2 servings)
2 firm-fleshed fish fillets (pictured is an indigenous river fish called Rohu)
1 small tomato, skinned and sliced
1 small red onion, sliced
Green chilies to taste, sliced
Salt to taste
Place the fish filets in a bowl. Add sliced tomato, onion, chilies and salt. Mix well and set aside for 10 minutes.
Cut the banana leaf down the middle and, using one half of it, square off the ends. Wash in cold running water. Bring water to boil in a momo steamer.
Spoon the fish mixture onto the banana leaf and carefully fold it into a parcel. Place the parcel onto the rack in the momo steamer. Cover and steam until the fish is done, around 10-15 minutes, and serve with rice and sautéed vegetables.
Every year, during the first five days of April, the Adi Galo tribe celebrates the Mopin festival. Mopin is thought to bring wealth and prosperity to households and to the Gallong community as a whole. It is also believed that the festival drives away evil shadows and spreads God’s blessing of universal happiness.
During Mopin, Adi Galo villages come alive with dancing and chanting of rhythmic songs. The village folk don their traditional white-and-black costumes and colorful ornaments, smear rice flour paste on each other’s faces and enjoy locally brewed rice wine called Apong while chanting folk songs complimented by an elegant dance known as Popir.
The Mopin festival culminates with the sacrifice of a Mithun, a bovine species found only in North East India and Burma, which the Adi Galo believe will bring good fortune, a successful harvest and a prosperous new year.
The Siang River has its source on the Tibetan plateau and enters Arunachal Pradesh in Upper Siang District. Its valleys and tributaries are home to the inventive Adi tribe whose villages are sometimes connected by hanging bridges that span the mighty waterway. Several of these remarkable architectural achievements can be found along the 110 kilometer route from Pasighat to Boleng.
Suspended by cables up to 70 meters in length and with a deck made of bamboo, the narrow lattice is held aloft by a few wires and sways perceptibly in the wind. Crossing over one can be a thrill but may leave the meek white-knuckled at the very least!
The Siang River offers lovers of the great outdoors ample opportunity for wilderness expeditions and adventure sports like river rafting, angling, and trekking. For those who simply wish to witness the raw unbridled beauty of the river, so-called Bridge 65 is located 16 kilometers northeast of Boleng village and crosses the Siang at Dite Dime.
From this vantage point one can see the channels cut through layer after layer of rock by the river at different water levels as it ebbs and curls and flows inexorably downstream. The Siang eventually converges with the Lohit, and these two rivers of Arunachal Pradesh become part of the great Brahmaputra in Assam.
Located 15 kilometres from Rupa village in West Kameng District, the Sang-Ngag Choekar Dargyeling Monastery is built on a promontory which offers spectacular 270 degree views of the surrounding Eastern Himalayan valleys. More commonly known as Chillipam Gompa, the secluded sanctuary is adorned with some of the region’s most magnificent Buddhist art.
It was an afternoon in late April and staccatos of fat raindrops plunked on our windscreen as we wound our way up to the sacred citadel. But as is possible in every alpine setting, a sudden shift in the wind dispersed the dark canopy and a window of fresh blue sky opened over us.
Sensing the sunny spell would not last too long, we made our way up to the entrance and craned our necks to gaze at the eight auspicious signs of Tibetan Buddhism which graced the plafond.
Walking clockwise to our right, we then followed another stairway up to the viewing platform where the sun continued to play hide and seek with puffs of shredded cloud.
Beautiful. Remote. Wild. Such was the awe-inspiring view that unfolded before us.
Yet words cannot justly convey the bombastic grandeur of this place. One really must go and experience it!
The greatest culinary gift of the streams, pastures and forests of Arunachal Pradesh is an abundance of fresh produce.
The Monpa people of West Kameng district live in close connection with nature and have a deep knowledge of both farmed crops and wild edible food resources. Being non-vegetarian, the meat of both wild and domesticated animals like fish, yak and chicken is also used in the preparation of traditional Monpa cuisine.
The highly nutritious ethnic dishes found on Monpa tables in Dirang might include fried river fish, chicken braised in a mixture of aromatic herbs and Thukpa seasoned with semi-fermented yak’s cheese… Guaranteed to thrill with its velvety texture and tantalizing flavour!