Karamjeet Singh's Himalayan Home

Imagine yourself flying high, at an altitude of almost fifty thousand meters, five times the height of Mt. Everest, above Lakhimpur in The Brahmaputra valley and looking north..... this is what you will see...
On the far right, almost touching the horizon, is the immense, solitary mountain, Namche Barwa, 7756 meters high. Geographically speaking, Namche Barwa is the starting point of the 2500 km Great Himalaya Range. Here, at one of the range's highest points, the Brahmaputra has chosen to enter India. The Gorge of the Yarlung Tsangpo, as the Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, is one of the wildest and least explored spots on Earth. Here the river has cut across the range in a gorge that's three times as deep as the Grand Canyon. The main chain, meanwhile, sweeps off to the southwest in a splendor of dazzling peaks.... Tsa Ri, Gorichen, Kangto and onto the easternmost peaks of the Bhutan Himalaya.

It is in West Kameng district that the Great Himalaya enters Arunachal from Bhutan, in a maze of valleys and ridges varying in altitude from a mere 800 meters to 7000 meters. The first great mountain on the range, in Arunachal, is the Kangto Massif. In it's snowfields and glaciers, it's knife edged ridges that trap the monsoon clouds, gather the waters which combine to form the Kameng.

The Kameng along with it's tributaries is the principal architect of the landscape of Western Arunachal and one of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra.

Further to the East, the Subansiri and the Dihang, as the Brahmaputra is known here, gouge their way down the Great Himalayan watershed.

The catchement of these rivers are clothed with extremely dense rainforests, for the large part unexplored. These forests are the reason for Arunachals incredible biodiversity, home as they are to countless species of flora and fauna. Like the South American rainforests, the permanent gloom of these huge forests is a potential unrivalled source of hitherto undiscovered alkaloids and drugs, cures for diseases yet to hit humanity as well as the plethora we already have around.

Today, these great forests are under increasing threat from rapacious timber interests. A large number of wood based industries like plywood and veneer mills have mushroomed in the state in the last four years or so. Probably the maximum number yet came up in the last two years. A large number of these are located in remote areas, rendering monitoring and control by the forest department, very difficult. Also the total capacity of these industries appears to be much in exess of the projected turn-over, leaving room for suspicions that all may not be above board. How much excess can be gauged from the fact that the State govt issues annual licences for 9,000 cubic feet of timber - enough to keep one decent sized saw mill busy. The state has nearly 300 saw mills and veneer factories of all sizes !!
Increasing local populations, migration from the plains, roadside labour etc are all doing their mite to contribute to defforestation.

Traditionally tribal populations in these areas have farmed using the technique known as slash and burn cultivation. This involves firing a stretch of forest and clearing it for farming operations. The strip is then intensely cultivated till returns become marginal and then another strip is cleared. Forest cover used to regenerate fairly fast but nowadays with increasing population pressures the forests don't seem to stand much of a chance.

Like the enchanted forest of the fairy tales, Arunachal forests are full of medicinal herbs with magical properties, many as yet not fully explored. For others such as Texas Bacata, the yew tree, the story is different. The bark of the tree is processed for Taxol - a drug used in the treatment of ovarian cancer. The exploitation of the tree has taken place so ruthlessly that it has virtually vanished from the state.

The disappearance of the forests involves the extinction of many plant and animal species including the tree clinging orchids.At the Orchid Research Center at Tipi, the world renowned Dr. Rao and his colleagues have done pioneering work towards preserving the state's gene pool wealth as actualised in it's nearly 500 orchid species. Dr Rao has now some partners in his work in the form of the W.W.F and the Indian Army. Extremely endangered species are now being replanted in Army cantonments, the theory being that these offer actually protected areas as opposed to reserves and protected areas which exist only on paper

Contributing a lot to the unexplored state of Arunachal's forests are it's leeches which besides being longer, averaging 4 - 5 inches, than those found anywhere in the Himalayas, range upto an incredible 12,000 feet above sea level. Most ubiquitous is the famous Tiger leech of Tawang, so called because of it's colouration. Armed with extremely perceptive receptors the leech is alive to the slightest vibration towards which it homes in. These tropical leeches belonging to the order Haemadipsa, drop onto travellers from trees or bushes or climb their legs find a pulsating vein close to the surface and fasten on. Their saliva contains hirudin, an important anticoagulant widely used in medicine. Capable of ingesting three times their own body weight in blood the leech then drops off and seeks cover, for it takes it a couple of months to digest it's feast.
Leeches were used in traditional medicine for bloodletting and have been recently used in very delicate brain surgery in the west, in order to relieve congestion from a particular area without side-effects.

Arunachal is the land of the dawn in more ways than one. Mankind has apparently prospered here since about 2,000 BC, going by the number of tribes that reside within it's borders. For the high Himalayan areas, access from the north, the Tibetan or Bhutanese side, has always been easier wheras the dense rainforests served as an effective barrier to further southward movement. Thus in Arunachal, as all over the Himalayas, the Upper hills are primarily Buddhist, though the people retain many influences of their original animist faiths.

Arunachal is also the home of twenty two major tribes, who even today, mainly due to Arunachal's restricted status, fiercly stick to their traditional lifestyles. In fact most of these tribes gave the British a hard time when the northeast frontier was being amalgamated with the rest of British India. Because they stuck so zealously to their independence, they, with highly developed cultures, were dubbed Daflas or wild-men. Their extremely effective jungle warfare tactics, and the Amazonian rain forests, made this place the frontier of exploration throughout the last century.

The major tribe of interest to us, as a mountain tribe, are the Monpas. Tribes of Indian-Tibetan- Burmese origin their beliefs still retain elements of animism and shamanism though the influence of Buddhism is particularly marked. With 40,000 members spread over Arunachal, Bhutan and Southern Tibet, the Monpas are one of the largest ethnic minorities in the Eastern Himalaya.

The spiritual center of the universe for the Monpas is the Tawang Galden Namgyal Lhatse - the divine site chosen by the celestial white horse. Legend has it that the site for the building of Tawang monastery was shown to the Mira lama in a dream. A white horse pawed the ground where construction of the monastery was started. Construction began in the 1640's and was completed some forty odd years later. Centuries of peace and prayer were shattered by the Chinese invasion in 1962. The monastery was badly damaged during this period with the red gaurds destroying priceless murals and tankhas. Reconstruction work is still on in various parts of the monastery.

Unlike many monastaries in Ladakh and Zanskar, Tawang is vibrantly alive in this modern age. In Tawang's renowned library, Buddhist scholars have access to thousands of block printed commentaries and treatises on Mahayana Buddhism as well as original manuscripts. Interestingly, the paper used is also produced by the Monpas locally, from the bark of the Hong Seng tree.

In the monastery courtyard, the Dancers of Death are going through their steps. Their leaping criss-crossing advance symbolizes Dorje or Thunderbolt, cleansing evil from their path.
The masks with five skulls arrayed on the crown remind the pious observer of the transcience of all life and exhort him to perform good deeds in this lifetime. Likewise the red and blue colours serve the same admonishing function in the dances. Eerie sounding whistles are built into the masks, providing a spine chilling counterpoint.
The dancers follow the strict code given in the books written upon hand made paper produced in the Gompa itself. Before the dance the rules are read out. These rules indicate the movements, gestures, tempo as well as usage of costumes and props.

The most striking feature of the Arunachal Eco-sysytem is that at altitudes varying from 500 meters to 7000 meters, from the floor of the Brahmaputra valley to the crest of the Great Eastern Himalaya, fauna and flora ranging from the tropical to the alpine is found within a distance of 200 kilometers as the crow flies.

As in other parts of the Eastern Himalayas, the tropics meet up with the Himalayan temperate zone with surprising suddenness. The tree line gives way to the shimmering Himalayan glaciers which form a dramatic climatic border separating the dry regions of the north from areas where dense evergreen forests flourish at 3,000 meters. All the upper limits of vegetation applicable in the Western Himalayas have to be appreciably scaled up here These can be termed upper mixed forests with Ban oak, rhododendron and higher up, Silver fir, the dominant species.

Arunachal is virgin territory. Geo-political circumstances have contributed to it's isolation - the entire state is an inner-line area reequiring special permits to enter, with the result that it is a model ecosystem with some of India's most vibrant and undiluted tribal cultures, and we can but hope that as the modern world encroaches, it treads lightly.

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