The past year has taught me to slow down. As a traveller, I now find myself free from the pressure of ‘seeing everything’. Our trip across eastern Arunachal Pradesh focused on taking rare experiences everyday rather than trying to squeeze in as many places into the itinerary. Visiting Chongkham is a case in point.
There were hills, there were those grand pagodas, there was great food and there was absolute serenity but it was the people who made it special. For instance, Sukiyo Chow Mein, our driver, tour guide, man Friday and now, a dear friend. He had been a sheer delight. We first met him at Dibrugarh Airport. Almost my age, the Khampti boy with cool tattoos vibed with me and Sandipan instantly.
Getting spiritual in Namsai
A smooth drive blessed with tea gardens takes us to the Golden Pagoda Eco Resort in Tengapani. By the time we reach, it’s dark but fortunately we can see the beautifully lit pagoda from our cottage. And zillions of stars. Soon, a bonfire is raised, copious amounts of homemade rice beer is served. There is wine too, followed by a wholesome Khampti dinner. We have paasa, a soup made from raw fish and herbs. There is namson tongpuk, a curry made by fermenting yam leaves and rice, paapho or steamed fish which is prepared in banana leaf and cooked over fire and there is steamed chicken with dry bamboo shoots. But what steals the show for me is khao lam or steamed rice that has taken the shape of the bamboo it was cooked in.
The next morning we wake up at five when dawn has already set in. Soon, we are at the Golden Pagoda or the Kongmu Kham, surrounded by monks. One of the senior monks Chowsang Ombgbu, sits in a quiet corner reading Buddhist scriptures. He is kind enough to join us for a walk around the pagoda. Built on a plateau overlooking the plains and the Eastern Himalaya, the Kongmu Kham stands in all its glory as an iconic symbol of Theravada Buddhism. Inside the pagoda sits a bronze Buddha statue that was gifted by the chief monk from a temple in Thailand.The prayer hall is reverberating with the sounds of Pali chants and spiritual fervour as monks kneel in front of a one-of-its kind Buddha statue made of cane. After the prayer service, some monks head to their schools to receive formal education and some stay for their Dhamma classes. We are leaving for Chongkham, when Chowsang Mojingta, who is running late for school, asks for a lift. The 17-year-old had joined the monastery last year to discipline his life. We drop him at the Momong Government School and pay a quick visit to the Momong Monastery. Constructed in 1918, this is one of the oldest Theravada monasteries and houses age-old Buddha statues that were brought from Myanmar.
Escaping to Chongkham
Large paddy fields, traditional bamboo houses, prayer flags and shimmering pagodas mark our entry in Chongkham. We stop at the Teang Bridge and appreciate the southeast Asian-esque landscape basking in past glory. Bound in the north by the commanding snow ranges of the last fringes of the Himalayan Hump and the descending misty mountains of the Patkai range to its east, Chongkham is blessed with its share of small rivers and rivulets and tributaries of Lohit and Kamlang rivers.It was through the numerous passes of the Patkai Range that the Tai Khamptis poured into Assam and then parts of eastern Arunachal Pradesh, from Burma. Sukiyo informs us that Chongkham was once known as the richest village of Asia, thanks to its abundant natural wealth that included timber forests and many sprawling tea estates. Till date, every house in Chongkham owns elephants, symbolic of their wealth. Khamptis have a legendary connection with elephants and they were skilled at capturing wild elephants and training them to extract logs, plucking tea leaves and ploughing farmlands. Most households in the village had plywood factories and saw mills. It was only after the Supreme Court banned the felling of trees that Chongkham’s golden period came to an end.
Meeting Khamptis in Empong
We continue for Chongkham’s Empong village, where we are all set to be hosted by Chou Jigdra Lungkeing, the Gaon Bura or headman of the village. We soak in the early morning countryside vibes as we cross people opening up their shops in little markets, students cycling to their schools, thatched bamboo huts, sprawling tea plantations and unending banana, bamboo and betel nut trees. Snow-capped mountains of the Manabum hill ranges battle the mist to make their presence felt.At the Gaon Bura’s home, we are greeted by his wife Nang Bhikuni Lungkeing, who is weaving a phanoy (lungi) when we enter. Their traditional bamboo house stands by the Marwa River. Most Khampti families have looms in their homes on which they weave traditional garments for themselves. She welcomes us inside her kitchen, where rice is being cooked on a traditional hearth. She has packed the rice in tong leaves and put them in a vessel, which is placed on another vessel with boiling water.Dotted with uriam, banana, papaya and tomar trees, Empong is a friendly Tai Khampti hamlet with a population of only 50 to 60 people. Most families are involved in the cultivation of paddy, potato, beans, peas and other vegetables. They live in traditional huts with spread-out habitations, separated by paddy fields that produce the famous Khampti sticky rice. There’s been no electricity since last night but we don’t mind, thanks to the chilly breeze coming in from the river and the sunny rooms.
We enjoy hot tea seated on a beautiful floor mat made with pong wood. The room offers spectacular views of the gentle river lined with dense trees on both the sides. Without internet and phone networks, we simply get charmed by the serenity, one breeze at a time while bulbuls and mynahs chirp at the window.Medals belonging to Jigdra’s daughter Nisana hang on the walls of the room. The 11th grader is a marathon runner and wants to pursue medicine. At 16, she can already make medicines from local herbs. She is also a talented artist and shows us a multicoloured dream catcher that she has made.
Jigdra accompanies us to the Empong Monastery, which stands at the confluence of Tissu and Marwa rivers. One of the most important Buddhist chongs in Arunachal Pradesh, Empong is famed for its wish-fulfilling Buddha idol, known as the Phra Sutong Pe. At the entry of the monastery, a huge mango tree with enormous growth and size, perhaps the thickest in the world, leaves us jaw dropped. It’s considered to be older than the monastery.
Lunch with Singphos
Our next stop for the day is Piyong village, where a Singpho family has invited us for lunch. On our way to Piyong, we stop at the Chongkham Buddha Vihara. Inside the compound are several golden pagodas or kongmus, with little carvings of the Buddha in their niches, and idols depicting scenes from the Buddha’s life. We cross a steel bridge to reach the other side of the river, where stands the World Peace Pagoda. We loll around the river island under the bright afternoon sun, watching little monks being playful as they take turns to jump in the river.
In Piyong, Ningru Onnong Maio and his wife Ningru Walet Maio are waiting for us with bated breath. They have called Sukiyo a couple of times since we left Empong. We greet the couple and meet our little host baby Sansan Maio, who is all dressed up in her cute Singpho dress. Her smile is infectious and we play with her as we wait for lunch to be served.My north Indian palate requests for some rotis and our thoughtful hosts oblige. I enjoy the hot and crispy rotis with dal and phakko or steamed mustard green—their version of the sarso ka saag. I also have paa ning or steamed fish with rice. There’s some delicious egg curry too. For dessert, we are pleasantly surprised to see some spongy rosogullas. I enjoy the first and give in to my temptation for the second.
Onnong tells me that he is the great grandson of Ningru La Maio, who is believed to be Assam’s first tea planter. I am curious. Onnong takes us to his uncle Ningru Chau Ja Maio’s house. Adorning a traditional Singpho coat, the 70-year-old is the proud grandson of Ningru La Maio, and tells us that Ningru La was one of the many rulers of the Singpho community.The Singphos have been using tea or phalap, as they call it, since the time it required one to be seated atop an elephant to pluck the leaves. Ningru Chau Ja tells us that Major Robert Bruce of the East India Company came to know about tea after he was served a concoction of the beverage by Singpho king Bisa Gam in the early nineteenth century.
The British sought Ningru La’s assistance in locating tea-growing areas in Assam. Ningru La produced 35 boxes of the total 95 boxes of tea that the East India Company had sent for auction to London for the first time. Following the Singpho uprising in January 1843, he was deported to Arunachal Pradesh, where he spent the rest of his life. Intrigued by the story, we say our goodbyes to the Maio family.
Later, Sukiyo takes us to the Alubari Bridge and we reach just in time to witness one of the most stunning sunsets of our lives. While Sandipan tries to capture the massive red ball of fire in his lens, I decide to enjoy the view with naked eyes. I have finally learned to live in the moment.