The landscape can be lush and inviting, or stark, craggy and even forbidding. Irrespective of the time of year, it is always beautiful. Sparsely populated, it is possible to drive miles without seeing another person along the road. Towards the northwestern border of Monyul is the trijunction of Bhutan, China (Tibet) and India. To the south are the densely populated and intensely cultivated plains of Assam. From just a few hundred feet above mean sea level, Monyul rises to over 20,000 feet. In between are only a few hundred kilometres, a journey that can now be completed in relative comfort and at speeds unimaginable only a few decades ago. A month or more has been compressed into a few days.
Moving up and northwards, the initial stages of the journey are through deep and dense sub-tropical forests. The overwhelming colour is verdant, the shades vary with shifting seasons. The trees are tall; below their canopies, in the undergrowth is a boisterous world of insect life.
As the traveller reaches temperate climes where the greens give way to earthy browns, the trees space themselves out and stands of ficus and pine begin to appear; this is also the beginning of rhododendron country. On the road to Tawang, there are oaks, magnolias, conifers, temperate orchids and profuse clumps of rhododendron aplenty. The grass is different, the clump-forming and often tangled sympodial bamboo gives way to neat brakes of monopodials – orderly, thinner and erect. Higher up, subalpine vegetation and shrubby trees dominate, interspersed with mountain flowers, anemones, primulas and wild daisies. There are defiantly coloured mosses and lichens. The landscape is craggy, steep and strewn with rocks.
Soaring over the hues of this distinctive landscape are perennially snow-capped peaks, Gori Chen and the high ranges. Rivers tend to flow generally southward; the largest among them is the Kameng. High-altitude lakes are the showpieces of the Monyul landscape. Often revered, they can be stunningly blue in summer and swathed in icy white in winter. The Tawang region is home to over a hundred lakes, each considered sacred.
Rolling and tumbling waters
The waters of Monyul drain southwards. Most first find their way through a network of brooks and streams to the Kameng river, then inevitably join the Brahmaputra. One of the main rivers of the region, the Kameng originates on the southern slopes of Gori Chen and traverses dense forests, gorges and broad valleys, receiving the waters of the Tenga, Bichom and Dirang Chu rivers on its journey to the plains. From Tipi, almost in the plains, its valley broadens and the river acquires a new name, the Jia Bharali. Not long after, it meets the great Brahmaputra.
Below Jang, and bolstered by water from the Nuranang Falls, another river system, the Tawang Chu, races through its narrow confines to turn westwards into Bhutan and reach the plains and the Brahmaputra. Waters issue forth from springs; other river systems have their origins in mountain ranges.
Snowmelt and rain adds to volume and to the range of colours. Waterfalls cascade, sometimes as much as a hundred metres. Most are gentler in their drop, skipping over moss-laden rocks, through the detritus of branches, twigs, leaves and loosened undergrowth.
On the mud flats along the banks of the Sangti river, the black-necked cranes descend in winter to nest and rest. Protected by the locals and their faith and culture, this endangered species has a tenuous foothold here, in its wintering grounds. The birds forage for grains in marshes and agricultural fields and roost in the shallow waters of the marshes or on sandbanks.
The lakes in the mountains
In the Tawang area alone there are said to be 108 lakes. Pilgrims make the difficult journeys to the sacred ones and spend days and weeks in their environs, in caves or at a hospitable gompa. All the lakes have prayer flags strung across; customarily on one side, sometimes extending all around the lake.
Some of the lakes are popular tourist destinations. Most people spend only a part of the day, some visitors stay on for a night or two. Brokpas build huts along the shores to rest in on their journeys to and from grazing grounds. The high-altitude lakes freeze over during winter, but in late spring and summer, their surroundings burst into bloom. The spectacle lasts only a month or two. Primulas compete with daisies, asters and the bashful Himalayan blue poppies, elusive and difficult to find. Two of the best-known lakes are at Se La, north of the pass at a height just short of 14,000 feet. The colours of the lakes and their surroundings turn not only with the changing seasons, but even with the time of day.
Travellers cross Se La with some wariness and a great deal of respect. Those who are experienced try and cross in either direction by midday. As the ascent picks up, chatter ceases, even the most voluble passengers fall silent, as they watch the road along with the driver. Most do not look to their left, to the west, at the spectacular snowscape. Sometimes they stop to look out over the lake at the prayer flags and the craggy mountainsides around, observing the migratory birds that appear in season. It is auspicious to spot a pair of Brahminy ducks as they mate for life and are considered sacred by Buddhists. Only some travellers are lucky enough to see the birds; their distinctive orange and brown plumage stands out even in inclement weather.
Excerpt from Monpas: Buddhists of the High Himalayas by Vinay Sheel Oberoi, published by Roli Books. The book is available on the Amazon India website.
Vinay Sheel Oberoi was a former civil servant who served as Secretary, Higher Education in the Government of India and Ambassador and Permanent Representative to UNESCO in Paris. In 1979, he joined the Indian Administrative Service and was assigned to the Assam-Meghalaya cadre. His field postings in Assam were in proximity to the Manas National Park and the Brahmaputra river, and in Meghalaya, to the verdant Khasi hills. In the late nineties he made several visits to the Siang valley in Arunachal Pradesh, and produced In The Forest Hangs A Bridge (1999), a film about the Adi tribe coming together to build a traditional cane and bamboo bridge. The film went on to win the National Award for the best documentary film of the year. His affinity for the Northeast of India and its people remained undiminished throughout his life. He passed away in April 2020 after signing off on Monpas, a tribute to the people of the region.