Fifteen kilometres of bad road only,” says the Extra Assistant Commissioner, West Kameng District, from whom Sanjoy and I secure our Inner-Line Permits. We were headed to Arunachal, the first part of India to see the sun rise, or so the longitude myth goes. It is Mahalaya, the day Bengalis atone for their sins, and we ask each other about the expiry dates that astrologers have declared on our horoscopes. I think of all the boys in school whose love letters I’ve made fun of and the number of mosquitoes I’ve slapped to death in this lifetime. This is penance — giving up control of one’s life and limbs to the Great Driver.

But when the river Kameng emerges, like a long-forgotten secret, Sanjoy and I forget the bad roads and forgive each other our vacillating accusations of you-should-have-known and I-should-have-known. It would be the moon on our journey to Tawang: there’s hardly a moment the river doesn’t follow us. For the beauty of Arunachal, Sanjoy discovers to a photographer’s delight, is the beauty of reflecting surfaces — of water, always in instalments, of a sky that becomes a mood-mirror, of freshly polished surfaces in Buddhist monasteries, of brassware that young monks train to clean for a lifetime.

We eat breakfast at Hotel Solu and watch the Kameng flow by, its water muddy brown from monsoon silt. We learn that Solu has no association with the sun, but is the name of the owner’s native village, too far away in time and space. The recurring appearance of ‘gates’ in our journey, their rituals of ‘checking points’ and the curious squints of the ‘Gatewala ICs’ inspire in me a certain border fetishism. Even a clothes wire looks like a gate to me — the neat assembly of similar-coloured trousers hung upside down looks like a flag line to my short-sighted eyes as I try to wriggle the tired Permit out of my file one more time.

I point out signboards to Sanjoy: Elvis Beauty Parlour and Angel Beauty Parlour, a Tip Top Corner at Tipi, the sour connection that Tenga Valley might have to Assamese cuisine, the inappropriateness of the name ‘Kargil Victors 233’. But it seems to me that the photographer has begun to take the BRO-painted signs seriously, one of which has just moralised “Speech is silver, silence is golden”; this right after “Sound on my curves, awaz do”.

At Dirang, Sanjoy and I lose things—he struggles to find his breath and I’ve lost all sense of hearing. And both of us lose something in common: cell phone connectivity. (A phone booth here is, tellingly, called ‘Good Luck PCO’.) When we’ve run out of people to blame—home ministers and cellphone service providers — we decide to celebrate the thrill of being a-w-a-y with Bengali comfort food: the homelovingness of fish curry and hill-grown stubble rice in a Dirang tourist lodge that overlooks a nameless tributary of the Kameng.

The old monastery and orchid garden at Bomdilla are behind us. Is there anything we could see in Dirang, we ask with the now-or-never energy of a traveller. A sheep farm and an old jail, suggest the village-town’s residents. Baa baa, bah bah, we say in our different accents, and proceed to Tawang.

For no journey would this be truer than the pilgrimage to Tawang — the road and the travel are its own reward. Flowers, white, yellow, pink, grow in sparkling abandon; women with schoolgirl figures break stones and nurse babies; rocks break themselves; absent-minded yaks lock horns and lonely brown horses give mending roads a stateliness; tiny makeshift bamboo bridges stand over flirtatious streams; maize fields in harvest emerge as corn on the cob ceiling hangings on tiny wood houses; and clouds form surprising new shapes in the freshly scrubbed sky.

My hearing’s still gone; Sanjoy teaches me the plumbing trick of unlocking my ears by holding my nose. What I begin to hear is the drone of the forests receding and approaching in turns, like a lover’s tantalising breath, the meditative restlessness of insects always pricking to a beat. And then I begin to see better — the Sela Pass, at 13,700ft, is here. Here is the quiet prettiness of a Dutch landscape painting. Here is the Wordsworthian joy of solitude. Crowds, absent in all three, the paintings, the Romantic poet and in Arunachal, the state with the lowest density of population in the Northeast. The tourism adverts even take up the title of a Hardy novel — with 13 persons per sq km, this is far from the madding crowd.

Soon after, Jaswantgarh arrives. This 1962 war memorial prepares us for the Subedar Joginder Singh PVC Memorial near Bumla, the Indo-China border and the Tawang War Memorial, with its elegant stupa dedicated to the “unsung heroes of the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict in Kameng Sector whose valour remains unmatched”. The self-congratulatory tone of war memorials tires me but there’s also the undeniable claim of love, of commitment and sacrifice to an abstraction, the sad beauty of burnt candles in temples; 2,420 soldiers. At Jaswantgarh — in spite of the bad rhyme “Have a cup of tea/ Be a part of history” on a sign opposite the memorial — we are moved by the graciousness of three men in uniform who offer us steaming hot milk tea and warm aloo samosa, its skin freckled with nigella seeds. I ask them about homes and birds they miss seeing here; homeland is an albatross that I see in their eyes. Home is Uttar Pradesh, Shimla, Hoshiyarpur, Punjab.

I notice the personal belongings of Jaswant Singh and, for a moment, I can’t help wondering how his shoes are still so white and his topi so clean. Soldiers have been canonised into gods here and in the Joginder Singh Memorial, with donation boxes and brass thalis full of 10 rupee notes. But what is largely amusing is the subterranean rumour that surrounds these memorials: the ghost of Joginder Singh protects the Indian territory at Bumla, my driver informs me, and I’m immediately reminded of the ghost of another Sikh soldier keeping guard over our land in Sikkim.

Lhou finally arrives and I try all possible variants of pronouncing it, sticking, in the end, with one that sounds like a lisping lover’s love. And the sense of distance, the alienation that a mix of loftiness and the sublime causes in the visitor to the mountains, recedes. Pink and white flowers, a series of waterfalls and rapids, roadside congregations of umbrellas with smiling women hidden behind them and school children with happy home-going faces are all appetisers to the eye.

We ask Tashi Norbu, a young man who ferries children to school, to accompany us on our visits to the monasteries in Tawang. He gets his wife along. She has two names, she says; Anu is her Indian name and she’s Drema Lhamu for the Monpas. That’s the name that appears in the credits of the music album Kuppi Kuppi. It’s the name of a bird. “Oye punang nanaiya,” she sings us the first line, her voice croaky from a recent cold but filled with Pung Tung pride.

It’s a Saturday. Young monks at Tawang monastery clean the roads of monsoon overgrowth, their tiny brooms poking at adamant ferns. There’s a quiet beauty in seeing people work, especially when the work comes without visible rewards. Buckets of cold water clean stony steps, an alert monk keeps a count of brass lamps and I’m suddenly filled with the desire never to leave this place. It’s a strange contradiction: to feel attachment for a religious place that teaches detachment and the exfoliation of desire.

The Buddha statues, ostentatiously large and gilded in all the gompas we visit, disturb me with their quietness. Where do our prayers really go? All confusion is temporarily cleared as a young Monpa girl, smart beyond her years, leading a pack of children, tells me that I should take the stairs to get closer to god. He’ll be able to hear you better, she clarifies. I smile but decide against taking the stairs. I’m unsure about my prayers. Perhaps what I want this Saturday morning isn’t what I want for life?

My happiest moments in Tawang are spent at the monastery in the company of Sangay Leta, a young monk in glasses, his late adolescent beard adding a comic grandeur to his very Sanskritised Hindi. He tells me about Merang Lama Lodre Gyamtso founding the monastery in 1681, its library, community kitchen, school, the Centre for Buddhist Cultural Studies and Dukhang, the main prayer hall, where the young girl had wanted me to get into a closer communion with the Buddha. In a near whisper, as if such a story could only be narrated thus, he tells me that Merang Lama’s lost horse was found on the site where the monastery now stands. That was seen as a divine sign and thus this site was chosen for the monastery. Tawang, apparently, means ‘chosen by a horse’. And I gradually begin to see how the history of Tawang is also the history of this monastery.

Later, I visit the adjoining museum and standing amidst a collection of dailiness frozen in time, I take back as souvenir the image of the footprint of the Sixth Dalai Lama engraved in wood. What remains my most significant memory of that Saturday, however, is the monk Sangay’s placid tone telling me about his education in English, Hindi, Bodhi, the social sciences, Buddhist philosophy and chanting; his sharp mind; his eagerness to relate his history with mine; and the sunny morning in that room. It emerged as a dream at night: the young monks in their maroon robes rolling yellow prayer-printed paper, sticking glue on spines to make manuscripts, all to be put inside a stupa and prayer wheels. It isn’t possible to say all your prayers to god at once, so when you roll the prayer wheel, the prayers stored inside it reach God, he explains to the lazy Bengali in me. I wake up to the sound of his voice in my sleep, telling me about the three kinds of manuscripts in that room, books written in gold ink, books in very old print and handwritten manuscripts, all carried from Lhasa. The history of the Holy Book could not have had a better gait.

We are on the Buddhism trail. Ugyenling Monastery, five kilometres from the town, established by Ugyen Sangpo, the youngest brother of Pema Lingpa, the famous Treasure Revealer, in the 15th century — here, in 1683, was born Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama. A modest temple stands at the site today, a room filled with white stupas and ‘chhaanch’ or tiny moulded statues of the Buddha. There’s the myth of the tree in the courtyard: the sixth Dalai Lama planted a walking stick and prophesied that he would return from Tibet when it grew into a tree with three equal trunks. That indeed, we are told, came true in 1959 when the present Dalai Lama came to India as an exile. One trunk is gone. What remains is the huge tree with prayer flags hanging from it and, adjacent to it, a conifer planted by a civil servant in July this year “on the occasion of the Queen’s baton relay of the Commonwealth Games”.

Taking another road down the hill, we find ourselves in Khinmey Gompa, the only monastery affiliated to Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism in Tawang. It starts raining, the long red prayer flags begin to get wet. They are so beautiful that I long to hold an umbrella over their heads. Little boys and grandfathers thump around in blue gumboots. Young boys in yellow, red and blue shirts kick a white ball into the blue sky. The monastery becomes a sanctuary — to the footballers and their football. At Gyang-Gong Ani Gompa and Brama Dungchung Ani Gompa, the oldest nunneries in Tawang, we see the opposition of elements in play: firewood stacked beside red buckets of water. A khada cloth begins to resemble divinity, there are offerings of water in bowls, fire in instalments in lamps and, below it all, a tiny tin drainpipe gurgling out clean rainwater. I could have bent down on my knees to worship it then and there.

The Tak-Tsang Monastery, believed to have been visited by Guru Padmasambhava in the eighth century, is also called the Tiger’s Den: apparently a tiger received him here. We are grateful there isn’t one to welcome us. A steeper staircase I have never climbed. “Getting to God isn’t easy,” explains Anu, in all seriousness. I don’t get God, not in most ways. What I do get is his diet: serkim, a rice like preparation; torma kempa, a flour preparation that looks like tamarind; and Frooti, pahari cucumber, Kurkure and Brittannia digestive biscuits.

We drive to Bumla, leaving Gyeshila Pass to our right. That’s where, Anu tells me in a whisper, “only the VIPs are cremated.” I ask her to specify. “Chief ministers, MLAs, important priests…,” and looking proudly at Tashi, she says, “drivers.” I laugh, thinking it’s a joke. I suspect she takes offence. “How else would people get here without drivers?” she asks. I nod in agreement. We also cross Minmay Phu, an unassuming monastery hidden behind giant trees, not mentioned in any travel book, where only Buddhists born in Tawang come in crisis. He hangs a prayer flag from the sacred tree and he’s cured, Anu asserts — Tawang’s last secret in the face of the globalisation of Buddhism.

People, even the pussycat, go to see the Queen in London. We go to see the Sino-Indian border. It’s a strange disease that afflicts tourists in frontier towns. Sanjoy spots a milestone and says, “six kilometres to Bumla.” Tashi quips, “No, it’s more than that, sir. The kilometre-writing man has no sense of the kilometre in Arunachal.” At the border, the snow is blinding. All memories of my coldest winter — in Poland four years ago — disappear. An Indian army officer tells me that we’ve missed the ‘mela’ by a few days. There are four every year: May 30 and August 15 by the Indians, and October 1 and 30 by the Chinese. The border, however, covered in snow, has to remain imagined. It’s a piece of school-boyish irony that the road we take to see the border was the route that the 14th Dalai Lama took to walk to Tawang from Tibet; a road now lined with army convoys and ‘reporting centres’. I enjoy the cheap thrill of watching army personnel taking stock of passing vehicles: tourism in a state of emergency.

P.T. Tso Lake, with its vacant viewing point and tiny mounds of expectant red sand around a handkerchief of water, is shaped like a bubble that the Buddha might have drawn if he’d been incarnated as a cartoonist. Unmoving, even vain in its indifference to its own beauty, it’s an architecture of illusion. It makes you want to believe that you can walk on water. All this is, however, only preparation for what would be our most enduring memory of water in Tawang: the Sho-nga-tseir Lake. Born of flash floods in 1973, it found a new baptism about 15 years ago: ‘Madhuri Jheel’ after Madhuri Dixit, the heroine of the Hindi film Koyla.

“Always expect the unexpected,” a BRO sign had counselled us. It turns out to be a prophecy in Tawang. The unexpected could not have been more sublime. Arunachal, with its insomniac hamlets of water, and Tawang, mtsho skyes, ‘water-born’ in Tibetan, had become Varunachal

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