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Collage by Dominic Xavier
The Last Frontier
... Arunachal Pradesh

Bill Aitken

E-Mail this story to a friend Arunachal Pradesh's tribes have remained aloof from the violent struggles witnessed in other parts of the North East. It was a relief to ride up to the animist plateau of the Apatanis.

Perhaps Arunachal's most intriguing tribe, rich in the lore of traditional religion that is strongly rooted in the worship of the elements. The Apatanis had to surrender land for an air strip to allow the development of the area but Ziro still wears a lost continent atmosphere. To prevent animals from grazing the well-tended fields, cattle grids have been constructed at either end of the cultivated area and these are so generously spread that it was with difficulty I could get the bike over.

From here are splendid views all around with some really thick forest leading down to the Subansiri valley. I stopped to share a picnic with some local students who serenaded the ladies present with a guitar. Despite their Western dress and taste for rock music, the song they sang was in the local tongue. That is the true test of cultural infiltration, not outward appearances.

I was now running a day late and had to forego the pleasure of spending the night in Ziro to find out more about Apatani culture. The small settlement nestling amongst rolling hills must count as one of India's last unspoiled hill stations. I was particularly chagrined at not being able to meet the Apatani ladies who in the past were considered so beautiful that they had to have their nose disfigured (with a bamboo plug) to prevent neighbouring tribesmen from kidnapping them. I was still romantic enough to believe that true love can easily overlook the beloved's cauliflower nose. But when I actually saw the members of the older generation who had been victims of the process, I had to concede it converted the proposition 'Love is blind' from a euphoric perception to a grim necessity.

On the long, lush and infinitely fronded bamboo descent to Daporijo, an interior township strung along the majestic Subansiri river, the bike rejoiced in excellently surfaced roads. Unlike in west Arunachal where road-building has been a knee-jerk reaction to invasion, these central routes were superbly aligned and surfaced by the Border Roads organization. One could travel safely and still enjoy the scenery. Women were weaving outside their homes and at one village I saw a headman in his red jacket and brass badge of office provided by the British to try and pacify the pugnacious individuality of these tribesmen, something that sets them apart from the rest of India's fairly amenable population.

As an example of the outspokenness common to this region, next morning when I halted at the village blacksmith's to acquire a dao (the waist belt worn by everyone hereabouts to hack a way through the dense bamboo thickets) I was engaged in conversation by a social worker who invited me to accompany him to the interior. When I declined he declared my travel plans were 'bogus' since I was only seeing life along the main road. This was perfectly true but as I had a permit to cover the main townships and didn't hide the fact that I was a tourist, why should my ride be classified as bogus.

The nuances of English had probably escaped this young man's blunt vocabulary. He didn't mean bogus, he meant superficial, which is something every casual traveller has to own up to. But if you declare your circumstances and do not pretend to have seen more than you actually did, the reported superficial is still better than nothing at all on a little-visited area.

At Daporijo I stayed in the Circuit House with the special permission of the magistrate. This was a windfall because the bazaar accommodation looked distinctly basic. Also my presence created a crowd wherever I went and to appear from the portals of the government bungalow at least reassured the mob that I was not a spy.

As I drove to the next town of Along I spotted the bamboo ferry boat being winched across the river on a cable. The bamboos used were of a huge diameter and the whole valley was lined with a bewildering variety of these fast growing grasses. For a moment I felt the overwhelming conviction that I was in Vietnam. It had something to do with the sarong-clad women who glided along in home-woven textiles, a superb study in fluid harmony.

All travellers in India are struck by the femininity of tribal women. While most students of the matrimonial columns assert 'fairness' to be the a lady's most desirable attribute, I find 'slimness' statistically takes precedence. Here in Arunachal you can see why. There is nothing quite so appealing as the supple litheness of the female form. Add to their physical grace the warmth and humour of the Nishi and Adi ladies and they could easily qualify as the definitive expression of sheer femininity. As proof of this I have an invitation card from a young lady for a tribal ceremony super inscribed" "Sir, you are nice and friendly. We'll always remember you, our nice meeting suddenly -- but beautiful. You will remain in our heart. Wish you all the best in every step of your life." The motorcyclist, however, should only have eyes for the road.

When I cleared the valley and turned into the next catchment, the influence of the plains was immediately evident since the road now took a wide detour towards the valley of upper Assam. A three-wheel auto rickshaw was toiling up from the plains, carrying what I could only suppose was a wealthy passenger. But when the rickshaw drew abreast I discovered it was stacked to the roof with cases containing that aid to local ceremonies I has spotted earlier at the Monpa village celebration. This time the XXX signified Hercules Rum.

The stilted villages were more populous but around them were bald patches of badly eroded jungle. The evidence of slash and burn cultivation was also to be seen , with whole hillsides of recovering growth on view. Because it was Arunachal, the lushness oif the vegetation could bounce back after fifteen years of idle recuperation. But for how long could the forest floor be expected to combat the suicidal instinct of the instant farmer? Arunachal's easy development gains could disappear in a matter of years if cash became the main product as it had in every other Himalayan area except Bhutan.

My motorbike trip along the range underlined the colossal depletion of India's forests, decimated on the one hand by greedy industrialists for paper and plywood and devastated on the other for fuel by villagers and defence personnel posted along the borders. Where there was a road there was trucking out timber, much of it illegal. Ride any truck in the Himalayan states and you are held up by a plethora of police and forest department check posts. At every one of these you buy your passage, such is the profitability of timber. And if you take the extreme step of putting a moratorium on the felling, industrialists will pay people to go around setting fire to the forests in summer so they can buy the charred timber for a song.

I stopped the bike at a football match being watched by village men in their traditional woven bamboo helmets but was advised to move on since they did not take kindly to strangers with cameras. Most were athletically endowed and all sported a long machete at the waist.

Along turned out to be a friendly little town and its government bungalow was a meeting place for local officials who all surprised me by ordering cold tea. What they were drinking of course was something stronger but the deceptions didn't upset the Aryan sensibilities of their seniors.

I was invited to attend a tribal festival the next morning (whence the card with its complimentary postscript) where the women all turned out dressed as men. I noted that the modern tribal hall was designed in the style of a Hindu temple and apparently the tribe was split down the middle for this affront.

The oldies saw no need for a temple while the young generation believed esteem would rise from aping the fashions of the plains. A compromise was reached where by the temple was open to all and left without a stick of furniture. One could yell and play inside and this was exactly what the kids were doing. The climax of the ceremonies was to partake of roast pig which the whole congregation looked upon as the ultimate delicacy. When I announced that I must leave before the feast, everybody looked at me as if I was mad. How could anyone put mundane journeying before the ecstatic transports occasioned by eating pork?

Excerpted from Riding the Ranges: Travels on My Motorcycle, Bill Aitken, Penguin Books India, 1997, Rs 250, with the publisher's permission.

Bill Aitken is Scottish by birth and a naturalized Indian by choice. He studied comparative religion at Leeds University and then hitch-hiked to India in 1959. He has lived in an ashram, worked as the secretary to a maharani, undertaken hair-raising expeditions on the vintage steam railway and written a variety of books and articles.
Aitken was 50 years old when he first got on a bike.
Riding the Ranges is an account of a solo motorcycle ride across the Himalayas and the Sahyadris.

Collage by Dominic Xavier

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