Arunachal Pradesh (lit. The Land of the Dawn-Lit Mountains) is a state in Northeastern India, although in truth its culture could be better described as being part of the Greater Tibet diaspora which covers the Himalayan mountains outside of China. For much of its history, Arunachal was ruled (or, at least, its territory was nominally controlled) by various groups from what is now Chinese Tibet, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Assam. And while Assam, which hugs its southern border, is a Vedic area dominated by Desi-Assamese, where Hindi remains the dominant lingua franca, the Indian elements of Arunachal (that is, the influence of the dominant Hindi-speaking and Dravidian groups of the bulk of the Indian subcontinent) have remained extremely limited. This is partly due to the physical structure of the state: its extreme altitudes and freezing temperatures make transport (and, by extension, cultural diffusion) highly difficult, and also the nature of the state itself.
Unlike other states in the region (Assam, Nagaland, Sikkim and West Bengal being prominent examples), Arunachal has never been its own independent kingdom or civilization, nor has it been definitively colonised by any single group. Instead it has existed on the periphery of several different states – indeed, it continues to do so. It is dominated by disparate, isolated tribal areas, each often entirely distinct from each other. The Western, Central and Eastern Regions are not joined by paved roads (instead, vehicles must return to Assam before re-entering at a different point), and within each division of the state there can be dozens of unique tribes, with differing ethnic backgrounds, languages, art and architecture. Indeed, the state of Arunachal Pradesh is more designed as a catch-all for this tribal border area than a state representative of a single group.
This, along with Arunachal Pradesh’s legendary natural beauty and unexplored nature (many of its 6000m+ peaks remain unnamed) is what piqued my interest – the gigantic and highly diverse grouping of tribes and cultures throughout the state. Western Arunachal, while retaining a large swath of tropical lowlands on its southern fringes, is in many ways geographically and culturally Tibetan; its landscape being dominated by the mighty Sela Pass (approximately 4100m above sea level) and beyond, the Tawang Valley and its gigantic monastery, where the Dalai Lama was housed during his flight from Tibet in 1959.
I arrived in Western Arunachal on the 20th of August, driving myself from Bhalukpong on the Assamese border up to Bomdila. As one ascends from the sweaty, tropical rainforests of the north edge of the Brahmaputra valley, one can see the architecture steadily change – from concrete apartment blocks and corrugated iron-roofed shacks to wood-framed Tibetan houses, fortified against the frigid -30c winters rather than searing Assamese summers and torrential rain. The Tawang monastery itself is one of the largest still remaining following the Chinese purges of the 1960s, its position outside Tibet protecting it from destruction. In many ways it resembles a miniature Potala Palace – its blocky, sheer-sided walls and tiny square windows another protection against the arid and extremely cold environment of the Tibetan plateau. The roads degenerated rapidly as I progressed further towards the Sela, tarmac giving way to slick mud and loose stones which threatened at any point to slide spectacularly down the precipitous slopes. The journey was extremely difficult, particularly when weather conditions worsened considerably atop the Sela itself – without the shelter of the mountains, the high winds and driving rain forced me to take refuge in the local military base (China made a military attempt on Arunachal in 1962, claiming it as part of its control over Tibet along with Ladakh on the Western side of the Himalaya. As a consequence, Arunachal is heavily militarised). I was fed and sheltered by a group of Indian Signalers, none of whom were Arunachali. While I was grateful for their assistance, I couldn’t help but notice that even within the state, Arunachali tribals are poorly represented in official positions – all military personnel whom I encountered were from outside Arunachal, as were all government officials.