It has rained in Bomdila.
On the terrace next to our hotel room, the round plastic tables and the chairs hold puddles of water. This dusk, the sky has been washed clean of rainclouds: all that remains of them are wispy strands of orange candy floss that change pattern with the nippy wind.
On the gentle brown slopes of a mountain now bathed in the magical orange twilight, Bomdila is a random cluster of houses, roads pencilled among them in a zigzag fashion, and bright yellow-roofed monasteries at three different levels.
The sky is a brilliant azure the next morning—a rarity throughout our Arunachal sojourn—tempting us to drive some distance towards Tawang again, in the hope of sighting Gorichen. At 22,500 feet, it is the highest peak seen from Arunachal Pradesh and the source of River Kameng.
But white, cottony clouds have settled above the tops of green ranges, just where the snow-covered massif should be. We drive on, not wishing to give up the chase, and reach 5th mile.
Dawa Hotel, a small eatery by the road, is a good stop for tea. Pot-loads of yellow orchids sit on the roof. As we sun ourselves by the car, hotel owner Sonam Chiring strikes up a conversation. His family has been here for generations.
We tell him about our quest for Gorichen. 'Yes, some days you get to see it,' Chiring says. Adding, with some awe in his voice: 'It is always covered in snow. We believe that the day the snow melts from Gorichen would be the day we meet our doom.' The talk veers to the dirt roads. On our way to Bomdila the previous day, we passed a dangerously mist-covered stretch, and it did not help that the road was bad too.
'Our car had crossed President Pranab Mukherjee's convoy travelling towards Tawang,' I tell Chiring. 'In a few days, Prime Minister Modi is also expected to visit Arunachal Pradesh,' he says. 'The Indian Government plans to extend the railways all the way up to Tawang. Let them build proper roads, first, and then talk about railways.'
Tea arrives in little red bone-china cups, ornate gold-and-green dragons on them. But by then I have wandered off a bit and made friends with Mala, a local girl going to fetch water in a shocking pink plastic canister. Mala shows me her house on the slope just opposite Dawa Hotel, a one-storey structure with a tin roof, cheek-by jowl with two others. Red blankets dry on her fence, next to golden marigold bushes. Mala poses readily for a photograph, then takes a look at it on the camera's LCD. 'I look quite good, don't I?'
That she does. She has full lips, carefully tended, and her fair cheeks are flushed pink with the warm sun. The broad vermilion mark on her forehead and the red glass beads around her neck match a bright red salwar. Gorichen eludes, but Bomdila's hills are resplendent with autumn leaves in all shades of red, gold, yellow and orange. The mood is festive at Mon-Bomdila, where the Gentse Gaden Rabgyel Ling Monastery or the Upper Gompa is holding the 8th Annual Events of Drubchod Chenmo cum Bomdila Torgya.
We are halted at the temporary arch declaring the festivities by a young, uniformed soldier. Sumita is carrying my folded tripod in its black bag, and this could be mistaken for a rifle. At my insistence – it lends colour to my photos –and much to her embarrassment, she is also wearing the rainbow-hued woollen cap bought in Kurseong. It has three rainbow-hued plaits hanging from it. I cannot think of a single reason why someone in this slightly ridiculous headgear should arouse suspicion.
Whatever the trigger – speaking metaphorically, of course – the tripod is taken out of its bag and its purpose explained. The soldier lets us pass.
On a large stretch of land before the impressive monastery, local men and women sit on carpets. In the centre, a batch of very young schoolboys in blue shirts and red pullovers squat patiently, whispering into one another's ears. On the monastery porch, their contemporaries aspiring for lamahood do the same. Only, their heads are shaved, and they wear maroon robes.
The monastery is said to have been started by the 12th reincarnation of Tsona Gontse Rimpoche in 1965-66. It is a replica of Tsona Gontse Monastery at Tsona in South Tibet, established in the 15th century. A golden Buddha statue occupies the sanctum. White scarves are offered to the chief lamas on the porch, and the chants begin. There is a little fair, too. Outside the monastery, wares for everyday use with a predominance of woollens are displayed on cheap plastic sheets spread over the ground. Serious buyers inspect the goods and check out prices.
Textiles, thangkas, driftwood sculptures, woven cane baskets, embroidered woollen prayer mats and wooden furniture are on sale at the ethnographic museum as well. The price of the crudely crafted wood-and-metal tobacco pipe I collect there seems a little high, but I am sold on its quaintness.
An ephemeral light-blue shadow that looks like the upended tail of a gigantic fish towers in the sky just for a few tantalising moments every dawn. Soon, waves of grey rain-clouds engulf the tail.
We are not allowed to forget that vision and get on with our lives: every bookshop that lines the roads of Pokhara showcases its photograph. Every Nepali artist has painted it at least once, and the paintings adorn the walls of street-side cafés and bistros. On crispy winter mornings, so we are told, the Phewa Lake proudly bears its image on the crystal clear waters.
The locals call it Machhapuchhare, the Fishtail Mountain. At almost 23,000 feet, it is the second highest peak of the Annapurna Himalayan Range. Lord Shiva is believed to live on the peak. To respect this belief, Wilfrid Noyce and ADM Cox, British mountaineers of the only expedition undertaken in 1957 to climb this summit, had ended their ascent 165 feet below the top.
Down below, 200 kilometres and six hours from Kathmandu, stretches the enchanting Pokhara valley, a creation of tectonic movement and glacial flood. All that remains of the flood is the waters of the Phewa, Begnas and Rupa lakes. Phewa is fed by a stream, but a dam regulates the flow, which makes it a semi-natural freshwater lake. It is the second largest lake in Nepal. Just about 28 kilometres to its north, straight as the crow flies, is the Annapurna Himalayan Range.
Doongas—red, blue, green and yellow local boats—are tethered to the lakeshore. Little waves lap at the doongas, making them rock gently against one another in the dappled sunlight like a handful of fallen petals. A boatman offers us an hour's ride on the Phewa. Our boat is blue, its narrow plank-seats red. The oars are blue. The life jackets we must put on are a ridiculous shade of pink.
The locals, I note, have a different vessel of passage. Two doongas joined by a wide wooden plank from the edges of which rises a metal scaffold draped on top with a plastic sheet for shade, metal seats. Scaffold and seats painted a fluorescent green. Not enough life jackets.
Placid green waters mirror the rolling, verdant hills, the occasional jacaranda or flamboyant tree in bloom. A cormorant sits on a broken log sticking out of the lake. Honey-coloured cranes with creamy white wings fly overhead.
We anchor a while at a little green island. Six or seven large trees and a two-tiered pagoda-style temple from the 18th century are about all the island can hold.
'Please keep here like sandle (sic), shoe and leather goods,' says a notice near the sanctum. Nepalese families wait patiently in a long queue: women, with dainty sal-leaf or cane baskets of offerings; men, with little pigtailed children laughing on their shoulders. Those coming out of the temple have bright red tikas on their fair foreheads.
This is the Taal Varahi Temple, with an ancient lore. Ajima, or Varahi, the boar-headed incarnation of Goddess Shakti, had once visited a Nepali village full of wicked residents. To test their compassion, she went from door to door begging for alms. She was refused by all but one, a lady who gave her alms and shelter.
To punish the villagers, the goddess sunk the whole village with a deluge. Only the little patch of land holding the home of the generous lady was spared. This is where the temple stands. On clear days, locals believe they can see the remains of houses at the bottom of the lake.
Legend swathes the Vindhya Vasini temple too, a pristine white structure atop a ridge near Pokhara's old market. Tibetan tantrics were carrying the idol of the goddess from the Vindhya mountain ranges of India to Mustang in Tibet. On their way, the exhausted men put the idol down in Pokhara so they could rest a while. They could not lift it again.