The Yak and the Yeti
The Monpa people are hardworking. Their gods are peaceful. Their toil leaves them little time for miseducation. Their women work on the roads. Their men carry babies on their backs. They all drink roxie (chhang: anybody remember Tintin in Tibet?) sitting together in the evening and the menfolk aren’t usually drinking and/or smoking out with their ‘male’ friends or female companions, leaving their wives to languish at home.
You can revel in the freshly made Yak butter (chhurpi) swirling in your wooden bowl, and fry it in Yak ghee. Everything is a ritual, so before you can decide whether you have an active ‘belief’ in them or not, you are already doing it. You are already trying to make out the writing on the five-hued Tibetian flags, you are already picking ripe plums off their gardens, you are already drinking their ‘aara’ (your cup will be refilled at least three times) and wolfing down their momos and thukpas. You are smelling fresh herbs and plants and spices everywhere. You are accosted by animals both domestic and wild, until you let go of any inhibitions and play with them. Dogs and cats and rabbits and rats co-exist on the same plot of land and snuggle up to each other for comfort on cold evenings. Because there is no other way to live. Everything is of the soil, and you come to belong to it. Even their god is a son of these mountains, not a mythical deity descended from the heavenly wrath of celestial beings. A poet, not a prophet. A beggar, not a blesser.
The moment you have crossed Bhalukpong (names lilting on the edge of my tongue, sliding, rolling, gliding), the smoky river Kameng appears out of nowhere, as if to lead you to the Amazonian thickness of the surrounding slopes, slumbering amongst the clouds. The crags breathe smoke onto the roads, and the stretch of 30 odd kilometres from Sessa, where the orchids dream, and Nagmandir, where the army is waiting for you to enter the forbidden realms, you are driving through the mists, not being able to see 100 yards ahead. If you open your window, the clouds come streaming in, wetting you with their whiteness. They’ll playfully tickle you, but you know their playfulness is dire – if the driver steps a tad heavier on the accelerator, you’ll plummet to your death in the whitewashed ethos.
Suddenly, after crossing Senge and Tenga valley, thronging with army men, the clouds clear and you are across the mountain and in the valley of semi-arid green, rocky and baring bones, but it shows a lifeline running through it. If the skies are clear and you catch a glimpse of the Sela Lake, your day’s made. It’s the Sela Pass, at 13,700 feet, with the valley thronged by army installations and yaks grazing peacefully amongst the wild yellow flowers, oblivious to their guns. If you stop the car and take a photograph, they’ll look at you, pose calmly against the mountainous view, give you the ideal postcard shot, and saunter across the shallow river over to the other side. The brokpas (yak grazers/keepers) are nowhere to be seen – the yaks mind themselves, stroll steeply up the slopes in search of greens, and calmly go back to their owners at the end of the day.
You leave them behind to enter the second layer of clouds. Clouds hugging the mountaintops, down below you. By this time, you have reached high enough to look down upon them. The Tenga river leads you further on, nudging you towards Bomdila, couched between two mighty blocks of mountains and waiting to be discovered. The market at Bomdila appeals to your foreign eye because it is exotic and colourful, flagged with Tibetan prayers and full of chirpy locals who are out for their beef momos and their rations. You get white rajma for thirty ruppes a kilo, suck on ripe plums, buy a ton of ceramic and wooden mementos for your family back home, and you are off again, towards the kingdom of clouds.
She takes us up to her plantation in Mandala, higher up, past Dirang, near Phudung. I catch a glimpe of the Phudung monastery, and photograph the tall Tibetan banners flanking the mountain roads. ‘It’s for safekeeping and protection’, she smiles. All is encompassed in the benevolent blessings of the mountains, its water sources are also flagged with prayers so that they do not dry up. Water, and all other forms of nature, are to be protected and kept well. They are the source of all creation.
The mountains smell of spice. There are miniature wild strawberries growing everywhere – fodder for both yak and men. I pick some and put them in my mouth, oblivious to ‘germs’ and dirt and possible yak pee infestation. I didn’t get diarrhoea. I don’t know how. Sangnima picked a lot of them and kept nibbling on those sweet berries. I want to get some chhurpi for home, so we search for the brokpa whose yaks graze near the Inspection Bungalow at the mountain top near Mandala. It’s a spot that is completely beautiful in its elevated isolation. There are shadows of clouds falling across the surrounding peaks. There are a few hutments, sturdily yet aesthetically built with wood and stones, with wooden frames and planks and bamboo to keep out the cold. It’s sunny and I am panting with exercise, and two warm spots of red appear on my cheeks. ‘Lack of oxygen’, smiles my companion, ‘see why those babies look so cute?’
You leave wistfully for Tawang in a couple of days, after business is wrapped up, not knowing the treat that lies ahead of you. The mountains keep you company. The clouds play hide and seek continuously, concealing and unveiling the surrounding peaks from your sight as you go. The pines look like they are on fire, giving off white smoke, but that’s just the mists settling on their branches and licking their barks off. You cross a mighty waterfall at Jang that appears as though out of nowhere – the Nuranang Falls, situated at 6,000 feet above sea level and which drops with all its force into the Nuranang river to generate enough electricity to accommodate the neighbouring villages’ needs.
Onwards from the Nuranang or the Jang Falls, since it is located near the Jang village, we reach Tawang. Approaching Tawang, one can already sight the Galden Namgey Lhatse or the Tawang Monastery from afar, its yellow and white paint glistening golden in the afternoon sun. We don’t wait for work to finish before we visit the monastery. My companion is a Muslim, and believes in the Buddha as faithfully as he does in nature. He says he’s been trying to find a statue of the blue Buddha holding a medicinal plant for ages. I find him a Thanka of the same Buddha. ‘The old monk’, he says, referring to the 8-feet high statue of the Shakyamuni, ‘oversees everything. You couldn’t have been here unless he’d have allowed it.’ Dear God, all my friends are anomalies of nature and nurture. And now, amongst them, is a Muslim Buddhist. I give up.
On the way to Taksang Gompa, we meet a WWF team at Y Junction, at 14,610 feet, over military chowmien and coffee. But my mind is not there. It’s up there, on the snow peaks that overlook the Y. There are numerous wetlands around, including the Lake P-Tso and the ethereal Lake Shonga-Tseir, variably know as Shangestsar or Lake Madhuri since the actress Madhuri Dixit had shot a cinema sequence with the lake as the background. The view of the Shonga-Tseir, with dead barks of wood rising out of it like phantoms against the mountain, is as close a sight I have come to bliss. It is on the way to Taksang Gompa, a place where the river runs with utmost velocity and the slopes take you down along the steep cliffs into oblivion.
I stand there quietly. Even my camera shutter is silent. There is only the noise of birds, and a tailless rat that eats the poisonous aconite growing in the nursery scurries about busily.
Do I want to come back to the heat and dust of reality? No.