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World, Stop Turning – Paradise is My Station

Once, I was a girl whose favourite toy was a globe. I loved to give it a spin, close my eyes and let the surface of the earth skim by under my curious fingers. And wherever it came to a random stop, I would snap open my eyes again and thoughtfully study the place where I had “landed” before continuing that delightful game of time-travel and discovery.
It was only a matter of years before the girl with daydreams in me became a woman with a passion to explore and experience the unfamiliar on paths where no crowds trod. So ask me now to stab a finger in the map of India, and it would surely be drawn magnetically to the states in her North East, and in particular to the mystical, magical land of Arunachal Pradesh.
It was mid-April when I embarked on my second journey to the state and I was thankful to have received government permission to stay for a whole month this time. Previously, on a pilgrimage and tour to the Mon Region, I got a glimpse of village life there which sparked my interest in learning more about the culture of the Monpa tribe. A rainbow of handmade textiles hung vividly in my memory while the flavours of dishes sampled still tickled my senses.  Ultimately, I hoped to meet some of the women responsible for preserving traditional methods of weaving and food preparation.
With a lump of anticipation growing in my throat, I was met at Guwahati airport by my guide and without ado we climbed into the comfortable SUV which was waiting. Covering the 325 kilometres which lay between us and our destination Bomdila would depend on the weather and above all on the condition of the road. In rain and in darkness, it might be risky. But, after several hours of dancing with potholes, we finally arrived.
The home I would be staying in was perched on a steep hillock that overlooked an entire valley. We swung open a small door in the stairway and the grandeur of the panorama beyond rushed into view. Cloud vapour materialised, rolled and floated ethereally upward. Lungta prayer flags fluttered between evergreens that studded the mountainside and tidy rows of potted azaleas, snapdragons and orchids bloomed in welcome. It was a stupendous moment.
         At the bottom of the steps there was a small courtyard where our gracious hostess was waiting to greet us. The rusty red spackle on the walls radiated warmly as she showed us to our rooms and then along a short breezeway to the kitchen. As I entered my eyes immediately fell on a large bukhari. Wood was used to feed the greedy belly of the fire chamber in the steel stove, the only source of heat in the traditional house. We sat and let it envelop us like a soft scarf.
Our hostess set about getting dinner ready when suddenly, all went dark. My heart jumped. But then I realized that this was an intentional power cut done daily under the auspices of load-shedding to balance the fragile power grid. Candles were routinely lit and placed around the room. The bukhari glowed now and a shard of light glinted unromantically off the side of a teapot standing there. An hour elapsed and we were treated to a delicious meal which included garden-fresh salad, spinach, and river fish seasoned with rich and tangy yak’s cheese. Feeling weary then, and with the lights still off, I retired early for the night.
Fingers of pale sunlight reached down to wake me shortly after dawn, as if by plan, because we wanted to start early on our two-hour drive to Dirang. We were going to meet a woman who would show me something about hand-looming and cooking. So with curiosity and excitement tangled inside me, I could hardly wait to get moving. 
It was a cool day and the sky above the Dirang valley was lined with lacy clouds. Through the open window I watched as we drove by green hillsides plump with orange and kiwi groves.
Finally, our car turned down an unpaved driveway and stopped near some timbered houses. A woman dressed in a pink cardigan and teal-coloured ankle length skirt appeared and smiled with her eyes as we approached. Sang Nima was her name and, placing a delicate hand in mine, she led me to her patio where she served salty yak butter tea.    Feeling refreshed, my guide and I then followed Sangnima down a footpath which led to a bamboo hut. Shrivelled lengths of dried meat and husks of corn hung in one corner and a large pot of water boiled over an open hearth. It was here in the little smoke house where Sangnima also had her loom set up. My guide then described the traditional dress worn by Monpa ladies which includes the ‘shingka’, a light red sleeveless gown with white stripes worn with a sash at the waist and the ‘kyanchen toh-thung’, a maroon-coloured long-sleeve shirt which is lavishly embroidered and open to the front. Both pieces are woven using coarse silk thread and require up to a month of work to complete a single garment set. Sangnima then showed me the material for a shirt which she had recently finished. The quality of workmanship, especially the hand skill that goes into the whimsical needlepoint patterns, could never be replicated by machines.
Walking back up the path I sensed that another eye-popping surprise would soon follow in Sangnima’s kitchen.  We entered to find two of her friends ready to demonstrate their method and recipe for making a delicacy native to the Mon region, namely the momo. Sangnima joined them sitting cross-legged on the floor and together they effortlessly kneaded, rolled, filled and pleated three dozen of the crescent-shaped dumplings which were then steamed to seal in nutrients and let flavours linger pleasantly on the palate. I felt blessed to share lunch with those three amazing ladies.
Sangnima walked us back toward our car, raised her hand in a wave and waited until we were on our way. We wanted to visit Sangti Valley again before driving back to Bomdila.
Rumour had it that this pristine place of unparalleled natural beauty might soon house a military base, a thought that filled me with utter dismay. Our car turned up a rough road and stopped at the edge of a meadow. A flock of tawny sheep was being led out to graze and a brook fringed with ferns gurgled softly by. We got out and the air was thick with the scent of earth and pine from a nearby forest. The mossy ground was so springy it made one feel like doing cartwheels across it rather than merely walk. We padded over a knoll and down toward a small shrine. Inside a beautifully decorated encasement, two prayer wheels faced the valley below.
I stood and admired the idyllic view for a very long time, one that filled me with longing for mountains I had not yet seen. The same zephyr in the sky which played with the shape of the clouds had kindled my Sehnsucht irreversibly. And at that moment I knew that I would not get over the pull I felt to this place. I would be returning.
The writer is the Co-Director of Avalon Inn, Mandrem based in Goa.
You can checkout her blogs in www.chaloarunachal.com
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