On the eastern end of the Himalayas, bordering both China and Bhutan, lies the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. It is nothing like many people imagine India to be. Instead of dirty, crowded cities, the mountainous green land is sparsely populated by ancient tribes and clans. Many of these people live following age-old traditions.
Due to its geography and its location in a strategic border area, Arunachal Pradesh can only be visited with a special permit. This can be a slight nuisance, and requires some pre-planning. We thought we could pay for the permit when we entered the area, but when we got to the check post we realised this wasn’t an option. The scarce information we could find online only applied to Indian nationals. The officials we met at the check post were certain that non-Indians could only enter Arunachal Pradesh with a permit obtained through a travel agency.
Eventually, they got a friendly sounding man on the phone. We had to send him some documents and pay a hefty fee (by Indian standards) to his well-dressed distant relative. Then all would be arranged. If this had been a Western country we would have had the feeling we were being scammed, but in India our intuition said it would be fine. From a ramshackle restaurant we sent the man photos of our documents, and 24 hours later we received an email with the approval. Hooray for Indian everyone-knows-everyone politics and 3G internet!
In the end, the hassle of the permits actually allowed me to make a special connection with the local people, and ended up being a surprising homestay in Arunachal Pradesh. The tour operator who supplied the permit invited me and three others to stay with his family. Their house stood in one of the larger villages in the area. They spoke a little English but still lived a simple life. There was only cold water, and most cooking was done on the wood stove. The bathroom was a small structure behind the house with a squat toilet and a bucket shower. Despite the basic conditions we received the most heart-warming welcome. After the first night, the other three travellers continued their journey, leaving me the lone object of the family’s endless hospitality.
On my first day there, the entire village gathered at the local monastery for a death ceremony. According to tradition, someone’s passing is first signified by a funeral. Later, at set points throughout the first year after death, the community will gather again to remember the deceased. Inside the monastery, close family members and holy men performed rituals. In the small buildings across the courtyard, the women prepared enormous amounts of tea, rice and vegetables for a shared dinner. Most people didn’t speak English, but with a lot of hand gestures and smiles, we could communicate. They allowed me to step out of my role as a guest, and help prepare the food.
After the ceremonies finished, young and old sat down in the courtyard in single file, men on one side, women on the other. The food was served and the sight of all these people in their traditional clothing enjoying their meals together was so touching. It fulfilled the basic human needs of food and connection. After the meal, the women went for walks up the hill in small groups. I wondered if they walked to aid digestion, simply for social purposes, or maybe to gossip in private. The answer, however, was much more practical. One by one they left the main trail and hid behind the bright green bushes. It was communal toilet time.
The next day I was initiated into the life of the women. We started with making puri (fried bread) and curry. The smells from the aromatic spices and the smoke from the fire soon filled the entire wooden kitchen. Then there was some excitement on the street, as women from the next village arrived with a load of yak cheese for sale. This delicacy is immensely popular. In no time they sold out. Hardly an hour after our curry breakfast we were enjoying yak cheese fried in gee.
Next up was the most exciting lesson of the day: rice wine making. First, a large amount of white rice was boiled, then left to cool before mixing in local yeast and storing it in large containers with added water. Once this mixture has been left to ferment for roughly six months it is ready to be distilled. To do this, two large aluminium pots were placed on top of each other on the wood fire. The top one was filled with cold water; in the bottom one was placed the liquid left after the fermentation process. When this liquid boiled, the alcohol evaporated first, condensing on the bottom of the pot of cold water. Then it would drop on a dish in between the two pots and through a small straw trickled from between the pots in a collection container. The whole process was intriguing and simple, yet sophisticated.
While we watched the dripping liquid, the woman of the house also shared a very personal story. She told me about marriage traditions in the village. She shared how in the old days the boys would kidnap the girls by grabbing them and carrying them to the boy’s house. If the girl stayed for three days or more, they were to be married. I asked what happened if she managed to run away. In that case, he would have to find another bride. This woman was first taken when she was 13 years old, and later again at 15. This second time it was decided she was old enough to marry the man she is still with today. They have three children, who all studied at university, and she is immensely proud of them.
We concluded the day with a lesson in momo making. As I tried my best to close the stuffed dough nicely, it occurred to me that when you stay with local families something magical happens. You arrive as a guest and are first treated as such. But the longer you stay, the more you become part of the household, part of the family even. I’m so grateful for being accepted into this family. It was a unique experience, and a special encounter with the hidden cultural gems of the Eastern Himalayas.
Article by Chantal Simons.
Top image: erikmeldrum