Let’s first put a few realities on the table. Not many tourists have Arunachal Pradesh on their travel agenda. Which is just as good for those of us who want to keep their special discoveries all to ourselves!
Half a century ago, India suffered its worst military attack, and subsequent defeat, throwing open a gaping hole at the border, and proving how unprepared India was, militarily and politically. On the 50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion, this post is dedicated to some of our bravest soldiers who fought, who died, and who went missing during Indo-China War, 1962.
In November 1962, TIME magazine paid a tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought in the Indo-China War in Walong. It said, ‘At Walong, Indian troops lacked everything. The only thing they did not lack was guts’.In October 1962, when the Chinese planned their incursion into the north-eastern sector inIndia, a region they would later call the “Tiger’s mouth”, they exposed the unready state of the Indian military. At the same time, what stood out was the heroic resistance of the Indian soldiers. The tragic bloodshed took place around the hills in Namti , near Walong, which has a special place in the history of India’s battles.
From 22 October 1962 till the fall of Walong, on the 16th of November 1962, soldiers from the Sikh, Kumaoni, Gorkha and Dogra regiments fought a common enemy, shoulder-to-shoulder, in this unknown territorry. Ill-equipped and totally under prepared for such battles, some of the soldiers had to withdraw, crawling through the treacherous terrain. The rest of the soldiers never received any orders. Totally cut from their battalion, the soldiers fought it out to the last bullet, to the last man, till there was nothing left.
When the firing was over, and cease-fire declared, the army returned to the inhospitable terrain only to find that the Chinese had marked the positions of the dead. The Indian bunkers showed the dead where they had last manned their weapons. The Chinese had at least paid respect to their dead enemies – all the bodies were covered.
It is not uncommon to find the remains of the war, even now. Burnt pieces of army uniforms, fire arms, live ammunition, and other personal items lie scattered under rocks, tall grass and pine trees on the mountains.In July 2010, the Border Road Task Force found a circular identity disc, PIS No. 3950976, and a silver ring, while clearing landslides in Walong. When the army checked the war records, they found that the disc belonged to Sepoy Karam Chand Katoch of the 4th Dogra Regiment. The local army unit then dug the area and found the remains of Karam Chand, along with a fountain pen, dilapidated pay book and a few ammunition. His mortal remains were flown to his home in Palampur, in Himachal Pradesh, from where, as a 19 year old soldier, he had left home to fight for his mother land. Before they flew his mortal remains, he was given a full honor salute at the War Memorial in Walong.
How tragic that the selfless acts of bravery goes unknown to the majority of Indians?
The next morning, up early, we drove further east. The first stop, just outside Walong town and past the Army complex, was the memorial built by the Lohit Brigade to salute the brave and selfless sacrifices made by the Army men during the 1962 war. Known as the ‘Hut of Remembrance’, here the names of each of the martyrs who had laid down their lives in defence of the Lohit valley in 1962 is etched in marble.
We spent a few minutes walking around the black marble plaques, reading the names of the young soldiers who fought on the rugged mountain tops, suffering from extremes of cold, hunger and thirst, only to lay down their lives for our better tomorrow. It was a sombre moment for both of us.
The war memorial and epitaph that I mentioned in the previous post stands on the Namti Plains, by the Lohit River, to commemorate the exemplary sacrifice of our brave soldiers.
But before visiting the war memorial we had to take a detour to Tilam. Just 4 km out of town, Tilam is known for its hot springs that, reportedly, have medicinal properties. On the banks of the springs a brand new circuit house was getting readied. We parked in front of the circuit house and walked down to the springs. Though a bit dirty, the water was boiling hot.
We walked a bit further over a hanging bridge to where the climb up to Dong village begins. Overlooking Burma and China, this village has cornered the distinction of being the Indian habitation to catch the first rays of the sun. It’s a climb of an hour and a half hour which needs to be commenced at 3 in the morning, and not without a guide or a local.
It was in the turn of the last millennium when flocks of tourists swarmed to the hill top here to catch the first rays of the first sunrise of the 21st century light up the Dong valley and, in time, the rest of the country. We wanted to walk to ‘Millennium Point’ at Dong but we had to take permission from the Indian Army and without a permit no one could go.
Promising that we would take the walk to Dong the next time, we climbed back into our vehicle. Our next destination was Kaho. On the climb up to Kaho, there was little traffic. The Namti plains stretched before our eyes, pretty and pine laden. After a brief stop at the war memorial we proceeded further.
With every turn, the mountains on the Chinese side grew larger in view. The settings were so surreal. I was trying to imagine the place about 50 years back. A yellow board reminded us of being on the eastern most road in India.
We crossed a few metal bridges and were now driving along the Lohit River. Jayantoda mentioned that all these bridges had been replaced recently from the traditional ones. A ‘traditional’ one still hung precariously a bit further. We were standing in front of what the Mishmis call a ‘bridge’. In reality, it was just a lot of planks tied together that straddled both the banks of the Lohit. At that great height, the uncontrollable swing of the bridge and the turquoise water raging down below, a walk up to the other end and back needs some steely nerves. And I had to do it.
Mission accomplished, we drove into Kaho, a small village on the eastern most border, situated in a small valley surrounded by towering mountain peaks, most of them on the Chinese side. Kaho has around nine households. Cutting into the serenity of this small village is the constant presence of the Army all around and after all, the Line of Actual Control is not too far from here. Besides the village school, a monastery and a small tea shop cum PCO, Kaho is all about silence and the virgin beauty that the landscape offers.
We walked in to the Lohit Goodwill school and said hello to the children there. The teacher, apologetic about the poor attendance – the school had just reopened after Dushera – showed us into her class rooms. There were only four children, five were absent. The teacher herself had reached the previous night from Tezu, her home town, after the holidays.
From the school we walked up to the monastery only to realize that it was closed. A short climb up from the monastery is an Indian Army outpost and we paid them a courtesy visit. The two jawans at the look out were gracious enough to point out where the border lies and the various peaks on both sides and allowed us a quick peek through their binoculars at Chinese side.
“I can see a house with blue paint”, I said triumphantly. “Well, the Chinese can see the print on your dress, Madame”, one of the jawan said teasingly. “They have a binoculars powerful than ours and they are constantly monitoring the civilian traffic in our area. If they see more traffic, they get stressed out and if they get stressed out, it indirectly affects our sleep”. For civilians like us this journey is just a picture in an album, a page in a book. For the army its the whole volume.
On the way back, we drove up to Kibithu, currently the brigade HQ of the Indian Army.
Here civilian entry is monitored if not entirely restricted. We had to give our details at the check post. The helipad here used to be an attraction for the great views it offered. Presently, it is out of bounds for anyone who is not army and photography is not permitted.
We stopped for lunch in one of the small restaurants there. I never knew that the humble 2-minute Maggie could be so delicious.There was one more place to visit before we drove back to our guest house. Equally touching and another must-see point in Walong is the Helmet Top, 18 kms by road above Walong. A patriotic pilgrimage of sorts that every Indian needs to take, Helmet Top was once a vantage point for the Indian army. During the war, a few of the Indian soldiers were stranded here. None of their counterparts back at the headquarters were aware of this. Exposed to the cold, suffering from hunger, thirst and frost bite, the soldiers were left to die. It is said that, after the battle was over, all that remained of the gallant Indian defenders were their helmets. Today, a memorial stands in a grim reminder of their courage and commitment. We started our climb up to Helmet top. The air got cooler, and the houses and the river got smaller and smaller. The road was concrete for around 10 km or so, after which it was all gravel and sand. Jayantoda had to get down at a few places to remove a stone which must have rolled down or a fallen tree branch.
We must have covered around 15 km, and the white war memorial building was visible through the pine trees up above. But luck seemed to evade us. A big rock now lay in front of us blocking the whole road. We didn’t even try to move it, it was that huge. Jayantoda said if it had been a kilometer or so we could have tried walking to the top. But this was a risk. We were trying to find the positive side in it. What if the rock had fallen after we had passed that way? We would have had to spend the night at Helmet Top. Dejected, we decided to turn back.
On the way down we stopped at a small water fall and plucked a few wild oranges that could not have been more sour.
We decided to walk around the town before sun down. We met the same kids we had seen yesterday and they insisted on not only taking a few more photographs of them but also seeing the pictures we had taken yesterday. In return I was presented with a few wild flowers.
The sun was going down and this was our last night in Walong. When I closed my eyes, trying to sleep, along with the mountains and valleys that came rolling by, a small poem composed by a Walong veteran kept ringing in my ears.
- The sentinel hills that round us stand
- bear witness that we loved our land.
- Amidst shattered rocks and flaming pine
- we fought and died on Namti Plain.
- O Lohit gently by us glide
- pale stars above us softly shine
- as we sleep here in sun and rain.
We had to come back another time, for we had promised ourselves a sunrise at Dong and a prayer at Helmet Top.
In 2011, in the month of October, we spent 21 days in the north-eastern states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya. I am publishing a few posts this October to mark the anniversary of our travels on those lesser trodden paths. It is a year since we traveled to the north-east, but there is not a single day that we are not reminded of the beauty and the magic of the place.
On a cold night in the month of November, way back in 1962, when the whole of India was slumbering under a cosy woollen blanket enjoying the early winter temperature, a few weary soldiers were battling with whatever remained of their last energy trying to fend off the enemy from the north-eastern most corner of their mother land. The ‘Battle for Walong’ was about the worst of fighting conditions – cold weather, treacherous terrain, outnumbered troops, ‘orders’ that never reached and a slimy enemy – all weighing heavily on the Indian soldiers. For 22 days, they gallantly fought with limited resources, but with unlimited ferocity and aggression. Eventually, the Chinese crossed the Lohit River and completed the ‘Fall of Walong’ on the 16thNovember, 1962.
We were standing in front of a newly built memorial that the Lohit Brigade had constructed on the Namti plains, overlooking the Lohit River, where most of the crossfire had taken place 50 years ago. The black granite stone tells, in a poignantly written tribute, the story of the “bloody nose” that the Indian Army gave the enemy and the pledge that “Walong will never fall again”.
The previous day we had started early from Tezu, the district headquarters of the Lohit district. Leaving behind the shaded avenues and the spacious government quarters, we took the road out of Tezu to Demwe. It was only past 7.00 am, but was warm enough for us to throw away our sweaters. We passed the road that wound up to the Tafragam village and passed hordes of school girls on cycles making their way up to Vivekananda Kendra Vidyalaya in Tafragam.
Just before the Demwe bridge we passed a map of Arunachal Pradesh that had been elaborately painted on to a wall by the Border Roads also known as GREF in these areas. Before our journey to Arunachal we had scoured the net and book stalls for maps, but never did we come across such a neat map. The map showed the distances from Demwe to most of the major villages and towns across Arunachal Pradesh. According to the map, we had 190 km more to cover to reach our destination – Walong.Further up the road, another sign reminded us that the ‘hill sector’ had started. We reached a Y-junction. Here the NH 37 coming up from Chowkham via Parasuramkund joins in on the journey. We climbed up the road, moved ahead of the the Hawa pass and reached the Hawa army camp. Just above the army camp was a view point.
We got down from our Scorpio to spend some time at the viewpoint. The views from here were amazing. The panoramic view of the magnificent Lohit valley spread across our eyes. Aptly named the Lohit view point, Jayantoda said that this place was best known for the sunset and sunrise. The Lohit River lay there glistening in the early sunlight.
There was very little water in the river and the white sand banks stood out in contrast with the numerous shallow water channels. Further left we could also catch a glimpse of the Parasuramkund and the newly built bridge across the river. That bridge led to Wakro, our home away from home.
Lohit is the farthest eastern most tributary of Brahmaputra. The Lohit River originates from the Tirap Phasi ranges in Eastern Tibet and enters India through Kibithu, a small village lying at the border. After entering India, the river traverses though the Mishmi hills of the Anjaw and Lohit district and joins the Brahmaputra after travelling for about 200 km through the red laterite soils of the Lohit basin, thus giving it the name – the ‘river of blood’. On our journey to Walong, we would be tracing the Lohit River back to Kibithu where it enters into the territory of India.
From here on, the route snakes up and there is not much for company other than the high-ceilinged mountains and the feisty Lohit river playing a constant consort all the way up to Walong and beyond. And there are a good 200 km of near empty road ahead all the way to our destination. Occasionally, we came across the odd jeep – this is not classic car territory – or a bike. Tourists are a rarity in these parts and most of the Sumos and Scorpios are busy ferrying locals from the many far flung villages higher up to Tezu and Tinsukia and back. We were ourselves in good hands with both our Scorpio and its driver, Jayantoda, as seasoned as the other. The one other traffic of note was the small convoys of Army trucks that were, customarily, given the right of way.
Whenever an army truck came against us Jayantoda would ask the driver at the head of the convoy, with a gesture of his hand, the number of trucks in the convoy. And the army driver would, in turn, gesture with his hand the number of trucks in the convoy.
We crossed the ‘Udayak Pass’ and then came to a small shrine that was built by the road side. A place where accidents occurred frequently, the locals had built this shrine so that the travellers could pay respect to all the Gods and Goddesses before commencing on their journey to the eastern most part of the north east.
We prayed and paid our respects, to all those Gods and all those nameless fellow travellers who had lost their lives, for our safe journey. By 9 am we rolled into a small village, Salangam.
Jayantoda had planned our breakfast here. And moreover the next big village was Hayuliang, 2 hours and 46 km away. After a simple breakfast of ‘roti-dal-onion-chilly’ we were on the road again.
There was something very odd about the vegetation in these areas. Every tree, plant, shrub and undergrowth looked as if they were on steroids. The ferns looked liked palm trees and the humble bamboo thickets were giant in size. Were the cattle on steroids as well? Right in front of us stood a fat cow-buffalo hybrid species. Our Scorpio came to a sudden halt and Jayantoda with all his enthusiasm pointed out and said ‘Mithun’.
I was not expecting Mithunda, of all people, to groove to the tunes of ‘Disco Dancer’ in a remote village in Anjaw district. Well, our Mithun was munching away on a green patch on the road side, totally unaware of its new found attention.
The Mithun are reared for meat and are highly preferred among the tribal people of North-East. Mithun is also used as a ceremonial animal in sacred traditional functions and as a gift to the bride in weddings thus playing an important role in the social and cultural life of the tribal people of North-East.
Leaving our Mithun behind, we drove further. Other than Hawai, the district headquarters of Anjaw district, Hayuliang is the biggest town en route to Walong. We stopped at the small fuel station at Khupa near Hayuliang to tank up our vehicle for the remaining 100 km drive up to Walong.
All along, Lohit was playing a loyal companion. Gushing loudly at times showing its true blue colours, turning a more paler turquoise on a few occasions, changing to a more greener hue and gelling well with the verdant surroundings, and on a very few occurrences turning to a more slaty black in the many whirlpools.
On the way we came across a lot of construction workers sweating themselves, toiling in the sun, trying to pave a better road for travellers like us.
We made a pit stop near the bridge to Hawai. The district headquarters of the newly created Anjaw District, Hawai is situated on a hill across the Lohit River. Promising ourselves that we would visit Hawai on our way back from Walong, we took a few snaps and continued on our journey to Walong.
Walong was about 50 km from Hawai. All throughout, the route was interspersed by sturdy metal bridges. A lot of these modern bridges are built by the Indian army and Border roads organisation. Other than these nondescript bridges, the many hanging bridges across the charging Lohit river are bound to catch one’s attention. We stopped at a couple and tested our guts and our resolve. Some of the hanging bridges we crossed were made of bamboo and wooden planks, apart from the metal cables that run along the side and connect it to the ends.
Leaving behind my acrophobic partner with Jayantoda, I tried crossing a fairly long hanging bridge. The floor of the bridge was creaking under my clumsy step and the entire bridge swinging in tandem. Below, through the gaps of missing wood planks, the mighty turquoise Lohit river was gushing and rushing loudly, leaving me breathless. And then a couple of school children came running along the bridge looking queerly at me and perhaps amused at my discomfort.
Well, practice does make one perfect. But what about fear of heights? Must be non-existent in these places. We drove into Walong by 3 pm but it looked as if it was just before sundown. In the muted evening sun, however, there was enough of the town to catch a glimpse of.
The first thing you would notice here is the silence. Other than the odd shout from a bunch of kids playing nearby, all we could hear was the unrestrained gurgle of the Lohit in its mad rush from the Chinese mountains up above. The small town of Walong is all about the settlement on either side for a few hundred metres. There are shops in a row on one side of the road and houses complete the line up on the other. The smattering of small structures apart, the only major signs of habitation is the large army base here.
The road splits and one led us up towards the side of the hills and to the Circuit House above. We were lucky to get a booking here for there is virtually no accommodation option otherwise. For the lone stay option, the Circuit House is delightfully good. The location, for one, couldn’t be better. From the vantage point above the Walong town, the rooms looked out on to the mountain peaks all around and the valley below.
In the distance, by its banks, the army settlement was a constant reminder of how sensitive a place it still was, despite all its serenity and beauty. As with all circuit houses, the warmth of the staff and the homely taste of the food is what sticks with you. But unlike many, it was uncharacteristically clean with spacious well appointed rooms with an uninterrupted power supply!
We had not had our lunch, so we went in search of food, as the kitchen was not yet open at the guest house. After buying the staple food of bread, jam and butter, we walked along the sparsely populated main road of Walong – a few shops were still open, a PCO, a provisional store, a tea stall and a barber shop. Men and women were seen huddled together around chatting, kids played in groups and the sun kept going down.
On the bank of the river, the army quarters spread out, the helipad standing out in contrast with the decorum of the camp. We climbed back to the circuit house through a short cut from the market, climbing up a steep flight of stone steps. As the last rays of the sun lit up the mountains and the river, the first electrical lights of Walong came on.
All night long, the chirping of the crickets and the gush of the Lohit completed the background score. We had a busy day tomorrow. For we had to pay our respects at the War Memorial, visit the hot springs at Tilam and travel on the eastern most road in India and visit the villages of Kaho and Kibithu located further ahead near the border. Before we knew, sleep and fatigue caught up and we dozed off.
After lunch, we resumed our journey through the busy bylanes of Bijapur. It had been an eventful first half and we were getting to know this heritage city better.
On the way, Mohammad Anwar explained how difficult it was to maintain a horse with such a paltry amount they got from the tourists. A lot of his fellow tonga riders had migrated to bigger cities for better prospects only to end up on the streets doing menial jobs. “The city’s tonga population is fast dwindling with a very few left.” he said. “How many tourists do you get a day?” I asked. “You need a whole day to visit all the monuments. I hardly get to take a couple of tourists a day and make around Rs. 200 to 250. The foreigners are ready to pay more, sometimes giving me a Rs 500 note. They even offer me food or invite me to the restaurant for lunch. They enjoy tonga rides and they just love talking to the drivers. But, sometimes we are harassed by local policemen and traffic cops and we have to part with a percentage of our earnings.”
I told him about the revival of the tonga carts in Lucknow, Agra and Old Delhi and how these carts would be used to take tourists to the historical sites with guides. A smile spread on his face for the first time. “The government should start this in Bijapur too. Madame, why don’t you write to someone about this.” I nodded my head. I did not know what else to do. Mohammad Anwar smiled again, his eyes fixed on the road. I knew his mind was elsewhere. Dreaming about that White Kurta and Lucknowi Jooti.
We got down near a board that said ‘Malik-e-Maidan’.
‘The Monarch of the Plains’ was no ordinary ruler. An Iron Man – this was the largest medieval cannon (whatever that means) in the world. According to the ASI board, about 4 m long, 1.5 m in diameter and weighing 55 tons, this canon was brought back from Ahmadnagar by Muhammad Adil Shah as a war trophy. It took 400 oxen, 10 elephants and thousands of soldiers to get the beast to Bijapur.
The canon was perched on a small tower, called the Sherzi-Buruz or the Lion Tower, named after the two lion sculptures carved at the entrance. We climbed a sprial staircase to reach the canon.
And there it lay, gleaming in the sun. The canon was an alloy of copper, iron and tin. The muzzle looked like the mouth of a tiger with open jaws with an elephant on both sides crushed by its sharp teeth. It is said that the sound from the canon was so deafening that the gunners would submerge their heads in water before firing.
The canon had a few inscriptions in Persian or Arabic embossed on to the surface. Not to mention the numerous people who had taken effort to deface this national treasure by carving in their names and even postal addresses. What a shame!! And it is said that if you touch the gun and make a wish, it will come true! But the poor canon had a heavy price to pay.
If this canon had found its way to the Crimson Drawing room in Windsor Castle in England with a “Presented by the Adil Shahi Emperor” tag, would it have been treated so shabbily? Yes, my friends, the British had planned to heave this canon to England, but dropped it for obvious reasons.
It was time for our next destination – the Uppali Burz. Built as a watch tower this 25 m high tower is reached by a winding flight of stone steps. We started climbing the steps amongst hordes of giggling school girls who were finding it difficult to control their skirts flying in the winds.
It was very windy at the top, but the view at the summit was breathtaking. You could make out most of the monuments of Bijapur from here. At the top of the tower, two long canons lay.
Our next sight seeing option was Bara Kaman.
Bara Kaman is the unfinished mausoleum of Ali Adil Shah II. The monarch had wished to build a mausoleum for himself that would be one of the best in planning and architecture. As per his plan, twelve arches were to be placed vertically and twelve horizontally surrounding his own tomb, thus giving the name Bara Kaman – 12 arches. The mausoleum was left incomplete with only a few vertical arches raised, however, twelve arches placed horizontally were completed.
The story is that Ali Adil Shah was murdered by his father Ibrahim Adil Shah to prevent him from constructing this magnificent structure. Ibrahim Adil Shah feared that Bara kaman would surpass the popularity of his Gol Gumbaaz. If completed, the shadow of the Bara Kaman would have fallen on Gol Gumbaaz.
Nobody knows who the architect was but some records point to Malik Sandal, who had built the Ibrahim Rouza. To build the arches he had used an innovative technique. He had built solid walls in the shape of an arch and then had the inner part toppled so that the outer arch remained. Some of the walls were found intact to prove this point.
The Bara Kaman looked unlike any monument we had seen. It looked more like the ruins of a Tudor church, only the tombs gave an indication that this was a mausoleum. We walked among the arches, taking photos of one meeting another at the corners. A single intact tomb had been raised on a platform and the rest were on ground level, some of them in ruins.
It was time for our final stop, the Gol Gumbaaz.
Gol Gumbaaz or the round dome, the mausoleum of Mohammad Adil Shah II, is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and synonymous with Bijapur. Known as one of the largest domes in the world, Gol Gumbaaz is also unique in the fact that the dome is not supported by any pillars.
It was the last stop in our ride around Bijapur and also time to bid farewell to our excellent guide cum charioteer. Though we requested him to pose for a snap, he excused himself and suggested we click his horse instead.
The second largest dome in the world now stood before us. We still had a couple of hours for our train back and intended to make the most of it at the Gol Gumbaaz.
The complex was brimming with tourists. Probably this was everybody’s last stop on their itinerary. Right in front stood the Gol Gumbaaz in all its grandeur. The monument was partially hidden by a two-storied building with tall windows in the shape of arches. This was the Archaeological museum; we decided to gave it a skip seeing the serpentine queues. School children were jostling against each other to get inside the museum.
We followed a blue board that said ‘Way to Gol Gumbaaz’, rounded the museum and reached a single storey building. Passing through it we got our first unobstructed view of the Gol Gumbaaz.
This was one of that occasions when you wished you had a ‘wider’ angle lens. Sometimes your lens just doesn’t want to go back, far enough. But with glass that starts at 17 mm, we should not be complaining.
The massive brick dome is supported, as earlier mentioned – not by pillars, but by a system of eight intersecting arches that create an interlocking system that bears the load of the dome. This system of interlocking pendentives is not commonly found in India. On all the four sides of the monument were seven storied towers with arched windows. These towers held the spiral staircases one had to climb to reach the top. Now only two remain open, one for the climb up and the other for the climb down.
We entered the monument and checked out the tomb first. On a platform at the centre of the dome chamber lie the tombstones of Mohammad Adil Shah, his two wives, his son, his daughter and his mistress. The monarch’s tomb was covered by an ornamental wooden stand.
Their real graves lie in a chamber under the gallery. And thank God for that!! For all these centuries, these resting souls have had to endure something very horrendous that would probably be waking them up from their deep slumbers. For the Gol Gumbaaz is more famous for its “Whispering Gallery” which has now turned into a “Screaming Gallery”.
As we looked up to see from where the sounds or rather screeches were coming, we could see the rim of the gallery, near the ceiling of the dome, and people looking down, resembling a few ants on the wall.
We lined up behind a group of students for the hard climb up the seven stories to the whispering gallery. The stairs were narrow, spiral dark and claustrophobic. With every passing floor, we could hear the noise from up above rise. At first, it began as a distant drone but by the time we had heaved ourselves to the top, it was a blaring roar that seemed to echo itself many times over. Ten times over – to be precise.
Because of the dome’s remarkable acoustic properties, the faintest sound made at one end of the gallery can be clearly heard at the other end. Every sound echoes 10 times and reverberates for 26 seconds, the longest known reverberation count for any building.
We stepped out from the dark stair case and found ourselves on the roof of the monument and at the base of the dome. The view from the top was magnificent and a bit scary too – if you are afraid of heights.
The cacophony was getting louder and as we stepped into the dome it seemed as if the whole world was trying to prove a point – that every sound echoes 10 times. We heard all kinds of sounds we had never dreamt of hearing. Sreams, screeches, whistles, claps, hoots, growls, roars, monkey noises – I wonder how the emperor and his family are resting in peace.
The look down from the gallery is not for the faint-hearted. The wall of the gallery was dangerously low and as we looked down at the entrance of the gallery from where we had started our climb, the people near the tomb chamber seemed liked ants, again.
The guard at the entrance said the best time to visit the gallery was during the early hours in the morning. We promised ourselves that we would stay in Bijapur the next time and experience the “Whispering Gallery”.
It was time for our journey back.
Bijapur was a revelation. A treasure trove for those who love history, architecture, heritage and symmetry. There were a few monuments we had to give a miss. Gagan Mahal, Asar Mahal, Saat Kabar, Jal Manzil, and many more. But there is always a next time.
As we started our walk from the Gol Gumbaaz to the railway station, we scanned the roads for Mohammad Anwar, our companion for the past few hours. He was nowhere to be found. But there were others, some waiting for their customers, others trying to look for a prospective one.
But we decided to walk anyway. The tonga ride had to wait till another visit.
Mohammad Anwar looked older than the photograph on his guide ID card, pinned to his front pocket, that he flaunted proudly. The once-pure-white-now-off-white soiled Kurta and Pyjama he was wearing, showcasing the muck and grime of the alleyways of Bijapur, and his unkempt beard, only added to the degree of scruffiness. He had bags under his eyes and deep lines around the corners of his mouth. Being a Tonga driver must be tough.
The moment we stepped out of the railway station in Bijapur in our touristy attire (backpack, camera, Bisleri bottle et al.), we were swarmed by a group of heckling auto drivers vying hard to get our attention. From what we had researched and understood, we knew that the nearest ‘sightseeing option’ was a kilometer and a half away from the railway station.
In order to wave off the crowd, we started walking as if we owned the city, following a yellow board which clearly said that the Gol Gumbaaz was 1.5 km away, when we were stopped in our tracks by a soft but earnest voice. “Sirjee, tonga mein jaana hai? (Sir, would you like to go in a horse carriage?)”.
The magical sound of the horse’s hoof beats … clip-clop, clip-clop, clip-clop. Doesn’t it bring back a lot of memories? Right from my school days, when I used to feel jealous of my class mates being ferried by the ‘vandichettan’ to the later days of watching Rangoli on DD 1 while the Biswajeeths and the Dilip Kumars serenaded the Sadhanas and the Vyjayanthimalas, there was something I felt very romantic about a tonga ride.
The painted carriages, the seats in the brightest of colours, the rainbow feathers in the horse’s bridle and the royalty attached to a horse-driven carriage.
Tongas have been an integral part of the Indian roads, right from the time of the mighty emperors, princes and princesses who must have trotted about proudly in their elaborately decorated carriages. The advent of automobiles failed to dampen the business of the horse-driven carriages, which continues to enjoy mass popularity.
Of late, places like Delhi, Lucknow and Agra have been trying to bring in these colourful horse carts that would trot off to historical sites, with guides clad in white kurta-pyjamas and Lucknavi jooties, bringing back the charm of the old days and sprucing up tourism in those cities.
Our guide-cum-driver, horse and carriage seemed miles away from that mere thought.
The paint on the carriage was peeling off in places, the sponge was coming out of the seat cushion, the wooden wheel spokes were chipped, a huge stone was kept on the foot rest to keep the cart in balance, the horse was a bag of bones held up with skin and the driver, Mohammad Anwar, looked far from being the smart tonga driver.
We looked at each other, unable to decide whether to take the ride or just walk off, avoiding him. But it was difficult to dismiss him as we had ignored the cackling auto-drivers, and we found ourselves climbing onto his tonga ready for our vintage ride through Bijapur.
Bijapur – The capital of the Adil Shah Kings from the 15th to the 17th century. Ruins of forts, palaces, mosques and mausoleums lie scattered around the city, celebrating the renowned symmetry of the Islamic architecture.
Riding out of the railway station, we followed the Station Road, now christened as the Mahatma Gandhi Road. The tonga took a sudden left turn, and right in front of us spread the magnificent Gol Gumbaaz. The tonga did not stop and sensing the disappointment in our eyes, Mohammad Anwar said that the Gol Gombaaz would be our last stop in this ride.
The tonga took us deep into this maze, like a labyrinth, of alleyways that gave us a feeling it had not been changed much over the centuries. The houses painted in different hues of green, remnants of the old city crumbling to pieces and encroached upon in places, streets with rickshaws, cows (and cows and cows), pigs, goats, women fully covered in black purdah, small children rushing to their Madrasas – girls covering their heads with their scarves and boys wearing the customary skull caps. Bijapur was like a period classic playing out splendidly before our eyes.
Our first stop was the Jama Masjid.
The Jama Masjid, built in 1686 during the rule of Adil Shah I and to commemorate the Talikota victory, is one of the first and largest mosque’s in Bijapur.
From outside it looked unimpressive, a grey stoned structure with small arches built into the walls. Vendors of different kinds were trying to sell their wares, tourist maps, fruits and little knick knacks. Somewhere inside the Masjid there must be a Madrassa, as we found little girls and boys running around, books in their hands. Groups of elderly men were sitting on the steps and on the smaller walls, smoking, chatting and mostly doing nothing.
Our first chore was to buy a pamphlet showing all the tourist spots in Bijapur from an old lady sitting on the steps of the mosque. We climbed a flight of stone steps and passed into a huge rectangular hall. Once we entered inside the mosque, we realised how grand this monument was. The hall continued on three sides, enclosing a small tank in the middle, and was lined with high arches that divided the hall into 45 compartments, each with beautiful carvings. Above the hall resting on the beams was a dome, shaped like an onion. The masjid is said to accommodate about 2250 devotees; the floor is painted with 2,250 squares for each worshipper.
We took off our foot wear and walked around taking in the beauty and largeness of the mosque. There was barely anyone in the prayer hall, only a couple of praying men absorbed in themselves. In front of the main hall, the wall is adorned with golden paintings and inscriptions, the lower portion faded by the continuous touching of devotees. Now a bamboo barricade and a stern Maulavi stands, or rather sits, between the wall and you. The mosque holds an exquisite copy of the Quran written in gold letters.
Other than the pigeons flapping and the little girls giggling in their class rooms, there were no other sounds. How majestic this structure would have looked, back in the 16th century?!
Seeing our cameras, a couple of girls surrounded us asking us to take their photographs.
From the Jama Masjid the tonga took us further down the busy inner roads. The horse stopped suddenly by the road and our guide pointed to a beautiful building and said ‘Mehtar Mahal’. We would not have noticed it if he had not pointed it out. ‘It’s the gate to the Mehtar Mosque’, he said ‘and closed for renovation’ he added.
Mehtar Mahal looked more like an amalgamation of a haveli, from Rajasthan, and a Hoysala temple from Karnataka; probably only the two minarets on top giving away its Moghul origins. This three storey building had a lot of carvings in Hindu architectural style – we spotted lotuses sculpted on to the walls. The brackets resembled the mythical creatures we had seen in the temples at Belur and Halebid.
We resumed our journey through the small road till we reached a busy circle. From there the roads got wider and we were passing through some of the main market area.
We stopped in front of a domed structure. A second glance revealed another dome peeping out from the side. The Jod Gumbaaz it was – the twin domes of Abdul Razaq Dargah. Built around the late 1600s, the domes hold the tombs of Khan Muhammad and Abdul Razzaq Qadiri. According to a metal hoarding belonging to the Karnataka Tourism, the two men – one the general and the other the spiritual advisor of the Adil Shahi family – were considered traitors as they helped the Mughal Emperor, Aurangzeb, defeat the Adil Shahi ruler, Sikandar.
As we entered the gates of the Jod Gumbaaz, we realised that, other than the larger twin domes, there were other smaller ones around the complex. There were neat lawns with huge shady trees, a respite to visitors on hot sunny days. Some of the trees had small shrines at the base.
We walked towards one of the domed structures. At the ground level of the tomb was a dargah. At the entrance, we found an inscription from the holy Quran painted in green. There were people, mostly ladies and children, sitting in front of the entrance of the dargah. The Maulavi was reciting some prayers and offering them holy water.
Without disturbing the religious fervour, we walked around the dargah. This must be an important religious centre for we found several people staying in the complex, setting up small makeshift sleeping places, clothes hanging around to be dried and food being cooked on brick fire places.
The tombs painted a beautiful picture against the skyline.
It was time for our next stop. The tonga took us further to Taj Bawdi.
When the Bahamani emperor, Ali Adil Shah, brought down the Vijayanagar empire in the mid 16th century, other than building palaces and mosques, he also undertook the task of improving the public water supply system in the city of Bijapur. His son, Ibrahim Adil Shah, built Taj Bawdi in 1620 for his first queen, Taj Sultana.
In its heydays, this monument must have been a bustling place with weary travellers. Now a sole security guard sits with a stick that does the job of shooing away stray dogs or to poke back the cricket ball that’s hit in his direction by kids playing in the lawns outside.
You are welcomed by a huge arch which is flanked by two towers on both sides. These octagonal towers used to be rest rooms for the travellers. We passed beneath the arch and climbed down a flight of stone steps to reach the tank. A stone wall skirts the three sides of the tank, covered by arch windows, that had rooms meant for the use of travellers. An iron gate has been built to prevent people from entering the water.
And why would one enter the water? The tank has turned into a dumping pit. The garbage of Bijapur is finding its way into Taj Bawdi, once the sole water supply of the city. The water was green and stinking. We learnt from Mohammad Anwar that the Karnataka Government, after declaring Taj Bawdi as a protected monument, had spent around 8 lakh rupees in 2005 to renovate the tank, remove the waste that was dumped here and refill it with clean water. But without realising the national importance of this monument, people started to use the tank to wash the clothes and to dump garbage, again.
Now the iron gate and security guard ensures that we do not see boys frolicking in the water or their mothers washing dirty clothes. But it is sad to see that, still, the cities’ garbage mysteriously finds its way into the tank. Plastic bags lay strewn on the steps of the tank and immersed in the water.
We climbed onto our royal carriage for our next destination. By this time we had already learnt the art of climbing with ease.
Our next stop was the Ibrahim Rouza, arguably the second most striking monument in all of Bijapur.
Ibrahim Rouza was built by Ibrahim Adil Shah II as a mausoleum for his wife, Taj Sultana. Ironically, the emperor died first and was buried here. This huge complex consists of a mausoleum and a mosque, facing each other on a raised platform.
As we entered the gates, after paying our entry and camera fee, we could get a feel of the grandeur and the largeness of this monument. A red sand path, neatly laid and lined with small pruned bushes, cut through the enormous, manicured lawn. We could make out three structures in front of us. On our left was the larger structure, the mausoleum; on our right was the mosque; and in the middle, a small squarish building with four minarets that, upon a closer look, turned out to be the entrance gate to the Rouza. This building had connecting walls, with huge arches cut into it, running on all four sides of the Rouza creating an outer wall boundary.
We passed through the small door of the entrance gate and came to a flight of stoned steps. The steps took us to the raised platform where the mosque and the mausoleum faced each other. An empty step tank with a fountain in the center lay between the two structures.
The Mausoleum was built from a single rock and the architect, according to the inscriptions on a wall, was Malik Sandal. The outer wall of the mausoleum had seven arches each on all the four sides, two of them narrower than the others, creating an outer walkway. The inner aisle had pillars neatly placed for symmetry.
The panels on the wall had inscriptions in Persian and other floral patterns and embellishments. The doors and windows of the tomb were made of wood and had carvings that resembled temple doors. The inner tomb chamber has six tombs that belong to Ibrahim Adil Shah II, his wife Taj Sultana, his mother, his daughter Zohra Sultana and his sons Darvesh and Sulaiman. The original remains are said to be in an underground chamber.
The mosque was smaller in size and had a prayer chamber with a facade of five arches in front. The over hanging roof has four minarets at each corner, a single bulbous dome with a row of petals at its base at the center and a beautifully carved parapet. The prayer hall was lined with high arches, each with beautiful carvings.
The place was bustling with tourists. Children in school uniforms of all imaginable colours, walking in pairs and groups alike, listening keenly to what their teachers were explaining; ladies clad in burqah with their kids tagging along; a few serious devotees oblivious of the noise around, praying silently; and a couple of foreigners, red from the blazing sun, and carrying cameras with lenses bigger than their backpacks.
Our cameras were going crazy. The monument seemed to be a perfect place for photography enthusiasts.The tombs against the skies, peppered with scattered clouds, looked out of the world and gave us some beautiful pictures.
We walked back to the entry gates, ready to resume our tonga ride.
But it was already past noon and time for our lunch. Our tonga stopped in front of a vegetarian restaurant. We invited Mohammad Anwar for lunch but he declined, politely, saying that he had his own food with him.
We had at least four more hours, post-lunch, and had to cover as many number of monuments. For the time being we were exhausted, from the sun, from the ride, our stomachs were empty; but our minds were full from the continuous supply of knowledge on history, heritage and architecture. We had to rest our minds too – for a while.
Come April, and you can already smell the intoxicating sweetness of the mangoes and jackfruits. Rains are at least a couple of months away, and so is school.
It is also the temple festival season in Kerala, when most of the temples, ranging from the small village dieties to the larger ‘devaswom’ (temple management) run ones, get busy celebrating their annual festivals in their own way.
Thrissur Pooram, the mother of all festivals, can eclipse the pomp and pageantry of all these festivities put together.
Scores of tourists from India and abroad are drawn in every year by this audio-visual spectacle of the Thrissur Pooram festival.
The elephants get busy too, ferried from one temple to another.
Have you ever seen an elephant, all decked up, with the golden ‘nettipattam’ (caparison)?
Just imagine how a row of 15 elephants would look, each with three men atop waving the ‘aalavattom’ (peacock-feather fan), ‘venchamaram (white gazelle-hair fan) and ‘kuda’ (silver-sequinned parasols in all the imaginable hues). The elephant in the middle carries the golden ‘thidambu’ representing the deity.
The main festivities go on for 36 hours, just as it did 200 years ago when the Cochin Maharajah, Sree Sakthan Thampuran, first organized the festival.
Ten temples take part in the festival. But the principal participants are the ‘Bhagawathys’ (deities) from the Thiruvambadi and the Paramekkavu temples.
These deities arrive at the Thekkinkadu ground in front of the Vadakkunnathan Temple, each accompanied by 15 gold caparisoned elephants to take blessings from the presiding deity, Lord Shiva.
And what is a fair without some competition? The entourages of the visiting deities divide themselves into two groups, the Paramekkavu group and Thiruvambadi group.
The elephants and musicians representing the two temples face each other in front of the Vadakkumnathan Temple for the most spectacular change of colours, the ‘kudamattam’. While the traditional ‘melam’, an orchestra of percussion and wind instruments using the drums, cymbals, horn, pipe, led by a 300 member group, represented by each temple, reaches a crescendo, the mahouts change the brilliantly decorated parasols in quick succession.
Each change is accompanied by the thunderous applause of thousands of supporters who gather between the lines of elephants, on the surrounding buildings and tree tops.
The healthy competition between the two temples also covers the height of the elephants, variety of the caparisons, symphony of the orchestra, and finally the sound and colours of the fire works.
Just as visually appealing as the caparisoned elephants and equalling the delightful aural onslaught of the music ensemble is yet another mainstay of the Thrissur Pooram. The fiery, benumbing fireworks or the ‘vedikkettu’, if you will.
You could choose to catch this magnificent display on the eveing before in the form of the sample vedikkettu or in the wee hours of the morning after – or, better still and as done by most everyone else, on both occasions. We were lucky to catch the spectacle from the terrace of one of the taller buildings in the round.
The next day, both the temples arrange processions from the Vadakkunnathan Temple to their respective temples. But before that is the ‘Upacharam Cholli Piriyal’, where the Bhagawathys pay respects to each other, bid farewell and promise to meet the next year.
It is not just the Bhagawathys who will return next year. The hundreds and thousands of devotees and Pooram enthusiasts…and us.
It all began with our Uncle. Uncle Moosa we call him. Not just us. Most of East Arunachal calls him that – and for good measure.
It is Uncle, as part of a select band of social missionaries, who took a good part of two generations of the region on that delightful journey from A to B (and beyond!) And we are not even talking distances here. Which is what, usually, you would worry about when you think of a trip to Arunachal Pradesh.
Uncle quit a plush job in one of the most coveted of organizations – the Income Tax. While many were eager to land a job as an I.T.O., he quit it. That was not where his place was, he felt. Even as he did an M.A. in linguistics and bided his time there, bigger plans and a dream was preparing him for what he knew was his true calling.
One day he got the call. There was no caller ID those days. But he made out that it was from his inner self. He picked that, and a couple of bags, up and set out for that frontier where he saw the sun of his dreams rise. The destination was Arunachal Pradesh and the work cut out. Those were the early days of Vivekananda Kendra’s forays into lettering the North East and Uncle wanted to be a part of that movement. He, with a committed brethren of teachers and social activists, spent over 3 decades in the region – setting up schools, teaching and sculpting a future for generations.
32 years and thousands of students later, Sathyanarayanan Mundayoor a.k.a Unni a.k.a Uncle Moosa a.k.a Uncle Sir is pretty much an establishment himself. Only, now he has shed the Kendra’s banner and has donned another which hangs cheerfully outside his modest but neat library-cum-residence in Wakro, in Lohit district in eastern Arunachal– one of the thirteen small but purposeful reading rooms that he set up, almost single-handedly, in the remotest villages of the Lohit and Anjaw districts.
Uncle has a simple yet meaningful enough explanation of his move from the Kendra to starting the library movement in the state. This was, he said, a change from a big umbrella to a smaller umbrella. He felt his role in his earlier avatar had ended and that he just had to begin something new. To do that, he felt it was time for the smaller umbrella to unfold.
Lest he should tick us off for attributing the success of the library movement only to him, a quick clarification. It would also not have been possible but for the contributions – much needed funds, encouragement and physical volunteering – by his countless well-wishers all over Arunachal and the rest of India, and well the world. If one’s deeds were to be the measure of one’s stature, Uncle Moosa towers above most everyone we have met!
And it was Wakro, his present base, that we were eventually headed towards. There were still a few more places to be covered before that – Tezu, the many small villages along the Lohit; Walong and further up all the way to the Chinese border. These were more than lovely, lesser known places (which is what travellers like us seek them out for). For someone like Uncle, these were the outposts that needed all the support required to spread the light of learning and knowledge – places that his library movement had been blessed by. Each of these libraries had been set up by him (and, directly or indirectly, by his small but committed band of well-wishers, patrons and volunteers) in all those long, relentless trips made to these remote parts, carrying books and other material mostly by himself.
For anyone who thinks a trip to East Arunachal is easy, it is not. Unlike Tawang or Itanagar, this part of the state actually is not on travel agent itineraries. There aren’t even many options to stay…and certainly no hotels or resorts – something that, thankfully, we were not affected by. For, we had already got to sample some of the amazing social fare that Uncle has been instrumental in whipping up in East Arunachal. Our innerline permits, the logistics of our transportation, the social support we had en route to Pangsau…these otherwise formidable hurdles were, as if, never there. We are not sure how much Uncle realizes it, but for even someone as unstoppable and irrepressible as him, his reputation continues to precede him. And we were certainly not complaining! The warmth and affection with which we were received everywhere were ample proof of that – and we were more than happy to be the unwitting beneficiaries of that largesse.
We were back on the road again. Our “stroll down the Stilwell memory lane” and “the walk in the woods” in remote Namdapha brought us out via Bordumsa to the Mahadevpura border of Arunachal Pradesh, thanks to Jayanto da and his trusted Scorpio. A brief stop for lunch at a cross between a restaurant and a dhaba in Bordumsa was fulfilling.
Crossing the new bridge on the Lohit and passing the newer still the Golden Pagoda at Tengapani, we reached Chongkham. From the bridge, the monastery complex glistened in the evening sun.
At the crossroads, one road led to Wakro and Parasuramkund, the other towards the Pagla Ghat. As we were headed to meet Uncle in Tezu, we took the latter, enthused by the idea of the ferry crossing, with us and our vehicle in tow.
As with all ghat crossings, patience and luck are just as important as the ferry and the boatman! We were a little short of the former but were still blessed with some good fortune. A cool wind blew over the feisty Pagla Nadi (the mad river – named aptly so) and there weren’t too many people waiting to get across.
But it was a rare sight of the sun and the moon in the sky above that we were treated with. If the sunset on our left was blazing, the moon up above was a cool white.
The short cruise over the Pagla river was the stuff that indelible travel memories are made of. The sun was down but only just to cast a dull golden filigree over the wavy waters. Very few of us talked. Fewer still clicked pictures. That was not entirely surprising, given that this part of the state were, mercifully, not run over by tourists – yet.
Over at the other bank, we drove through pitch darkness across the sandy terrain for a few kilometers till we joined the road that came from Sunpura and headed for Tezu. An hour into the ride, the first signs of the headquarters of the Lohit district could be seen in the failing light.
It’s not hard to like Tezu. It looked like one of those quiet cantonment towns, leafy and wooded. With the sun all but down, the shutters also fell in the shops on the main street. We were to meet Uncle at the library and spend the evening amidst books and children. But the ride from Miao and the ghat crossing had taken longer than we had thought. So we decided to meet him at the Circuit House and catch up on the library visit early next morning.
The Circuit House itself was an expansive affair, located as it was on a large plot by the roadside. Almost colonial in its build, the rooms are spacious if basic. Anyway, there aren’t very many accommodation options in Tezu, otherwise. That kind of puts things in perspective and makes you want to be contented with what there is. By the way, it’s not easy to get a room in these, otherwise, government accommodations. And we had Uncle to thank for this.
He met us shortly after. It had taken us a long time to answer his invite. Every letter, mail, phone call, face to face chat would inevitably end with his asking us to come over and visit his beloved Arunachal. Over the years, the priority of this journey had got beaten up, and down, by many other commitments that come in the guise of practicality and everyday compulsion. But as so often happens in fiction – but rarely in real life – the good finally prevailed and our Arunachal trip materialized.
In the warm confines of our room, we sat talking, catching up on his work and filling him in with our eventful first three days of our trip. We were soon joined by his dear friends and well-wishers – Moyum an erstwhile student of Uncle and now working in the Land Management Department of the DC’s office in Tezu; Bapen another ex-student and herself well settled as an Urban Planning Officer (UPO) of Anjaw district; and, last but not the least, the smiling and unassuming Etalo, volunteer library activist and in charge of Bamboosa Library from its inception. We basked in the collateral regard and affection that these special friends of Uncle’s extended us and we opened up to them with the ease that you could only do, instantly, to Arunachalis.
We were in for yet another pleasant surprise. Just when we were feeling the effects of our lunch at Bordumsa waning, Uncle told us of what lay ahead for the evening. Hearing of our visit from Moyum, her friend and colleague, Basila didi had graciously offered to host us all for an authentic Mishmi dinner. It seemed that no time was being wasted in our being able to sample the flavour of our new destination – and we were grateful to Moyum and our host for the evening.
Basila didi lives in her Mishmi home in Tezu with her two children. Along with Moyum, she too works at the Land Management Department of the DC’s office in Tezu and is a well-wisher and a voluntary activist of the Bamboosa library. We walked into a house that was beautiful not just on account of the festivities of the Pooja season but also by virtue of Didi and her two adorable children.
For us, to say the very least, it was all utterly overwhelming. The day had begun with a farewell to Namdapha, a goodbye to the lovely Phupla Singpho family, a hearty ethnic lunch in Bordumsa, a memorable ghat crossing, a touching reunion with Uncle in his own special backyard…and now this. Being invited home by someone who we had never spoken to till then and being served authentic, delicious local cuisine in a chang-ghar…life doesn’t bless you with many of such days.
A word on the setting of the dinner and the food itself. The chang-ghar is, in these parts, an elaborate wooden structure built on stilts. Inside, the kitchen occupied one part of the room while in the middle was a hearth with a warm fire. We huddled around that and had what was, probably, one of the most memorable meals of our lives. A lal chai (black tea) and some small talk later, Basila didi’s main course arrived. Delectable dhekiya (fern) sabzi with a dal were suitable accompaniments for white sticky rice. But it was a tentative bite of the infamously hot Bhut Jhalokia pickle that set our mouths on fire, almost blowing the roofs of our palates sky high. We could barely murmur our profound appreciation and thanks for the meal and the exquisite gale (the local colourful skirt) that Didi presented. It was too much of an occasion not to be consigned to posterity.
The next day was when we would set off early morning for a long and exciting drive all the way to Walong. When that kind of a day is preceded by one as eventful as this, it’s a long night that separates the two. But we were tired…and tired we didn’t want to be tomorrow. Back at the Circuit House, it didn’t take long for the lights to be put out for the day.
A word also on our miss of the day. Dawns break early in that part of the country. We were earlier still. We wanted to drive in to Walong and see it while it was still light.
But before our long journey east, there was one important thing left to be done.
The Bamboosa Library. We were eager to put a form to what we had heard Uncle tell us about it all these years! Established on May 19, 2007, this was the first endeavour as part of the AWIC – VT Youth Library Network. Run by the Vivekananda Trust, headquartered in Mysore, there are now 13 of these mini libraries spread across the Lohit and Anjaw districts…most of them in the far flung villages higher up in the hills. There is more beyond the books stacked neatly in the shelves. There are frequent book exhibitions, reading sessions, workshops on improving reading skills, cultural and sports programmes, environmental awareness and much more.
The library itself is housed alongside a computer training school. Decked up with drawings and sketches and poems and photos and newspaper clippings, it is the true altar of the written word. Etalo, the resident head priest of this temple of books, joined us there soon after. There was already one keen young book lover and keeper of the keys, Purbi, already there. We spent a good part of an hour there lost among books, chatting up with the intent library volunteers and Uncle himself.
We wanted to stay back a little more but were happy that we could, at last, get here and see for ourselves the ground Uncle and his movement had covered. For someone who deeply believes in children and wants to get them to fall in love with books, the ultimate payoff would be for the young minds to recognise books as their soul-mates. That, for Uncle Moosa, is job done!
It was a long day ahead and, shortly, we were on the road again. As we passed the road that wound up to the serene Tafragam village, we remembered Uncle telling us of the even more serene VKV girls school up above. That would have to wait for a later visit to Tezu.
For now, we were headed for Walong. Names that we had till then only seen on the map or heard from Uncle were now on the road ahead. Hayuliang, Hawai, Walong, Kibithu, Kaho…the places would change, but there was one constant that would be a part of our 200 km drive up. And that was the Lohit – the river both beautiful and tempestuous, gushing down all the way from China and flowing into the Brahmaputra.
And then, in less than a week, we would be in Wakro! We would be with Uncle again and this time sharing his space with him – spending time with him at the Apne library, with his books, with his little patrons from Apna Vidya Bhavan and Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya, with the wonderful staff of these fine schools and, never the least, the two remarkable people who started and run these excellent institutions. But that will be quite another story and we will tell it once we reach Wakro.
For now, we were glad we were, finally, in Arunachal and with our dear Uncle Moosa!