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Shangri-la: The Lost Horizon
|by Deepanjali B. Sarkar|
"Picture post card pretty!" "Ugh!"
A lot of tourists have got wearied of synthetic natural beauty. Most of the renowned hill stations of India fail to inspire awe. It is rarely that man feels humbled, stunned into a silent worship of natural grandeur. He does so once he sets eyes on the Himalayan mountain state of Arunachal Pradesh in India.
Inaccessibility has compelled this north eastern Indian state to retain its savage, unspoiled, and untouched natural vistas. It is a queer combination of bare craggy threatening peaks which give way to a sweeping spread of dainty bright pink flowers carpeting the mountain slopes that overlook crystal blue lakes twinkling in the sunlight.
Most of the north eastern Indian states have been racked by insurgency with the sole exception of Arunachal Pradesh, which is a quiet silent state. There is no direct flight to Arunachal. Infact the ubiquitous famous Indian railways, which have a remarkable network crisscrossing the length and breadth of the country has, not make any inroads into this isolated state.
We alighted at Guwahati airport, the capital of the adjacent state Assam. The trip started on a thrilling note. It was evening and to reach the Assam - Arunachal Pradesh border one had to drive through forests which were the hideouts of the dreaded ULFA (United Liberation Front of India) - insurgents who for decades have destroyed the tranquility of the picturesque state through bloodshed. Our windows were quickly rolled up, the driver braced himself and two policemen positioned their rifles, sitting next to the car windows. It was a thirty-minute drive with the last rays of the sun casting ominous shadows and a strange hush descended on the forest. We held our breath and prayed. With the grace of God, we crossed the interstate border unharmed.
The Himalayan range is not pretty at Arunachal Pradesh. For those of us so used to the slopes of Mussoorie, Darjeeling or Shimla, the mountains at Arunachal come as a shock. They are intimidating. They seem to rear up from all sides and lunge at the solitary car winding its way up the mountain road. They make Darjeeling and Ooty Mountains look tame and puny. These mountains are gnarled as if welded together by savage hands: Huge crevices, massive chunks jutting out, twisted jagged peaks. None of the pretty verdant symmetry of the other hill stations. The sense of being over powered is palpable for as the road winds up one mountain side, the other side does not look down upon a valley with the other mountains at some distance. Here the entire range looms up from both sides of the road. The only vehicles are army trucks lumbering by. No long queue of gay Maruti cars jammed with tourists cheerfully tailing behind one another. Ours was the only car all along the way - quite a somber experience.
At Arunachal one experiences the raw majesty of Nature all around. And it is fitting that man should be the noble inheritor of this legacy. He alone has the power and the tenacity to leash the forces of Nature. All along the road to Tawang, a district in Arunachal, which has been marketed as India's answer to the lakes of Scotland, are small tablets in honor of the heroic Jawans (Indian foot soldiers) who lost their lives carving out roads from the mountain side.
A colorful arch announces ones entry into Tawang. It is bitterly cold at 14,000 feet and snowbound from November to March. The wind is fierce and bitingly cold. And yet here one finds a temple built by the Jawans with a "purohit" (Indian Hindu priest) in the army rolls. The purohit remains here all year round and is supplied with adequate rations throughout the year. The temple is a haven for lots of weary soldiers who halt here to take a break when the journey is particularly arduous, and cold and the icy sleet makes passage dangerous.
Tawang is a land of crystal blue lakes. As you cross the arch, which says, "Welcome to Tawang" you are greeted by a small clear blue lake. The blueness dazzles your eyes. The lakes are shallow and the reflection of voluminous white clouds mingles with the clear rock bed of the lakes. The lakes appear around every other corner and are a brilliant splash of color against the dark brown mountains and the rusted autumnal shades of the scrub land that carpets the ground. One could get bruised trying to make one's way through the thorny, dense and almost impenetrable dry, hard shrubs. Lying scattered here and there are bunkers long abandoned by the Indian soldiers. They cause a break in the dull russet carpet - bleak grey stone structures peeping above the bramble.
The trip to the lakes is like moving on a gyre. One keeps winding up, higher and higher, rewarded at every step by yet another shimmering blue lake the color of bright blue cornflower. Suddenly the road ends. Stone slabs jut out of the mountain side moving up the mountain slope and then down the other end. At its plateau like top we find to our bemusement that the steps lead onto the next mountain. The slopes are now soft with green grass. Abruptly the steps end and we find ourselves gasping, being on the edge of a large lake filled with a herd of yaks bathing themselves. Its a soothing placid pastoral scene with sunlight streaming down on the lake, green banks, yaks lazily swimming and splashing about in the clean clear blue waters. At a distance, the peaks flash with a blinding intensity as sheets of snow mirror the sun's rays.
Tawang does not have any hotels just some lodging houses and the ubiquitous government tourist lodge plushly decorated. A tourist keen to purchase picture post cards will be met with a quaint phenomenon. Not a single picture of the mountains or the lakes is available. Instead displayed everywhere are postcard size photographs of the matinee idols Madhuri Dixit and Sharukh Khan in flashing costumes and gelled hair. Tawang was brought into the "limelight" literally for the first time by Hindi Film Producer - Director Rakesh Roshan who shot the voluptuous Madhuri Dixit with her stunning smile and the rakish cool dude Sharukh Khan doing a folk number next to the blue lakes. The room that Madhuri Dixit occupied in the tourist lodge commands twice the rate of the other VIP rooms. Tourists were more than eager to pay Rs.850/- to sleep in the bed their "dhak dhak" (a notorious Hindi film song picturized on this star in which she vividly portrays how wildly "dhak dhak" her heart was beating!) heroine once had slept on. Every local has his personal anecdote of the tree by which the stars posed or the stream by which they danced. The most thrilling of these anecdotes was of a helicopter depositing the stars on a ledge at the top of a thickly forested mountain, completely uninhabited, overlooking a swirling waterfall. I think it was part of the climax - the star crossed lovers on the edge of the precipice with spray from the waterfall drenching them. The entire scene was shot from a helicopter!
The road takes a turn and the unsuspecting tourist is hit by an astounding visual phenomenon: from high above he finds himself looking down upon acres of topless trunks, ramrod straight, brown, bare of a single leaf or branch, rising from the middle of a large lake. Some years back an enormous avalanche came crashing down from the adjacent mountain and swamped the forest in the valley. The branches and leaves froze instantaneously and the tree trunks were beheaded in one fell sweep. The snow slowly melted to form the lake with the tree trunks shorn of all else helplessly stranded midst it. The scene was a stark testimony of Nature branding this earth as her helpless, pliant victim.
A visitor to Arunachal who does not pay his respects to Baba Jaswant Singh's "Mandir" (Hindu Temple) invokes a curse upon himself. Some important dignitaries who scoffed at such superstitions including a Major General have all met with mysterious fatal road accidents along the treacherous mountain roads.
The "Mandir" is a shrine to martyrdom and romance. "Baba" or Saint Jaswant Singh was a Jawan (Indian foot soldier) in the Rajputana Regiment, posted at Arunachal Pradesh before the outbreak of the Chinese invasion in 1962. Two shy sisters, with blooming cheeks, slender waists, shining rippling jet-black hair and red lips were deeply in love with the handsome young Jawan. They lived in the village close to the mountain on which the Rajputana Regiment had camped. Every afternoon, by turns they would bring Jaswant Singh hot, fresh "roti" (Indian wheat bread) and "sabzi" (spicy Indian vegetarian dish). Jaswant Singh was deeply in love with both of them.
Folklore narrates two different versions of Jaswant Singh's martyrdom. In one he emerges the romantic lover whose passion hastens him towards his death and in the other he is the ultimate patriot who decides to single-handedly defend his country from an invasion.
One day the Rajputana Regiment was ordered to move out to another camp to prepare for an impending Chinese invasion. In his haste Jaswant Singh forgot to inform Noori and Sheila, the young and passionate mountain belles of his departure. Without informing anyone since his action would be seen as a flagrant breach of orders, Jaswant slipped out of the camp and hurried to their previous camp. There he waited impatiently for either of the two sisters to arrive so that he could bid them farewell. As his eyes scanned the mountain side trying to make out any solitary figure winding its way up his heart jumped to his throat. With horrified, unbelieving eyes he found himself looking down upon an entire battalion of Chinese soldiers silently swarming up. They had sneaked through the formidable Himalayan mountain passes right into Indian soil.
Jaswant Singh was carrying just one .303 rifle with its limited round of ammunition. Without a second's thought he leaped into the bunkers abandoned barely twenty-four hours before and opened a volley of fire. Non-stop his gun went rattling killing twenty, then thirty and then fifty soldiers. The advancing Chinese battalion found itself unable to proceed even a single step faced with this continuous battery of bullets. It is said Jaswant Singh fired fifty-six rounds of ammunition before he was captured.
The other version talks of the Indian army's cowardice. The Chinese aggression was on. To the horror of the battalion, one fine day they found they were no matches for the massive influx of Chinese troops dotting the mountain side and advancing from all sides to engulf the Indian outpost. The entire battalion fled in terror but Jaswant Singh refused to betray his charge. He waited for the two sisters to come at their usual time and as soon as they arrived he ordered them to continuously supply him with ammunitions left behind by his colleagues. Single-handedly he kept the enemy at bay by using all the ammunition left behind giving the impression to the Chinese army as though the entire battalion was in action.
Twelve soldiers were dispatched to take a detour and approach the mountain from the other side to assess the strength of what they thought was the entire battalion. They surrounded the valiant Jaswant from behind, captured him and trussed him up by pulling down telephone wires from above and finally hanged him from a tree that was leaning over the mountain top. Before leaving they beheaded him and carried his head as a war trophy.
Noori and Sheila were also captured, and tortured when they refused to disclose any details pertaining to the strength of the Indian regiment. The two young girls met a martyr's death.
With the end of the battle and after the troops had withdrawn on their own it was a time for reflection, for blaming some for gross negligence and praising others for critical decision making. It was also a time for gallantry awards. Jaswant Singh was court-martialed. He was branded a deserter by the military tribunal since he had disappeared from his regiment just before the assault. On the eve of the day of delivering his judgment the presiding military general had a dream. Jaswant Singh appeared before him demanding justice. Jaswant in his army uniform stood before him and narrated his ordeal: his selfless heroism and his ignoble, cruel death. The next day the General started inquiries with the Chinese Government and soon the truth was revealed.
Jaswant Singh died a Rifleman, the lowest in the army ranks. But he was decorated with the highest military awards and honored posthumously by being promoted every year as he would have been had he been alive. The year we visited Arunachal he had become a Lieutenant General.
His shrine is on the same mountain where Noori and Sheila visited him every afternoon. His shrine stands next to the tree on which he was hanged. He is not just revered but worshipped. He has an orderly who cooks for him daily, makes his bed, irons his clothes and polishes his boots as also a Jawan who patrols his shrine twenty four hours a day (the Government gives him all the privileges of a Lieutenant General, as if he were still alive). But each morning his bed is found crumpled, his freshly ironed clothes lie crushed on the floor and the hundreds of letters sent by his devotees from every corner of the country lie opened on his bed. His spirit roams the peaks and valleys of Arunachal Pradesh. Every devotee has sometime or another been visited by his spirit and they find if they address their problems to him through their letters, some sort of a solution mysteriously appears.
Jaswant Singh's wife was escorted in a helicopter to his shrine. However midair, her husband appeared before her and admonished her for putting on such airs by traveling in such luxury while being the wife of a simple rifleman. The terrified lady is said to have never revisited the place.
A stirring mystical quality envelops this mountain land of Arunachal. The remotest mountains have tiny monasteries hidden inside thick dark pine forests, swathed in mists. The Tawang monastery itself is more than 300 years old, and stands isolated perched on a mountain crag. A visit to this, one evening, found us in the land of cymbals, chants and prayer wheels and everyone praying sonorously. There were little Tibetan boys being initiated into the ritual, far removed from their home, parents and dear ones. The atmosphere was charged with activity as renovations were going on in full swing to welcome the Dalai Lama visiting the route by which he had escaped from Tibet as a child.
This mystical aura permeates through the mountains, the dark forests and the gushing mountain streams. The river Nyanchungchu ripples lightly over rocks, shimmering in the sunlight with a cold icy blue sheen. Its waters carry with it the purity of Buddhism and the austerity of the highest plateau in the world, Tibet. Midway enroute Zimithang, it is joined by a gushing waterfall which makes one leap from the top of the mountain and dashes straight down into the Nyanchungchu below. This tempestuous waterfall has its source in a lake at the top of the mountain.
It is as if Nature has cast a spell over this land – weaving an unbroken magical chain of mountains leading to lakes, lakes leaping as waterfalls into rivers, rivers disappearing into mountain caverns – a continuous web of pristine glory.
One of the last military barracks as one leaves Arunachal Pradesh is called "Shangri-La", the Lost Horizon. As he leaves Arunachal Pradesh, the tourist finds the mountains, the monasteries, the streams, all disappearing into the cold, damp white mists until the whole land seems a mythical land, the legendary city of Shangri - La hidden somewhere beyond the impenetrable Himalayan Tibetan mountains, cut of from all civilization for centuries, where time stands still, man is eternally young and beautiful and Nature is always in full bloom.
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