I understand now there is a god road between Shillong and Guwahati. It was not so in late 1980s. From Shillong one had to pass through Guwahati to go to almost every places in Arunachal Pradesh. I had to do it every time and used to wonder if these roads were so bad in 1962 when the Chinese came through the McMahon Line. If they were indeed as bad as they were in late 1980s (in fact, the chances were that they were even worse) the Indian Army would have had a tough time in deployment of troops and supplies to the borders which were up on the mountains. Thankfully, roads have since been built not only from Shillong to Guwahati, even the biggish stretch of Guwahati to Bomdila has a four-lane highway.
This time I was on my way to Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal Pradesh. I had to park myself at Naharlagun, an Arunachal town down on the plains on the Assam border. It occasionally is up against the wild elephants that without any reason decide to raid the place. The nearby jungles even in the late 1980s were harbouring them. I do not know what the situation now is.
Naharlagun is like an ordinary plains town. Nonetheless, it used to be site for the higher court of Arunachal until the Gewahati High Court established its bench at Itanagar in the year 2000. This was the only place then where the visiting officials could get decent accommodation to stay. Now it has become a rail-head also, facilitating journey from Guwahati
Even the tourist web sites say that there is nothing much to see in Itanagar. The place probably got its name from the Ita Fort. Ita is brick in Assamese and perhaps since the fort is made of bricks it is known as Ita Fort Apart from the Fort there is a Buddhist temple which is nothing much to write home about. All in all, it is a nondescript town and left to oneself one would avoid visiting it.
Ziro, the headquarters of the Lower Subansiri district, has a lot of character. Its undulations, its early morning fogs and, above all, its concentration of Apatani tribal people make it an interesting place. In fact, mainly because of Apatanis the UNESCO World Heritage Sites Committee wanted to make Ziro a World Heritage Site.
Curiously, the Apatanis, unlike other tribal people, are not nomadic. They are a settled people rooted to their soil, cultivating their fields and are happy about it. Rice is the dominant crop. Everyone seems to be growing it making the community self-sufficient. They make a sort of rice wine which they have for celebrations or just to make merry. Christianity has made some inroads yet traditional culture has been retained.
Number of mithuns determines a person’s financial status. A mithun is neither a cow nor a buffalo. It has descended from Indian bison. It is allowed to graze freely in the forest areas of the Apatanis. These are raised for traditional rituals and eventually to be slaughtered. Its meat is said to be tender. Mithuns are intimately linked with the cultural life of Apatanis, yet they do not worship it as Hindus worship or care for the cow.
Yet another peculiarity about Apatanis is their women who wear an unique nose plug which somehow mutilates their facial features. But that is the tradition and it is being observed, though gradually the practice is being given up.
A word is necessary about Subansiri river that flows down the eponymously named district. While it is the biggest tributary of the mighty River Brahmaputra, it flows through Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. While coming down to meet the Brahmaputra it traverses some gorgeous country, the landscapes being just fantastic.