The mystic frontier

tawang-monastery1 Abode of the gods: The Tawang monastery, where the Dalai Lama had taken refuge after fleeing from Tibet, is among the oldest places of worship in south Asia | Arvind Jain

As India-China disputes linger, the northeast continues to be in news

  • IT was like early summer in the country in England. The day was warm, but not too hot, and daylight lingered on into fragrant twilight. The sky was blue, but not cloudless; the air soft and caressing, sweet with the scent of flowers and the clean smell of fertile earth" - Frank Kingdon-Ward, Plant Hunter in Manipur, 1952

It was 1939. World War II had begun and India was drawn into it. But, plant hunters were not known to be always moved by politics. Frank Kingdon-Ward, an Englishman, was one such person. An expert on the flora of southeast Asia, he was famous among the orchid-crazy natural history groups in the western museum circles. He paid a visit to W.J. Robbins, director of the Botanical Garden of New York, seeking financial support for further exploring northeast India, one of his favourite destinations. 

With Kingdon-Ward’s reputation, money was not an issue and he soon set sail for India. A decade later came out the brilliant essay “Plant Hunter in Manipur”, which though named after Manipur, is a book on the people, culture and the rich flora of northeast India. Kingdon-Ward could not stop gushing about the similarities between the Alpine ranges in his native Europe and the Himalayan forests:

“March came in like a lamb with cloudless skies, brilliant sunshine, and no wind. Spring had come to the hills, with minimum temperatures about 40 and maximum under 70. In the forest, a faint crepitating sound told of bursting buds, accompanied by a gentle rain of tiny bud scales....”

His essay on Manipur was followed by other works on northeast India, which became a plant hunter’s list of must-reads before heading there. Ironically, Kingdon-Ward, who loved the hills of northeast, suffered from vertigo. He, however, did a good job of hiding his trouble with heights from his local friends like Major Bob Khating, a prominent member of the Tangkhul Naga community, who was the first Indian ambassador of tribal origin. Khating, who helped establish the first Indian posts in Tawang in the 1950s, assisted the curious Englishman to explore the hills of Arunachal Pradesh.

Kingdon-Ward was, however, not the first European to visit northeast India. Writers and strategists like Sir Charles Bell and Lt Col Frederick Bailey had travelled extensively in the region in the early 20th century. Bell, who was the political officer for Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet, served as a member of the McMahon group, named after Sir Henry McMahon, which was established to delineate the border between India and Tibet. Bailey is credited with the discovery of the route between Assam and Tibet via the Se La and Bum La passes. 

arvind-kallol Top of the world: THE WEEK Special Correspondent Kallol Bhattacherjee (left) and Chief Photographer Arvind Jain at the Bum La pass.

During our ride from the plains of Brahmaputra to the McMahon Line in the greater Himalayas, the challenges of infrastructure were quite evident. Weather is unpredictable, with heavy rain never too far away. Being landlocked, roads are of critical importance here. Kingdon-Ward has written how Manipur came to acquire a road link with the plains of Assam:

“In 1893, during a time of acute tension, the leading Manipuris in Imphal intrigued against their British overlords. The result was the brief Manipur uprising in which several British officers were massacred. As a result, the Indian government forced the Maharaja of Manipur to build and maintain a cart road, to replace the existing bridle path from Imphal to Dimapur―a distance of 80 miles. Thus, 50 years ago, the Manipur Road, 134 miles in length, was born.” 

The travellers, like the rest of the world, were struck by the ethnic diversity of northeast India. Bell and Bailey were among the first to introduce the mysterious Mishmis and the silent Monpas, who are among the oldest mountain-based communities in India.

Decades later, the northeast, especially Arunachal Pradesh, is in news mainly because of the longstanding dispute between India and China. In fact, it was Bell who first warned India against neglecting the northeast. Way back in 1930, he criticised the lopsided strategic focus of the British Indian government on India’s northwest at the cost of the northeastern frontiers. Nearly three decades later, his prophecy came true as China inflicted a crushing defeat on India. His words ring true even today: “Behind the Himalayas, there are forces at work, unseen and almost unknown, that closely concern the welfare of India.”

As we inched our way up the Bailey Trek―a route that connects the Brahmaputra plain to Tawang―and reached the 16,500-ft high Bum La pass, where Indian and Chinese soldiers literally stare at each other, one thing was quite clear. Although a lot has changed since the days of Bell, Bailey and Kingdon-Ward, the mountains of Tawang that mark the border between the two mighty powers remain the way they were for ages: icy and merciless.

30-The-mystic-frontier Illustration: Bhaskaran
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