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Tribes and shamans become your hosts’ – India’s remote Arunachal Pradesh

Arunachal Pradesh feels very removed from the rest of India. It rises up like a sheer green wall from the flat Assam valley. Foreigners have been allowed in since 1998, but it’s still not an easy place to get around. Many of us think we know India but this remote, far north-eastern corner is a blank space in the popular imagination.

Often, there is very little evidence of civilisation as we know it. From remote villages you just see an endless landscape of green hills, creasing and rippling away to the horizon. When you’re in a smoky bamboo hut deep in the jungle, it’s hard to believe this is the same country as New Delhi.

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent
 Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Its human and animal diversity is huge. The state is home to 26 tribes, including the Adi, Idu Mishmi and Khampa, who are culturally distinct from the rest of India. But it’s also an amazing destination for wildlife: tigers and clouded leopards both live here.

Tribes and shamans become your hosts. Near the Tibetan border, in Idu Mishmi territory, I sat drinking whisky in a bamboo hut with my host, Kormu. We had a joyful evening, swapping stories, sleeping around the fire and waking with a terrible hangover. A shaman I grew to know, Sipamelo, told extraordinary tales of calling on spirits, creating storms and communing with tigers. It may sound far-fetched but it’s easy to believe in this setting.

There is real joy in many of the villages. Considering the hardships of dangerous wildlife, extreme weather and the challenge of growing food, there’s a surprising amount of infectious, thigh-slapping humour. Every tribe makes its own rice or millet beer and wine. The local moonshine tends to be strong: one glass is fine, but indulge in three and you’ll be crawling to bed.

A Khampa child at a long life blessing in Pemako.
 A Khampa child at a long life blessing in Pemako. Photograph: Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent

Tourism is almost non-existent. The Tawang Buddhist monastery sees some foreign visitors as it is the largest monastery in India and second-largest in the world after Potala Palace in Tibet. So there are guesthouses and hotels in Tawang but in the jungles and highlands it’s a case of your guide finding you a place to stay with a family each night.

Be prepared to get wet. In summer it rains unbelievably hard and the hot months also see an abundance of snakes and leeches. In winter, the state experiences the kind of cold you get where you have 7,000-metre peaks. October is the best month to go.

Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent sat on her motorbike in Tawang.
 Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent in Tawang

Festivals and clan gatherings happen all the time. The Hornbill festival in Nagaland (south of Arunachal Pradesh) is the most famous but because there are so many tribes, festivities happen almost every week: stumbling upon one is quite likely.


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