Entering the dawn-lit mountains

India’s extreme north-east: A struggle to reach Arunachal Pradesh and survive its roads – Published on The Economist, April 8, 2010.

Day one – IT IS dark, raining, five hours from our journey’s beginning or end, and the gatekeeper of Arunachal Pradesh doesn’t like my permit. Or visa, perhaps that should be, Arunachal being as difficult to enter as almost any country. The seven-day “protected area permit” now being sniffed at by a torch-lit figure in khaki took me almost a year to get, including lobbying in several state and central government departments. Among a long list of conditions, it says I will “not be allowed to discuss the controversial issues which would affect the relations between China and India.” 

I have not yet broken this rule. The border-guard is more concerned that the permit, though signed and counter-signed, has not been rubber-stamped. With the assurance of a man trained to look for stamp-marks, not to read English, he says I may not pass. I puff out my cheeks. He shakes his head. I mobilise my travel companion, a close female friend of Arunachal’s chief minister’s son, who is eagerly awaiting her arrival.

A few minutes later we are rolling on, quitting the plains of Assam and starting a climb that continues, almost unbroken, to the Tibetan plateau at 15,000 feet (4,500 metres) … //

… It is a relaxing place, at once accessible and imposing. Butter-scented, a happy vision of a secluded, contemplative life comes to me. It would be wonderful, if also challengingly boring. Yet it is no wonder that Tibetan Buddhism has travelled well, soothing the raw nerves and spiritual cravings of so many in Europe and America. In fact, these seekers will soon be able to come here, to this haven, in droves—along a new road, now under construction, that will link the convent to Tawang for the first time in its 300-year history.

For all their aura of timelessness, Tawang’s Buddhist clergy are feeling the force for change. In his monastic office, lushly red-carpeted and with portraits of India’s founding fathers on the walls, the abbot of Tawang monastery, Guru Tulku Rinpoche discusses this frankly. Local families no longer routinely submit their second sons to the monasteries, making recruitment of monks a concern. Tawang monastery’s population fell from around 600 in 1959 to an all-time low of 200. Partly in response, the clergy introduced secular education to the novices’ training, and better food. There are now 480 monks at the monastery, and with over 70 novices inducted last year, from Tawang and nearby Bhutan, its future looks reasonably secure.

Interrupting our discussion, the abbot is called upon to induct half a dozen more, the first new batch of this year. Mostly skinny children under the age of ten, the inductees are ushered in to prostrate themselves before the abbot, while he scribbles down their new monastic names. He then drapes a sacred red thread over the boys’ shorn heads, ceremoniously cuts a few more bristly hairs from them, and gives the younger and more frightened-looking boys a reassuring pat on the cheek. About a third of inductees quit before completing their long studies, the abbot says, either because they cannot keep up, or to pursue their secular education.

“But I am a little worried,” says the 39-year-old abbot, who is considered to be a reincarnation—or living Buddha—of one of his enlightened predecessors. On completing their training, young monks, typically in their early 20s, used to confine themselves in their monasteries or to lofty hermitages to practise meditation. “But these days they want to pursue their education or to see the world, to see what is happening in other countries” he says.

With China’s Tibetan Buddhists considered to be under the cosh, denied access to their spiritual head, those in India feel a special burden to preserve the religion’s traditions. But being relatively few in number—a big majority of India’s 8m Buddhists are recent converts from Hinduism to other Buddhist strains—they may struggle. “Now is a very difficult time for our philosophy,” the abbot admits. “We must protect and keep this Buddhist culture and religion.” (full long text).

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