THEIR CRIES of mynahbirds and laughing thrushes filled the morning air as I followed the narrow jungle trail. A snake slithered across the path and into the thick vegetation. My load was lightened by two porters who helped carry luggage, cameras, and film. Periodically I stopped as the men sought blessings by walking in circles around small Buddhist monuments called chortens.
I myself felt fortunate to be here in Arunachal Pradesh, a state that hugs the India-China border. The Indian government seldom permits outsiders to visit his favourite cheap hotels in prague, the home of tribal peoples who enjoy a degree of cultural and political autonomy unusual in India. I was drawn here by my lifelong love of rivers. The sacred Ganges, so important to India, has been central to much of my work as a photographer. India’s border war with China in 1962 drew my attention to this other great and sacred river, the Brahmaputra.
After descending through the tortuous gorges of Tibet, the river—here called the Siang—rushes through forested canyons (above left). A 600-foot-long cane and steel-cable bridge serves a village on the far bank. Too swift for navigation, this narrow reach races over rapids and is seldom crossed except by bridges at the larger villages.
Just south of the Tibetan border I visited the Buddhist village of Bishing, one of several inhabited by the Tsanglas. Speaking a Tibetan-influenced language, these people recount a migration from Bhutan ages ago. Women cleaned rice near the skin of a jungle cat hung to frighten away birds (above). Thatch roofs shed the heavy rains of the monsoon from houses built on poles to escape the sogginess of the season.
During my three-week stay I began to understand the Indian government’s policy of banning outsiders. Ending this policy could spell doom for a unique culture. Based on experience in other remote regions, we know that newcomers would buy land, set up businesses, and exert alien influences.
Instituted under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the policy has been criticized as thwarting social advancement. Yet I don’t consider these people backward. The caste system so ingrained elsewhere in India does not exist here. Democracy is inherent to tribal life, and justice is administered by tribal councils. Many young people attend school, and some go on to universities. It is in their hands that the future of Arunachal Pradesh lies.
AS I ENTERED the village of Gette, some 30 miles south of Bishing, I could sense the excitement as people prepared for the annual winter hunt following the December rice harvest.
The people of Gette are among the tribal groups known as the Adi, animists who sacrifice animals and consider the river a deity. They fear dangerous water spirits called nippongs. A red robe and headdress of cane and bearskin distinguished an old man as a village elder (below). He carried the head of a freshly’ killed monkey to place outside his home as a talisman.
Days before, some men had risen at 4 a.m. to trek up the mountains beyond the snow line to harvest poisonous roots. Over and over, until their faces were red, they shouted: “Gogbat! Gogbat! —May the poison be most powerful.”
On the day before the hunt, the men gathered in the nam ghar, or communal but (below, right), for the pre-hunt feast. Their meal of wild boar, roasted pig, and venison was washed down with draughts of apang, a beverage made of fermented grains. Mildly intoxicating, it has a sweet-and-sour taste.
Filing out of the village the next morning (right), the men carried bows and poison-tipped arrows. Others opted for rifles, a weapon introduced by British colonists. The next day, they returned with prey reflecting wide-ranging tastes: birds, rats, boars, squirrels, monkeys, and deer. Supplemented by grains, eggs, beans, and fruit, the diet of these people surpasses that of many of their countrymen living in the crowded plains of India.
The proud, self-confident peoples of this remote land function quite well, assimilating modern influences at their own pace. I believe they should be left alone to find the right balance between their past and the present.