Dambuk, Arunachal Pradesh: The most surreal place in India.
It’s a strange coincidence when you’re reading a book that describes exactly what you see when you look up from the pages. That happened to me when I was reading The Dolphin People by Torsten Krol, a coming-of-age adventure about a German family who find themselves in the midst of the indigenous Yayomi tribe of Venezuela and adapt to the ways of the primitive beings. I found myself instantly drawing parallels between reality and fiction as I interacted with the members of the Adi and Idu tribe of Dambuk in Arunachal Pradesh.
I was there to attend Orange Festival, a festival that combined art, music and adventure, taking place in an orange orchard in the middle of nowhere. This article is, however, not the story about the music, but everything else.
American songwriter Scott Moses Murray with the local Ponung tribe
After witnessing the shutting down of the Dibrugarh Airport since no other flights were to arrive or depart post 2 pm, I got on an exhausting ride to a town eight hours away called Roing. While the night sky from the car was unlike anything I’ve seen before, it was a relief to arrive at the house of a local a little after midnight, where we were served rice, dal and an extremely spicy but addictive chilli powder. As I later learnt much to my delight, the ghost chilli (locally known as bhut jolokia), possibly the spiciest in the world, is native to the region.
The next morning, I sat around the kitchen-cum-fireplace called emmi and sipped on delicious butter tea while the locals told me about their lives and culture. They were, as usual, surprised to find a woman travelling alone and had many questions, which I gladly answered. My fellow travelers and I then left for Dambuk, which we reached after crossing a rivulet of the Brahmaputra by a ferry that comprised of three equally sized boats tied together like a float.
Rohini (right) with a local wearing the traditional tribal dress
At the orchard, stories of local life and culture started emerging. Among the many interesting things I learnt about the tribes, the most fascinating were their marriage and death rituals. In the case of the former, the boy must bring four squirrels (a delicacy in these parts) with their eyes and tail intact to the girl and if she and her family accepts, a grand feast is held and the pair are declared married.
Another fascinating piece of traditional knowledge imparted to me was that when someone died, the body was buried in a nameless grave and the elements returned to nature where they belong. It did not matter who you were or how rich, but the namelessness of the grave symbolized the lack of ego and genuine connection to Mother Nature. Another deep-rooted tradition that I found rather impressive is the use of bamboo and cane in everything - from entire houses and furniture to handicrafts and utensils.
The locals strike a pose
Other than natural beauty, several ‘tourist attractions’ also blew my mind - the Bongal Yapgo, a war rampart of boulders from the 1880s located nearby; to visit the homes of the villagers who showed the warmest hospitality; and even joining some of the hosts in their traditional dances as they poured us glass after glass of the local apong (rice beer). Witnessing the simple but fulfilling lives of the Dambuk residents and their contentment in life despite having electricity only between 5 pm to 7 pm daily certainly puts urban living to shame.
Of course, it wasn’t all that beautiful when I attempted to sleep alone in a room where a previous occupant had hung himself from the fan. I tried to convince myself to face the bravest night of my life and almost managed to go through with the self-inflicted dare. But the stories I heard from the locals made me question my own mental strength and eventually, I was forced to sleep on the floor in a trustable stranger’s room, who very kindly agreed to put up with my snoring.
Tapu war dance
It might have been merely three days spent in Dambuk, but I was amazed at how much there was to write home about - from going on an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) ride and climbing over logs to trying out opium that was offered by a tribal chief that put me in a slumber in the winter sun for a good few hours. Heck, I even found myself shoveling leaves at a campsite to amuse a bunch of happy stoners who offered me apong for the favour.
And so it was no surprise to me when I returned home with a heavy heart, pining for the electricity-less village in the far East corner of the country. A village that, for half the year, was only accessible if one crossed on the back of an elephant.
Taba Chake and Getem Apang
My dreams for the days after returning were set in the most surreal landscapes of Arunachal Pradesh that I had seen. Of course, the landscapes were nothing compared to the odd memories and images I took back with me - elephants named Moti throwing banana leaves at people and smiling to themselves, children walking around with air guns on the streets for hunting squirrels and other little forest animals and even tribal war dancers with the most pull-able cheeks knowing that my name was Rohini and reminding me of drunk antics from the previous night, grinning at me with their ‘I-know-how-stupid-and-shitfaced-you-were-last-night’ look. I’d do anything to see that look again.
Moti the elephant
By Rohini Kejriwal
Photography: Rohini Kejriwal