Places

In the midst of the Galos

Abhilasha Ojha 08 Mar 2017

Not an ideal destination for the fainthearted, Basar’s natural surroundings, people, and the mystical stories of this land, spin magical moments that are impossible to ignore

Abhilasha Ojha

The Bogibeel bridge has been in the making for 18 years. Once completed, it will be India's longest rail-road bridgeThe Bogibeel bridge has been in the making for 18 years. Once completed, it will be India's longest rail-road bridgeIt’s a rough ride to get to Basar, a quaint hill town in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Though awarded the status of a town, Basar, to a city-bred person like me, is more of a village – a village that despite all the nature’s bounty, flora and fauna, requires every stakeholder’s attention and care (read: the state government, central government and other authorities). While the road construction to reach Basar is underway, the work’s happening at a slow pace – experts blame it on unpredictable rain and other conditions beyond their control. Residents of Basar refer to this place as a “village” and many of the people whom I spoke with, agreed that this census town in the West Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh needs urgent attention if it had to be developed into a tourist destination.

Most rice paddy fields in Basar have wooden huts or Nakum, which serve as resthouses for farmers Most rice paddy fields in Basar have wooden huts or Nakum, which serve as resthouses for farmers

Given our hectic and fast-paced lives, there’s no denying that Basar’s fresh air and fabulously natural surroundings are a treat to the eyes.  From the Dibrugarh airport, we reach Bogeebilghat to catch the ferry to cross the mighty Brahmaputra. Dressed in their traditional attire, these young Galo women are getting ready for the Mopin harvest festivalDressed in their traditional attire, these young Galo women are getting ready for the Mopin harvest festivalOn the ferry, I meet Anwar miya, a tea-seller who has been selling tea to ferry passengers for the last 30 years. The sweet milky tea in a plastic cup is refreshing while one strikes a conversation with Anwar miya – he has two sons, “both mechanics” who can’t seem to relate to their father’s profession. “Over the decades,” Anwar miya sighs, while staring at the setting sun, “I’ve seen Brahmaputra change.” My gaze shifts to the numerous floating plastic bottles, empty chips packets, several plastic cups and other waste floating in the river and I understand what this middle-aged man means. Miyaji speaks in English and then breaks into a bit of Spanish and French – he puffs out his chest and says, “I keep learning from people. You’ve come from Delhi and I’m sure you have something to teach me.” Suddenly it’s cloudy and the ferry does a bit of bounce in the choppy waters. “No life jackets,” Anwar miya jokes while I stare at him with a shocked expression. I look towards the other passengers – a father feeding her little daughter potato chips; a group of women in animated discussion; some men checking on their vehicles (yes, the ferry even takes vehicles to and fro for an extra price); a couple adjusting their bags and bamboo baskets. The one-hour ferry ride ends with ample conversation, banter and an experience of crossing this extraordinary river. The hourly ferry ride is the lifeline of several hamlets, villages and small towns of Arunachal Pradesh, connecting innumerable people and individuals to the rest of India and the world. Thick stems of bamboo trees are hollowed out for Apong, the traditional rice beer that's consumed on a daily basis by the GalosThick stems of bamboo trees are hollowed out for Apong, the traditional rice beer that's consumed on a daily basis by the GalosAnwar miya reminisces about youngsters who left on these ferries one day and never came back, preferring to settle in bustling metropolises; he talks of those who left as “nobody” but became well-known personalities and celebrities, whom he would identify on television programmes, newspapers, and advertisements.While the Bogeebilbridge, which will reduce the one-hour ferry time to barely 10 minutes, has been in the making for the last 18 years, I joke to our driver later on that so many newborn babies of workers and engineers at that time would be adults by now, even as they wait for the bridge to get completed. From the ferry one sees several pillars, fabrication sheds, colourful tents for workers, and a series of crisscross frames that once welded together will result in India’s largest rail-road link on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border thus opening a lifeline between the plains of upper Assam and the mountainous northern Arunachal Pradesh, bordering China. “The day this bridge is made,” Anwarmiyasayswryly, “I will retire.”

A Galo elder walks through the dried rice paddy fieldA Galo elder walks through the dried rice paddy field

The less trodden route

From the ferry, we leave for Sialpathar(roughly 30-minute drive), a town in Dhemaji district in Assam. The town is situated on the northern bank of the Brahmaputra River, and is located approximately 500 kms from the city of Guwahati and just seven km from Arunachal Pradesh. It is at this point, that the journey to Basar really begins. Our driver, Sushil, is a star, habituated to driving on some of the most treacherous terrains of the north east. “Basar,” he adds, “is tricky becausethere’s no road.” He’s right. The journey, literally, is back breaking, and even though work has begun for road construction, there’s a lot more that needs to be done if the area has to become a valid tourist destination. By the time we reach Basar, it is almost midnight and I can’t help but tell Sushil that he should consider becoming a full-fledged rally driver given how efficiently he navigates through the deplorable road conditions!

A stall at BasCon 2017, an event held to celebrate the state's first artist residency programme, by a women's only cooperative that deals in organic farming  A stall at BasCon 2017, an event held to celebrate the state's first artist residency programme, by a women's only cooperative that deals in organic farming

The nightmarish journey notwithstanding, the morning I wake up (to the sound of a rooster at 4:30-5:00 am) is delightful. Our accommodation is strictly basic but the husband-wife duo (they are caretakers of the hostel where I’m staying) make it really comfortable for us, giving us tea, biscuits, a generous breakfast of steaming, hot pooris, potato vegetable curry, boiled eggs and oranges plucked from trees outside the hostel. The oranges, though not the best looking, are sweet, full of punch and flavour. Later that evening, while watching the setting sun on a lone road, with orange orchards on the two sides of the road, one would understand how and why the air of Basar feels fresh and sweet.

Wealth of Basar: its people and culture

A Galo women is ready for festivities, customs, rituals to usher in a bumper cropA Galo women is ready for festivities, customs, rituals to usher in a bumper cropThe sweetness of Basar, undoubtedly, comes from its people – a majority of whom are the Galo tribe. It is said that the north eastern part of India is home to roughly 165-170 number of tribes, all of them extremely unique, talented and special in their own way. The state of Arunachal Pradesh is home to 25 different tribes, Galo being the most populous one, as per experts. The Galo tribe worships Mother Nature, celebrating the Mopin harvest festival, which is regarded as one of the most important events for the Basar folk. The festival is a throwback to the centuries-old belief of these people,descendents of Abu Tani, the mythical forefather of this tribe, to pray for a good harvest.

“What’s a day in Basar like?” I ask a young woman, who married six years ago and moved from Itanagar to this hill town. We’re seated insidea Nakumin the midst of a dried paddy fieldit’sa wooden hut that doubles up as a rest house for farmers – warming our hands next to a fire place above which utensils are strategically kept for tea to brew and fish to be cooked! Given that some folk in the town tell me that rituals and customs are part of their daily lives, I’m compelled to ask this question. Feeding her toddler some rice and fish curry, this young woman fills me in – a majority of families in Basarstill continuing farming. While the women in Basar look after their homes, it’s important for them to make Apong, the local rice beer, which everyone consumes massively on a daily basis, on a daily basis at home. “Apong,” she says, “has three varieties – very good, good and average.” “No one,” the young lady smiles, “makes ‘poor’ Apong in Basar.” A little Galo boy; since the tribe only has a spoken dialect, the last syllable of the father is used as the first half of the child's name to help in understanding the lineageA little Galo boy; since the tribe only has a spoken dialect, the last syllable of the father is used as the first half of the child's name to help in understanding the lineageAlong with this beer, made from fermented rice millet, Galo tribe makes fabulous rice cakes, fish curries, meat and many green vegetables. Boiled rice cakes wrapped in leaves and boiled tapioca are some of the snacks that are consumed on a daily basis. Though Apong – served aesthetically in tumblers made of bamboo – is an acquired taste, the meals, in particular, aresimple but full of flavourand taste. There’s also Poka, a traditional rice wine, which plays an important role in the socio-cultural life of the tribe in this town of Arunachal Pradesh. The traditional food in Basar is intimately connected to the Galo tribe’s socio-cultural, ecological, spiritual life and health. The processing and preparation of the “ethnic foods” by several of the Galo tribe women demonstrate how they turn to the ecosystem to sustain and nourish them – dishes made of local soybean, bamboo shoot, tree bean, laipatta (leafy mustard) and rai, being just some of the instances of interesting dishes that should genuinely be explored in more depth by food connoisseurs and experts. There’s aagya, a soybean-based fermented food wherein soybean seeds are boiled in an aluminum container for about 30 minutes and then kept in oko leaves to drain out the water. The seeds are tightly packed in oko leaves, then kept in rapkho (a bamboo-made shelf) above the fireplace in kitchen for 12-14 days. After this, it is taken out and stored in udu (a basket made of bamboo), after which the aagya is ready for use,to be mixed with local vegetables, chutney and boiled foods.

Of spirits and shamans

Even today, the Galo tribe invokes the spirits of the forest and other deities to pray for a good harvest. The Galo tribe are descendants of Abu Tani, the person credited with the creation of this tribe Even today, the Galo tribe invokes the spirits of the forest and other deities to pray for a good harvest. The Galo tribe are descendants of Abu Tani, the person credited with the creation of this tribe In the two days that I spend in Basar, I hear mystical stories of the spirits and deities residing in the forests of this hill town. I find priests and shamans presiding over rituals and sacrifices to invoke the spirits of the forests to protect them and ward off evil spirits. The air of Basar is thick with the echoes of shamanic chants. During a traditional, community fish catching ceremony, when there’s a near-fatal accident of a middle-aged man drowning, the community blames it on certain rituals that didn’t take place prior to the fish catching exercise. “This cave,” says one villager ominously, “has a spirit that caught this man.” Later, this person would fill me in with stories of youngsters gone missing in forests (“caught by the spirits never to come back”) or those who came back but never remained the same (“the spirit lives on in them and we have to periodically offer prayers and sacrifices to appease the gods”). I hear stories of Mithun sacrifice, an impossibly lovely, gentle-looking animal, that has to be sacrificed and fed to nearby villages during weddings (“the more Mithuns you sacrifice, the more wealthy you are considered,” explains another villager). Though several of these customs may be tough to relate to, I understand that the belief of several of these rituals is for the betterment of the community with prayers for a bumper crop and well-nourished people. Basar is true to this spirit of community living; a treat to the eyes of any city-bred person where isolation and loneliness prevails despite all the glitz, glamour and wealth.

Basar residents gather around an area to witness the traditional fish catching ceremony  Basar residents gather around an area to witness the traditional fish catching ceremony

Gentle Winds of change

The route to Basar is not for the fainthearted but it's a place that charms you with its natural beauty and surroundingsThe route to Basar is not for the fainthearted but it's a place that charms you with its natural beauty and surroundingsOne sees changes in Basar – the youngsters love their Bollywood numbers, JeliKayi (a Galo tribe youngster, in a freshly minted avatar from this year’s Indian Idol) is a sensation, there are cars and mobile phones (even though the network connection is very bad) and other gadgets that have made their way into the households. Many of the youngsters are finally waking up to the potential of saving their region by educating the folk on conservation and preservation of species in the jungles. “The essence of our region should be there but gradually we hope we will strike a balance...” says JummarBasar, one of the founders of GuminRegoKilaju (GRK), a not-for-profit organisation, which began in 2012 for the purpose of conserving the heritage of the Galo tribe while ensuring that Basar acquires a ‘tourist destination’ status in the coming years. I ask him, if he wonders the stopping of animal sacrifices for rituals and customs, and he says, “I think so. It will take time but we might be able to convince people if we have to conserve and preserve our animals, our jungles.” “At the same time,” he adds quickly, “we also want people from outside to understand more about us, about our tribes, about our place, about our living.”

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