Driving from Bomjir to Basar is akin to watching chunks of two starkly different films one after the other. Of the 300 kilometres, the first 200 are wide, straight roads lined with pine forests and views of rolling mountain ranges: a breezy romcom set to an acoustic indie soundtrack, if you will. Then after a short lunch break in Likabali, you’re flung into an organ-shifting drive through the mountains on partially completed roads with more craters than a Martian surface, which felt like a gory, hair-raising, doomsday thriller. Fittingly, our small convoy of six cars is held up by an excavator clearing the debris from a recent landslide before we finally pull into Gori Etur, a small village near the town of Basar in Lepa-Rada district.
We have been on the road in Arunachal Pradesh for the past week of April as part of the Trans-Arunachal Drive, hopping across campsites and soaking in the beautiful outdoors. After a nerve-wracking river-rafting experience in Bomjir, some of us opt to break away from the convoy’s itinerary and head to Basar, while the rest proceed to the picturesque campsite at Geku up north. Why, you ask? The Mopin Festival, the Galo tribe’s annual harvest festival is set to kick off the next day and after a whirlwind adventure through the tricky Arunachali terrain, the festivities in Basar offer a pleasant cultural immersion to round off the six-day drive.
Like most of eastern and central Arunachal Pradesh, the town of Basar and the villages surrounding it are not popular tourist destinations–not yet at least. With the completion of the Trans-Arunachal Highway though, that is expected to change. For now, we are only too thrilled that traditional homestays are the only available accommodation in Gori Etur.
While most of the houses are wood and bamboo structures with thatched roofs, the house we are put up in is more conventional, with a flat cement roof and concrete walls. Manya Basar, the enterprising owner of M.G. Homestay, tells me with a sheepish grin, “Some houses are more traditional than the others.”
Whether traditional or not, the focal point of every house is the fireplace in the middle of the large central chamber. The fire is used primarily for cooking but also serves as a source of heat in winter. As we find out over the next couple of days, the crackling flames also exert an almost gravitational pull on the occupants of the house, and conversations that started in different corners of the house invariably end up by the fireside. By the time I turn in that night, the exhaustion of the drive is long forgotten, my spirits buoyed by apong, the local rice beer and our hosts’ infectious cheer in anticipation of the Mopin festival.
But morning brings a terrible twist: a young man’s untimely death has plunged the village into mourning. The festivities are cancelled and since the death took place in Gori Etur, custom dictates that residents, including us, are not permitted to cross the village boundaries at least for the rest of the day. Once I overcome the initial shock of the sudden developments, I hark back to stories in which protagonists find themselves trapped in a foreboding space, often due to a contrived plot point. Right on cue, the sky darkens and it starts raining.
After the downpour, we step outside into a deserted main street. Most of the villagers have taken a day off from work to mourn and are sitting outside their houses, looking visibly upset. The sombre air that has descended upon Gori Etur is a far cry from the scenes of rehearsed dances, elaborate rituals and apong-fuelled revelry that we had expected to find. When the rest of the convoy rejoins us in Gori Etur that evening, they tell us stories of a highly enjoyable drive, and casually slip in the fact that they made a stop to visit the Mopin festival along the way at a village called Along.
After multiple refills of apong and a hearty meal of fish curry, bamboo-cooked rice and chicken smoked with local herbs, I finally manage a resigned smile at our situation. In hindsight, our decisions and the prevailing circumstances seem like a series of calculated missteps to make the least of our time in Gori Etur, but thankfully, there is still a day to go, and it seems promising.
Earlier in the day, over cups of laal chaa or red tea, Manya’s brothers Minjo and Jummar gave us an insight into the animist faith practiced by most tribes across Arunachal Pradesh. The umbrella term used to describe this religion is Donyi-Polo, the two words meaning the sun and the moon respectively. However, beliefs and customs differ across tribes and regions. Among the Galos of Basar, Mopin is the goddess of prosperity and is associated with a bountiful harvest. On the other hand, the forest spirits or yapom residing in the surrounding jungles can be benevolent or punishing.
Just outside the village lies a sacred forest called Joli that is fiercely guarded by the yapom. Jummar and Minjo tell us that the spirits there favour the Ango clan, which is allowed to forage in the woods and fish in its streams. Non-Ango trespassers, such as the Basar people of Gori Etur, can visit the grove at their own peril. A local man claims to have been pelted by stones when he wandered into the grove, and a policeman who lost his way in the woods was found unconscious days later, his nose, ears and mouth stuffed with grass. Another old resident of Gori Etur lived to recount how the yapompicked him up from the forest, carried him miles through the air, fed him delectable treats and deposited him a few miles away, where he was eventually found days later. Despite the eerie folklore, Minjo promised to take us to Joli the next morning.
And so, after another bumpy drive through the mountains in his tiny hatchback, we reach a dead end marked by a makeshift bamboo fence. After warning us against any misbehaviour, Minjo leads us into the sacred grove. Soon, the trees close in on us and a thick carpet of vines and creepers has appeared underfoot by the time we reach a stream. Minjo tells us that the most intriguing spot within the grove is a rock pool where the two streams Hie and Rukin converge, but getting there involves wading through waist high water and scrambling over moss-covered rock. As Minjo implores, “Please don’t fall”, I scramble my way to a precarious vantage point atop a boulder and catch a glimpse of the small but deep rock pool. The frothing pool is teeming with fish that only the Ango people can catch. We would return bearing only the ill-will of the yapom if we give it a shot.
When we cross the stream on our way back, Minjo picks up a piece of the reddish vine on the ground under us and examines it. Tearing the small green leaves off, he offers it to me, volunteering that it is bukuchullo, a herb used by the villagers to treat pinworm. Not pausing to wonder why he felt I should have some, I chew on the red stalk and wince at its sourness. Arunacahali cuisine relies heavily on herbs and leaves foraged from the forest and I wonder what other plants around us would make it to our lunch.
Speculating about lunch, however, is getting ahead of myself. On our way back, the rear wheels of the car get stuck in a slush-filled pothole. I exchange a sheepish glance with Minjo before squeezing myself out and joining the others in pushing the car. Is this really the yapom reprimanding us for picking and eating the bukuchullo? Or just a continuation of our questionable luck that we find ourselves shin-deep in slush, stranded on a mountain road with no help in sight?
After repeated failed attempts to push the car, we see help arriving in the form of road construction workers, and for the moment, fortune seems to have favoured us. However, I still have a few waking hours left to go in Gori Etur, and recent history considered, I won’t be surprised if I am whisked away through the air and deposited a few hundred kilometres away, preferably in a village where Mopin festivities are underway in full swing. Maybe that is where I’ll finally experience the relatively uneventful culture trip I thought I signed up for.