Tsering offered me a handful of ruby red finger millet grains to taste. A crunch and a pop, followed by a burst of sweetness. I then took a swig of a deceptively innocuous looking clear liquid, brewed from the grain I had just ingested. Raksi looks just like water and tastes absolutely nothing like it, instantly warming my insides and providing the sort of kick that is entirely unwarranted at 9 a.m.
Tracing the journey of the millet from grain to glass gave me a glimpse into Dirang’s cultural fabric, if not its history. I stood outside Tsering’s home within the boundaries of the Dirang Dzong, a hilltop fortified settlement in Arunachal Pradesh’s West Kameng district.
Home mainly to the Monpa people of Arunachal, Dirang town sits sleepily on a hilly spur above the icy blue Dirang River, with views of valleys, kiwi and orange orchards. Research revealed little about the town’s offerings, and so it seemed like the ideal spot to catch my breath for a day, on the way back from Tawang to the plains of Assam.
On a lazy wander to take in some views, I spotted stone fortifications rising up the hillside. Frayed prayer flags fluttered above the outer walls, which were adorned with bright Buddhist motifs and emblazoned with the words “Dirang Dzong.” At the entrance of this stone citadel stood a weathered prayer wheel, its outer leather jacket worn to reveal layers of fragile, yellowed paper, bearing Buddhist scriptures. Above it, like a talisman, hung a solitary ear of corn.
Inside the fortified area, a warren of narrow alleys are lined with houses of stacked stone and carved wood, built in the traditional Monpa style to withstand the harsh mountain weather. A clutch of Monpa families lives in these homes, some of which are estimated to date back nearly 500 years. Women sat in tiny gardens of blooming flowers, setting out stout red chillies and vegetable peels to dry in the mountain sun. Bunches of fat yellow corn hung outside every home. Like the millet, locally grown maize is also used for a variety of fermented and distilled local brews, such as raksi and bhangchang.
At the centre of the settlement stands a Buddhist temple, its doors firmly locked. Beside it, is an eerie stone tower with latched doors and high up, half boarded-up windows. This used to be a prison, a passer-by told me, but I learnt no more about when or by whom it was built. A rather forgotten air hung over the square, not unlike the surrounding trees densely cloaked in cobwebs.
From a vantage point above the fort’s crumbling walls, I looked across the winding Dirang river to a monastery on the opposite hilltop. The Khastung gompa, with its bright white stone facade and intricate artwork, is better maintained than the dzong, though it is estimated to date back to the late 16th century. The uphill hike to the gompa winds past local settlements, where the distinct scent of raksi wafted out of homes. Curious, giggly children befriended us with tart oranges plucked straight off the trees. I sat on the grassy meadow outside the gompa, watching the sun lower across the dzong and the river.
Back at Pemaling Hotel in Dirang town where I was staying the night, over a glass kiwi wine from the region’s orchards, I attempted to understand the mysterious dzong’s history. Frantic Googling yielded little to no information, while conversations with locals revealed estimates, as best. The Pradhan family, who run the hotel, guessed the dzong also dates back nearly 500 years. Other versions trace it back anywhere between the 17th century and the mid-1800s. Accounts of several wars swirl around the fortress. In the absence of concrete fact, stories of this medieval city of stone are more than sufficient.
Malavika Bhattacharya is a freelance journalist who writes about travel, culture, and food. She travels for the outdoors: to dive deep in the Indian Ocean, crawl through caves in Meghalaya, and hike through the Norwegian fjords.