On The Road: Mini-monks, giant chapatis and terrible tea in north-east India
Saturday 11 September 2010
It's hard to pinpoint the best thing about western Arunachal Pradesh, but it's easy-peasy to put your finger on the worst. Undoubtedly, it's the yak-butter tea. The oily slicks on the tea's surface are disturbing enough, but then a rancid salty taste tinged with decaying leaves causes my throat to constrict on impact. Just two days into my Arunachal journey and I've already imbibed three doses of this in friendly villagers' homes.
I've started declining any invitation indoors, so strong is my dread of another greasy brew.
In the Tawang Valley, it's not only the tea where the Tibetan influence is strong. This disputed region on the Chinese border is almost exclusively Buddhist: gompas, stupas and prayer wheels cling to the infinite slopes of the valley walls. Accessed via the Sela Pass (4,260m) and cut off by snow for weeks every winter, foreign tourists require an "inner-line permit" in order to enter the state – hence few are seen in this secretive place.
And at 5am this morning it seems I am, in fact, the only tourist. I'm walking to the Galden Namgyal Lhatse, the largest monastery of Mahayana Buddhism outside of Tibet. More than 400 monks study here, and their day begins by chanting ancient texts inside the Dukhang.
Though the monastery dominates the view from all over town, I am unsure of the best route in the darkness and weaving ever upwards is tough work at 3,300m. I totter into the temple forecourt panting unbecomingly – into a scene that resembles nothing more than school break-time, with scores of burgundy-clad mini-monks playing tug-of-war games and tag.
Ushered inside, things get more serious as the mantras begin. Ancient murmurings and monosyllabic droning takes over, the minutes drift by as the gigantic golden Buddha watches on.
Suddenly, the humdrum dispels the sacred, as giant-sized chapatis with vast blobs of steaming cabbage are doled out – and I am thrilled to be served breakfast, too.
It is amazingly, if surprisingly, delicious. But alas, the inevitable happens: it's all to be washed down with a lovely cup of hot yak-butter tea.
Footprint's India Handbook is available now (£18.99) and North-east India is available soon (£14.99)
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