Arunachal Pradesh has, of late, entered the mainland’s consciousness because of China’s decision to issue stapled visas to residents of this Indian state. China’s diplomatic mockery has, legitimately, ruffled the average Indian’s patriotic feathers. But at other times a majority of the mainland’s inhabitants have demonstrated monumental ignorance about this northeastern corner of their country. ARUNACHAL: PEOPLES, ARTS AND ADORNMENTS IN INDIA’S EASTERN HIMALAYAS (Niyogi, Rs 2,495) by Peter van Ham would undoubtedly help plug some of the frightening gaps in our collective knowledge about this exotic, but distant, land.
The importance of Ham’s work is two-fold. Firstly, it builds on the earlier anthropological explorations of Fürer-Haimendorf and Ursula Graham Bower. Their scholarly studies, in turn, were extensions of Victorian accounts of the region during the colonial period. This book thus preserves, and indeed enriches, an important scholarly and historical link. Secondly, Ham’s book also aims to conserve for posterity a detailed account of the history, culture and artistic traditions of the ethnic communities that are now struggling to resist the winds of change unleashed by politics, modernity and development. “… one of the foremost aims of the book”, Ham writes, “is to document the traditions of the different ethnic groups for their own future generations.”
Bureaucratic tardiness — symbolizing India’s apprehensions about opening up a strategic, but underexplored, territory to global scrutiny — was not the only daunting challenge confronting Ham. Recording the beguiling diversity of Arunachal Pradesh — Professor Alan Macfarlane, in his Foreword, describes the state as “a dazzling mosaic of religious, cultural and economic mixtures” — must have been more difficult. Given these impediments, the scale of and the detailing in Ham’s research is truly remarkable and deserves special praise. Not to mention the 340 photographs — four of which are reproduced here, including an enchanting image of the Tawang monastery (top) — that liven up the text. Ham also presents in this book, for the first time ever, the artefacts collected from Arunachal Pradesh not just by Haimendorf and Bower but also Otto Ehrenfried Ehlers during the 1870s. This further adds to the book’s lustre.
Each chapter in Arunachal deals with different themes. “Land of the Dawn-lit Mountains”, for instance, chronicles the state’s natural treasures. That a new species of primates was discovered in 2003 bears testimony to Arunachal’s hidden ecological wonders. Another chapter deals with the political history of the state. It traces its journey from mythical times through the reign of Ahoms to the spectre of colonialism, and, finally, to Independence and beyond. The other sections explore in detail Arunachal’s indigenous communities. The insertion of anecdotes — such as the one about Buru, the mythical creature that lives in swamps — makes Ham’s text both informative and enjoyable.
Strategic implications and a surge in tourism have endangered many of Arunachal Pradesh’s charms. Ham lists other quandaries confronting the state: competition among indigenous faiths and cultures, disturbing demographic changes that have jeopardized the traditional way of life, and so on. Nehru and that other visionary, Verrier Elwin, had worked tirelessly to soften the blow of such changes on Arunachal’s tribal people by encouraging the doctrine of gradual assimilation. But such a formula is unlikely to work today, given the furious pace of modernity and the awesome reach of the market. The absence of a prescription here for sustainable development would sorely disappointment lay readers and researchers alike. Ham idealizes Arunachal, but fails to suggest meaningful ways to protect this forlorn fairyland.