The Tribes

The Monpa

The MonpaThe tribes of Arunachal Pradesh could roughly be separated into two groups: those who practice the animist belief system, and those who don’t. Of those who don’t the majority follow Buddhism, and of these the largest group are the Monpa. Inhabitants of the high, isolated valleys bordering Tibet and Bhutan, the Monpa have played an integral role in the development of Tibet’s Gelugpa sect of Buddhism, this being the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama and home to Asia’s second largest monastery, the mighty Tawang gompa.

The MonpaThe locals of the small Monpa villages go about their daily lives tending herds of yak, growing crops, following religious custom and generally doing whatever possible to have a good time. They brew their own spirits, drink them copiously, and are quick to break out into spontaneous exhibitions of dance, song and raucous laughter. This festive character of theirs is perhaps their most endearing feature, and for it they are renowned far and wide (one night in their village, which you’ll do, and you’ll see why). As winters can get very cold, the Monpa build their multi-leveled houses from heavy brick and stone, and fashion themselves thick woolen sweaters and blouses from their valuable yak’s hair. Colorful prayer flags atop tall masts and the ubiquitous prayer wheels are common to all villages, supplanting for the monastery in which few lay people will have to the opportunity to live. Of the ones scattered about the countryside, all fall beneath the leadership of the aforementioned Tawang monastery, a formidable complex dominating the spiritual life of its people. Perched atop a ridge at an elevation of 10 000ft, this stunning monastery was built in the mid-17th century with defense against the marauding Bhutanese firmly in mind. Capable of housing some three hundred monks, the complex is a hive of color and activity climaxing in the rich festivals it stages throughout the year. In the time since it was built an administrative township has grown up around it and now serves as the headquarters for the surrounding district, complete with government offices, hotels, a bustling market, and a military base.

Though more developed than our other tribal areas, this is still an extremely fascinating, traditional and little-visited place. The remarkable Tawang monastery, the impressive high elevation scenery, and most importantly the wonderful local culture make this as rewarding a tribal destination as any.

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