Arunachal Diaries – Dirang

It is never a good thing when your driver utters the following words:

“Where are we going?”

And it is even worse when you are in a land far away where mobile networks fail with clinical efficiency. We were driving away from Dirang, going through Sangti Valley. We were in the Valley for a while, we had crossed buildings, and the narrow road was taking us nowhere. Then our driver from the plains of Assam confessed his cluelessness.

But let me start from a time before the beginning of this story. In 1996 Dirang was a quiet, in fact quite alarmingly quiet, village with almost no hotels and zero tourists. To be more precise, Arunachal Pradesh was still a place where tourists feared to tread. We travelled with a survey team of engineers working for the state government. The offer was too good to let go and Baba and Ma were adventurous enough to agree without wasting time. The North East was much more troubled than now, and a lot of our relatives were apprehensive and related their apprehension in no uncertain terms. My parents were not faint hearted and the prospect of visiting this virgin territory was something their wanderlust could not ignore. Thus we had found ourselves travelling through Tezpur and Bhalukpong. And Dirang was the final destination. We did drive to Sela, still untouched by commercial interests and military buildings, and it was a remarkable experience to say the least. Every single turn of the then unmetalled road – often with no surface and unbelievable detours – was an adventure. The foggy zone was a marvel and the Maruti Gyspies that carried us struggled but stayed true.

26 years later I was back on the same path. The moment Diamond Tours and Travels had said that a Swift Dezire would work fine on these roads, I had realized that development has already reared its often ugly head. I was partially right. Some ugliness had done the due damage. The foggy zone was gone. But the roads were better than those in Kolkata. There were a couple of areas damaged by landslide, but that is to be expected on any hilly road. Our drive to Dirang had five minutes of jittery jumps; the rest of the drive was as smooth as the tarmac of any good airport. This is good I guess. But it takes away much as mountains are mercilessly mowed down and the green that accompanies these roads are replaced by scarred rocks and ruined ravines. Harmony is not a human habit.

Dirang is still a quiet smallish settlement. However, concrete has invaded and multi-storeyed buildings, replacing the multi-storied ones, now dot the landscape. These are mostly hotels and resorts. A number of tourist destinations within and without have been invented and the once calm and spiritual monasteries are now full of selfie-sticks and pouty faces. There are many wonderful monasteries in Dirang. There is the really old Leung Gompa that you’ll find in your way as you are approaching the town limits. The Khatsung Gompa was unfortunately closed for repairs, it is supposedly the oldest, with 500 years of history behind it.

Then there is the very large Thupsung Dhargye Ling Monastery, where we saw exactly one priest.

The Jangchub Choeling, also known as Kalchakra Gompa, is interesting. It was locked, but upon request a very gentle priest opened it for us. He kept a strict eye on our cameras. We believe in following the rules of the land. We did not try to click clandestinely.

The best experience was in the picturesque Dirang Gompa. The afternoon prayers were going on and the ambience was nothing less than extraordinary. We managed to see this unique ritual (video link here). However, no one could explain what the ritual was. 

The Yak Research Centre was closed at that time. So that was a big miss for us.

We were taken to see Sangti Valley the next day. It was raining intermittently. But that added to the beauty of the drive.

What did not add to the beauty was our driver’s statement. He was usually full of misplaced confidence, even bravado. But this time he became pensive. We doubled back and spent a while next to the brilliant bridge after having tea in a brilliant little house.

The little bit of the lovely valley that we could explore left us content, yet yearning for more. We did not go to the Hot Spring. Our experience of Hot Spring (Borong for instance) discouraged us. 

For me, one of the best experiences of Dirang was the old fort. Dirang Dzong is now being renovated and is becoming the seat of the city council, but the old structure is still lovely.

It was turned into a jail for sometime during World War 2. Now it is used mostly for shooting (as the locals told us) films. It is yet another example of how we are losing bits and pieces of our past that can be preserved without much sacrifice. We met a friendly toddler who was rather interested in our antiques.

His elder brother, all protective, soon joined us and asked us probing questions. Whenever we faltered, he rebuked us by saying we should not lie.

The Dzong is not in the usual itinerary of the usual tour plan of the usual tourist. It is located right before the bridge that enters Dirang. If you love old places and such bits of history, I would strongly recommend a quick visit.

There are many hotels in Dirang. If you want to stay in the market you can choose the Mandala. If you want something extremely upmarket then Awoo is the place for you. If you want something a bit quiet and with a great view, please go to the Pemaling Lords Inn. The more expensive rooms will give you a great view. The less costly ones are cosy. The restaurant is scenic and the minuscule lawns are quite charming.

Dirang is changing every day. The relics of the past are disappearing. Commercial interests are destroying much of the beauty that we don’t really deserve. The influx of hungry tourists may be good for the local economy, but it is definite that nature will suffer, and it will make us suffer as well.

Relevant information

197 kilometres from Tezpur (nearest airport)

Nearest Railhead is Rangapara (188 km)

Located in Arunachal Pradesh

Inner Line Permit required to enter Arunachal Pradesh

Lower hills – temperature between 5° to 30° and more – can be very warm when sunny, quite cold in winter

Unreliable public transport – best to have own / shared vehicle pre-arranged

Earlier Posts:

1. Old Lucknow   2. Colonial Lucknow   3. Going Downhill - Versey to Dentam
4. Going to Garhwal  5. The Walkers  6. Palamau  7. Rishikesh
8. Kolkata Kolkata  9. The Roar of the Clouds - Santiniketan 
10. Of Pests and Men - Uttarey  11. Where Hikers Fear to Tread - Rudranath
12. Old Times  13. History in Ruins - Pushpagiri
14. Once There was a Heaven  15. Serenity  
16. Pilgrim's Progress - Kedarnath 17. Unfinished - Gaumukh 18. Ghatshila 
19. Nothing Important  20. Manu's Alaya - Manali  21. Santiniketan  
22. Little Lhasa - Dharamshala  23. From Varuna to Assi - Varanasi  
24. Tunganath  25. Transitory Blues  26. Gurudongmar  27. The Beginning  
28. Yumesamdong  29. Bangali in Bangkok  30. Mukutmanipur  
31. Rasvanti  32. The Old Town and the Sea   33. Budapest 
34. The Last Post of 2019 35. Travel Travails 36. Cluj-Napoça 
37. Presenting the Past  38. Far From the Urban Crowd
39. Silent Night Sleepless Night 40. Norwich 41. Photo Essay - The Road
42. Photo Story - The Days of the Goddess 43. Badrinath 44. Monumental Mistakes
45. Odyssey Now 46. To the Mountains 47. Keylong 48. Where Moon River is Born 49. Kaza 50. Through the Valley of Spiti 51. Kalpa 52. Sarahan
53. Un-happy Journey (Meghalaya) 54. Shimla 55. Bhalukpong 56. Rissia Nature Camp - Kuldiha Forest