Yang Sang Chu in the Upper Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh is revered territory for Tibetan Buddhists. According to religious texts, this is a celestial realm believed to be a land of endless bliss, as prophesied by the Padmasambhava, a central figure of Tibetan Buddhism.
The lore goes that Yang Sang Chu’s misty mountains represent the lower half of the body of a goddess in repose; the other half lies in Tibet. Every year, the faithful make a sacred pilgrimage to the different holy sites along these mountains—Devakotta, Titapori, Pemasiri or Riu Tala. The devotees come here to complete a circumambulation of these spots; among Buddhists, known as kora.
Last October, I accompanied the monks of Tuting monastery in Arunachal Pradesh on a two week-long pilgrimage to Pemasiri mountains. I encountered perilous tree root crevasses, stinging nettles and poisonous snakes in the forests. As I came to understand, these mountains were a vibrant wilderness alive with the throb of ancient life. A true paradise is how I like to think of it.
Around 200 monks study at the monastery in Tuting. Every year a few of them accompany the lamas on this annual pilgrimage. While the trip is a serious endeavour, the young monks also treat it like a break, making time for the customary selfie when they can.
Pilgrims pay their respects at different monasteries on the way. The most sacred of them is Devkotta monastery located on an island near the Yang Sang Chu river.
The monks that I travelled with were all in their teens and a lively bunch. They would diligently perform prayers, cut firewood and help cook meals at the makeshift camps that were set up during the journey. Between all the hard work, they also let their hair down by a taking a quick dip in the Yang Sang Chu river.
Suspended around 300 feet above Siang, a tributary of the Brahmaputra in Arunachal Pradesh, this bridge connects Tuting to Jido village. Crossing it as it wobbles is an adventure, but the locals take it in their stride and can be seen ferrying heavy loads or even riding motorcycles on it.
The monks are a great example of old values meeting a new lifetsyle. During the trail, they exhibited an intimate knowledge of the local landscape, often picking edible mushrooms and berries from the wilderness to make dinner. On the other hand, they had also made provisions to charge their cell phones with solar panels so as to not miss out on entertainment in their free time.
Once the kora is over, the monks gather to chant from sacred texts and pray to the local deity. Buddhists believe that this land is magical, but only those free from personal desires can unlock it
It is the norm for every village in this area, no matter how small, to have a monastery. This one at Payengdam has stunning views of the Namche Barwa mountain range; Of the three koras in these mountains, Pemasiri is the toughest. It takes about two hours to complete. On a clear day, after you finish the kora you can see the neighbouring Dibang Valley, and spot pug marks of the musk deer, commonly seen in these parts.