Our daily sweet

sweets

Odisha and Bengal are the two states of India with wonderful sweets, and when you travel through here, it seems that every street corner has a sweet shop. The morning’s shopping is not complete without stopping at one of these for the daily titbit. I was reminded of this when I was in Bhubaneshwar last week. I passed a shop early in the morning and saw the lady in the photo above come shopping. She’d bought her vegetables and fish already. She placed them on a high stool outside the shop (you can see the plastic bag to the left of the photo, if you look closely you can see she has bitter gourds in there) and then turned her attention to the sweets. It was clearly a daily stop, because the shop keeper chatted with her while he measured out the chhanapora.

In India most sweet making is too technical for home cooking, so there are specialized shops for sweets. Odisha and Bengal have different traditions. In my experience, Bengali sweet makers tend to be innovative: constantly trying out new tastes and combinations; even the corner shop will innovate. But the classics, roshogolla and mishti doi, are not always well made. The sweet shops in Odisha which I’ve been to tend not to innovate, but make their reputation on technique.

The four Oriya classics which I love are:

Chhanapora (literally, burnt chhana, ie, cottage cheese) is the one Odisha sweet you should not miss. A mass of paneer is kneaded with sugar, and sometimes with cinnamon or chopped nuts, and then baked in a coal-fired oven. The smooth, smoky tasting, caramelised mass is available in every sweet shop in Odisha, but seldom outside the state. I have great memories of a mildly cinnamon infused, and very smoky, chhanapora from a shop in Puri, not far from the Jagannath temple.

Rasabali is a deep-fried sweet chhana patty soaked in a saffron infused thickened milk syrup. It’s the kind of thing designed to burst your arteries. I was introduced to it in a little bazaar between Konarak and Puri. The sweet shop was fly infested, and I nearly left without trying anything. But Sky, my friend and local guide, insisted that this was the best place within tens of miles for the sweet. I’ve been a fan ever since that first taste.

Kheer sagar looks like the north Indian rasmalai, but tastes quite different. It consists of balls of chhana dipped in a thin rabri. Again, the combination is not good for your cardiac system; but then I get to eat this less than once a year. I judge it by the smoothness of the chhana and rabri. I’ve had some really nice Kheer Sagar in Bhubaneshwar.

Chhana jhili is meant to be Odisha’s answer to the north Indian jalebi. The version I first ate in a shop between Bhubaneshwar and Puri was a patty, like a rasabali, in sticky sugar syrup. Later I had versions which look a little more like a jalebi. Whatever it looks like, it is designed to kill.

When I go to Odisha for work, I ask taxi drivers about the best place for sweets. They’ve always been helpful, and very often taken me to places which I later found are generally supposed to be among the best.

The god of freedom

mukteshwarI visited two temples during my dash to Bhubaneshwar. One was the Rajarani temple. The other is the historically important Mukteshwar temple, built in the 10th century. The next millennium in Odisha would see elaborations of the new style this temple created: a free standing gate (torana), followed by a square outer chamber (jagamohan) topped by a pyramidal roof, and then the inner sanctum (garbagriha) with a spire (deul) over it, everything put on a raised plinth. The succeeding centuries would strip away the low wall around the temple. If the photo above looks so familiar now, it is because this style won acceptance over a thousand years.

toranaThe temple faces west, has a pool at the back, and is still in use. The priest made sure I removed my shoes at a respectable distance, and then stood next to the torana as I took a photo. As you can see from the scale he sets, the temple is small; the deul is perhaps 10 to 11 meters high. He would have taken charge of my visit if I’d not insisted on walking around first. He was fine with that. The arch of the torana is topped by two beautiful reclining female figures, a pair of monkeys and storks. The sandstone used in this temple must have been easy to sculpt, but the friable stone has begun to lose detail.

yakshaThere were nagas wrapped around exterior
pillars, but to me it seemed that these figures were more exquisitely done in the Rajarani temple. One difference was the repeated figures of yakshas hemmed into boxes. They strain to lift the roof and step out of their confinement.pancatantra Their faces are distorted with the effort, their already large bellies swelling as they strain.

Animals and people going about their daily lives share space on the external walls of the temple. I found an illustration of the story of the monkey and the crocodile from the Panchatantra in one column (see the photo on the right). I’d forgotten the story, but the sculptures brought back the memory. I guess that is what they are meant to do: reinforce what is already learnt.

I found two beautiful nature studies: a deer sitting under a tree, and a boar. There were several reliefs of ascetics instructing people. Interspersed with these was a group of figures showing someone walking with others bringing baggage behind him: perhaps a rich man out on travel with his servants. In other parts of the deul were a profusion of the usual standing female figures engrossed in various activities: looking at mirrors, carrying rice, and so on. There was a very nice miniature Nataraja (above the seated woman, in the top right photo in the collage below).

deer
pig
yogi1
travel
yogi2
groups
columns

When I’d examined the outside and started to cross the torana and go inside, the priest put away his cigarette and followed me. He pointed out various things so that I could take photos. The quadrangular jagamohan has latticed windows, but the light is provided by compact fluorescent lamps hanging in various places. The inside is also fully carved, but most of the carvings are religious. The ceiling is worth studying in detail: the center is taken up by a beautiful lotus. The south-east corner shows a dance in progress with musicians at the diagonally opposite corner.musicians You can see drums, cymbals, and the flute, all being played by women. In such a performance today, the musicians would mostly be male, and the dancers could also be of either sex. The other two corners show the audience: Shiva in one and Durga at the other. The elephant headed Ganesh and Kartik with his peacock are also in evidence. Above the lintel of the door to the garbagriha is a small Gajalakshmi. The lintel has a relief of the nava graha: the traditional nine planets. These are the sun and the moon, the five true planets visible with the naked eye, and Rahu and Ketu, mathematical constructs used to predict eclipses.

The inner chamber only has the shiva linga. The priest made a small offering for me and asked for a donation. I quickly put down what I thought was appropriate before he could make an outrageous suggestion. He was open to a small conversation. I found he has been the priest at the temple for thirty-one years. He followed his father and grandfather and expects that his son will follow him as the priest. He says his family have been priests at this temple for more than a thousand years. The donations to the temple constitute his only income.

There was a little garden outside and two pairs of lovers were sitting there, both engrossed in each other. I sat in the shade of a large tree and put on my shoes. The complex has several outlying temples which are no longer in use, but the hot and humid Shiva temple had rivers of sweat running down my body. My shirt was soaked, my jeans were wet and heavy with sweat. I had no energy to explore the other temples. Moreover, I was due at the airport soon.

I retreated. The Family wants to go there sometime; Odisha has always been a wonderful experience for us. I looked up the origin of the name Mukteshwar, the god of freedom. It should perhaps be interpreted as the god who gives freedom through yoga: Shiva is the great ascetic.

A temple like a jewel box

rajarani I had to make a trip to Bhubaneshwar on work. I’ve been there before, but never stopped for tourism in the “Town of Temples”. This time I took two hours to visit two beautiful small temples. One of them was the Rajarani temple. It was built in the 11th century, and is no longer in use. As a result, it is looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. The name rajarani does not refer to a king (raja) and a queen (rani), but, as I learnt from an ASI info-board, to the local name of the sandstone used.

nagaIn the view above you can see that the temple faces east, and has a gate (torana), leading to an outer chamber (jagamohan) with a pyramidal roof, which in turn leads to an inner chamber with a spire (deul). The entrance door is about 2 meters in height, which would make the spire about 9 meters tall; small as these things go. The remarkable thing about this temple are the outer sculptures. You can see in the general view that the sculpture of nagas, women in the shape of snakes, are wrapped around the pillars of the torana. This theme recurs. On the right is a photo of a different column bearing beautiful naga figures.

nagafaceThe faces are beautiful even by today’s standards. Has our notion of beauty really changed so little in a thousand years? This close up of the face of one of the nagas shows the damage done to it. The hoods of the cobras surrounding the head are all damaged, and the woman’s nose is missing. Going by other figures on the facade, it would have been an aquiline nose, unlike that of most people in this region. Either the face is an idealization which came from some other part of the country, or the model was chosen for being exotic.

varunaOne of the most stunning sculptures is this one of Varuna, the dikpala (guardian) of the west. As you can see in the photo on the right, here he is shown in the medieval iconography holding the noose of judgement (pasa) in his left hand. This is one of the most beautiful depictions of Varuna which I remember seeing. The stone used in this sculpture is not the same as the red rajarani used in most of the temple. I wonder whether the stone was specially chosen to give him the canonical white (sphatika) complexion.

yamaThis badly damaged statue, shown at the left, is that of Kubera, the god of wealth, and the dikpala of the north. He should be holding a pot of wealth, but both hands are damaged, so you don’t know what the figure had in its hand. I base my identification on the fact that the statue faces north. Also, the statue resembles the usual medieval depictions of Kubera with the large belly, somewhat ungainly shape, lots of jewelry, and facial hair. The figure stands above an animal which could be a goat.

I spent almost an hour circumnavigating this temple. It is full of other worldly sculptures: women looking at themselves in mirrors, holding branches of trees, men and women in conversation. The incredibly detailed external sculptures are a contrast with the completely bare interior. The nagas and the other figures over the torana indicate that the temple would have been dedicated to Shiva. Otherwise, it would have been hard to say who was the deity when this jewel box of a temple was in use.

Shantaram Tourism

When I saw this cab ahead of me on the road I did not make the connection. I figured out that Gregory David Roberts is Shantaram only after I googled. I bought the book some years back, and found it was a great story: an Australian on the lam comes to India, begins to live in a slum, blunders about before beginning to work for the Indian mafia. The story’s probably mostly made up, but it is wonderful stuff, worthy of three movies at least. It was interesting to find that tourists might want to follow a Shantaram circuit while in Mumbai. Of course, it would lend a cachet to the experience if you were driven by a friend of Shantaram.

The 6+1 probably means that the taxi can hold 6 people and the driver. It would be a bit of a tight fit, I think. The words below the wheel of Dharma (Dhammachakka) say "Jai Bhim", a slogan used by neo-buddhists in their rejection of caste.

I wish I knew what Bindra means. Is it Bandra mis-spelt? Is the driver a friend of reality TV star Dolly Bindra also? Or maybe of the first Indian Olympics gold winner, Abhinav Bindra?

Why is Chinese so hard to learn?

It is late in the night of a day I’ve spent on Chinese and I’m frustrated. It is so very hard! I’ve been learning Mandarin (which I wrongly call Chinese in the rest of this post) and the Chinese script for sixteen class hours now, followed by about thirty follow-up hours outside of the class. I’m finding it hard to keep up with the teacher’s (jiao shi de, 教师) expectations. I really enjoy the classes, but the words and characters disappear from my mind like water through a sieve (shai, 筛子). I’ve spent the last four hours thinking about what it is that is difficult about Chinese and I put down my thoughts here.

It is not the grammar. The rules of grammar are trivial for those who speak two or more Indo-European languages, especially if one of them is Indian and the other European. A sentence is subject-verb-object (eg, I love you, wo ai ni, 我爱你). There are little twists like particles, for example, a word which converts a statement into a question (eg, you are Chinese, ni shi zhong guo ren, 你是中国人 becomes the question are you Chinese, ni shi zhong guo ren ma?, 你是中国人吗?). But there are functional equivalents in Indian languages (in Hindi, you are Chinese, आप चीनी हैं, becomes a question by adding क्या, as in आप चीनी हैं क्या?). It is not the grammar which makes Chinese difficult.

It is partly the tones. I once asked a taxi driver in Beijing to take me to the Tian’anmen square and he did not understand what I mean because I did not have the right tones (Tiān’ānmén). I had to write out 天安门 to communicate. Mandarin has four tones, Shanghainese with its tonal regularities might be easier; I’m glad I’m not learning Cantonese or Hakka which have six tones, or Taiwanese, which has seven. When you speak Mandarin you have to get used to using the right tone for each word in order to make sense. This means a lot of practice. So it is partly the tones which make it difficult to learn Chinese.

It is largely the sheer strangeness of having to learn characters (han xi). I’m used to learning an alphabet. Every time you learn a new word you already almost know how to write it (we are not talking about English, obviously). Traveling inside India, The Family and I play this game of learning the alphabet by comparing signs in English and the local language. These skills are not transferable to Chinese. Each word that you learn has to be learnt twice: once as the sound, again as the shape. This is what I find to be the hardest part of learning Chinese.

It is also partly our (my?) wrong assumption that learning basic characters would mean that I could read the language. An example of where this goes spectacularly wrong is the word for Mumbai (Mèngmǎi, 孟买). By characters, the translation is first month + buy. In fact, the Chinese have different words for characters (xi, 字) and words (ci, 词). The fact that combinations of characters can often mean something totally different from the meanings of the characters is also what makes Chinese difficult.

This need not be surprising for anyone conversant with an Indo-European language. In these languages, the script is always alphabetic, and you spend a bit of time learning the alphabet. But then, combinations of letters mean so much more than the letters themselves. The difference is that in Chinese the number of basic characters is much larger. I’m told that knowing 2000 characters is enough to read a newspaper. I’ve spend 4 weeks learning about 80 character, and will know perhaps 1000 characters by the time the course ends. Will this be enough to read newspapers, and increase one’s own ability to learn more? I don’t know.

Finally it is the fact that the characters (han xi) are so difficult to remember. I was so confused about the difference between me (wo, 我) and clothes (yi, 衣) that one night I dreamt of writing these two characters over and over again with a pen in a notebook, and then with a brush on a scroll, while wondering what the difference in meanings of these characters is. When I woke up in a cold sweat I rushed to a dictionary to find out. It was 4 in the morning, and this incident completely ruined my day. So, yes, partly it is the sheer number of characters which makes the language difficult.

There seems to be no way to get over these factors. I guess one has to just practise until one is perfect.

Ancient Rock Art

The rock shelters of Bhimbetka are less than 50 Kms from Bhopal: an easy drive on a good road. In less than an hour we traveled from the city to this magical world. The paintings were discovered in 1957 by Vishnu Wakankar, a historian involved in studies of rock art in France and Spain, when he was beginning his work in India. Wakankar was traveling by train to Bhopal and noticed rock formations similar to ones he had worked on abroad. He went there and discovered the paintings.

bhimbetkaWork is still going on in this area, but some of the shelters are open to the public. These are not closed caves with little openings. The picture on the right shows what they are: overhangs, some low, some high enough that we could stand upright. It rained quite heavily while we were there, and we could find shelter under some of the rocks, more or less like our prehistoric cousins would have. But the fact that the shelters are exposed also means that there has been more weathering here than in closed caves. In spite of this, many of the paintings are spectacular.

These shelters were inhabited till the medieval period. The earliest paintings are made with a single pigment, either red, which is the oldest, or white. Art from later times used multiple colours: yellows and greens appear. I wanted to know how old the earliest paintings are. There is no clear answer yet. Excavations have yielded stone tools, the oldest from the late Acheulian period. Some are in display in the museums in Bhopal. Acheulian tools in India were dated recently as more than 1 million years old. This is the deep Paleolithic, from long before Homo Sapiens arrived. However, the oldest paintings are thought to be more recent, and estimates quoted in plaques in Bhimbetka say they are probably from the Mesolithic period. That means they were painted by humans.

petroglyph

Near the entrance to the complex we saw this outline of a human hand. Apparently these are common in rock art, and it is believed that they were made by putting an actual hand on the rock face, and painting around it. I put my hand over it, the outline was substantially smaller. The Family compared her hand with it; it was smaller than hers. This fits with our understanding that early humans were relatively small compared to us. I have seen Ashoka’s stone inscriptions, the Rosetta stone, Hammurabi’s code etched on a stone. They are barely a few thousand years old. This connection of our hands was with another human who lived tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps even a good fraction of a hundred thousand years ago. The sense of deep time overwhelmed us for a while. Walking the streets of Rome, Patna and Xi’an, you are aware of the history of a couple of thousand years. The people who lived here would have been walking on ground familiar to other people tens of thousands of years before them!

holesinstone

We saw enigmatic holes in the rock face, like in the photo above. They are associated with rock paintings across the world and are called cupules. There are no experts on these. There is a consensus that they are deliberate, and that they are not functional, but served some artistic or symbolic need. They are older than rock paintings, and some people date them to a hundred thousand years before the paintings. Could this be the art of Homo Habilis, the art of an alien species?

We spent several hours at the site. Some caves were like zoos: full of wild animal figures, sometimes layers painted over previous layers. Elsewhere, you would come to an exposed rock face and see maybe a line of faded red colour, the whole painting would appear slowly to your eye as you stood and followed the faint lines. In some paintings, like in the boar in the featured photo, the pigment would be bright and eye-catching. We left, but we are not finished with Bhimbetka. We plan to return. And now that we have seen this, and read about rock paintings in India, we plan to explore many other sites across the country.

So much to do, so little time!

The distance between Guwahati and Tawang is supposed to be about 570 Km. Not much, you would think, but we are informed that even in good weather it would take us at least 14 to 15 hours to do this trip. Clearly, this is not something that we should try to do in one day in November. We need to break this journey up, so that we do interesting things on the way, and still have enough time at Tawang.

My friend, The Victor, is great at planning road trips. He figured that Nameri National Park, which is almost halfway, 220 Km from Guwahati, should be a 5 hour drive. We reach Guwahati at around 11; so we should be in Nameri at five in the afternoon, allowing an hour’s stop for lunch on the way. Since sunset is just after 6 in this region in November, we might get in an hour of birdwatching in Nameri on our first evening, provided we do not dawdle over lunch. If we are a little delayed, then we might do our birdwatching on the way, and reach Nameri after sundown.

We plan to spend two nights in Nameri, so we should get one morning and one evening of birdwatching for certain. Then we leave for Dirang, where we plan to spend the night. This is a 165 Km stretch which begins to climb, and should take us 5 hours to do. Since a check for permits is involved as we leave Assam and cross to Arunachal Pradesh in Bhalukpong, there might be queues which eat up time. Still, it would be safe to give ourselves 6 hours of driving. It should be enough to leave by 10 in the morning, which means we might be able to get in another quick morning of birdwatching in Nameri.

There may not be spectacular things to see in Dirang. It is supposed to be good for birdwatching, probably also in November. Although a dzong (monastic fort) is mentioned, the descriptions do not sound great. There is a mention of a gompa (temple) and great views on the way to the dzong, Since this is very close to Dirang village, we might do it in the morning before we leave for Tawang. The road distance is about 200 Kms, although the straight line distance is about a fourth of this. The road is full of switchbacks, so we should expect to take around 6 hours if the weather is good. This is reputedly the most unpredictable part of the journey.

We plan to spend three nights in Tawang. Half a day will go to see the monastery, which is the largest Gelugpa monastery after the Potala palace in Lhasa. I wonder how much it has changed since the Dalai Lama was welcomed here in 1959 when he finally left Tibet. We’ll take a day’s trip to Bum La and the Shangetser Tso (lake). I’ve read about a Takhtsang Gompa in this region, if this is anything like the Dzong which goes by the same name in Bhutan, then we must try to find it. We could try to find the Nuranang waterfall on the way, although it seems to lie a little away from the main road. I’ve seen some lovely photos of the Pangateng Tso, so that is another place we could try to visit. But really, the place The Family and I would like to go to is the Eagle’s Nest wildlife sanctuary. Our three nights in Tawang may not give us time to do everything in this list. We’ve heard much of Monpa food, especially the thuppa and the fish. We should be able to find this kind of food once we start climbing.

We return by the same route. The first day we plan to spend seven to eight hours on the road and halt at night in Bomdi La. The Sessa Orchid Sanctuary near Bomdila is supposed to be wonderful; in November we may not see too many orchids, but we might spot a red panda or two. Bomdila is the gateway to the rest of India, as the Indian public learnt when this town fell to the Chinese in November 1962. From Bomdila the drive to the Brahmaputra is short. Unlike the Chinese army, which pulled back from this town after declaring an unilateral cease-fire, we will press on southwards. We’ll probably take a look at the Bomdila monastery before we start on the drive back. We’re planning to stay in a small tea estate for a night before getting back to Guwahati to catch our flight.

The great unknown in all of these plans is the state of the road. We don’t drive very hard on most of the days. In spite of that, mountain roads are unpredictable. There’s only so much planning that you can do. Once you are on the road, things tend to change. That’s part of the fun.

Puzzled by passes

All mountain passes are the same: you climb along a road with mountains sloping up on both sides, the engine whines and grumbles so that you have to downshift, and then the road levels off. You are at the pass. Tall mountains flank the road, but now the road falls. The lowest line between the mountains is the road, and the highest point on the road is the pass. The geometry of the pass funnels winds along it. If there is snow, then the wind can pile it into huge drifts. If the mountainside is unstable, then boulders will fall down as far as they can, which means they block the road. High mountain passes are hard to cross in bad weather. I anticipate trouble like this when we cross the Se La (Se pass) on the way to Tawang in early November.

Himalayan passes I know go by names like Chele La (near Paro in Bhutan), Thorong La (in the Annapurna in Nepal), Khardung La (in the Ladakh plateau of India), and Se La (the pass between Bomdi La and Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh). The word La probably comes from the Tibetan word Lam, meaning road or path. The thing that puzzles me is the fact that in Nepal, whose language is very different, the word used comes from Tibetan.

An aside: a romanticised Indian story about the naming of Se Pass seems to be gaining currency recently. According to this story, during the 1962 India-China war, an Indian soldier held off the Chinese singlehandedly at the pass. He was brought food and water by a tribal woman called Sela. When the soldier was killed, she committed suicide. According to the story, this is the origin of the name of the pass (the soldier is said to have got a posthumous medal for bravery). For this story to be believable, at the very minimum, the woman should have been called Se and not Sela. If you look at a list of Param Vir Chakra awardees you’ll find one for holding off enemy troops till death in the nearby Bum La. The new story does not do justice to the true story of Subedar Joginder Singh, which you can read by following the link above.

Hornbills in Nameri

I was reminded of Nameri and the Pakke Tiger Reserve since we began to discuss a trip to Tawang. One of my best memories from Nameri comes from February 3, 2009. Walking by the banks of the Jia Bhoroloi river just before sunset, we were transfixed by the sight of a huge flock of hornbills coming in to roost for the night. The beating of their enormous wings is a bass sound that you will not forget once you hear it. We stood in silence listening to the flock approach and settle on to trees. Every tree along the river that we could see had hornbills roosting on them. Here is a photo I took that evening: twenty-five hornbills in one tree.

At that time we had put them down as Oriental pied hornbills. But now looking at the photo I think they are all Wreathed Hornbills (Rhyticeros undulatus): the neck of the male is white in front, except for a yellow band just below the bill, and the back has some red; the chest is black, and there is no casque on the bill. Male Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) would have had a white chest, black neck, and the males would have a casque on the bill.

Interestingly, all the birds on this tree are male. My photos do show some trees which have both sexes. But this raises another question. A little reading shows that there are usually equal numbers of males and females in a population. During the breeding season (March to July) the female seals herself into a nest, in a hole in a tree, using her saliva and droppings. As a result, during the breeding season one sees more males than females. This photo was taken in early February, which is not the breeding season, so one should have seen equal numbers of the sexes. In trees with two sexes, the males and females sit paired up. Maybe I should have photographed several more trees to check whether there are also segregated roosts of males and females. I’m sure some scientist knows the answer to this question.

Note added

In the Wreathed hornbill, the juveniles all look like
males, and the females do not start changing their
coloration till after the 1st year. In the non-breeding
season, one sees these large flocks of young birds
which all look like males.
–Aparajita Datta (Nature Conservation Foundation)

Asking a scientist does work surprisingly often. I sent a link to this blog and photo to a leading
expert on hornbills, and received the reply alongside. So there are no gangs of juvenile males and females, the sex ratio is even, and my photo just includes many juveniles of both sexes, some adult females, and, possibly, the same number of adult males. I’d missed the adult females, until the expert pointed them out to me.

A time to plan and a time to travel

Arunachal

The October holidays are in November this year! Every year during the Diwali break, The Family and I try to go somewhere interesting for about a week. Diwali is often in October, but occasionally, it is in early November. This is one such year. We started discussing plans with friends, and quite suddenly decided to go to Arunachal Pradesh.

This is a huge state, as I realized when I opened up the map above. We need to fly in to Guwahati in the neighbouring state of Assam, and then take the road. We could go east to the border of Myanmar or north to the border of China. The road east would take us to Namdapha national park, which is supposed to be great for wildlife, birds and insects. This sounded good. But our friends suggested going north towards Tawang, the second largest monastery of the Yellow Hat sect of Tibetan buddhism, and the largest outside of Tibet. We have had a trip to Tawang on our minds for a long time, so this was an easy decision.

Now the details. Tawang is disputed territory, the 1962 war with China was essentially about Tawang. So it turns out that we need permits. This may be the least of our worries. Tawang is at a height of roughly 3 Km above sea level, and it begins to get cold in November. We have to cross Se La; at an altitude of more than 4 Km above sea level, this is one of the highest passes you can drive across. It could well be snow-bound in November, although we hear that it is never closed for very long. We might have to wait an extra night in Bomdila or Tawang if the pass is closed.

The Pakke tiger reserve lies just off the Tezpur-Bomdila-Tawang route. The Pakke river descends to meet the Jia Bhoreli (what a lovely name) near Nameri. It is tempting to make a halt in Nameri or Bhalukpong to make a couple of trips into the jungle. I have a wonderful memory from Nameri: a sky full of hornbills at sunset, the deep bass of their powerful wings the only sound as we stood transfixed and watched hundreds of these birds settle on to treetops to roost. But that was in May, not November. It should take 5 to 6 hours to get to Nameri from Guwahati. After a night or two at Nameri we could make the 5 hour drive past Bomdila to Dirang. The next morning we would drive on to Tawang: another 5 or so hours away. The distances are small, but the roads are slow.

We’ve been thinking about Tawang for years. Now suddenly we have only months to plan this!