Brahmaputra   studies



Introduction - The Project among the Sherdukpens - How to write Sherdukpen ? - Sherdukpen society, a brief description - Sherdukpens and their neighbours - The road to the North, Tawang, Tibet and Bhutan - The road to the south, to Kachari country and Assam - Rupa, a fascinating history Language.

(updated 28th June 2012)

The road to the North, Tawang, Tibet and Bhutan

Today, the road to the north brings you out onto the Bomdi Pass (Bomdi La, 2,600 m) where the administrative centre was recently built (see map in the Introduction). But in 1962, during the Chinese attack, Bomdila did not yet exist, the country was covered in jungle, and the road was a path with tigers and elephants roaming around during the summer months. Yet, the path was used by a good number of people, because this was one of the best ways to Dirang and its citadel, and from there on to Tawang, the celebrated temple and trading city, and from there to Tsona in Tibet. The Chinese army used that path or parts of it in 1962 because it goes over the passes, especially through the icy, windy Se La (3300 m) that gives access to, or allows you to escape, the fascinating, secluded Tawang valley – which is a world of its own.

The renovated dzong in Dirang Dzong

Few Sherdukpen people have ever been to Tawang, and the name still has a magical ring. Tawang merchants came down to settle in Rupa, though they were very few in number. They were not alone. They came with monks from Tawang, who were forever claiming the right to tax the country. The intriguing system of large citadels or dzong, some of which (after being restored) still impress the visitor today highlight the chain of power. The most remarkable of these is in Dirang. From Dirang to the North you take the Sela Pass, then you are in Jung and Tawang country; from Dirang to the South you go over the Bomdi Pass and into Sherdukpen country, which opens the way to Assam.

Nuns entering the great Tawang monastery

The second reason why the Tawang merchants were not isolated was their proximity to Bhutan. Today, the border with Bhutan is still rather porous, with local people crossing it easily. The same 'Monpa' language is spoken on both sides, which means that Dirang people understand those in Kalaktang and in eastern Bhutan. Bhutanese traders still come to Rupa every year and are the most reliable in providing a number of essential goods: baskets, furs, hats, coats, skins, and some metal implements. It would seem that, at least over recent years and at present, this kind of slow, discreet form of trade comes more from Bhutan than from Tibet. Of course, the border with China is now a rather formidable feature. But even there...

The road to the south, to Kachari country and Assam

Until the 1970s, every year in November, everybody packed up their things, took their cattle and children, loaded their heavy things on to the back of horses, locked up their houses, and the whole long line slowly moved up to Thungri, an old village. It then moved on and up along the Bugun border to the mountain passes and, after two nights on the road, led the villagers to Doimara, a place located on the Bisiri River, not far from the Assamese Border, where they camped for three or four months in bamboo huts, spending the day hunting and fishing.


Hardly anything is left now in Doimara proper at the confluence of the two rivers that do not take long to reach Assam. In the 1970s, a settlement was established two kilometres further down for the purpose of sawing timber when the frenzied cutting of trees for cash first started. But a law was recently passed to put a stop to this craze, and the settlement is now reduced to a few people. Nevertheless, a kind a festive revival of the old winter camp takes place there now.

View of the former Doimara camping place: from the 'Merchant's Tripod'

Neither this old settlement where the Sherdukpens spent the winter, nor the new one situated two kilometres away and founded in 1976, is in Assam. They are just above the line where the forest stops and the plains begin. It is as if the Sherdukpens stopped on the very edge of the realm of the Brahmaputra. However, from there you can visit the next Boro or Assamese village, a one- or two-day walk. A continuous fringe of lowland villages was therefore within reach of the Sherdukpen winter camp. This territory, located between the Dhansiri River and the Goburu River, became a kind of kingdom in its own right and where the Tukpen people still own land today.

Sherdukpens still come to these villages every winter, just before Khiksaba, with a triple purpose in mind. The first is to make an offering, in a number of houses in certain villages, of a special Sichuan chili pepper that grows only in the mountains. The second objective is to collect from these houses various goods, the most important of which is a fresh bunch of areca nuts – without which the Khiksaba festival up in Rupa cannot take place. These first two aims are both linked to a kind of trade and a ritual. The third purpose is the renewal of their friendship with traditional family connections in these villages, which are locally called bohita.



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