India Interior

Life in picture-perfect Mechuka

Shreyal Jain | Updated on November 01, 2019 Published on November 01, 2019

A panoramic view of Mechuka. Photo: Shreyal Jain

Residents of Mechuka going about their work. Photo: Shreyal Jain

Getting ready for school. Photo: Shreyal Jain

A typical home in Mechuka. Photo: Shreyal Jain

An old resident poses with her pipe. Photo: Shreyal Jain

This Himalayan Buddhist hamlet in Arunachal Pradesh is modernising at its own pace

Remember that scenery we all drew in grade school? The clear blue sky, brown mountains, a river flowing by and a small hut amidst the lush green ground? Yes, that is exactly how Mechuka looks. And that’s exactly how simple life is here.

The sun rises as early as four o’clock. And by six, everyone is up and running. There is either water boiling or corn being charred on the open fire in the kitchen. The breakfast is usually roasted potatoes, and simple rice porridge with some tangy leaves. “No, we do not do heavy breakfast, but our lunches are very heavy,” says Khanduji, sipping his chang (home-made fermented millet wine) and warming himself at the fire. Khanduji is a local who runs a homestay in Mechuka.

Khandu Philley and his wife run the DD Homestay for tourists. Photo: Shreyal Jain

 

Located in Arunachal Pradesh, Menchuka or Menchukha or Mechuka is a Himalayan Buddhist hamlet nestled 6,000 feet above sea level in the Shi-Yomi District of the State. It is just about 29 km away from the McMahon line (the border that divides India and China). Mechuka is also called the forgotten valley of Arunachal Pradesh because of the lack of accessibility to the mainland. It was earlier only known for its airfield and was one of the crucial locations during the 1962 war with China.

Mechuka is also called as the forgotten or forbidden valley of Arunachal Pradesh. It was earlier only known for its airfield. Photo: Shreyal Jain

 

The quaint village is a destination that appears to be made for a postcard picture. The mesmerising caramelised mountains with hint of snow-covered tops, the wildflower-filled-horses-grazing meadows, the numerous hanging wooden bridges and the gushing sound of the Yargyap Chu river are just right for the Instagram ‘aesthetic’ game. And oh! The bright colourful houses add the oomph factor. This place is so pure that its name translates to ‘medicinal water of the snow’ (men - medicinal, chu - water, kha - snow). Nature God truly seems to reside here. The valley is filled with pine trees, ferns, and thorn bushes. Because of the ready availability, the houses are made of pinewood instead of bamboo. And since the temperature swings from 20 to below-zero degrees, the palm-leaf shed (seen in other low-lying villages) is ditched for proper aluminium sheets aligned in a triangular way. Also, another bit of fun news is that these houses are on stilts, not because of floods but to store firewood and livestock.

Everything but agriculture

Mechuka is home to four tribes, particularly — Memba, Ramo (Adi), Bokar and Libo. The Memba make up the majority and reside in the main town of Mechuka whereas people on the outskirts of the town, that is the Adi, follow Donyi-Poloism (sun and moon) and worship nature. Every house has flags hung outside that represent the members’ religion or following, like the Buddhist prayer flags for Buddhist households or the white with red dot flag for Donyi-Polo followers.

About the main occupation here — let’s say times have changed. Until around 2003, when the roads were constructed for Dalai Lama to visit the 400-year old monastery — older than the one in Tawang — the villagers were into agriculture and also relied on the Indian Army for other things. But post better accessibility, the primary activity shifted from agriculture to everything but agriculture.

Yahan ka zameen itna fertile nahi, mehnat jitna bhi karo waste chale jata (the land is not fertile here, the yield does not reflect the efforts),” says Khanduji, now filling my glass of chang to the brim.

A cup of chang (millet wine). Photo: Shreyal Jain

 

The residents these days are into government jobs or running small shops. There are a few who, time to time, take up the porter job for the Army. This has helped build a cordial relationship between the Army and the civilians. However, the youngsters are moving to bigger towns and cities for studies and work.

Tourism in Mechuka is slowly but steadily increasing. This change can be witnessed in the form of many under-construction homestays and the freshly cemented shops. Several tiny house-turned-restaurants are coming up as well. But, the business is sleepy and slow here. Be it the gift shop or the wine shop, everyone is relaxed. The hustle and bustle of city markets is far from reach. The shops are like a closely-knit family.

As Khanduji says, “Yahan koi paiso ke peeche nahi bhagta, sab aaram hai” (No one here runs behind money, everyone is just relaxed). The slow living kind of lifestyle blends well with the humble abode.

Although the residents have taken up other things for occupation, they still grow food for self-consumption. People in smaller villages go to the forest to pick vegetables and do their daily hunt. Produce like edamame which we consider ‘exotic’ is an everyday vegetable here.

The Tibet influence

The use of spices is next to nil. It is only turmeric and lots of chilies that go into flavouring the food. There is a heavy influence of Tibet in this region. One such example is the butter tea, which is butter-infused (should be yak butter but now the residents use branded packed ones) milk tea. The momos and chow mein are also a result of this influence. A few greens are so exclusive to the region that probably one could not even find the common name for them.

The Tibet influence is also seen in their lifestyle. The people of Mechuka are fashionably forward. Great furry coats, chunky shoes or fancy sunglasses are an easy find in the market. The youngsters are dressed up at any given point in a day. Be it while cooking (everyone — boys, girls, men, and women — cooks food in this region) in the kitchen or just walking on the streets, all of them have a great sense of style.

Despite such big changes, Mechuka still lacks some key amenities. Like, there is a community health centre but to reach a major hospital one must travel six hours to Aalo or Along (nearest big town). For college education, the kids have to, again, go to Aalo. There are no railway stations or airports in this town. Buses are also not used as the roads to Mechuka are narrow and bumpy. Only Sumo cars can take you to the town and around.

Another thing missing in this town is the cellular network. Apart from BSNL (with only 2G internet) none of the service providers have planted their antennae yet. But this has not stopped the locals from getting updates about the outside world. The older people watch TV, youngsters have PUBG and snooker tournaments. Grown-ups entertain themselves with rounds of ‘housie’ or ‘tambola’ (a number-based luck game wherein players contribute money and also win an amount) through mobile apps.

And for people like Khanduji it is the tourist who keeps him entertained and connected to the outside world. The generosity and innocence of people are visible on their faces. The eyes light up, cheeks go red and smiles become wide when a tourist steps in.

That is how Mechuka is. Simple, innocent, untouched, and yet modern.

Published on November 01, 2019
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