While the geography and fractured frontiers of this region are fascinating in themselves, it is the population that holds evenmore interest: the cultural diversity and shared history, the deep animosities within and the xenophobia as far as outsiders are concerned. Ruled by the forest and inhabited by an endless procession of Tibeto-Burman tribes, the belt is a region of unceasing conflict, violence, anger and grief. Modern times seem only to have exacerbated the situation.
The babel of languages heard along this Himalayan flow includes the guttural Tibetan and its offspring Dzongkha, the sweeter Assamese in the Brahmaputra valley, and the lilt of Tibeto-Burmantonguesinthehillsof Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram. Each step of the way, the ju ngles seethe with unrest and rebellion, as diminutive men and women, some in battle fatigues and others in tattered clothing, some with modern weapons, others with crude arms, fight for ideals, fund s, d rug profits, or lost causes. They confront the military might of their respective governments.
This region is Asia in miniature, a place where the brown and yellow races meet. Taking a south-north transect, for example, you encounter the Bengal i migrants in Assam, Tibeto-Burmans in the Himalayan midhills, and the Khampa of the high plateau. Going west to east, the spectrum is even morediverse: from the peopleof
Tibetan stock—the BhutiaandLepcha of Sikkim and the NgalongDzongkha-speaking people next door in Bhutan—the population takes on Tibeto-Burman hues with the Sarchop of Eastern Bhutan, who have affinity with the tribes of neighbouring Arunachal. Eastward, the communities become progressively less 'Tibetan' and more 'Btirman'. The variety is astounding.
The tiny state of Manipur, bordering on Burma, has a population ofl.8million,yetitshelters more than 30 separate linguistic and ethnic groups, including the Tarao whose number is down to less than 400. The forested frontier between Yunnan and Burma is host to 15 distinct groups, including the Yi, Naxi, Bai and Lisn.
Several communities of Arunachal Pradesh, such as the Abhor and the Mishing, are also to be found northward in Tibet.
Straddling the ages and the mou ntains, the people of this w indi ng trail form an anthropological bridge to Southeast Asia, where the roots of many still lie. TheKhasi of Meghalaya are believed to have come from Kampuchea and still speak a form of Mon-Khmer, although because of British missionary influence they use the English alphabet. The Thai Ahom migrated from Thailand to Assam 600 years ago and settled in a land they
Node tribe members of Arunachal with daos in hand going foraging.