Monpas: Buddhists of the High Himalayas reads like a 200-page love letter to a posting that left a permanent impression on the life of a devoted IAS officer. Shortly before his death in April 2020, Vinay Sheel Oberoi, former secretary, higher education, in the government, wrote this religio-cultural feast disguised as a travelogue-cum-account of a long administrative career in the Northeast. Monpas is a celebration of the culture, community and customs of the Monpa tribe he encountered in Arunachal Pradesh.
He begins the narrative by explaining his motivations behind putting together this coffee-table photo book. The purpose, he writes, is “not to be ethnographic or academic, but to portray the rapidly changing world of the Monpas.” And Oberoi’s portrayal is best pictorial: Monyul, the tribal land that covers the regions of Kameng and Tawang in Arunachal, was photographed intensively by Oberoi, with a camera gifted by his wife, after his retirement. The book, whose cosy anecdotes and crafted images transport the readers 20,000 ft to the icy terrains of the Eastern Himalayas, is a result of meticulous research.
It is divided into sections detailing everything from the Monpas’ attires and faiths to their architecture and festivals. The photos are at once panoramic and intimate, quiet and sonorous — a young girl’s close-up on a street as she observes a kaleidoscopic procession pass her by on Losar (Tibetan New Year), to the long-distant sprawling mistiness of the Monyul mountains lacking a single human face. Oberoi’s lens captures a broad range of the every day, from women working hard at their daily chores to children as monks in training, from festive smiles to solemn religiosities.
The occasional missteps expected in gathering this material are delightfully not omitted from the text. Heartfelt anecdotes like “I spent many hours with a group of Brokpa women while we waited for the men to return from the grazing grounds. Over several cups of Yak butter tea, they recounted the Brokpa myths of origin. Neighbours drifted in and nodded their agreement…” are countered with gaffes like “I had approached too close to the two-tonne (yak) ruminating at leisure by the side of the road. The flash of the camera went off, the driver revved the vehicle, waking up the yak, (which) lumbered to its feet. I leaped inelegantly across the road and slid into the vehicle.”
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The book’s central project, however, is tracking change. Oberoi details the “modern education” that young monks receive in monasteries now, a shift from the earlier focus solely on Buddhist philosophy.
He speaks of the speedy transit now possible across the mountains as a result of recent infrastructural development, while lamenting the “scarring hillsides (that) testify to frenetic road-building, weather-beaten maintenance crews to the difficulties of upkeep.” He mentions new telephone towers that enable connectivity between distant family and friends and mar the once-clear skyline of the mountains.
This enduring respect and compassion for the Monpas is what marks Oberoi’s effort as not an obligatory post-career memoir, but an honest passion project that fittingly puts the limelight on those he helped administer: the people.