Not much larger than a postage stamp, the village of Thembang in western Arunachal Pradesh is a timeless wonder. The 50-odd households that live here are surrounded by a medieval fortification and many other ancient monuments. Interestingly it is not these historic structures, but the way of life of the people of Thembang, that has attracted attention.
While most of us are unaware of its existence, this tiny village straight out of an Impressionist painting has caught the attention of UNESCO, which has included Thembang in its Tentative List of World Heritage Sites.
Perched on a hilltop at an elevation of 2,300 mt, Thembang is home to many historical structures, the most important being the 12th century Dzong, a type of fortress architecture found in Bhutan and Tibet. The Dzong was constructed using the traditional techniques of the local Monpa people, like composite stone masonry and wood architecture. It has two gates – one at the northern end and the other at the southern end, which is for an emergency.
There’s also a renovated gompa (Buddhist temple) on the hilltop of the village, where traditional wood carvings and manuscripts have been carefully preserved. The village is ornamented with carved stone blocks, mani walls (stone walls with prayers engraved on them) and paintings etched as graffiti along the houses and ancient ruins.
The greatest strength of Thembang, which gives it the UNESCO tag, lies in the way its inhabitants maintain ecological equilibrium as part of their socio-cultural life. To maintain the legacy of their vernacular architecture, the Monpas have taken the help of their traditional knowledge systems, in turn, saving their natural and cultural heritage.
With the Dirang river flowing down the gorge that runs along the western edge of Thembang, the adjacent area too is abundant in flora and fauna. You can spot a wide variety of wild animals, including rare species such as the red panda, snow leopard, blue sheep, musk deer, Himalayan black bear and birds like the blood pheasant, monal, tragopan, etc.
Also present are multiple species of herbs and orchids with high medicinal value. This is very important as the people here have sound knowledge of ethnomedicine as part of their traditional wisdom. In 1913, Lt Col F M Bailey and Capt H T Morshead of the Survey of British India stayed here while returning from Tibet during their Tsangpo Exploration in 1912-13, now known as the Bailey Trail. It was this same trail through which the Chinese army came down to India in 1962 during the Sino-Indian War.
After securing Thembang, they went directly to Bomdila, encircling a large number of Indian soldiers between Bomdila and the Sela Pass. One can still find the war bunkers constructed by the Indian Army around the village. In June 2017, a war memorial was inaugurated here to commemorate the site where an infantry battalion fought valiantly against the Chinese forces in 1962.
This pristine, picture-postcard perfect village is an outstanding example of a community with a sense of responsibility towards its environment. They still practice barter and community ownership and can teach the world outside the Dzong a thing or two about living in harmony with the environment.
Cover Image courtesy: Deep Gurung