“Mountains of Dawn: A Portrait of Arunachal Pradesh” by Mamang Dai

Arunachal Pradesh (Wikimedia Commons) Arunachal Pradesh (Wikimedia Commons)

This large photobook offers a detailed visual portrayal of the ecology, history, and cultural diversity of the largest of India’s seven North Eastern states. Mountains of Dawn: A Portrait of Arunachal Pradesh was originally published in 2009; this updated 2023 edition includes over 100 photos. The visual portrayal of the land, “a belt of green shadowed in perpetual rain and midst”, is complemented by a well-written narrative, adding context and further information in support of the visuals on offer. 

Detailed insights into tribal history, customs, and legends are complemented by historic and contemporary photographs. This narrative also traces Arunachal’s history during the colonial period and examines the impact of colonial exploration and expeditions on the region, such as the 1827 expedition that confirmed the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and the Brahmaputra in Assam were unconnected and two separate rivers.


Mountains of Dawn: A Portrait of Arunachal Pradesh, Mamang Dai (Speaking Tiger, December 203)
Mountains of Dawn: A Portrait of Arunachal Pradesh, Mamang Dai (Speaking Tiger, December 203)

After the end of the Raj, further attempts at bringing Arunachal into mainland India were limited by its remoteness and physical inaccessibility. Arunachal was part of the frontlines of the 1962 India-China War, where the famous Tawang monastery was briefly captured by Chinese troops. Until 1987, the state was known as the North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) before officially becoming Arunachal Pradesh. The state has undergone huge structural and cultural changes in the last several decades,


change has come like a steam roller. The transition from unknown frontier to modern state has been sharp and rapid and the question of direction and destiny has become one of great complexity and soul searching.


Now, no longer an inaccessible backwater, Arunachal is a pivotal state in an immensely geostrategically important region bordering Bhutan, China and Myanmar.

The book delves into the challenges faced by Arunachal’s indigenous population, exploring how their existence posed a threat to the burgeoning tea plantation industry. It explains how people from Arunachal have had to negotiate the large societal changes brought about by modernization, capturing the contrast between silent, inaccessible villages without electricity and the current era of internet, electricity and road construction. Despite such changes, Arunachal has preserved its cultural heritage and a significant portion of the book is dedicated to the cultural tapestry of Arunachal, showcasing festivals, dance rituals, religious ceremonies and details of important festivals, such as the Tamladu festival celebrated by the Digaru Mishmi tribe, or the Oriah and Solung festivals celebrated by the Wancho.

The ecological richness of the state, housing a staggering diversity of flora and fauna, is vividly depicted, emphasizing the intricate connection between the environment and cultural beliefs. The sheer amount of ecology diversity within Arunachal is remarkable, being home to a staggering 400 species of plants per 100 square yards, the richest bio-geographical province of the Himalayan Zone, and is also home to the Great Indian Hornbill, the State Bird of Arunachal.

The final section of the book serves as a valuable Fact File, offering key information for tourists, including entry requirements, tourist destinations and trekking routes, and more. Mountains of Dawn is a well-considered collection of photos and text that celebrates Arunachal Pradesh’s vast diversity and shows how it is on the front lines of the debate between progress and preservation in this remote region.

Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author of Plains of Discontent: A Political History of Nepal’s Tarai (1743-2019) (2023)