By Editorial Team
A new book by Vinay Sheel Oberoi released posthumously reveals the sacred life of a Buddhist community living in the Northeast of India.
If the vivid imprints of a book – its words and delightful photos remain with you, long after you’ve flipped through its pages, it speaks volumes for the work the author has put in. Perhaps, more than his industry, it also communicates his passion – in merging with his subject, so easily and so gently that sometimes you may not be able to differentiate between the subject and the object.
Monpas: Buddhists of the High Himalayas, a coffee table book by former bureaucrat Vinay Sheel Oberoi captures his long-standing love affair with a region and its people bringing to light a forgotten and lesser-known tribe of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India. “For him it was several journeys made over several years – and each time he came back with a new facet. In fact, there were some interesting co-incidences. We happened to be there on a certain day when the scriptures were being taken around the village,” remembers Oberoi’s wife Nandini Oberoi who accompanied him on many of his trips to Arunachal.
It was as though he was meant to bring the spotlight on the people of Mon, and he realized its urgency spending much of his time in hospital, finalizing the manuscript.
Oberoi did not live to see the book in its final avatar. But his reward is clearly in how the Monpas welcomed him and treated him as his own on several occasions — allowing him into their close circuit with his camera in tow, while they performed private religious ceremonies or offered prayers at the sacred altars.
A wonderful kaleidoscope on the lives of the Mon, the book takes a close look at their daily life, culture, rituals and above all their faith and spiritual traditions that pre-eminently pervades all aspects of their living. In the book, Oberoi notes, “Through my travels, I was struck by the commitment of the Monpas to their faith, not just in the structures of Buddhism and their symbols, but in the reverence with which they spoke of their beliefs. Faith was everywhere, a way of life, ingrained in hearts and minds. Each day, in small yet significant ways, the household would mark its faith: the schoolgirl who stood in front of the family altar before skipping to school, the Monpa elder who would recite a prayer before setting off on his tasks, the housewife who would ensure that the sangbum, the stone structure for burning offerings, was lit,” wrote Oberoi about being remarkably surprised with the deep sense of spiritual allegiance with which they lived their everyday lives.
The book provides interesting glimpses into the region’s breathtaking landscapes – long stretches of endless snow with rows of Buddhist prayer flags hanging above, pristine lakes and mountains and the diversity of flowers ‘scattered along the river valleys and the hill sides.’
“In the Tawang area alone there are said to be 108 lakes. Pilgrims make the difficult journey to the sacred ones and spend days and weeks in their environs, in caves or at a hospital gompa. All the lakes have prayer flags strung across; customarily on one side, sometimes extending all around the lake,” describes Oberoi in the book.
And when it comes to pilgrimages and history – Oberoi takes his readers to Urgelling, a village where HH the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso (1682-1706) was born, the only Dalai lama to be born in India.
Vinay Sheel Oberoi was an IAS Officer of the 1979 batch who belonged to the Assam-Meghalaya Cadre. Oberoi served as the Ambassador & Permanent Representative of India to UNESCO from 2010 to 2014, as well as Secretary to the Government of India, in the Ministry of Women and Child Development, and in the Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development. He passed away in April 2020.