Guwahati: One of the most awe-inspiring sights in Arunachal Pradesh is the little-known Chumi Gyatse Falls, colloquially referred to as the ‘Holy Waterfalls’ — a collection of 108 waterfalls on the India-China border.
The Chumi Gyatse — like the Niagara Falls that delineates the US and Canada, or the Iguazu Falls at the border of Argentina and Brazil — has come to symbolise the relationship between the two neighbours that happen to be rivals.
Over the last year, the Arunachal government and the Army have sought to develop the area around the falls, which is highly revered for Tibetan Buddhists or Monpas on both sides of the border, as a tourist site. Monpa is one of Arunachal’s major tribes, with its population scattered in Tawang and West Kameng districts.
The state has built infrastructure like roads that lead up to the remote Tsechu village near the Line of Actual Control (LAC), where the Chumi Gyatse falls from a height of 11,000 feet above the sea level. Tsechu, which translates to ‘Hot Water’ in the local language, is over 110 km east of Tawang.
“A four hours drive from Tawang, and you would need to walk over a kilometre for another 30 minutes to reach the site,” a local resident said about the improved connectivity.
The falls are said to be about 250 metres from the LAC near Yangtse area, which is one of the disputed regions along the McMohan line demarcating the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Arunachal Pradesh.
“It is a remote area. The connectivity has improved recently and the roads are well maintained by the district administration and the Indian Army at present. This will help boost religious and cultural tourism in the border areas and enable pilgrims to visit the sacred site,” said Lham Tsering, a local resident of Khremethang village in Tawang.
Little is known about the Chinese activity to develop the spot on its side of the falls. But defence sources said the Chinese are keeping an eye, placing a surveillance camera, a projector and a large screen at the border overlooking the falls to get live images.
“We are blessed to have the waterfalls in our territory. It is a natural wonder. The Chinese cannot have a full view from their side and so they must have put a screen on their side for better view,” a government official in Arunachal Pradesh told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
“The Chinese have not created problems for us, so far, at Chumi Gyatse. We share a long boundary with China, and we interact with them at Bum La border. It is peaceful and calm here,” said Tsering.
Bum La is a border pass between Cuona County, south of the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China, and Tawang. It is also an agreed Border Personnel Meeting Point for the security forces of India and China.
Origin of Chumi Gyatse
On 20 July this year, Arunachal Chief Minister Pema Khandu dedicated a gompa (prayer hall) for the local people with a newly built statue of Guru Padmasambhava (the Lotus-born) at Chumi Gyatse.
According to the residents, the origin of the Holy Waterfalls is attributed to “a show of power” between a Bon Lama (monk) and Guru Padmasambhava, also regarded as the ‘Second Buddha’ by followers of Tibetan-Buddhism.
“The Bon Lama is said to have turned a bamboo grove upside down swaying his palm, and this grove is believed to be in the Chinese-occupied Tibet region. Guru Padmasambhava also known as Guru Rinpoche, on his turn, flung his rosary with 108 beads against a rock and simultaneously, 108 springs gushed out as each bead hit the rock,” said Tsering, referring to the 108 waterfalls.
Sources said the Chinese have tried to spread “false propaganda” about the birthplace of Guru Padmasambhava, claiming that he was born in Tibet, while also trying to lay claim on the disputed Yangtse grazing grounds in Arunachal.
Legend has it that Padmasambhava was born and brought up in Odisha before he left for Tibet. He was born as an incarnation of a child inside a blooming lotus in Lake Dhanakosha of Oddiyana kingdom. According to historians, Oddiyana is derived from the Dravidian word Ottiyan, which denotes an indigenous native of Odra, a kingdom located in northern Odisha that found a mention in the epic, Mahabharata.
While the waterfall lies in Indian territory, a sacred cave complex where Guru Padmasambhava meditated is located in Tibet.
Pilgrims from Tawang, Bomdilla, Derang and different parts of Arunachal visit the Holy Waterfalls, with the footfalls having increased considerably due to the new roads. The visitors offer prayers and also fill up bottles with the holy water believed to have healing properties.
“People generally visit the place around September, October and November. After snowfall in mid-December, it is not possible to go there as the steep roads are covered in snow and at high altitude,” said Tsering.
During a recently conducted Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs meeting, the Indian government had “proposed to the Chinese side to allow Tibetan pilgrims to visit the Holy Water Falls”, but no approval was granted, said an Army officer, who didn’t wish to be named.
The Monpas in Arunachal believe that the Tibetan Monpas in Cuona County have “limited freedom of speech”.
Sources said there is “growing resentment among the Monpas of Cuona County” against the Chinese authorities and their stringent policies curbing religious freedom of local Tibetans.
“These are not isolated events, and should be seen in the larger context of belligerence displayed by the People’s Republic of China all along the LAC. Even as the talks are in progress for de-escalation of troops in the Ladakh sector, China has not curtailed its hegemonistic aspirations elsewhere,” a defence veteran told ThePrint.
This report has been updated to correct details about the waterfall.