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Sunday, December 15, 2002
Travel

Mystique of gompas in the mist
Partha S. Banerjee

The giant gilded Buddha in the Tawang monastery
The giant gilded Buddha in the
Tawang monastery

THE lakes there in those remote misty mountains tend to get named after leading Indian ladies. High in the northeastern Himalayas, beyond Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, the sublime, blissful environs of the PT Tso (tso in Tibetan means lake) couldnít be further away from the fast-paced athletic world of the "Payoli Express," the lady who almost won an Olympic medal for India. For that matter, what indeed could scenic Madhuri lake evoke that is at once beautiful, glamorous and sensual. What could lie beneath its watery vestment?

The roots of tall, ancient trees, for one. Madhuri lake, 42 km from Tawang, was formed in 1950, following a major earthquake. Its bed, once a forested slope, sank in the tremor, taking with it the forest of tall pine trees. As water filled in, the trees died but their bare lofty trunks remained, standing sentinel over the serene blue lake thatís encircled by high mountains.

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Encircled by towering cliffs, the Madhuri Lake is extremely picturesque.
Encircled by towering cliffs, the Madhuri Lake is extremely picturesque.

Itís a sight so picturesque, it would catch anybodyís imagination. As it did of the director of the Hindi film Koyla (1997) who chose it as locale for a sequence starring Madhuri Dixit. There, now you know how the lake got its popular name; its official name is Sangetsar lake though few use it these days. As for PT Tso, thatís Army abbreviation. The lakeís actual name is Pangong-Tang Tso but the Army, which has a big presence in the area (being so close to the Chinese border) and which maintains the roads, canít be bothered with such long-winded foreign-sounding appellations. So, PT Tso. (With due apologies to P.T. Usha).

Visits to the Madhuri (Sangetsar) lake and PT Tso are excursions that you might take while on a visit to Tawang, Arunachalís best-known tourist destination. Thanks to its remoteness (it takes two days to reach the mountain town from Tezpur in Assam), Tawang still remains a largely unspoilt destination. Whatís more, it has attractions few resorts can match.

TRAVEL TIPS

Access: Fly from Calcutta to Tezpur (Alliance, twice weekly) and hire a taxi for the two-day trip to Tawang (365 km) with night halt at Bomdila. Taxis typically charges Rs 1300/day incl. fuel; shared Sumos cost Rs 350/person. Tezpur can also be reached by bus from Guwahati which has daily flights and trains to Calcutta and Delhi.

Accommodation: Bomdila has an excellent government tourist lodge, thereís a larger one at Tawang. The Shipyang Pong and Shangrila are Bomdilaís two best hotels; in Tawang, try Buddha, Shangrila, MacLeodgunj or NEFA hotel. In Tezpur, Luit Hotel is the best option. The most you would pay in any of these hotels is Rs 700 for a double room.

Best season: October to end December, March-May.

Take the journey, to begin with. An hour and half beyond Tezpur and the road enters jungle country. The mountains come soon after, as you cross into Arunachal at the border town of Bhalukpong. Thick fog often shrouds the hill road at places, giving an ethereal feel to the journey (though, with visibility falling, itís no fun for the driver) but as the vegetation on the mountain slopes thins out and the military encampments begin, the mists begin to fade away. By early afternoon, you get your first view of Bomdila, the district town perched high on the mountain. It is a long, tortuous climb before Bomdila (alt. 9,000 ft), with its busy main street and two gompas, is finally reached.

It was till here that the Chinese had advanced during the 1962 War, and all along the road from Bomdila to Tawang and beyond are reminders of that invasion: military bunkers and memorials to brave Indian soldiers who fought the enemy till the bitter end. Dhirang, with an ancient dzong (fort) and a great view, is the last major village before the road begins its ascent to the Sela Pass (13,714ft). Itís windy and usually misty up at Sela; the grass cover is thin, there are no trees, and a little beyond the pass are two glacial lakes where tiny mountain birds flutter about. Itís bleak and desolate, except for any Army outpost where jawans offer hot tea and snacks.

A Yak grazing in the Tawang valley
A Yak grazing in the Tawang valley

Beyond Sela, the road gently descending, soon catches up with a gurgling stream called Nuranam; driving by the rivulet, you are bound to spot scores of hairy yaks grazing on its lush green banks. Presently, the village of Jang comes into view, sprawling over a steep slope down below. The road bends and twists as it descends to the village with it picturesque farmlands; it is here that the Nuranam joins the Tawang Chu river, meeting it in a spectacular waterfalls. It is an awesome sight: The water thundering down the heights in what seems vast irregular bursts, with swaying wind-blown sprays clouding the adjoining rockface.

Beyond Jang, the road, crossing the Tawang Chu river turns west and follows its course even as it ascends a slope that finally leads it to Tawang (alt. 10,000 ft). Tawangís chief attraction, apart from the surrounding natural beauty, is itís 400-year-old Buddhist monastery, reputedly the largest in India. Perched on a hill, the lamasery is a vast collection of ancient yellow-roofed houses enclosed within an encircling wall and dominated by the three-storey dukhang or assembly hall, the main temple.

It looks like a huge fortress from a distance but is in fact more akin to an ancient walled university town. Wrote Verrier Elwin, the famous anthropologist, in the mid-1950s: "The monastery ... reminded me of a mediaeval Italian town or, in many ways, of Oxford. Here was the typical old jumble of little streets lined with tall houses; here was the gentle casual atmosphere which concealed so much formality and protocol." Housing over 300 marooned-robed lamas and young novitiates (the lamaseryís 60-odd shas ó or huts ó can accommodate up to 500 lamas), the monastery is "at the heart of the life and culture" of the Buddhist Monpa people of Tibetan stock who live in the Tawang valley.

The monasteryís piece de resistance is, of course, the giant gilded Buddha statue in the dukhang. Over 26 ft high, the richly embellished statue must surely be among the tallest Buddhas housed within a temple anywhere. In the dukhang, also, is a museum displaying 600-700-year old statues of Tibetan Buddhist deities made of Ďlimarí (a compound of gold and silver), rare ancient masks incense urns, jars, an exquisite lamp, thankas, manuscripts, clothes of Mere Lama ó the founder of the monastery ó and toys and other possessions of the Sixth Dalai Lama who happened to hail from Tawang.

His birthplace, some 5 km away, is the site of the Urgelling monastery which dates back to the 15th century; there are many other relics of the Sixth Dalai Lama preserved in this gompa. Other interesting monasteries in Tawangís environs include the nunneries (or ani gompas), Bramadung Chung and Gyangong, small establishments with women lamas, and the famous Taktsang monastery. Often called the Tigerís Den Taktsang, 45 km from Tawang, stands on the edge of a steep forested ridge that is surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Guru Padmasambhawa, the Indian preacher who in the 8th century helped spread Buddhism in Tibet, is believed to have meditated at the site.

Taktsang is not very far from Madhuri lake; the same road, on way to Tawang, winds through the "lake district", a high altitude region with sparse vegetation, snowy mountains and a host of lakes and pools including the PT Tso. There is a lot of military activity here but around the lakes, especially PT Tso, the atmosphere is magically serene, the silence broken only by the jingling bells of yaks grazing on the banks.

Unless, of course, a pair or two of the rare golden ducks suddenly appear. Their raucous calls rents the rarefied air as they echo across the silent desolate hills. It is a piercing cry, yet it seems strangely illusory here in this tranquillity, amidst the mist and the snows and the shimmering lakes.

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