Tawang is a picture-perfect hill station with its lush meadows and thick forests. Rajdeep Dutta finds that the magnificent Tawang monastery, the second oldest in Asia, is one the main attractions of this scenic Arunachal Pradesh town overlooking the snow-topped Himalayas
First a warning. The journey is tough, steep and peppered with hairpin bends. If you are not a hardened traveller, by the time you reach Tawang your head is likely to be spinning. Add to it the breeze which pierces through all your protective clothing and you could well be wondering what prompted you to make this arduous trip to such Himalayan heights.
To get acclimatised to high altitude, the recipe is simple and strict — take it easy on the first day, lest you find yourself out of breath and panting. Tuck yourself in a warm bed and sip some thupka. (Tibetan noodle soup) and begin your adventures the following day.
In fact when you get up the next morning, you will scarcely believe what you see. The picture-postcard beauty of this hill station in Arunachal Pradesh will simply take your breath away. The scenery is pristine and the Himalayan ranges are lush with pine, oak and rhododendron forests. There is also a rich growth of bamboo, which is the favourite food of the red panda found in this part of the Northeast.
Located about 10,000 feet above sea level, the Tawang monastery is the second oldest monastery in Asia, which explains the rush of tourists to this remote settlement. The magnificent monastery overlooks the valley and is surrounded by mountains that seem to be towering around it like guards. The monastery’s enormous yellow roof and white walls stand out like a beacon. The place is completely isolated from the world.
One of the biggest attractions of the monastery is the three-storeyed dukhang [assembly hall] that has a magnificent eight-metre-high gilded image of Buddha.
The ancient library, leading onto the parkhang [main courtyard], has an excellent collection of old scriptures, images and thankas [traditional paintings and manuscripts] depicting the Buddha and tutelary deities in different poses. The monastery — or gompa in local language — is over 350 years old and is an important centre of pilgrimage for Buddhists.
The sixth Dalai Lama was born here. Also known as the Galden Namgyal Lhatse, the monastery is a repository of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Tawang does not have an airport or railway station of its own. It is connected with other towns in Arunachal Pradesh and Assam by road. Getting to Tawang from Kolkata means braving a long but rewarding journey. The drive through the picturesque mountain country is spectacular and can leave you breathless, as you wind around steep hill-roads and manoeuvre sharp hairpin bends. In parts, the road can be rather treacherous. This is definitely not a drive for the faint-hearted.
The journey to Tawang starts from Guwahati on a bus or a taxi to Bomdila. Past the Dirang valley with its old dzong (fort), the road climbs sharply to Sela Pass at 13,940 feet. This barren, desolate landscape is softened by a serene lake that lies below Sela Pass.
There are beautiful lakes around Tawang, the most picturesque being Pankang Teng Tso, Sangetser and Bangachang.
The area around Tawang became a cause of disagreement between India and China. The monastery was badly damaged by the Chinese invasion of 1962, with priceless murals and tankhas being destroyed.
Namgayal shows us a memorial to a valiant Indian soldier who held up the advancing Chinese army during the India-China war of 1962. The road near the memorial descends to a beautiful, wide valley. The monastery, dramatically located on a spur surrounded by snowcapped peaks, dominates the valley.
When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, his route into India was through Tawang, and he still visits the area regularly to hold special prayers.
Tawang has one main street and a warren of alleys to the houses that climb up the hillside towards the towering monastery. It also has one quaint little bazaar which sells products ranging from talismans and prayer wheels to garish sunglasses and transistors. The snack stalls are aplenty offering solja, the yak butter tea, thupka and hot momos, the delicious steamed meat dumplings with chilli sauce.
Medicinal herbs grow in abundance in and around Tawang. The locals believe that many of these have amazing magical qualities.
Standing atop the Tawang monastery, the landscape can truly take the breath away. This is really the land of the moon. So thank God you braved that long journey to get to this hill resort which is quite like the last frontier, strategically placed between China, Tibet and Myanmar, but is very Indian. — NF