Tawang: Suspended Amid the Clouds
It was a mystical journey to a destination far too divine to describe in words. Perhaps it's a paradise on this very earth itself. As we soared high up into the mountains on a three-day-long spree, it was as if our very souls were uplifted to make us feel heavenly and pure. The journey began in the plains of Dibrugarh, situated in the eastern fringes of the state of Assam in India's North East province.
At the call of the rooster, Siddarth honked his car in front of my residence. I was up early after a toss-and-turn night, excited as I contemplated our hilly outing. Gohain our driver in his mid-thirties, smiled through his beard and greeted, "Good morning dada, hurry up we have a long way to go." Indeed long was our journey. Our destination: Tawang, situated high up in the West Kameng district in God's own good old virgin land of Arunachal Pradesh.
Papay the witty, Bimal the giant, Shanu the confused, Siddarth the excited and not to forget Masud da, our friend, philosopher and guide, were quite a wholesome bunch to travel with. After a day-long drive, passing along the plains of Upper Assam, we reached Bhalukpung, the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border point by early evening. From here entry is forbidden. Only those who have been issued Inner Line Travel Permits by the Tourist Offices of Arunachal Pradesh are allowed to enter.
Domestic tourists can obtain these permits through the AP tourist offices located in Delhi, Mohanbari, near Dibrugarh, Tezpur and Guwahati. And foreign tourists require Restricted Area Permits. The Inner Line Permit system dates back to the British era and it applies to a few other North Eastern states as well. It was enforced so that the ethnic identity of the tribals living in these lands is not altered by the influx of outsiders.
After our travel documents were carefully scrutinized by officials at the check gate in Bhalukpung, the barricaded gate was lifted and we droved gradually into their territory. Driving a little ahead we checked into the tourist bungalow maintained by the AP government. This bungalow was a double storied wooden structure, the typical chang ghar i.e. raised above the ground on a wooden platform.
The location of the bungalow was strategic. Situated alongside the fast flowing blue-watered Jia-Bhorali river, it provided a mesmerizing view. The Jia-Bhorali river is famous for sporty activities ranging from white water rafting to angling. Soon after dusk, the campfire seemed to ignite both body and mind as we discussed the journey ahead. Finishing an early dinner we packed ourselves off to bed, as we had to start our next lap early next morning.
After a hurried breakfast, we got going. A bit beyond Bhalukpung, it was a different country altogether! We were wonder struck at the scenic beauty. The climb got steeper as we scaled ahead but I remember we stopped our car countless times, since each turn displayed sceneries more picturesque than the last.
Lofty white waterfalls gave the impression as if someone had placed a piece of frothy white linen against a backdrop of deep greenish-blue mountains. Thick lush green Pine, Oak and Rhododendron forests abound on both sides of the serpentine road as we moved ahead. By early afternoon we glided down towards the Dirang valley, the slopes filled with wild yellow flowers providing a scintillating view. We stopped at Dirang for a delicious lunch of rice and lamb meat and our journey proceeded once again.
The vegetation started getting sparse as the altitude increased. The air got thinner and we experienced some pain in our eardrums. "It's the pressure," muttered Masud da, to Papay for whom the pain was getting a bit too much. By mid afternoon we reached Bomdila, the district headquarters of West Kameng district where we had a taste of local momos and thupa.
Late afternoon we reached Sange, a sleepy hamlet with a few scattered cottages and shacks. After dumping our luggage in the local tourist lodge we trekked down the hill to the local basti below. The residents, mostly Monpa tribals were the sweetest people to be with as we shared a few local myths and drinks with them. Their simplicity is sure to win the heart of anyone coming in contact with them. The chowkidar of the lodge, who was also the food provider, cooked a delicious supper for us - hot and spicy - typical mountain style!
After a fast French bath early next morning, we commenced on the final lap of our journey. The weather was sunny as we contemplated getting a good view of the Sela Pass ahead. Just before reaching Sela Pass we had to pass Jaswantgarh. It is at this historic place that the valiant Jaswant Singh of the Indian army sacrificed his life, fighting against the advancing Chinese in the 1962 Indo-Sino conflict.
The Chinese were advancing at incredible speed. None seemed capable of stopping them. It was on November 17, 1962, that Jaswant Singh, assisted by Trilok Singh Negi and Gopal Singh Gosai, volunteered to silence an enemy MMG position that had come close to our defenses. On that fateful day these three brave patriots beat back two of the Chinese attacks. Negi opened cover fire as Jaswant and Gopal Singh destroyed the Chinese detachment and seized the MMG.
The MMG was duly brought back and handed over to the HQ 62 INF Brigade. However while returning, Negi and Jaswant Singh were martyred while Gopal Singh, gruesomely injured, came back with the captured weapon. It is said that Jaswant Singh checked the Chinese advance for 72 long hours. He totally confused the Chinese by firing upon them while changing his bunker positions repeatedly. The Chinese were under the impression that there were countless Indian soldiers in that position.
But it was Jaswant Singh alone who was doing all the work. As the story goes, Jaswant had two local sweethearts - Sela and Nura who provided him with food as he held back the advancing Chinese. In one instance when her father was bringing food for Jaswant, the Chinese soldiers caught him and from his revelation, came to know that it wasn't numerous Indian soldiers who were holding them back but just one daring Indian.
Realizing this, the Chinese gradually encircled the hill as Jaswant continued firing knowing fully well the outcome. He knew that the Chinese would capture him alive and gradually torture him to death. But he didn't let this happen. He tied a wire around his neck and hanged himself in the very bunker from where he fired his last shots. It is said that the Chinese were so enraged that they beheaded the dead Jaswant and took his prized head away.
After his death it is said that Jaswant's spirit guarded the place and he is believed to have gained the status of an avatar. Henceforth he came to be known as Jaswant Baba and the place was christened Jaswantgarh. Today all traffic passing through this place halts for a moment and one and all bow their heads to this great heroic patriot. The bunker where he used to stay has been transformed into a small temple and every morning and evening puja is done here.
Beyond Jaswantgarh the landscape suddenly turned bizarre and barren. Thick fog made visibility very poor as we approached Sela Pass situated at a height of 13,921 feet. This is the second highest motorable pass in the world - the highest being in Ladakh. As we alighted from our car to get a good view of the pass, icy winds blowing at high velocity almost ripped us apart. We offered prayers at the Sela temple situated adjacent to the road while on the other side lay the majestic Paradise lake, a limpid, crystal clear pool of greenish blue water.
We were speechless as we stood by the lake gazing at its heavenly splendor. Beyond the lake all we could see were ranges and ranges of mountains after mountains. We were so wonderstruck at the pristine and virgin beauty that we stood there motionless for quite a while. It was as if time stood still till the silence was broken by Gohain's, "Let's proceed. Soon it is going to get dark and they are saying that there is thick fog ahead. Visibility will be very low, driving will be very slow."
With utter reluctance we made our way ahead. From Sela Pass we started downhill passing through isolated sleepy mountain villages till we finally reached Tawang by early evening. Tawang is situated at a height of 10,200 mts. After getting accommodation in the tourist lodge, we moved out to the mall to mingle with the locals. The mall is indeed a shopper's paradise for those interested in ethnic stuff. Items ranging from delicate Chinese crockery to fine Chinese silk, carpets to jackets abound in shops with smiling Monpa girls luring all the customers they can. After a brief window-shopping spree we came back had an early dinner and called it a day.
The next morning was bright and sunny as we made our way to the famous Tawang Monastery. But the weather here is ever changing. One moment sunny and the next cloudy. Perched atop a ridge and surrounded by thick clouds and white mist, the Tawang Monastery seemed to be suspended from heaven in an equally ethereal space. It is one of the oldest and the largest Buddhist monastery in Asia and can accommodate more than 700 monks. The monastery is spread over an area of 135 sq mts.
The monastery has elaborately painted wooden windows and other motifs. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. It has a compound wall of 610 mts. Criss-crossed by lanes and by-lanes there are about 65 residential buildings. Monpa Lama Loore Gyaltso, who was popularly known as Mera Lama, established the monastery in 1643-47 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobsang Gyatso. There is an interesting legend that goes behind the establishment of the monastery and its name. The name Tawang signifies chosen by horse. Ta means horse while wang means chosen. As the legend goes the site of the monastery was chosen by Mera Lama's horse.
Mera Lama who was unable to decide upon the site to establish the monastery was one day meditating in a cave seeking divine guidance. When he came out after finishing his meditation he realized that his horse was missing. He started looking for his horse and finally was able to locate his horse standing quietly atop a hill. He considered this as divine guidance and decided to construct the monastery at that very spot where he found his horse. Volunteers from nearby villages helped construct the mammoth monastery. Till today these villagers are responsible for the maintenance of the monastery.
The original name of the Tawang Monastery was Golden Namgyal Lhatse and it is majestically seated on a ridge 2760 meters high. It overlooks the Tawang Chu Valley, at a point where routes from Tibet, Bhutan and West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh meet. It is a fountainhead of the spiritual life of the Monpas. The sixth Dalai Lama was born here. The monastery is a repository of Tibetan Buddhist culture. Tawang is well connected to Tibet in the north by Bum La and Tulung Pass. 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.
The main assembly hall of the monastery is called Duken, wherein a colossally rich 8-meter high statue of the Buddha is majestically placed. The moment one enters this hall a peace of both body and soul is felt within. The paved courtyard in front of this hall is used for religious dance and out-door ceremonies. The first and the second floor houses some of the senior Lamas while the top floor is reserved for VIPs including the Dalai Lama himself. In a chamber, situated extreme left on the ground floor, photo finished, exquisite, heavenly and colourful building models are on display. But strangely enough these models are made of Yak butter.
The monastery has a rich library, which is a treasure house of Buddhist scriptures, images and thankas i.e. traditional paintings and manuscripts, depicting the Buddha in different postures. It has two sets of scriptures called Tanjur, three sets of scriptures called Kangyar and five volumes of scriptures called Goantse Sunggum. A middle school located amidst the monastery compound imparts education to the future lamas. A panoramic view of the entire Tawang Valley is a must see from the monastery. Spending a good part of the day in the monastery, we moved out for some sight seeing in and around Tawang.
Driving a few kilometers beyond Tawang we reached Te Gompa, a nunnery situated on a cliff like a hanging nest. Ladies and girls in maroon garbs kept moving the prayer wheels and continued chanting, unmindful of our presence. The constant humming of the chants accompanied by the sweet smell of incense elevated our souls and took us all to another level. A talk with the head lama in Te Gompa regarding life and death indeed soothed our souls. He dwelt at length on their death rituals. There are three ways to give a Monpa his last earthly journey.
When a death occurs, the local lama visits the house and goes through the horoscope of the departed person. After careful observation, if the lama finds that the person has lived a virtuous life, he is given a public funeral pyre. If however the person lived a not so upright life, he is given a burial and the family members cannot take part in the services. If the deceased person had lived a perverted life, his body is taken to the banks of a river, chopped into 108 pieces and thrown to the river. A community of people called Vartaks does this. When I inquired about the semblance of 108 pieces the Lama said, "The human body is made up of 108 elements and following this process it purifies all these elements." Then, after praying and making our wishes, we made our way back to Tawang.
After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, we made our way beyond Tawang. Habitation is very sparse but the roads maintained by the Border Roads Organization are splendid indeed. Cut off from civilization, only a few scattered villages of these mountain people can be seen. They are majestic and pure as the mountains themselves. We stopped for a cold lunch by the side of a silvery waterfall, munching our tuna and ham sandwiches. Finally, we reached Zemithang, the last Indian point beyond which lies Chinese territory. At stone's throw distance we saw cheerful Chinese soldiers guarding their frontiers upright.
As our journey descended down the mountains and back to the plains, the memories of these hardy mountain people living a life of mysticism in a land amid the clouds provided us with a new vigor to surge ahead in the journey of our own lives.
* * * * *
Published on 4/19/04