TAWANG: BUDDHA-BLESSED HIMALAYAN BLISS AT 10,000 FT
Udit Bhanu Barthakur
Shangri-la was a mythical Himalayan paradise that British author James Hilton created in 1933. Many think it was inspired by Potala Palace, the centre of Tibetan Buddhism in Lhasa. But some – like Frenchman Francoise – believe Shangri-la is a reality called Tawang.
Paris-based Francoise is obsessed with mountains, and has trekked or climbed up many of them across the globe. But he has stopped visiting mountains elsewhere after visiting Buddha-blessed Tawang less than a decade ago. Now, he visits the Northeast every year and spends quality time in the north-western tip of Arunachal Pradesh that Tawang occupies.
Arunachal Pradesh, covering 83,743 sq km of the Eastern Himalayas, is the largest of eight north-eastern states. It has 16 sixteen districts with Itanagar in Papum Pare district as its capital. Referred to as India’s Land of the Rising Sun, the state houses some 25 tribes and many sub-tribes of Mongoloid stock. They include the Monpa, Apatani, Galo, Nyishi, Khampti, Mishmi, Singpho, Nocte, Sherdukpen and Wancho communities, each with a colourful tradition and way of life. The Buddhist Monpas dominate Tawang district, whose headquarters at 10,000ft bears the same name.
Tawang district borders Bhutan and Tibet. Its rugged hills, snow clad peaks, roaring waterfalls, wispy mists and warm, gentle people make Tawang a ‘hidden paradise’ indeed. The culturally rich Monpas understand the need of tourists and tourism for their beautiful valley. They celebrate festivals such as Losar in February or March to mark New Year, and Torgya to worship victory of good over evil and for the overall prosperity of the society. Monpas are famous for their Aji Lhamu dance based on a local folk story, Yak dance which tells us the reason behind the discovery of yak. These dances are performed specially during the Losar festival in traditional dresses such as toh-yhung (eri silk), ali-phudung (black woollen coat for men) and shingka (sleeveless light red gown with white stripes for women made from endi silk) accompanied by ornaments such as aon-dhup (metal finger ring), nyon dhup (metal bangle), along (earring of gold or silver), grokha (silver brooch in the shape of butterfly or bird), etc.
Tawang has many captivating and historical tourist destinations. The most significant among them is the spiritualism-dipped Tawang monastery surrounded by clouds and mist. Founded by the 5th Dalai Lama in 1681, it is the second largest and oldest monastery in Asia. It can accommodate 700 monks and has 17 gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and a couple of nunneries under its jurisdiction. The monastery has a well-maintained and well-stocked museum showcasing the items used by monks in different periods of time. Peter and Jenny Stephenson of England, who visited Tawang in June 2014, said the monastery’s museum scored over more famous museums across the globe for its simplistic grandeur.
Some of the other tourist destinations of Tawang are Sela (pass) at 13,700 ft en route, Urgelling monastery, Panga-Teng-Tso Lake, Sangetsar Lake, Tawang Emporium, etc.
Despite its attractions, the world knew little about Tawang until 1959 when the 14th Dalai Lama entered the land to seek refuge in India after the Chinese takeover of Tibet. The district was the worst affected during India-China war of 1962. The Tawang War Memorial reminds tourists of the sacrifice of Indian Army soldiers whose firepower was inferior to that of their Chinese counterparts. Jeffery Robertson, a former British Army officer, was understandably emotional at the Jaswantgarh (between Sela and Tawang) memorial dedicated to soldier Jaswant Singh Rawat who died after fighting the Chinese soldiers continuously for 72 hours.
The serene beauty of the land has helped Tawang emerge stronger from that conflict 50 years ago.
How to reach Tawang: Tawang is 555 km from Guwahati, the principal city of Assam well connected by flights and train from different parts of India. From Guwahati the drive is of 13 hours and one can have proper halts in Bomdila and Dirang or one can reach Tezpur (central Assam) from where the drive to Tawang is of roughly 10 hours. The driving through lush green mountains and valleys along fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls is mesmerising.
When to visit: The best time to visit Tawang is between April and September.
Entry formalities: Domestic tourists need Inner Line Permit (ILP) and foreign tourists require Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit Tawang. The ILP and RAP at nominal charges can be collected from Arunachal Bhawan, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi; office of the Deputy Resident Commissioner, Salt Lake City, Kolkata; Deputy Resident Commissioner, Guwahati; Deputy Resident Commissioner, Tezpur.
Accommodation: Apart from the government-run tourist lodge, Tawang has a range of hotels offering comfortable, hygienic rooms and good food. They include Gayki Khang Zhang, Tawang Inn, Hotel Nefa, Hotel Gorichen and Seven Sisters Guest House.
Food and beverages: Arunachal Pradesh specializes in a variety of mouth watering cuisine such as Zan, a dish prepared with boiling millet flour mixed with local vegetables and meat; Momo, very popular dumplings filled with exotic vegetables, cheese, meat; Gyapa khazi, a sort of pulao made with rice, fermented cheese, dried fish, vegetables and butter. Some of the local alcoholic beverages are bang-chang, sin-chang, aarak brewed from rice, millet or barley. One should also try butter tea in Tawang.
(The author is Director, Eastern Iconic Tours and Travels. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org )