Tawang: Hidden Shangri-La of the Himalayan Mountains
By Susan Waten
Tawang, the Himalayan paradise situated in the extreme north-western corner of Arunachal Pradesh in Northeast India, bordering Tibet (China) in the north and Bhutan in the south-west, is a traveller’s hidden Shangri-La. No matter how awesomely awful the road condition or how uncompromisingly hard the terrain, travelers still make it to this “off the beaten track” destination. Tawang is best known for “Tawang Gaden Namgyal Lhatse Monastery”, or simply, the 400-year old “Tawang Monastery”, tucked away on a mystical mountain top. Gaden Namgyal Lhatse means “celestial paradise” and is the 2nd largest monastery in Asia and the largest in India, an important seat of the Gelukpa sect of Mahayana Buddhism.
Tawang is also well known because the 6th Dalai Lama, Gyalwa Tsangyang Gyatso was born here in Urgyenlling. In fact, even before the 6th Dalai Lama was born, Tawang was already to be marked out as an important centre for the Buddhists. The Tawang Monastery was founded in the 17th century by Merak Lama Lodre Gyaltso, who is believed to be a contemporary of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. Legend has it that it was the wish of the 5th Dalai Lama to build a monastery on a celestial mountain and Merak Lama Lodre Gyaltso took on the task to fulfill that very wish. He set out on a horse to locate an ideal place but alas his horse went missing. Seeking divine help, he spotted the horse and followed him atop a beautiful mountain. On this very mountain was the Tawang Monastery built. Ta means “horse” and wang means “blessing.”
Today the monastery has a 3-storied assembly hall which houses the temple and the 28 ft high golden statue of Buddha. It has a big library with an impressive collection of ancient books and manuscripts, and the famous Buddhist scriptures “Kangyur” and “Tangyur” inscribed in gold are preserved here. The Museum in the vicinity has a remarkable collection of antique and priceless historical artifacts running back several hundred years.
For this reason and more, Tawang is now being portrayed (or rather, ‘marketed’) as a popular tourist destination, although of course, spiritual pilgrims have always made trips to this “land of dawn-lit mountains.” Certain formalities are a must to enter Arunachal Pradesh: Protected Area Permit (PAP) for foreign tourists and Inner Line Permit (ILP) for domestic tourists.
In 2005, when I first went to Tawang, the road condition was fairly good. But after ten years in 2015, it was a very bumpy but none the less memorable ride. My long-time college pal Ate Kevichusa, Director & Producer of Stage and TV shows, joined in the adventure trip so we hired a full Sumo back and forth from Tezpur, Assam. The Sumo drivers who ply taxi services regularly are super confident on the S-shaped roads as they blast Hindi-Nepali-Tibetan-Assamese-Arunachalee music on their car stereos. Our 26-year old Sumo driver Sonam, despite many requests, refused to switch off or even simply reduce the volume. Reason? He said he would ‘fall asleep’ if it was quiet (and god forbid if he did!). The terrain, with sharp turns and extreme drops on treacherous mountain slopes is very ideal for high-adventure car rallies and is quite similar to that of Raid De Himalaya’s tracts. They say accidents are quite rare on these roads, but when they do happen, the vehicle is beaten to a pulp or rolled into a fine ball! One should be considered lucky if the Sumo driver does not drink alcohol mid-way at lunch time. The justification for drinking? To keep warm!