If Shangri-La conjures up images of earthly paradise isolated from the outside world, happy people, Buddhist chants floating in the air, mystical monks engrossed in prayers, then Tawang is India’s answer to the mythical place. Located at a height of near about 10,000 ft above mean sea level (MSL), picturesque Tawang is a thinly populated mountainous tract lying on the Northwest extremity of Arunachal Pradesh in north east India.
It is also the seat of 400-year-old Tawang monastery, one of the oldest and the largest monastery in India and the biggest outside of Lhasa. As the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, it is a holy site for Tibetan Buddhists and a prominent centre for Gelug or Gelugpa, the pre-eminent Buddhist school in Tibet.
Tawang shares boundaries with Tibet in north, Bhutan in south west and Sela range of West Kameng in the East. Tawang holds strategic importance to India and is also the base of Parvat Ghatak School, the high-altitude commando school.
- Indians require special inner line permits to visit Tawang while foreign tourists intending to visit Arunachal Pradesh require restricted area permit. The inner line permits are issued as a routine affair.
- If travelling by bus or taxi, it might take more than 10 hours.
- Tawang is very cold place; hence, do not forget to pack warm clothes.
Origin of Tawang is obscure. It was part of Tibet in medieval times. Prior to the construction of the Tawang monastery, Tawang was traditionally inhabited by the Monpa people.
The spread of Buddhism in the area started with the arrival of Guru Padmasambhava, the great Indian Saint in 8th century. Tawang Monastery was founded by Mera Lama Lodre Gyasto in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobsang Gyatso. There are two legends about how Tawang derived its name. Ta means Horse and Wang means chosen. The site of the present monastery is believed to have chosen by a horse owned by Merag Lama Lodre Gyamtso. In search for an appropriate place to establish the monastery, Gyamtso failed to find a suitable place despite best efforts. Gyamtso decided to sit on prayer for guidance. When he opened his eyes, he found his horse missing. He found his steed on the top of a hill known as Tana Mandekhang. Considering it as a good omen, Gyamtso decided to initiate work for building a monastery. The monastery was founded in late 1681.
According to another legend, the great treasure Revealer, Terton Pemalingpa gave initiation such as Tamdin and Ka-gyad and hence the place came to be known Tawang (Ta an abbreviation of Tamdin; Wang means initiatiton).
Tibetan and surrounding areas were ceded to the British by Tibet. The British hoped Tawang would be a centre of influence for them on the north-east frontier.
Tawang was under Chinese rule when the PLA invaded India in 1962. It became part of India again when the Chinese army withdrew.
Sungester lake situated about 42 km from Tawang became popular after shooting of a dance sequence for the movie Koyla and has since been rechristened as Madhuri Lake.
Music and dance are an integral part of festivals in Tawang. Both men and women participate in the dance rituals. Aji Lhamu dance is a prominent folk dance depicting the Tibetan version of Ramayana. It is mostly held during Losar, the New Year. Yak dance and the Lion and Peacock dance are some of the famous dance forms of Tawang. Some of the dances are ritual monastic masked dances where the dancers perform in magnificent traditional attires. Some of the dances are performed in Cham- Lang or the courtyard of the Tawang Monastery.
Fairs and festivals are an integral part of the tribes of Arunachal Pradesh including the Monpas. Festivals of Monpas are also mostly associated with agriculture and religion. While some like the Losar are celebrated to usher in the New Year, some are held to mark events in the life of Gautam Buddha. Besides Losar, Torgya, Choekor , Gaden Ngamchoe, Dukpa Tse-She and Saka Dawa are some of the festivals celebrated in Tawang.
Visit to the monasteries and nunneries, located in and around Tawang, is a must to understand the Buddhist religion culture and the monastic life of the monks. Tawang Monastery Museum, which contains religious artifacts and historic scriptures of Buddhist religion, is also worth a visit.
A trip to Tawang is incomplete without witnessing some of the games played by the locals. Majong, similar to Mahjong played in China, is played by four persons with small tiles in which the players pick up and discard tiles until one of them has a winning combination. Archery, a popular game played by Monpa males especially during Losar, Pongor and Sho (dice) are some of the games played in Tawang.
Wood carvings, carpets and bamboo utensils made by Monpa tribals are exquisitely beautiful. Thanka paintings, hand-made papermaking are also worth a visit. Tawang has a good range of tourist souvenir shops which sell Buddhist prayer wheels in colourful wood, chadars (wrap skirts worn by local women), beautiful bags, shawls, brassware and Budhdha statues.
Where to stay
Tawang is virgin and unexplored as a result of which finding good accomodation may be a challenge. Tawang offers plenty of mid-range and budget accommodation options. Most of the hotels are located in the market area. There is a modest Government Tourist Lodge and a Circuit House where you can stay, provided you have permits.
Where to eat
Places to eat in Tawang are limited. Travelers might find rates of food slight costly than the other parts but it is because most of the things are imported from plains raising the cost of goods. While the local food is predominantly non-vegetarian, vegetarian food is also available. Roadside stalls selling momos and thukpas are quite common. Be-warned, the traditional food of Monpas is liberally spiced with chillies.
Best time to visit
Summer season starts from March and ends in June. Temperature ranges from 5- 22 degrees Celsius. Hottest month of the year is usually June. Tawang gets rainfall between July to October. Temperatures are much lower during this period and visiting Tawang during this time is not a good idea. December, January and February constitute winter season. Temperatures range from a minimum of -2 degrees Celsius and can go up to a maximum of around 5 degrees Celsius during this time. April to October is the best time to visit.