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
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.
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.
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.
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.
WHAT TO SEE
Tawang Monastery (Gonpa): It is one of the largest lamaseries of Mahayana sects and the second oldest monastery in the world after Lhasa. The monastery houses over 500 monks. It is also a centre of Buddhist Cultural Studies. The monastery was founded by monk Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso a contemporary of the fifth Dalai Lama in 17th century AD. The monastery complex comprises of more than 65 residential buildings meant for monks.
Regyaling Gonpa: It was constructed by the former Rigya Rinpoche and is located about 1 km from Tawang.
Urgelling Gonpa: Believed to have been in existence since 14th century, it is about 3 km from Tawang. Tsangyang Tashi, the 6th Dalai Lama, was born here in 1683.
Gyangong Ani Gonpa (Buddhist Nunnery): About 5 km from Tawang, the nunnery houses more than 50 inmates. It offers beautiful visuals of Tawang and takes about half-an-hour trek tor reach.
P T Tso (Pangang Teng Tso) Lake: About 18 km from Tawang, it is an ideal picnic spot. During winter, the lake provides an ideal spot for skiing.
Shonga-tser Lake: Popularly known by Madhuri Lake as the Hindi film Koyla was shot here. About 42 km from Tawang, it was formed in the aftermath of the 1950 earthquake.
Banga Jang Lake: Besides scenic beauty, it also has religious importance.
NEAR TO TAWANG
Sela Pass: Located at 13, 714 ft above mean sea level, Sela Pass is of high strategic importance. It connects Tawang to Tezpur and Guwahati and is the main road connecting Tawang with the rest of India. While summers at Sela Pass are not very cold, temperature in winter can dip down to -10 degree Celsius
Tawang War Memorial: Dedicated to Indian soldiers who lost their lives during the 1962 Indo-China war.
Bong Bong (Nuranang) waterfall: Situated 40 km from Tawang, the waterfall is very scenic.
BTK (Bap Teng Kang) Waterfall: 82 Kms away from Tawang, the waterfall is en route to Zemithang.
Gorichen Peak: At about 22, 500 ft above MSL, Gorichen Peak is the highest peak of the region. It is situated 164 km from Tawang.
Ghesila range: Located towards the north-east of Tawang, it is positioned like a protection wall for Tawang. It is about 25 km from Tawang.
Taktsang Gonpa (Tigers Den): Located 45 km from Tawang, it is believed to have been consecrated by Guru Padmasambhava in 8th century AD. This monastery is perched on the ridge of the hillock surrounded by a dense coniferous forest and lofty mountains.
Gorsam Chorten: Situated 90 km from Tawang, it is the largest stupa in the area. It is believed to have been constructed in early part of 12th century.
The average minimum and maximum temperature of Tawang is as given below. The best time to visit Tawang is also specified.