Trip to Tawang in a Hidden Corner of India called Arunachal Pradesh
I need an Inner Line Permit, a document that would authorize me to visit Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. There was a certain irony burlesque in all that. As part of the game, the official who processed the permits pointed to me stammering over the phone. I met him and shortly after I gave him the required documentation.
What that official did not know is that his promise, when the permit is ready, I will let you know was the best gift he could give me. Three weeks later, the paper was processed and signed. I hitchhiked to get from Meghalaya to the border of Arunachal. It was hard for me to sleep, not because of the hard bench on which I slept in a bus station, but because the next day I would fulfill a dream.
21 hours. You have to go to understand what 21 hours mean sitting on a public bus to travel the cold distance of 350 km! Why does it take so long to travel so short? Well, because I have gone into the heart of the Himalayas. This bus takes me from Tezpur, a city near Guwahati to Tawang, a small town that borders Tibet and Bhutan.
Arunachal Pradesh is as little known in India as it is rarely visited by its inhabitants. Its name literally means land through which the sun rises, and is that its location, in the northeast part of the country, makes it the first to see sunrise. Humble in extension, its mountains condense a rich cultural plurality.
The various ethnic groups that populate the place gives it a unique personality. In some areas it is common to see the natives complement their clothes with animal parts. They carry machetes and firearms or practice rituals of almost extinct religions. Medicine is sometimes practiced by healers who learn by inheritance the natural remedies to treat each case. The vast majority of its inhabitants are indifferent to neighboring China, because they do not identify with them.
I cannot explain the joy I had the day they sent us by e-mail the permits to enter Arunachal Pradesh. The chaotic Guwahati had kidnapped us for a day for that blessed role that already seemed something heavenly and unattainable.
Day 1 - Bomdila
The bus leaves at 5 in the morning. I would go to the Tawang Valley and the monastery of the same name. We drive past the barracks of the Assam Rifles with a lot of military here, as in 1962 the Chinese invaded and came to Tezpur. We see the snow-capped mountains of the eastern Himalayas in the distance, including the dome-shaped Gorichen at 6770 m, which lies completely on Indian territory and therefore may be climbed. Many other, higher mountains are partly on Chinese territory and thus in the exclusion zone.
And it is not a simple journey. At the border checkpost in Bhalukpong, the security took me out of the vehicle to interrogate me. A lot of military is around here but it's moving fast! Why do you go by public transport and without a guide? They rebuked me. With firmness and permission in hand I replied. After several tense questions, came the smiles, tea cups and handshakes accompanying the desire to enjoy their region.
After the sultry Brahmaputra valley, once past the border of Arunachal Pradesh, the Himalayas begin. The other side is called Lapang Pather. We cross forests that gradually become tropical jungle. After some time driving over and in the clouds we arrived in Seppa to have a break for a cup of tea. The landscape is getting more and more beautiful. We follow the Kameng River into the mountains to see road construction, and women breaking rocks.
We arrive at Tenga, a tiny village among the mountainous jungle complemented by a military base that must be quadruple in size. Without many intentions to see the surroundings, we chauffeured over the next pass, with even more bumpy roads and construction site sludge. Then an intense fog prevented us to see the landscape. In Bomdila we stop after 6 shaken hours.
Much had changed. the landscape had become drier, wooded with coniferous trees. People clearly looked more Tibetan. Prayer rides flutter in the wind, and instead of Nyishi men with hornbill hats there were men with military hats.
Our goal today is Bomdila. With a few stops on the way it gets dark at 5 when we drive into the hotel already booked before. We insist on a fan heater. In the rooms it is cold and damp. The mattress is pretty hard. It was time for interesting talks with our spontaneous host, his warm wife and countless cups of local chai and some locals. After dinner with hot thukpa and momo I go to bed with sweaters and socks and a big winter jacket on.
Day 2 - TawangThe driver of the jeep that has to take us to Tawang is in a hurry. It is still half an hour away and he has already called our room. Ten minutes - I tell him - but we take until the agreed time. It is not a matter of skipping breakfast having to spend the day on the road. And today a long day awaits us until we reach Tawang, after crossing the Sela Pass, a mountain pass located at 4170 meters of altitude.
The first stalls with devotional items, socks, warm blankets, kitchen utensils and sweets are being set up when we arrive at the Bomdila monastery shortly after 8 o'clock. Directly in front of the monastery are around a round stage to sit rugs and built behind several rows of chairs. We place ourselves in the first row. Slowly the families arrive, almost all in wine-red costumes. The orchestra has been playing all the time with long, dull and deep-sounding horns that go through, and bells, gongs, drums.
Now a variety of dances are performed. Two guys dance in masks of demons to summon the spirits, and two modern looking men, a break dancer and a soldier in uniform with mask. The two then mix with the audience. Now everyone stands up. The Rinpoche, is carried to a place of honor. Now, gorgeous mask dancers dressed in brightly colored brocade robes come and perform several dances in honor of the Lhamo or Sri Devi.
A man at the microphone explains everything in Tibetan (the local dialect here), Hindi and English. The best thing is to look at the invigorating people in their holiday dresses and costumes, to see mothers with babies on their backs, their faces, their hairstyles and their jewelry. The guest of honor, the Palden Lama arrives.
Now a two persons dressed as black yak hopped on stage and danced to songs by Michael Jackson. Young men pour salted butter tea out of huge tea kettles. Once again colorful and elegantly dressed dancers gathered on stage. In the meantime, the crowds pour in and the round is filling up. Unfortunately, we have to leave after almost 3 hours. We still have a long drive ahead of us.From Bomdila, the road climbs the mountain giving us beautiful views of the valley. In little more than an hour we reached the Diwan Dzong. The Dzong are a Tibetan architectural style that consisted in the construction of a monastery that was also a fortress. This Dzong is a small citadel of just over four houses and a Gompa or monastery, which they say is more than 500 years old.
The houses are made of whitewashed stone and only four women and a small group of children can be seen on the street. You see a lot of misery and although the place is interesting I doubt very much that tourism never comes here. The next stop is at some hot springs located on the outskirts of Dirang. I imagined them as a natural place where people went to bathe, but in reality they are two small rafts, in very bad condition and dirty.
To all this, to say that the road already occupies the first place in our category of infernal roads, well above the mythical Poipet-Siem Reap in Cambodia or the Irkeshtam Pass, in Kyrgyzstan. The environment, however, is brutal and the snow, which makes driving very difficult, beautifies the landscape. In some section the jeep skids, since these vehicles have smoother wheels than an F1 car. When this happens, we open the doors and go down quickly.
After a little rice with spices, we left for the route once again. We visit a kiwi and orange plantation in Dirang, and then we drive to a mountain with a wonderful view of the valley. The road to Tawang is peppered with military camps. Now we drive through military camps right in the middle. After a day of continuous driving, we arrive at the Sela Pass at 4170 meters. A door crowns it, welcoming tourists to the Tawang Valley. Tawang was only 170 km away. It seems that it is close but it took 4 hours more to arrive.
The Sela Pass is completely snow covered and lingams of ice hang from the roofs of the small settlement. Some tourists, who return very happy from Tawang, respond with a maybe to the question of whether they would continue their route through Arunachal. In principle the answer surprises us, since the permits are difficult to obtain, but after the days we will understand it. Traveling through Arunachal forces you to have 30 or 40 percent of your time in transportation and that makes you rethink the route again and again.
The temperature dropped to zero degrees and there was snow on the sides of the track. I do not know how many degrees below zero was the air that seeped through the windows that did not close at all. The absence of oxygen, after leaving the bus to take the photo that I feel leaves me suffocated in the ice cold wind, snow, and icicles hanging from the rocks.
But the altitude, the purity of the air and the awakening in that place after hours and hours of intense chattering is a pass. I wanted to be in this place in the middle of nowhere! Once passed the Sela pass, Tawang can be seen in the distance. In the monument to the fallen in the war between India and China, in which the Chinese army invaded Arunachal, some soldiers invite us to tea.
We stop at the Jaswant Garh memorial and read about its hero Rifleman Jaswant Singh who stopped the Chinese alone for 3 days. The monument makes a special mention to a soldier who prevented for days the advance of the Chinese army, moving down the mountain firing from different places. During this time he subsisted with the help of two sisters who fed him. They were called Sela and Nura and in tribute to their value, the name of Sela was given to the mountain pass and that of Nura to a great waterfall. By chance today is a big day of remembrance, Jaswant Singh's birthday! We burst into a military ceremony with senior officers.
Precisely the Nuranang Falls tells us that we have arrived at Tawang where, from afar, we see the monastic complex, thinking if so much effort to come will have been worth it. The last thought is for the road, which we will have to redo to return to Tezpur. We enjoyed the view and at some point we were up in the high altitude, but then it went downhill again. In the afternoon the weather changes as after passing the Sela Pass, the sun makes an act of presence. We finally reached the village with the night taking over. In the dark I located a dormitory for truck drivers. It is much cheaper than the nearby hotels, where it would not take long to fall asleep under three blankets.
Day 3 - Tawang Monastery
Aided by the drivers' snores, which all night seemed to have rivaled the greater sonority of their guttural growls, it was not hard for me to leave the room at the very first hour. We are rewarded in the morning with white mountains, blue skies, and a view of the monastery. The plants were still frozen and the ground was sliding with dew. The sun's rays barely broke the nearby peaks, but life on the street began early.
On an empty stomach and wanting a good warm chai, we just cross the road where we were invited to breakfast by their caretaker. The merchants prepare their stalls, and old men turn the prayer wheels on the walls as well as those of their own hands. It was the monpa, the native inhabitants of the Tawang Valley. They continue to wear their colorful traditional clothes prepared for the cold topped with a hat with several tips made of yak hair.
Rare was the one who did not hang a rosary from his neck, or prayed as he passed the beads of the necklace between his thumb and forefinger. But what I liked most was his good-naturedness. They were children in bodies of adults who, when they saw me pass, did not hesitate to smile and talk to me for minutes in their native language.
Fortunately, one of them accompanied his gestures with directions to the Tawang monastery. Tawang Gompa is the second largest Buddhist temple in the world after Potala palace in Lhasa. The first time I saw it in the distance it reminded me of a medieval citadel. The monastery is practically a walled city, with small stone houses where the monks live and an incredibly decorated main temple.
I am completely confused. I have seen pictures several times. It was always a completely different building with a red roof. Here it is now a group of many buildings with yellow roofs. The curious novices that I knew there explained to me that there are about five hundred monks living inside. For a while I sat in the courtyard, the neuralgic center of the religious complex, to observe its environment. I talked to one or the other monk. I expressed to one of my desire to share the life of the monastery for a few days, and shortly afterwards I was assigned one of the houses.
There lived monks, few of whom were novices and others who are already adults. They wanted to consecrate their days to the monastic life, and one last longevity whose experience made him tutor the rest. The bed was hard, consisting of a thick wooden board on which stretched a mattress barely a finger thick.
Anyway, more by its own character than by the religiosity of that center, everyone in the monastery made me feel from the beginning as one more. They informed me of what time I had to go through the kitchen. Surprised and curious to have a outsider in the kitchen, they made sure that I did not go hungry. I took out books from the library as if it were my own.
I attended the ceremonies closed to the public and I moved freely in corridors and various rooms. I was in house. There are several reasons that make me want to spend some days in monasteries when I travel. One of them is merely cultural knowing the intimate relationship that links the idiosyncrasy of each area with religion.
I think that ignoring the latter is to understand the pillars of the first one. Another is a bit more personal, and far from the budgetary spirituality of these places. Many monasteries, whatever the faith, have not been more than a kind of university dedicated to the study of something that does not equal all.
They try to respond to the meaning of our existence. It is something so simple to write and that century after century it continues to create debates, writing books and causing wars. These places are, in some way, schools that have remained alive through time not because of the history of the building in question.
It is because they continue teaching lessons that have matured for generations. It is true that not everything that glitters is gold. There is a lot of charlatan, opportunist and phony ones, as well as who uses religion as a political or social weapon. But in contrast there are many wise men who have transcended that barrier of their own ego, that of wanting to be more or to stand out. They do nothing but study our own species.
The most interesting people I've met as well as the most revealing conversations I've had in monasteries. Our overnight stay should be in the cold and spartan guesthouse of the monastery.
Day 4 - China Border
I witness the prayers before dawn and get lost among its narrow passages. I think that is the best time to witness these places, when the sun still did not rise. After seeing us wandering all morning, we were invited by the children to have breakfast with the typical puri, with the energetic and not so tasty salted tea.
Tibetan didgeridoos were played in the first hour, but for me the day began much earlier. One of the monks took sympathy and waited before dawn in a library where they treasured ancient mantras written on parchment paper or carved in wood. They were canonical texts of Buddhism, compiled for years.
My new friend was in charge of translating them in detail before discussing them. Many times, if not all, the teachings were simple. Simple and eminently practical thoughts that I had so often read or discussed with other people. My new friend always gave me another, much broader point of view, and he did not ask me any question that would overthrow any theory that I would like defend.
I understood clearly that knowing is not the same as knowing, and that knowing is far from understanding. It seemed amazing to me that with such amazing clairvoyance someone could for so long speak about such subtle and subtle aspects of human nature and its psyche using terms typical of a primary class. Listening to him, I had the feeling of staying so long to learn about my own species that a life is not enough.
Other interesting people appeared who stood out among the others. One of them was a teacher from the attached school. He himself began his studies in that same center before completing the most complete Buddhist training. Among the ones from which he read his doctoral thesis was the Dalai Lama himself.
I sympathize with the practical facet of Buddhism, which more than religion in the dogmatic sense of the term is a doctrine. The stereotypical image of a good-natured man in an orange tunic and a shaved head meditating on a lotus flower was non-existent in Tawang. The great majority of the monks left at the very first hour of the monastery to different points of the valley and returned with the sun already set.
Another monk that I remember with pleasure was the one most versed in meditation. He upon learning of my interest in this discipline spent many hours explaining concrete techniques. The benefits of meditation do not come from night to day, far from it. In the same way that physical exercise requires constancy for the body to assimilate its effect, and the brain also needs to adapt.
I was fascinated by the temperance with which the monks fitted my questions, even those that attacked their own explanations. Where others would have tried to defend by rebutting their position, they responded unaltered with enviable equanimity. Clearly, they had much more compassion than me. I inquired about the fact that there were statues, figures or images to which the faithful prayed.
Even that there were faithful, and that Buddhism stresses the path to liberation there is no deity. Buddha is just a person, who found a way to eradicate suffering, what is known as enlightenment. And the potential to do the same equals us all. The monks pointed out to me that to admire a Buddha is not to pray before any god.
It is to remind us of the ability to enlighten us, that our own nature or day by day is responsible for making us forget. Not even many monks come to understand or work the Buddha's teachings, much less do many ordinary citizens who profess this faith. It is quite human to need to cling to something palpable, and that explains why there are many rituals that any advanced monk ends up discovering.
The program now includes a trip to the Madhuri lake or sangetsar lake in the direction of the Chinese border. I cover myself with gloves before reaching PT TSO Lake. After coming back we go for lunch and have fried rice with vegetables and then go into a small cafe around the corner. In the late afternoon we visit the local state shop for crafts and souvenirs.
Later we stroll through the town and go back to the hotel. Once the sun is set, it is cold, with no electricity, no light, no radiant heater, no charging the devices. We waited after a short time totally frozen in the dank room full of hope that the hotel generator really starts at 6 pm as we turn on the fan heater and plug in the various chargers.
At 5"30 h we have an appointment for dinner, when we come out with flashlights. In the car we first turned on the heater and I suggest a big round to warm up by a place and drive until we all have operating temperature again. When we get out, we are in front of an outdoor shop with wonderful down jackets on offer. Tonight I have momos, with aloo gobi. At 7 pm we return to the brightly lit hotel is our cuddly warm room but the generator is switched off at 10 pm.
Day 5 - Tawang War Memorial
In the morning, after my pleasant chat in the library, I decided to go to a nearby place of interest to the ani-gompa, or female monastery. A little over two hours away is Gyangong Ani Gompa, on top of a mountain. Our car led through a steep and hard path, sometimes the width of a person, that drew in a few meters huge unevenness.
It gives as a reward to the few visitors spectacular views of the Tawang Valley, flanked on one side by the mountains of Tibet and on the other by the mountains of Bhutan. After passing by waterfalls and the multiple yaks that are on the road we arrived. The surprised nuns offered me cookies and tea. This is not conventional chai. It is tibetan chai, that is, a drink made of yak butter and milk. It is a salty and pasty tea, not rich at all.
It was a small community, all with shaved heads and red dresses. I could not go deep into the place as I would have liked, but they still show me the mural in the monastery wall giving me explanations in monpa. Then they joked about the cold in winter there.
Our next visit was to a tiny nearby village where the sixth Dalai Lama was born centuries ago. I found a closed house, with small stupas dyed with lime that do not honor the personality they remember. Perhaps the charm of the place resides in it. Two country women in a nearby house kept the key.
After spending some time with them, I understood the reason for the good health of the monks. They have to do a lot of physical activity in the steep valleys, which forces people to climb slopes or carry heavy sacks. Winter in Tawang is terribly hard. The locals collect firewood all year round to warm up on the most extreme days.
The school closes a couple of weeks in which many monks and students return to their villages. When they began to take my presence as a natural, jokes also came. What they did not imagine was that the more days I spent with them, the more I considered making their joke come true.
While I was in the place, I learned that next week they would bring some remains of the Buddha. It was an event that required not a few preparations in the monastery. There would congregate visitors from all over the valley and some neighbors. I helped by hanging some flags. While I was raising them, I reconsidered.
I could have been there one more season, but it does not do me any good to learn the theory if it does not translate into practice. I wanted to go back out of monastic life, and reverse what I learned to continue meditating, assimilating and letting new questions appear.
There would always be time to return to Tawang, or other of the many monasteries with whose monks I wish to live, and to be able to answer them. The body, faithful to my nature, asked me to continue traveling. Our next visit was to a big new Buddha statue in the middle of the village, and the Tawang war memorial. Nearby there is a heliport and we see how the scheduled flight from Guwahati to Tawang lands.
We have pumpkin puree in the restaurant and generous bamboo cups filled with rice wine from a festival that just happened at the time of our passing.
Day 6 - Tezpur
The day was great with an absolute dream weather with bright sun, deep blue sky and clear view. Our first stop is the very beautiful Jang waterfall. We go on to the memorial site of the Battle of Nuranang in 1962. On quiet, fantastic mountain roads and encounters with beautiful old people, we slowly returned to the edge of the mountains.
The last descent was one of the steepest, probably a struggle between man and nature. As we want to pass, nature showed its strength on the new road. The rain of recent days had caused a great landslide on the whole steep slope. Despite warnings from the military posts, we wanted to try rather than drive everything back uphill.
Behind we see Royal Enfield motorcycles, those that England stopped making a long time ago and now India is in charge of the business. On the way we met a couple of bikers, who just did not want to turn around. When repeating the crossing of the Sela Pass, we began to see a fine hail storm that become a wet and cold nightmare with more than an hour of sheer bombardment. The curves did not seem to end.
In a rest house we have a thali for lunch with rice, chapati, papad, paneer, vegetables, pickles and bitter gourd. Then we visit a pretty old village and come to Bomdila. Suddenly we see in the distance a chain of snow-capped mountains in Tibet. We drive south towards Tezpur on the road where we arrived few days ago.
I indulge in landscape, high, steep mountains, subtropical green vegetation with fern trees, banana trees, palm trees, bamboos and philodendrons. The lianas and mosses hang from the trees, in addition to the view into the distance, with several mountain ranges staggered one behind the other or the Brahmaputra lowland in the other direction.
Gone are the mountains, the Tibetans, peace and clean air. Now once more in Assam, the saris were again enveloping the women, there is the humidity, the eternal fields of rice, and noise and disorder that characterizes the plains of India. We climbed like spiders with backpacks in the immense cabin of a colorful and decorated Ashok Leyland almost without asking and escaping from the clouds of earth and suffocating heat. The size of the cabin seemed unreal. It was almost a room, ideal to relax and meditate.
The idea now was to move forward until we found a new route that would go back up to Arunachal Pradesh. The maps do not even match Google maps, so there is nothing better than talking and asking for directions to the locals.
Night fell and our camouflage returned. We walked a new dusty town looking for a quiet place to hide and build the tents, although in the end it did not happen because something better happened.
When he stopped for lunch, we thanked him and we slipped back towards the route. Now a Mahindra pickup took us at full speed dodging buffalos, crossing tea plantations, forests and villages with jealously neat green gardens.
We met some kids that when they saw us wandering around with their backpacks and more lost than on purpose, invited us to stay in the evangelist church where they help. The mental and physical exhaustion won to the caution and the doubts of following these sudden and nice strangers. Now that they take us to where they can and with a blow on the roof we made ourselves understand that it was time to stop to jump.
Back we went like politicians in campaign, greeting those who saw us with those innocent and curious faces. That night was a deja vu with not a clue as to where to sleep. Due to the lack of visitors in some of these dusty and forgotten places, there are no hotels for visitors like us. The noises and artificial lights disappeared, while the dirt roads became narrower in each curve, the air increasingly fresh, tropical vegetation, orchestrated nocturnal sounds, fireflies that enveloped us and stars that seemed to be able to touch each other.
We had been transported to another dimension. In a clay and bamboo house, we have delicious and spicy local food, and go to bed with mosquito nets in which we fell down before saying good night. The next morning and with sadness of our hosts for our departure, we had to continue, crossing the dusty Balipara and a few kilometers back to go through another military check point to enter once more to Arunachal Pradesh.If you are looking to plan your own trip to Tawang You can check our Tawang Travel Guide.