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District Focus: Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh

Perched high atop the snowy mountains of the north-eastern Himalayas in Arunachal Pradesh is the district of Tawang. The district spans from Sela pass and ends at Bum La pass bordering China. It is one of the few districts in Arunachal Pradesh that practices Buddhism. Tawang is one of the most beautiful regions you will see in India.

History of Tawang

Tawang is believed to have derived its name from the grandiose Tawang Monastery perched atop a ridge to the west of Tawang town. ‘Ta’ means horse and ‘Wang’ means chosen. As the legend goes the site of the present monastery is believed to have been chosen by a horse owned by Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso who was on a search for an appropriate place to establish a monastery but was unable to locate any appropriate site. So he finally decided to pray for guidance from divine power. As he opened his eyes after the prayer, he found his horse missing. Wearily he went searching for his horse and found it on the top of hill known as Tana Mandekhang, where once stood the palace of King Kala Wangpo. Believing it to be a good omen, Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso decided to start building the monastery with the help of the local people. The Monastery was consecrated in 1681.

Tawang district faced a lot of fury during the 1962 Indo-China war. Chinese infiltration nearly jeopardised the security of north-east India. The invading troops were able to command the war from the lofty heights of Tawang and the Indian army faced a stiff challenge. Finally the Indians prevailed and Arunachal Pradesh got to remain in India. The Tawang war memorial and the Jaswant Garh temple stand testimony to the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers.

Geography of Tawang

Stunning scenes like these are common in the mountains of West Kameng and Tawang.

Stunning scenes like these are common in the mountains of West Kameng and Tawang.

Districts in Arunachal are named based on a major river flowing through them. Tawang is no different. The valley formed by the Tawang river forms the geographical basis of the Tawang district. The district’s southern bound is at Sela pass, which seperates it from the West Kameng district, where the Kameng river flows towards Brahmaputra. Bomdila and Dirang are important towns in West Kameng. The west Kameng district also encloses the east of Tawang, all the way from north to south. The north of the district shares an international border with the Republic of China. Bum La pass acts as the gateway to the dragon country. To the west of Tawang is also an international border. Bhutan’s Trashiyangtse district is to the other side of the border.

People of Tawang

The natives of Tawang belong to the Monpa tribe. They speak the language of the same name. Monpas are Buddhists. Their main occupation used to be farming or cattle rearing. In modern Tawang, no single occupation is typical of a modern Monpa. Monpas are astute at small-time business. They can own more than one at the same time. They switch from one occupation to another based on the season and the weather conditions. Many Tawang natives do not own businesses these days and seek steady jobs in the army, government sectors and occupations related to tourism such as transport, hotels and restaurants.

Due to the cold weather, Monpas spend most of their time at home inside the kitchen,, where the furnace is. The kitchen is made big enough for the entire family and a few neighbours to gather and socialise.

Due to the cold weather, Monpas spend most of their time at home inside the kitchen, where the furnace is. The kitchen is made big enough for the entire family and a few neighbours to gather and socialise.

Not being exposed to mainstream media and Internet on a large scale, most Monpas are still to catch up with urban India. Monpas are seen as people with less street smartness and are considered straightforward and innocent in nature. We saw a first-hand account of their innocence. When they buy motorbikes, they never apply for license plates or vehicle registration. Most motorbikes in Tawang and also in the rest of Arunachal Pradesh do not have the mandatory AR (Arunachal Pradesh abbreviation in Transport department of India) license plates. Instead, the placeholders for vehicle registration have quirky messages like ‘I Love you’, ‘FC Barcelona’, ‘Singh is King’, etc. When we questioned them about it, they didn’t know that their vehicles had to be registered in the transport department.

Priya and I dressed up as Monpas at the home of our hosts in Tawang.

Priya (extreme left) and Hari (extreme right) are dressed up as Monpas at the home of their hosts in Tawang.

Due to their innocent nature, they are often taken advantage of by neighbouring states such as Assam or even by the smarter people in capital Itanagar. But because of that nature, they are genuine, pleasant to be around and extremely loving. Complete strangers will ask you to come home to stay with them.

There are plenty of gorgeous places to see in Tawang district. Here are some.

Sela pass and Sela lake

The gateway to Sela pass

The gateway to Sela pass

The Sela mountain pass is at 4,170 metres (13,700 feet). The narrow highway rises sharply to connect to the peak of Sela pass, where there is an army outpost. The main highlight is the Sela lake with snow-clad mountains around. Between November to April, the lake is frozen. It thaws from May and stays clear until October, which is the best time to see the mountains reflect off the clear lake, especially on a windless day, which is rare. Driving from Kolkata / Guwahati / Tezpur, Sela pass is where West Kameng district ends and Tawang district starts.

Hari rides his motorbike under the Sela pass gateway to cross over to Tawang district.

Hari rides his motorbike under the Sela pass gateway to cross over to Tawang district.

Sela pass is an important pass in that it keeps Tawang connected to the rest of India. Bad weather frequently riddles the pass with rain, hail and snow. However the army works round the clock to ensure that vehicular traffic does not get affected too badly.

The frozen Sela lake

The frozen Sela lake

Nuranang falls

Nuranang waterfalls outside Jang town.

Nuranang waterfalls outside Jang town.

Nuranang falls is a two-step cascade waterfall formed by the Tawang river plunging from a hill just outside the town of Jang. Jang is a town about 35 km south of Tawang and appears on the way from Tezpur to Tawang. You can’t miss the town as it is one of the two places on the highway where your Inner Line Permits and documents are checked.

To reach the waterfall, you need to peel off the highway and drive 2 km downhill towards the village of Nuranang. The government uses the Nuranang falls to generate hydroelectricity. So as soon as you are near the waterfall, you can see a hydroelectric station and facility. The tarred road ends at the station. Beyond it, a small staircase and then a pathway over a bed of rocks takes you straight to the bottom of the waterfall.

Tawang Monastery and Museum

Tawang monastery as seen from outside Tawang town

Tawang monastery as seen from outside Tawang town

Tawang Monastery is the second largest in Asia and the largest in this area controlling 17 Gompas or monasteries in the region. It houses the huge 28 ft Golden Buddha, the pride of tawang and has long been its poster boy. The monastery also houses a museum with artefacts of the yesteryears, rare inscribes and a picture display of events and dignitaries in the monastery. The gompa also houses a big library with an impressive collection of ancient books and manuscripts. Tawang is dotted with a number of gompas and a number of them have their own deities and not just the Buddha.There are impressive Madhubani paintings that adorn the walls. There are also paintings and sculptures of many deities closely resembling their Hindu counterparts like the elephant head God, the God with the third eye etc.

Monk quarters at Tawang monastery.

Monk quarters at Tawang monastery.

Tawang War Memorial and Jaswant Garh

During the Indo-China war of 1962, China occupied the region around Tawang. China still stakes its claim over Tawang and labels it as a disputed territory. It insists on providing daily travel passes to the residents of Arunachal rather than a Visa. It took a great effort from the Indian army to drive China out of Arunachal. The history of the Indo-China War and the stories of bravery displayed by the Indian army during the war are captured in two places – The War memorial and Jaswant Garh.

The Tawang war memorial, situated on a small hillock in Tawang town, has a commemorative obelisk with names of martyrs. It also has photos of soldiers and award ceremonies. There is a small souvenir shop near the memorial too.

The more elaborate Jaswant Garh, about 40 km away from town and near Sela pass is quite another story. Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat of the Garhwal Rifles battalion bravely held the Chinese army at bay for more than 72 hours with a very small battalion, a story that the locals and the army men take great pride in narrating. He was posthumously awarded Param Vir Chakra by the Indian Govt. The photos of this award event as well are featured in the War memorial. This memorial is in the form of a temple. Army units and civilians alike stop by Jaswant Garh to pay their respects to this great man. They believe that his spirit continues to protect this area from the invaders.

Buddha temple

Buddha temple at Tawang.

Buddha temple at Tawang.

This is a temple on the way from Tawang town towards Bum La at the border of China. It is right at the outskirts of the town. A tall statue of Buddha sitting in a cross-legged posture is the highlight of the temple.

P T (Panga Teng) Tso lake

The frozen Panga Teng Tso or P T Tso lake.

The frozen Panga Teng Tso or P T Tso lake.

It is a lake on the way to Bum La pass. This lake is frozen during winter and spring. There are stunning views of the nearby mountains with their snow-clad peaks. There are sit-outs at the shores of the lake from where one can take in the beautiful views.

Priya attempts to walk in the knee-deep snow at P T Tso lake.

Priya attempts to walk in the knee-deep snow at P T Tso lake.

Sangetsar Lake

Sangetsar Tso is another lake on the way to Bum La pass. This is an expansive lake surrounded by mountains. The lake itself has trunks of deciduous trees jutting out of the water. This is because the lake was displaced due to an earthquake and engulfed a pine forest. The locals call this lake the Madhuri Lake. This is because this lake is in a scene from Bollywood movie Koyla, featuring Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan. In the scene, actress Madhuri Dixit dances on the shores of the lake to the song, “Tanhai, Tanhai”.

Taktsang Gompa of Tawang

Buddhism’s chief teacher Guru Padmasambhava is said to have established the Taktsang monastery of Tawang (not to be confused with the one in Bhutan) in the eighth century. The three-storied monastery is at the ridge of a hill about 45 km from Tawang. This place is just to the west of the Sangetsar lake on the road towards Zemithang.

Bum La pass

The Bum La pass is a mountain pass that connects India and China by road. Tourists are allowed upto the reception centre at the pass and to visit the Bum La Gompa. Venturing further is off-limits and is the privilege of army personnel.

This place is best visited during September – October. During other times of the year, the weather is really tricky, raining and snowing at whim. Unlike Sela pass, which is used heavily by civilians, the army has no committed reason to keep the road to Bum La in top shape. They will clear the snow just enough for a 4-wheel drive army vehicle with chains to its tyres to move reasonably well.

Tawang Arts and Crafts Emporium

Tawang craft centre is a place where craftsmen weave cloth and artistes make Monpa masks in a traditional way. This is one of the very places in India where authentic and traditional Tibetan crafts are made and can be bought. If you are looking for a souvenir from the trip, this will probably be your best bet to get something that’s unique and local.

What to eat

You will get to eat Tibetan style snacks such as soup, momo, thukpa, etc. Meat eaters are more at an advantage here with different types of items ranging from chicken to pork available. If you visit during Losar (new year on Tibetan calendar), you will get several types of local savoury and sweet delicacies, usually made of local grains or rice, sugar, jaggery, sesame and cinnamon.

Souvenirs

Tawang has several handicrafts of wool, local wood and gemstones. You can visit the main Tawang market to shop for pouches, gloves, mittens, sweaters, masks and fashion accessories.

Getting to Tawang

Air travel

Tawang does not have any railways or airports. The nearest commercially active airport is at Guwahati. Tezpur, the nearest Assamese city to Tawang at 320 km away and an air-force city, is getting a commercial airport under the government’s Udaan project. However, there is a special air service in the form of Pawan Hans, a helicopter shuttle between Guwahati and Tawang. Even if the helipad at Tawang is unserviceable, there is a backup helipad at Bomdila.

Railways and road

The nearest railway station is at Bhalukpong, a town at the border of Assam and Arunachal. Tezpur city also has a railway station. However, neither stations is serviced by regular trains with a reliable schedule. The nearest railway station with frequent trains from all over India is Rangia. While Guwahati is transport-wise the most connected city in Assam, it is on the southern side of the Brahmaputra river, whereas Tawang is to the north. Thankfully, all trains that halt at Guwahati also halt at Rangia, a town to the north of the river. So Rangia is a good tipping point to considerably reduce the commute time to Tawang, without having to touch Guwahati. There are several state buses that ply from Rangia to Tezpur. From Tezpur, you can take an SUV service to Tawang (read next section).

Road only

The only transportation from Assam to Tawang is from air-force city of Tezpur, a city at the confluence of Brahmaputra and Kameng rivers. The highway from Tezpur to Tawang narrows considerably after passing the village of Tippi. Also there is heavy movement of large army vehicles on the highway. As a result, there is no bus service on the highway. You should take a public transit SUV vehicle to Tawang. These vehicles leave very early in the morning to start a 10-hour journey to Tawang. They start near the Tezpur market. In peak season, you should book your seats a day in advance.

The highway from Tezpur to Tawang follows the Kameng river all the way from Tezpur to Sela pass. Here is the river as seen at Bhalukpong.

The highway from Tezpur to Tawang follows the Kameng river all the way from Tezpur to Sela pass. Here is the river as seen at Bhalukpong.

Self drive

If you want to drive on your own, then the Tezpur – Tawang highway is in great condition most of the way, except for some bad patches near Sela pass. Tezpur – Tawang is perhaps the only road where you can take your own car and trust the road and your driving skills. The rest of Arunachal Pradesh has narrow and bad roads requiring extreme skill. To reach Tawang, you should first reach Tezpur’s Mission Chariali, a 4-way junction from where the highway to Tawang starts. To reach Tezpur from Guwahati, there are two highways. One is Guwahati – Rangia – Orang – Tezpur road. This joins the same highway that you’d take if you were to drive from Kolkata: Kolkata – Shantiniketan – Farakka – Malda – Siliguri – Sevok – Cooch Behar – Alipurduar – New Bongaigaon – Barpeta – Nalbari – Rangia – Orang – Tezpur. An alternative route from Guwahati, and also a highway in better condition is Guwahati – Jagirod – Nagaon – Kaliabor – Tezpur. This route is taken by state transport buses from Guwahati to Tezpur. Once at Tezpur, you should take the following highway: Mission Chariali – Salonibari – Goraimari – Balipara – Bhalukpong – Bomdila – Dirang – Jang – Tawang.

Whichever way you plan to go to Tawang, you need to apply for an Inner Line Permit (ILP). These can be obtained online from the website for Arunachal ILP. To apply offline, you can visit the Arunachal government liaison offices at Guwahati, Tezpur, Kolkata or Siliguri. You need your Aadhar card or passport. If driving on your own, you need to show your vehicle documents at checkpoints. The checkpoints at Bhalukpong and Jang check your permits and documents. To get to Bum La pass, you need another permit from the district magistrate office at Tawang town.

Conclusion

Arunachal is a state that will blow your mind away with its beauty and the way people welcome you with open arms. Tawang is the jewel on the crown with the breathtaking beauty of the Himalayan snow mountains, passes, lakes and imposing monasteries and gompas.