Tawang, this mountain town in India’s remote northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh could easily have evolved as one of India’s most preferred hill stations, but due to its strategic location has remained a hush-hush mountain destination. Situated at a rarefied height of 10,000 feet above sea level, Tawang is bordered by Tibet to its North and Bhutan – the world’s happiest country to the Southwest.
In today’s connected world, nothing remains unnoticed, especially not so if it is a one-in-a-million mountain retreat, which is what Tawang actually is. Although it has been close to four decades now that we left Tawang (1977-78) - those surreal days spent in the lap of mother nature; loved, cuddled, and pampered by native Monpas, those two years remain forever etched in my memory.
Here in metropolitan Kolkata, I am often flooded with inquiries about how on earth one could visit Tawang – the best time to visit, the best route, the most comfortable homestay option, the most authentic Monpa restaurant, and what have you...
Indeed, as a past native of this mountain town, I swagger with pride in metropolitan India and feel privileged to have been a past resident of this high altitude Eastern Himalayan town, which is evolving beautifully as one of India’s tourism gems.
Let me tell you a bit about Tawang’s strategic importance. China has all along been claiming that Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin are both its own territory. In fact the Chinese assert that South Tibet or Zangnan, which denotes Arunachal Pradesh is an integral part of South Tibet and the war-like rhetoric never seems to end, what with recent assertions by the top brass of Chinese leadership, that of renaming of 15 places within Arunachal Pradesh or Zangnan as per standardised Chinese, Tibetan and Roman alphabets!
Although, both the countries have made tremendous progress bilaterally, the border issue seems like a never-ending drama with two of the world’s fastest-growing economies engrossed in bitter acrimony, with claims and counterclaims, all of which makes global headlines every now and then.
India’s Minister of Law & Justice Mr. Kiren Rijiju, who himself is a native of Arunachal Pradesh was quoted as saying:
Arunachal’s names were given by the country and that is acceptable to all. Our traditional names, our community’s identity will remain forever. If someone outside gives some new names, that will not change our status.
As the border issue keeps flaring up every now and then, Tawang understandably hasn’t been at the forefront of India’s tourism boom, which otherwise would have evolved into India’s Shangri-la! But, such is the magnetic appeal of this mountainous town that despite the security cordons, Indian Army Patrol vehicles buzzing by, and severe snowfall in the winter months, this town is unputdownable.
Smart tourism branding
In spite of the uncertain times, the spectre of Covid-19 looming large and the worldwide tourism industry in shambles, the Govt. of Arunachal Pradesh has been pretty upbeat on the tourism front and thanks to the untiring efforts of the maverick Chief Minister Shri Pema Khandu, Arunachal Pradesh Tourism has been able to rope in India’s Bollywood Superstar Sanjay Dutt as its Brand Ambassador as part of the state’s 50th year.
Arunachal Pradesh has immaculately planned state-wide celebrations that will touch all the five river valleys Kameng, Subansiri, Siang, Lohit, and Tirap, commencing from January 20, 2022, and culminating with the grand finale at Itanagar on 20 Feb 2022.
What an awesome sight it would be with Sanjay Dutt at Sela Pass – the iconic high altitude mountain pass en route to Tawang or even the sight of Sanjay Dutt in the company of cherubic young monks of the ancient Tawang monastery – which incidentally happens to be one of the biggest and oldest monasteries in Asia! Wow, ain’t it!
Buddhism & His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Imagine the immensity of being surrounded by glacial lakes, gazing at crystal blue waters, encircled by magnificent high mountain peaks that almost touches the sky, and those innocent Monpas who only know to give love, happiness, and peace? Add to it, a dash of 100% pure Buddhism, receiving the Grace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and offering prayers and butter lamps in one of the most sacred Buddhist monasteries on Planet Earth? Too good to be true... But this is Tawang!
Tawang monastery abounds in legends and folklore. In ancient times the Tawang region used to be referred to as the “Hidden & Blessed Land of Mon” or “Monyul” in short. Buddhists worldwide attach a lot of importance to this monastery because the Sixth Dalai Lama – Tsangyang Gyatso was born in the Monpa village of Urgyeling, which is in close proximity to Tawang town.
This monastery is one of the holiest Buddhist “Pithas” or sacred places of pilgrimage and if historical records are anything to go by, the great Guru Padmasambhava, one of the greatest Tantrik saints of India, whose contribution towards firmly planting the seed of Buddhist religion across Asia had reportedly visited this monastery.
Such is the significance of the monastery that Tibetan spiritual head - His Holiness the Dalai Lama had visited Arunachal Pradesh six times in the period 1983–2009. His last was in 2017. Needless to say, every time the spiritual leader visited Tawang, the Chinese just fumed and fretted.
CNN Journalist Sugam Pokharel rather pragmatically summed up the 2017 visit of Dalai Lama thus on his April 6, 2017, despatch entitled Why the Dalai Lama's visit to a tiny town in India is causing such a stir wherein he rather succinctly summed up the visit by His Holiness and China’s stance. He quotes:
While the religious leader is seen as a thorn in China's side under ordinary circumstances, his visit to Tawang is being seen by Beijing as especially provocative because the town is part of the 84,000 square kilometers of Indian territory that China officially claims as its own. Furthermore, Tawang is strategically important to China because its monastery is one of the hubs of power play in Tibetan internal politics - and it is the Dalai Lama that appoints the head of this monastery.
Tawang may be a minuscule mountain town tucked away in one corner of India’s North East, yet for His Holiness the Dalai Lama, this place is very special as he has memories of that legendary escape from Tibet to India way back in 1959, with the spectre of an impending Chinese invasion looming large.
Immersive Monpa tribal tours
The indigenous Monpa people are one of the most colourful tribes in India’s Northeast and they are primarily domiciled in and around Tawang. Apart from your tryst with Buddhism, you would do well to embark on a homestay option with a local Monpa family. They lead a fascinating lifestyle and their festivals are a riot of colours. Some of the best homestay arrangements can be found in the quaint mountain village of Kipti in the midst of the undulating Tawang Valley. This village is a cluster of Monpa hamlets, numbering around 300.
Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Shri Pema Khandu himself feels “it is important to have a civilian population in border areas” and the fact that the Govt. of India too wants border areas to be developed, means that visitors yearning for a truly transformative cultural experience, will from now onwards be able to visit border hamlets of Arunachal, provided they have all the necessary documentations like Inner Line Permit, etc., ready.
What fascinates first-time visitors to Tawang is the fact that a visit to this rarefied town compels you to leave civilization behind and enter a whole new world of primitive and ancient ways of life – yak rearing, the influence of Buddhism, mountain simplicity, exotic tribal cuisines and what have you...
In most homestay properties, visitors relish the indigenous Monpa cuisine, veg and non-veg meals, organic vegetables and some even have their own grazing lands where visitors marvel at the sight of sturdy Monpas engaged in cultivation.
Tribal Monpa crafts
The Monpas being a Trans-Himalayan tribe, are very much like traditional Tibetans and much of their lifestyle is pretty similar to Tibetans which finds reflection in their costumes, handloom, and handicraft items.
For instance, the famed Thangka Painting, which essentially is a painting on cloth and Monpa folklore abound in theories that paintings with a religious basis invite eternal blessings. It is a sheer delight to watch Monpa women engrossed in creating masterpieces. A good place to view a live demonstration of Thangka Painting is at the Tawang Crafts Centre.
The Monpas being Buddhist by religion, have this widespread custom of wearing masks during religious festivals. They mostly manufacture three-dimensional masks and the Monpas rever them tremendously as they believe that they are symbolic of heavenly gods and goddesses. These masks are solely used during dance performances. Visitors are stupefied by the masks that are found hanging in monasteries, as the resident Lamas believe that they ward off evil spirits.
Monpas celebrate life with their rich storehouse of ballads and operas which have been passed on from generation to generation. They manufacture masks in accordance to their necessity and thus you have a wide selection of them – demon masks, animal masks, human masks, etc., befitting the occasion.
Demon masks are particularly awesome to look at and are representative of the quintessential nine-headed demon. So is the Dragon God. The animal masks are given the shape of yaks, horses, lions, tigers, leopards, etc.
Try to coincide your visit to Tawang in time of any Monpa festival. You will then have an idea of how the Monpa folks use masks to highlight emotions like happiness, joy, and grief during festivals.
When it comes to dressing, the Monpa costumes are worth going miles to see. The Tibetan Chugba pattern is the underlying theme. Men wear a distinctive short woolen trouser “kangnom” along with a woolen trouser called “dhorna”. The traditional Monpa shirt “toh-thung” is finely embroidered. However, it is the black woolen coat “ali-phudhung” which is symbolic of the Monpa pride. During fine weather, the Monpa’s also are found wearing the traditional “paktza”, a sleeveless coat.
Monpa women adorn themselves with finely embroidered chemise, which they wear around their waist with motifs of tribes embossed on them. Monpa women’s hairdo is every bit gorgeous. Some tie up into a bun on the back while others tie-up as a knot on the forehead.
When it comes to the question of ornaments, the Monpas pride themselves with their unique ornamental range – Son Dhup finger ring, Nyon Dhup bangles, Kaykor necklaces, Gau, Along earrings, Khraseng silver clips, and what have you... All these have a distinctive Tibetan design pattern.
An explorer to take you there
Tawang being one of the most strategic districts of India and the terrain being Trans Himalayan-like, you need a trusted explorer & adventurer. It sounds even better if the explorer is home breed and indigenous, who knows the geography and culture by the tip of his finger!
Nothing compares to embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure on the Trans-Himalayan route to Tawang with Abor Country Expeditions. Oken Tayeng, founder of Abor Country Expeditions is the “blue-eyed boy of India tourism” and he has kind of revolutionised the tourism industry of India’s Northeast by showcasing the awesome mountain lifestyle and tribal culture of the region with such great intensity that it has earned him worldwide recognition. His exploits as an adventurer is the stuff of legends.
It makes sense to travel with Oken’s brand of expedition-style tours to India’s Northeast. Please be informed that Oken isn’t just another explorer you meet on the way. He is an extraordinary explorer who not only offers expedition-style epic voyages across the contours of India’s Northeast, but he has also been assisting the Joint US POW/MIA Accounting Command to unearth the debris of lost fighters jets that went missing during World War II. His pioneering and selfless service in the search and rescue operations has earned him a Certificate of Excellence from the US Navy.
Travelling with Oken to Tawang will not just provide you with the comfort of traversing in such high mountain roads but open up Pandora’s box vis-à-vis the Second World War, Indo-China Relations. Why on earth China is so obsessed with Tawang and its growing interest in Arunachal Pradesh and last but not the least about His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the influence of Tibetan Buddhism! Wow!