Most of Tawang’s history has been an accident of geography. Nested high up in the north-western corner of Arunachal Pradesh that juts into Bhutan and is shouldered by China (Tibet), it has traditionally been remembered only in times of war. A land of passes high enough to look down on airplanes, shaded white in the winters and an unrelenting green in the summers, which is broken only by sudden spears of waterfalls and placid lakes, Tawang is typical of border landscapes — difficult and beautiful.  

In its vicinity a pitched battle was fought during the Indo-Chinese War of 1962. It was somewhere here that the 14th Dalai Lama and his entourage crossed over quietly into India from Tibet in 1959, taking an almost impossibly arduous route to escape Chinese dementia. Much further back, in the 17th century — a period of harsh rivalry between various Buddhist sects — an angry monk called Meera Lama decided he had had enough and built a fortress here to protect the monks of his Gelugpa creed. Today it is known as the Tawang Monastery.

After things settled down, the monks continued living here in virtual isolation in what would eventually be known as India’s largest monastery, housing up to 500 lamas at a time. Tawang’s remoteness and government restrictions kept it from becoming a tourist trampling ground for years. But then in the 1990s it saw an invasion of a different kind. Suddenly, this idle outpost, rich in scenic beauty and the warmth of a small place cocooned for years, woke up to honking Sumos ferrying tourists in search of the perfect photo-opp, cheap local handicrafts and a cuisine identical to their regular fare. Tawang was suddenly more accessible. Foreign tourists were allowed in too and helicopter flights cut the long journey short. But it was a strange, rushed introduction to the rest of the world. In a land whose history is chiefly made up of Buddhism and battles, tourism is now writing a new chapter. One in which the farmer’s son aspires to become a cab driver, the local merchant becomes a cyber café owner and the rest idle their days away dreaming about gullible, deep-pocketed tourists. Go before friendly offers of butter-tea and casual conversation get totally licked by capitalism.

Things to See & Do

Half the fun of visiting Tawang is in reaching there as it involves driving over 200 km of Himalayan country, weaving through a kaleidoscopic quilt of scenic and cultural variances. You could opt for a 80-minute helicopter flight from Tezpur, but you will miss one of the most scenic drives India offers. Three days should be more than enough to see ‘everything’ in Tawang but, if you are going by road your trip will take five days, starting from Tezpur.

Following the age-old trade route connecting Tibet and the Brahmaputra plains, your journey will get exciting the moment you turn northwards from Tezpur in Assam, 347 km short of your destination. A little after Sari Duar, a traditional trading centre and entry point into the erstwhile Ahom kingdom, the road enters elephant country, the Nameri Wildlife Reserve. In case you’re driving after dusk, you face the prospect of having elephant herds blocking your passage. Once out of the forest, the road follows the turbulent Bharali River whose waters constantly threaten its existence, washing off sections and, tragically, a few careless tourists each year.

Marking the border of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh is Bhalukpong, 57km from Tezpur, a tiny commercial centre on the river’s edge that gets overrun by anglers and picnickers every winter. No permits are required here. The most interesting part of the ride is the section beyond Bomdila, 110 km after Bhalukpong. It’s the start of your Himalayan adventure; one of crazy hairpin turns and breathlessness due to a combination of awesome scenery and rarefied air.         

The real climb starts from the Sela Pass, 111 km ahead of Bomdila which, at 13,828 ft, is the highest motorable pass in the North-East. The approach to Sela is usually marked by fog, traces of landslides and imperfect roads. After crossing the Sangrila and Baisaki army camps, the air takes on a sudden chill. Atop the pass, there is a temple, frequented equally by the Hindus and the Buddhists, and three small lakes. The two lower ones are interconnected, while the third one is located at a slight distance above the pass. Back on the road, after cutting through a pine forest, you will reach Jaswant Garh, 21 km ahead of the pass, a war museum and memorial of the Indian Army. A bend beyond is the vast Tawang Valley and one can glimpse the seemingly tiny yellow roof of the Tawang Monastery, 57 km away. A little after Lhau village is a crossroad, one fork leading to Bum Laat the Chinese Border, a restricted area, the other into the heart of Tawang where a giant Army War Memorial greets visitors on the outskirts.

Perched on the vast slope of a Himalayan mountainside is Tawang town. The Tawanchu River flows in a gorge to the south, while to the east tower a few peaks. And dominating the skyline, like a mighty medieval fortress, is the massive white-walled and yellow-roofed Tawang Monastery.

Sanjoy Ghosh
Views of Tawang are dominated by its 17th-century monastery
Views of Tawang are dominated by its 17th-century monastery

Tawang Monastery

Constructed in the mid-17th century, the monastery became the stronghold of the Gelugpa sect and has been the socio-religious focal point of the area for the past 400 years. Built in a period of hostility between the various Himalayan Buddhist groups, popular lore credits a monk called Meera Lama for initiating the construction of this religious fort. A geshe (doctor of dharma) from Tashilinpo Monastery inTibet, Meera Lama took it on to himself to protect his creed from attacks by the older, rival sects like the Nyingmapa (red hat), Karmapa (black hat), and the Drukpas of Bhutan.               

Meera Lama consulted the 5th Dalai Lama about building a fortified Gelugpa centre in the area and immediately received his blessings. The Dalai Lama also gave him a ball of yarn and said that the boundary lines of the site for the planned structure ought not to exceed the length of the yarn. And so this massive citadel was built which came to be known as the Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse —‘the celestial paradise on the divine site chosen by a horse’. But for Meera Lama, it was always a fort first and a celestial paradise later. To fight the hostile sects, he lifted all prohibition against military training among the inmates and out of the monthly allowance of 13 bres (roughly one kg) of cereal, 10 were given as inducement to join the military.

The exact date when the monastery was built has been lost in an interesting skirmish. The lamas of the Tsona Monastery, now in southern Tibet, used to come down each winter to the warmer Tawang. Similarly in the summers, the Tawang lamas would make their way up to enjoy Tibet’s cooler climes. Then, according to the version told in Tawang, one day the Tsona lamas suddenly demanded that the gilded 26-foot-high Buddha at the Tawang Monastery be handed over to them. They were refused of course. But many of Tawang’s ancient manuscripts were still lying in Tsona, whose lamas usurped them spitefully. And among these were old historical records of Tawang. Visitors can see this coveted gold Buddha in the monastery’s enormous prayer hall. You can also attend the prayer ceremonies held here each morning. Timings Open all day Photography Only exteriors

The monastery’s library still contains a sizeable collection of ancient Buddhist manuscripts, many of them penned in gold ink. They remain tightly wrapped up in bundles of red cloth, weathering on high shelves till some monk takes them out for an airing, either to be read during special prayers or for tourist cameras.

Despite the medieval aura that the structure and its maroon-clad lamas evoke, time has not stood still for the abbey. The entire complex not too long ago underwent extensive renovations and the huge murals on the shrine’s walls gleam with acrylic paint, as do the intricately painted mandalas and chakras on the ceilings. The most elaborate murals are surprisingly on the ceiling of the monastery gateway, or kilkor.

Sanjoy Ghosh
A young devotee spinning prayer wheels
A young devotee spinning prayer wheels

Other Attractions

The comparatively tiny sanctum of Urgeling, the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama (whose reputation as a fabulous poet and lover of courtesans eclipses the fact that he was later poisoned), stands a little away from the Tawang Monastery. Uncrowded by visitors and attended by a solitary monk with a penchant for disappearing, this simple shrine is the perfect hermitage. The huge tree growing beside it, believed to have grown from a staff thrust into the ground by the 6th Dalai Lama himself, casts copious shadows all around.

Also, the rebuilt Sange Ryabgelling shrine is located at a slight distance, and now known for its thick plantation of trees. In contrast, the town proper and its immediate surroundings have witnessed utter deforestation. A few kilometers from town is Khinme Monastery, a regular Himalayan structure, which belongs to the Nyingmapa sect and is popularly viewed as the oldest shrine of the area. Not far from the fork on the Tawang to Bumla Road is the Singshur nunnery. Also, a walk down to the river in the evening will make for a pleasant excursion. Walking one way will take you about one hour. Just ask for the local trails.

Where to Stay

“We are not interested in Indian tourists,” says one noveau hotelier nonchalantly. From a tiny town where more than a decade back visitors had to count on providence and government contacts to get accommodation in the Circuit House or the town’s sole hotel, Tawang now offers more choice, but at the cost of losing its native hospitality.

Hotel Siddharth, formerly Hotel Alpine (Tel: 03794-222515; Tariff: 1,050-1,350), in Nehru Market, has a restaurant, offers hot water and TV and arranges sightseeing. Hotel Buddha (Tel: 222359; Tariff:  1,000-1,500) in Old Bazaar Lane is also centrally located, and has pretty much the same facilities as Alpine. Hotel Nefa (Tel: 222419; Tariff:  800-1,800) also arranges for a taxi besides the same facilities. Tawang Inn (Tel: 222172; Tariff: 1,000-2,500) is another option. All these serve simple food (noodles, vegetables, dal, rice, roti and snacks) to the residents. There are a few restaurants that offer similar stuff.

Where to Eat

Tawang is not a culinary haven by any stretch of imagination. The restaurants in the hotels here serve simple food (noodles, vegetables, dal, rice, roti and snacks) to the residents. Restaurants around offer similar stuff. The momos are always good, as is the butter tea.

Around Tawang

Taktsang Gompa (12 km)

Taktsang Gompa or T Gompa, 1/2 hr by car from Tawang, is one of the holiest Buddhist shrines of Arunachal Pradesh. Standing amidst high mountains, its sanctity is credited to Padmasambhava, the maverick missionary who brought Buddhism to Tibet. Popular legends speak of him as a miracle-maker. When Buddhism swept over Tibet, Padmasambhava was deified as a simultaneous incarnation of both Gautama Buddha and Amitabha Buddha (‘Buddha of the Eternal Light’). T Gompa is among the few places in Arunachal Pradesh believed to have been visited by him. Traces of his stay are supposedly still seen in the form of footsteps and hoof prints on the rocky floor of the adjacent cave, where he meditated. Interestingly, though the holes on the floor are believed to be the hoof prints of his horse, Padmasambhava was supposedly flying on a tiger. Hence the name tak, or tiger, and tsang, ‘place or abode’.

Not far away is the serene Sangeshar Lake (3 km), renamed ‘Madhuri’ after a dance sequence of the film Koyla, starring Madhuri Dixit, was shot here. If you are making a trip to Zimithang, you can choose the road that’ll pass through T Gompa.

Bomdila (190 km)

As a town whose claim to fame has been its occupation by the Chinese army, Bomdila is a difficult place to gauge. Spread over the southern face of the Bomdila Ridge, the town makes for a convenient stop if driving to Tawang. It marks the entry into the region of Himalayan or Tibetan Buddhism. At the end of the ‘bazaar line’ stands Lower Gompa, a beautiful two-storeyed monastery built in traditional Tibetan design. While high above the town, on the ridge, is the Gaden Rabgyeling Monastery, better known as the Upper Gompa. Bomdila is also the best-equipped town en route to Tawang.