Tucked in the northwestern corner of Arunachal Pradesh that juts into Bhutan, and is shouldered by Tibet, the small hill town of Tawang has had an eventful history. It was here that the 14th Dalai Lama and his entourage quietly crossed over into India from Tibet in 1959, taking an impossibly arduous route; and it was also in Tawang’s vicinity that a pitched battle was fought during the Indo-Chinese War of 1962.

Tawang is notoriously difficult to navigate, owing to its location at an altitude of approximately 3,505m and a harsh mountain terrain. Apart from the one road connecting Assam to Tawang, helicopters used to be an easy, albeit expensive mode of trans-port, but the service was stopped when the Chief Minister of Arunachal Pradesh, Dorjee Khandu, was killed in a fatal helicopter crash in 2011. Despite the difficult route and an inhospitable terrain, Tawang sees a reasonable number of tourists every year, who come here to soak in its natural beauty and to visit the ancient gompas.

Courtesy Eastern Frontier Tours & Travels
The circuitous mountain road leading up to Sela Pass
The circuitous mountain road leading up to Sela Pass

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

Half the fun of visiting Tawang lies in getting there, as it involves driving through the plains of Assam and the mountains of Arunachal – beginning at Guwahati or Tezpur and following the age-old trade route linking Tibet to the Brahmaputra valley. A laid-back town, Tawang, comes alive during festivals. The most important of these is Losar, the Buddhist New Year, in February or March. The three-day Torgya cele-bration is held every January to ward off evil spirits and natural disasters.

Sela Pass

At 4,048m, Sela Pass is the highest motorable pass in the Northeast. The road to Sela involves a steep ascent, and is usually marked by fog and traces of landslides. Caution is advised while driving up the last mile, which is particularly treacherous.

About 20km down the road from Sela Pass is the Jaswantgarh War Memorial, named after Jaswant Singh Sawant, who played a crucial role in the defence against Chinese forces in the 1962 Indo-Chinese War. The camp has a statue of the soldier, his personal memorabilia and plaques recounting his tenure in the army. There are graves of other soldiers, and bunkers dating from the days of the war.

Sanjoy Ghosh
The Tawang War Memorial in Chu Valley
The Tawang War Memorial in Chu Valley

Tawang Gompa

The largest monastery in India and the second largest in Asia, Tawang Gompa boasts a picturesque location atop a hill. On one side of the gompa, the slope gently spreads into a valley, while on the other side is a sharp cliff-face, making the place susceptible to landslides. It is advisable to avoid visiting the place during monsoons.

Officially called the Gaden Nam-gyal Lhatse, the monastery was built in the 17th century. The gompa foll-ows the Gelugpa sect of Mahayana school of Buddhism, and is associated with Lhasa’s Drepung Monastery. It is said that this association, as well as its location so close to the border with Tibet, is partly the reason China has incessantly laid claim to Tawang.

The monastery has living quarters, a library, and can house 700 monks at a time. The highlight of the monastery is the massive three-storey Dukhang or Assembly Hall, at the centre of the compound. A museum (Entry ₹10) within the complex displays masks, statues of Buddha dating back to the 10th century and scriptures and manuscripts from the 17th-century.

Timings Sunrise–sunset Photo-graphy ₹20 Videography ₹100

Urgelling Gompa

Built in 1489, the Urgelling Gompa makes for a great day hike from Tawang. About 6km by road, downhill from Tawang Gompa, this is where the 6th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Gyamtso, was born in 1683. The monastery is closed most days, but ask for the caretaker who holds the only set of keys to open it for visitors.

Other Shrines

The Sange Ryabgelling shrine is close by from Urgelling, and so is the Khinme Monastery, of the Nyingmapa sect. Not far from the Tawang-Bumla Road is the Singshur nunnery. About half-an-hour drive from Tawang is Taktsang Gompa, one of the holiest Buddhist shrines in the state.

Tawang War Memorial

Just outside the town, the Tawang War Memorial stands tall, comm-emorating the soldiers of the Indian army who lost their lives in the 1962 Indo-China War. The structure resembles a stupa and was blessed by the Dalai Lama in 1997. Names of over 2,000 soldiers are inscribed in gold on black granite plaques that surround the structure. The memorial has two halls, which house maps and photo-graphs from the time of the war, and recreate the story of soldiers with sound and light.

Nuranang Falls

Located around 40km from Tawang, these spectacular 100m high falls are nothing short of a visual treat. The waterfalls are formed by the Nuranang river, which then plunges into the Tawang river. Also known as Jang Falls, after the village situated close to it, this beautiful spot is often used as a shooting location in Hindi films.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

The best hotels in Tawang are located in the main bazaar and provide basic facilities such as hot water and TV. Hotel Shambhala (Tel: 03794- 222348, Cell: 09436652814; Tariff: ₹850–1,500), Hotel Nefa (Tel: 222419; Tariff: ₹900–1,800) are good options. Other decent hotels include Hotel Gorichen (Tel: 224151; Tariff: ₹800– 1,800) and Hotel Buddha (Tel: 222954; Tariff: ₹1,000–1,500).

Inputs by Shreya Sarkar

FAST FACTS

When to Go September to March

Tourist Offices/ Permits

Deputy Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, GS Road Rukiminigaon, Dispur, Guwahati, Tel: 0361-2412859/ 2416720/ 2412859

Deputy Resident Commissioner, Government of Arunachal Pradesh, Parvati Nagar, Tezpur, Assam, Tel: 03712-260173

Resident Commissioner, Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri,  New Delhi,  Tel: 011-23013915/ 23013956

STD code 03794

GETTING THERE

State Arunachal Pradesh

Location At 3,505m in Arunachal’s north-western corner, near the Indo-Bhutan border

Distance 440km NW of Itanagar

Route from Itanagar Take NH52 to Chariduar-Tawang Road; Take diversion onto NH229 and continue onto Tawang 

Air Nearest airport: Tezpur (360km/ 10hrs); Guwahati (532km/ 15hrs) is better connected with daily flights. Taxis cost ₹4,000–6,000 per day (seasonal). Guwahati taxis may not be allowed till Tawang at times, in which case hire one from a Tezpur taxi stand

Rail Nearest railhead: Guwahati. For onward journey, travel by road

Road A 532km-long drive from Gu­wahati; take NH31 to Baihata Chariali; NH52 to Balipara via Mangaldai and Tezpur; NH229 to Tawang via Char­duar, Bhalukpongand Sela Pass. After Bhalukpong, it’s a typical mountain road. Fallen boulders and debris are a common problem and roadworks take place regularly. The army keeps the road open all year round, but one can get stuck for a few hours. A vehicle with a high-ground clearance is sug­gested; the road is at its worst during monsoons Bus From Tezpur