As I sit down and put pen to paper, I relive our unforgettable journey to Tawang. The town sits on the beautiful mountainous terrain of the Eastern Himalayan Range at a height of over 10000 ft. above sea level. It is located in Arunachal Pradesh, the land of the dawn-lit mountains, which is a large state in the Northeastern tip of India. Tawang is an important centre of Buddhist learning and culture and is world-renowned for its 400-year old Buddhist monastery.
My husband and I took our small car, a Maruti 800, and started from Guwahati, the capital of Assam in North-East India, and took the Guwahati-Tezpur-Bhalukpong-Bomdila-Tawang route to Tawang. Although we went in mid-November, it seems that the best time to visit Tawang is between June-October since winter starts in November and ends in February.
The journey from Guwahati city to Tezpur town was uneventful. We left Tezpur at 4:00 pm and drove towards the Nameri forest reserve. Nameri is a dense forest area and extremely lonely, with just some clusters of houses which were few and far-between. As we were driving through Nameri, daylight started fading and on turning a bend in the road, my eyes fell on a signboard that said “Wild life active. Be careful”. At every lonely, turning in the gathering dusk, I felt as though a herd of wild elephants might appear in front of us!
We arrived at Bhalukpong and stayed the night at the Tourist Lodge there. Bhalukpong is a small town on the banks of a gushing, foaming river known as Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh and Jia Bhoroli after it enters Assam.
Early the next morning, we started our journey again. The road starts climbing the Himalayan Range right after entering Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong. On one side of the road is the steep mountain face and on the other side is a sheer drop to the valley below. The road snakes along the mountainside with many blind curves and sharp u-turns, up one mountain to its peak and then down again on the other side only to climb the next mountain. The folds upon folds of mountains were breathtakingly beautiful, with the Kameng river roaring through the valleys.
The villages were few and far between, probably because the steep mountains were not habitable for humans. If, God forbid, something had happened to us, we would have had to wait there until finally a rare vehicle passed by. There were many military outposts along the way and the sight of a lone soldier here and there was very heartening.
We passed a place called Tipi, where Asia’s third largest orchidarium has been set up, having more than 50,000 orchids under cultivation. Here, scientists are creating new hybrid species, employing the latest techniques of biotechnology. Arunachal has the widest range of orchids in the country. Another 40 kms away is the Orchid Park at the village Sessa.
We reached Bomdila at 10:30 am. Bomdila, the district headquarters of West Kameng District, is a big town and situated on the slopes of the mountains at a height of about 8000 ft. above sea level.
Just 40 km. beyond Bomdila, after a curve on a mountain road, we came upon the beautiful township of Dirang. We were startled and surprised at the sudden opening of this picturesque town. It looked very pretty as it nestled between the mountains in a large valley with the river Kameng flowing through it. There is a tourist lodge situated just above the road on the mountain, which looks down on Dirang and offers a panoramic view of the town.
We went on through the lonely twisting mountain road to climb another mountain, exclaiming and wondering at the beautiful scenery. We often met the river gurgling over the boulder-strewn riverbed. Although the road was treacherously twisting and turning, the road-surface was beautifully pitched for most of the way, except in places where obviously it had been broken by landslides.
About four hours from Bomdila, at a height of around 13,000ft., we reached Sela Pass, which is the entry point to Tawang District. There is a memorial at Sela Pass, which is dedicated to those men of the Border Roads Organisation who have died while constructing the roads and connecting Arunachal even through heavy snow. Sela Pass is cold and foggy and we were thankful that we had donned our sweaters quite a while back. We read the inscriptions on the memorial, took a few photographs and moved on.
After about an hour or so we reached a place called Jaswant Garh, which is a big memorial dedicated to an army officer called Jaswant Singh, who had died in the Indo-China War of 1962. He had fought a lone battle against the advancing Chinese for three days and three nights until finally they captured and killed him. The soldiers believe that Jaswant Singh’s spirit is still around and many officers had also dreamed about Jaswant telling them that in case the Chinese attacked again, he would let them know three days in advance through his diary which has been preserved in the memorial. The Army also has a shack on the road from where they provide free hot tea to all travellers who stop.
At about 4:30pm we were on our way again to Tawang. The weather now was freezing and there was snow on the mountain slopes. The snow on the road had hardened to ice and driving was tricky. The road climbed up with not a single soul in sight and at one point we were above the first layer of clouds. We were almost on the peak of the mountain and on one side of the road was the mountain peak and on the other side, the sheer drop below was covered by dense white clouds. The road curved round the peak and up into the sky. I can freely admit that I was never more nervous in my life. Fortunately, we could still see a few metres of the road clearly ahead of us, and after a few heart-stopping minutes, we slowly came out of the enveloping clouds.
We sped on our way and driving through a beautiful decorated gate, we reached Tawang just after 6:00 pm, having crossed a few big and small villages and towns on the way. Tawang town, the district headquarters of Tawang District, is a modern and bustling little town. We checked into a new hotel called Hotel Buddha. It was biting cold in Tawang, especially so since it was after dark. Since we had only one day at hand to enjoy the sights of Tawang, so we prepared a list from the manager of our hotel and also the friendly girl in a shop in the market below. The next morning, we set off in our car to view the sights of Tawang.
About one hour after we set off from Tawang town to view Lake Sanghersh, we suddenly saw a whole mountain and vast areas where all the trees had been chopped down to about 2 feet from the ground. It was a very painful sight and we learnt the reason from a signboard which said that the trees had been chopped down by the advancing Chinese in 1962 in order to undertake soling of the roads on their march into India. The Indian Army was undertaking afforestation schemes here and in many other places where the mountains had been laid bare. On the way we also witnessed many military bunkers made during the war, some of which are still maintained and are being used by the Army. The bunkers look like man-made rocky caves on the mountain slopes.
We first visited Lake Sanghersh which is now popularly known as Madhuri Jheel since the Indian filmstar Madhuri Dixit had shot a song sequence there for the film Koyla, which was shot entirely in Arunachal Pradesh. This lake is a two hour journey from Tawang. The road is not too good, with evidence of frequent landslides. We kept climbing from Tawang and at one point we were 14,860ft. above sea level and from this point we again climbed down.
We finally reached Lake Sanghersh (Madhuri Jheel) after asking our way at many places, mainly from helpful Armymen. The lake nestles between huge mountains and is clear and beautiful, with what looked like a hundred bamboo poles standing straight up in the water all over the lake. These were actually ramrod straight trees without any branches or leaves on them growing in the lake-water. We returned back to Tawang at around 12 noon.
After a lip-smacking Tibetan lunch, we went to see the Tawang Monastery, which is the second largest monastery in Asia (perhaps in the world), the largest being in Lhasa, Tibet. Tawang Monastery, of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism, is also known as ‘Galden Namgyal Lhatse’. Monasteries are known as Gompas in Arunachal and this Gompa was established between 1643 and 1647 by a Monpa Lama called Lodre Gyaltso (popularly known as Mera Lama), following the mandate of the ‘Great’ fifth Dalai Lama, Nawang Lobjang Gyatso (1617-1682). (Monpa is a Buddhist tribe of Arunachal). The sixth Dalai Lama was born in this monastery.
This large fortified monastery is strategically located on the crest of a large hill and can be seen from all the surrounding mountains, even at a distance of two hours journey from Tawang. The white-walled and yellow-roofed monastery is built like a fort and spreads over 140 square metres and is enclosed by a compound wall 610 metres long. It is a centre of Buddhist culture and learning. It has a colossal gilded Buddha, 18ft. in height, and can house around 500 Lamas (Buddhist monks), from very small boys to old men. Recently, during the Buddhist Mahotsav, a museum had been opened here in the main building which has a very interesting collection of old utensils, lovely old wall-hangings, small antique statues, etc. The gold and silver articles were very chunky and many of them were made with an alloy of gold and silver that is known as “Limar”. The museum is kept securely locked since this collection is invaluable not only in its material wealth but also in its age and antiquity.
We left the monastery and went to see a war memorial which was inaugurated in November 1999. The memorial is dedicated to all the Indian Army men who died in the Indo-China War of 1962. The names of all the men who made the supreme sacrifice are written in golden letters inside the memorial.
We stayed the night in our hotel and early next morning at 6:30am, we left Tawang on our return journey to Guwahati.
This was a holiday where the entire experience was to be enjoyed and not the kind where one goes to a specific place to enjoy only the sights of tourist interest. It was a holiday where, to a large extent, “the journey is the destination”.