It was one of the most remarkable conversations I’ve ever had. I was talking to a lama at the Tawang Monastery. “When is Losar celebrated?” I asked him. “Losar is the first day of the New Year.” I waited for a date but realised that he’d finished his answer. I had come to Tawang for the Losar festival, and after weeks of planning had landed a day late, having got the dates wrong. Now I was determined to get the correct dates. “So when is the beginning of the New Year?” I asked. He gave me a strange look: “The new year begins the day after the previous year finishes.” It was obvious that he was not trying to be funny or obdurate, he was completely earnest!
Then it dawned on me that, in fact, he was right. Of course, the New Year began the day after the last day of the previous year. I expected him to give me a date of the calendar I followed, the Gregorian calendar that I implicitly assumed had conquered the world, and everybody must refer to when speaking of dates. But not him, not this lama in Tawang! The lama tried to bring his world closer to mine, “We celebrate Losar the way you celebrate New Year.” However, I could see this was not true. From where I came, festivals revolved around glittering shops and commodities. In Tawang, during Losar, the markets were closed for days. The lama was bewildered: “But don’t the shopkeepers need to rest and celebrate?” He was oblivious to the epidemic of earning money that is eating up all other activities the world over. “How long does Losar go on?” I had another query pertaining to dates. “Well,” said the lama, “the first three days are important, and the bazaars are closed for three to four days. Most people can’t get leave for more than seven days, but many celebrate for 15 days.
Of course, in some homes the festival goes on for a month.” He now concentrated on his tea, happy to have given a simple straightforward reply.We were in a room heated with a bukhari: a cylindrical metallic arrangement in which wood is burnt, with a duct that releases the smoke. The lamas spend the really cold days here, leaving the monastery locked unless there are visitors. It was early February: chilling, foggy, cloudy, rainy, snowy. “How cold does it get in December-January?” I asked shivering, wanting to quantify the shivers. (RD Laing wrote about our obsession with quantification that is also a mainstay of modern science: “Out go sight, sound, taste, touch and smell, and along with them have since gone aesthetic and ethical sensibility, values, quality, soul, consciousness, spirit.
Experience as such is cast out of the realm of scientific discourse.”) But the world of experience is alive here in Tawang, so are sensibility and spirit, unscathed by the measurement-obsessed cult of science. “We don’t measure cold,” my lama in Tawang said. “I just put on another jacket when I feel cold!” This enigmatic place called Tawang lies in the north-western corner of Arunachal Pradesh, located close to the borders of India, Tibet and Bhutan. Merak Lama came here in the 17th century and built a monastery of the Buddhist Gelugpa sect, now said to be the biggest Buddhist monastery in India. The town below the monastery occupies a hill at 11,155 ft and has a backdrop of snowcovered mountains.
But before you can experience Tawang and its distinctive relationship with calendars and festivals and temperatures, you need to reach it. Road, rhinos and rafting To reach Tawang, we took the 500-plus km road from Guwahati, taking a leisurely five days in a Bolero. The journey began auspiciously next to the Brahmaputra, went through the green plains of Assam, into the hills of Arunachal and sort of vanished into the snow. No kick from the speedometer; we found succour from the habitats that the road moved along — villages, fields, forests, hills and rivers.
We left Guwahati, crossed over to the north bank of the Brahmaputra and got into the rhythm, passing small fields lined with palm, bamboo and banana trees, and some pleasing houses of mud and bamboo. Our first afternoon, we went looking for (and found) the prized onehorned rhinos in Orang National Park. The park is a small 78.8 sq km enclave located on the north bank of the Brahmaputra and is a beautiful collage of trees and tall grasses from which occasionally rhinos emerge to show off their “armour-plated” bodies, never once ceasing to munch on the grass to satiate their enormous appetites.
The next day, a little beyond Tezpur, a lot changed: the National Highway ended, the double lane gave way to a single lane, forests started appearing with greater frequency and hills started popping up to dot the horizon. It was a beautiful stage in the journey and we halted at the Nameri National Park for two whole nights to enjoy the forest, its copious birdlife and the River Jia Bhoroli, a tributary of the Brahmaputra. The time we spent at the Eco Camp in Nameri (see Hotspots on page 136) was made memorable with river rafting, a picnic lunch on an island, a risky sighting of two wild elephants and beer by the bonfire. Bhalukpong, just an hour ahead of Nameri, is where Assam ends and Arunachal begins. The Jia Bhoroli is renamed Kameng here.
The climb started, and we sighted the first Buddhist prayer flags fluttering in the wind (a majority of the people of western Arunachal are called Monpas and are mostly Buddhists). We drove past an unusual habitat: a tropical rainforest outside of the tropics. The forest is a dense canopy of tall trees with climbers inching up on them, and a dense undergrowth creating darkness below. These are areas with minimal human habitation, in itself a visual treat. We visited Rupa Monastery, beautifully located at 4,618 ft and surrounded by mountains on all sides. The 300-year old gompa is a colourful wooden structure typical of Himalayan Buddhism.
I was surprised to see a long ritual conducted by the local women. It seems that while the Monpas and Shertukpen have been Buddhists for more than a millennium, traces of their earlier religious traditions were kept alive by women (sometimes without informing men) and became incorporated into their Buddhist practice.
Up into the clouds
As we drove up, the temperatures came down. We crossed the first pass of the route, the Bomdi La (8,134 ft), and went down a forest road into the town of Dirang, with its old and empty monastery on the hilltop and a beautiful valley spread out below (see Hotspots on page 136). It was the perfect place to spend our first night in Arunachal before the highest pass of the route — the Se La. In the afternoon we stopped at a village teashop on the roadside. All around us were the Himalaya, their upper reaches covered in thick white clouds.
The clouds were rising slowly, leaving behind on trees patches of white that I hoped would be snow. When I asked a villager where the road would take us, she pointed up and said, “You will enter those clouds and go up and away into them.” Up there in those clouds, up where they were leaving behind fresh snow for us…. At a height of 9,337 ft, there was snow on the few rooftops that comprised the hamlet of Dzongrilla. It lay on the roadside, forming a white border to the black tar.
We started our journey through the clouds. It was as if thick white ether had saturated everything, blocking all light. Visibility was less than a 100m, the trees were heavy with snow, and the road was a white field with traces of wheels. We took a few photographs, and they all turned out black and white; there was no colour in those frames. At the end of a slow 20-km drive, we had risen above the clouds themselves, and a warm sun shone down on us. It was quite pleasant at the top. We were at Se La pass at 13,700 ft. We drove on. Once we had to wait in the biting cold next to the frozen Se La Lake for an hour as two men on a bulldozer tried to find the black road surface from under masses of white cotton. But these delays were hardly unwelcome; all around us were snowcovered hills and valleys.
Tawang, its new town and its old fortified monastery, were a few hours away. We drove down the mountain, a site of battles during the 1962 Indo-China War, deep into the valley to cross another river, past villages and thousands of prayer flags. We finally reached Tawang, which was lost in a fog, and offered no warmth but enough hope, with its monasteries, villages and stories.
Things to see and do in Tawang
This hope surfaced bright and unambiguous in the morning with the sun. Scores of people emerged, decked up in their amazingly colourful costumes, holding bundles of lit agarbattis, spreading the fragrance and their laughter from one gompa to the next, and all over the hills, whose snow-covered tops smiled benevolently and blessed the initial days of the New Year, celebrated as Losar. The Losar festivities involve a lot of food, drink and dance, and a break from everything considered ‘work’, including running offices and shops. The festivities were centred around the 17th-century Tawang Monastery, called Galden Namgyal Lhatse, that showcases a 26-foot-high brass statue of the historic Buddha, the Shakyamuni, behind the main altar.
There is a central courtyard around which stand the main buildings. The most imposing is the three-storeyed dukhang (main prayer hall), which houses a grand and richly gilded Buddha statue on its northern side. To its left is a silver casket wrapped in silk containing the thangka of Goddess Dri Devi, the principle deity here. The inner walls are colourfully painted with murals of various divinities and saints. To the west of the central court is a 17th-century library that has a collection of old scriptures, masks and armour. The monastery is fortified and inside the east wall are fascinating narrow lanes, with quarters for the resident monks. Village walks Tawang is an ideal place to go for walks, especially around the villages spread below the main town. The villages are replete with flags — houses, and trees are all just an excuse for flying flags.
Trees blossom with small ribbons, white and blue, in dozens; long bamboo poles dazzle with big multi-coloured flags; and house-tops are decorated with still bigger rectangular flags: green, orange or yellow bordered with crimson. Himalayan Buddhists believe that flags carry prayers and blessings, bringing benefit to all in the vicinity. The local Monpas are as colourful as the flags when dressed in their traditional attire. Women wear a red gown with white stripes, called shingka and girdle it at the waist with a sash. A rectangular woollen cloth is worn at the back.
Men wear a full-length woollen trouser called dhorna with a red-coloured jacket and a sash around the waist. Besides its main monastery, there are some other important monasteries in Tawang, the most famous being the small remnant of the older Urgeling Gompa (5 km from town), the 17th-century birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. Khinme is a still older monastery of the Nyingmapa sect, 7 km from town. Brahma Dung Jung, popularly called the Ani Gompa, is a nunnery 8 km up from the town centre.
By Amit Mahajan
Amit Mahajan has earned money as an engineer, reflexologist, travel writer, translator, and has done a few other odd jobs. He hopes to add to the list, if he needs to keep earning.