Located in the north western part of Arunachal Pradesh, bordering Bhutan on the west and Tibet on the north, Tawang is the site of the historic 1962 Indo Sino war.
It houses the largest Buddhist monastery in the world (outside of Lhasa), is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, and has one of the highest motorable passes in the world. Till date, China claims it as their territory.
If these weren’t reasons enough for me to pack my bags and explore this mystical land, what else could there be? I imagined this place high up in the Himalayas to be completely mangled in conflict; a place torn between religion, politics and nationality. But the reality was nothing close to what I had imagined.
The road to Tawang, at least 70% of the total travel, is a nightmare. Absolutely backbreaking with bumpy “no-road” roads, it made me question if it was worth my time, energy and backpain. But like they say, “An Adventure is never an Adventure when it is happening”. Neither was it now. While travelling I cursed myself for this self-inflicting pain, but my desire to visit Tawang didn’t die.
Like they say, an Adventure is never an Adventure when it is happening
After travelling to Tawang multiple times, I have compiled 7 reasons why you must Tawang before it explodes with tourism.
- Military History
I could have started the list by talking about the Tawang Monastery which is the most famous landmark in Tawang.
But for me the Number One reason why one must come here is to know about its history.
Nestled in the arms of white-mountain peaks, is the Jaswantgarh War Memorial. This falls on the way to Tawang actually. During the 1962 Sino Indian War, the Indian forces were forced to fall back because their resources had depleted. But Jaswant Singh Rawat, a sepoy of the Indian Army continued to man his post. With the help of two local Monpa girls, Sela and Nura, he set up weapons at three different positions and fired them non-stop for three days. But the Chinese didn’t know it was just one man fighting against them. He fought all alone against the Chinese soldiers and the treacherous weather for three days until the Chinese found out about his plot and surrounded him.
Realising he was about to be captured, he shot himself.
For his indomitable bravery and courage, he was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra. This epic route is incomplete without one paying their respects at the Jaswantgarh War Memorial and remembering the story of the man who fought for this land, for us.
- Significant High-Altitude Passes
There are two significant passes here that deserve mention- Bumla Pass and Sela Pass.
Bumla Pass- Apart from the Pass, the road to Bumla itself is considered significant since it is from here that the Chinese marched into India during the 1962 Indo- Sino conflict. Bumla Pass, located at 16,500 ft above sea level, is covered with heavy snow for most part of the year. This Pass is also of great historic importance since it is through this Pass that the present Dalai Lama entered India while escaping from Tibet in 1959.
The other Pass Sela which stands at 13,700 ft above sea level, is inevitable when you drive towards Tawang. This Pass is the gateway to Tawang and ornamented with colourful prayer flags fluttering in the chilling wind and a fantastic view of the Sela lake. This makes it one of the most beautiful if not the highest motorable mountain pass in the world. It is named after the Monpa girl, Sela who helped Sepoy Jaswant Singh during the 1962 war.
- Waterfall with a Story
Though you will see multiple waterfalls on your way in and around Tawang, my favourite one has to Nuranang falls. After you drive down from Sela Pass, en route Tawang, a quick detour will take you to this gorgeous waterfall. This waterfall originates from Sela Pass and joins the Tawang river. But this waterfall isn’t just another pretty waterfall.
It has a story to it too. According to popular myth, this waterfall was earlier known as Jung/Jang Falls or Bong fall but was renamed Nuranang after Nura, the same Monpa girl who had helped Sepoy Jaswant Singh Rawat (MVC). During the war, Nura was captured by the Chinese and Sela died in a grenade burst. While the Pass was named after Sela, this waterfall was named after Nura.
- Tawang monastery
With a capacity of housing more than 700 monks, it is one of the biggest Buddhist monastery in the world outside Lhasa.
There are many legends associated with this monastery but the most popular one talks about how the 5th Dalai Lama assigned Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso the mission to establish a monastery. He mounted his horse and spent days looking for a suitable place. Even after searching when he couldn’t find anything, he retired into a cave to pray. When he came out of the cave, his horse was missing.
He then went in search of the horse and finally found it grazing at the top of a mountain called Tana Mandekhang, which in the past was the palace of King Kala Wangpo, a local king. He took this as a divine intervention and with the help of the local people established the monastery in 1681.
Today the air inside feels heavy with the aroma of incense stick and the smell from the burning of the yak butter candles and streams with pilgrims who come from near and far at the main altar with its 27 feet high statue of Lord Buddha. Another important structure of the monastery is the ‘Sha’ or hut which is used as residential quarters by the monks. Apart from that, the monastery also has a Centre for Buddhist Cultural Studies, a library and a museum with valuable artifacts and manuscripts.
- Birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama
Tawang is also of major religious significance since Tsangyang Gyatso, the 6th Dalai Lama, was born here. A small shrine, known as the Urgelling Gompa, is built here to venerate this holy ground.
Inside the Gompa the walls are adorned with Thangkas of all the Dalai Lama till date.
Not far from Tawang monastery is the Thukje Choeling Nunnery. Contrary to my belief that all nuns were serious looking religious beings, here they were absolutely jovial and will insist on you having a cup of butter tea with them. They would be even happier if you sit in the kitchen and give them company while they make the tea. Talk to them, they will love it!
- Intriguing Tribes
Earlier I had seen them while I was travelling to Tawang and wanted to spend time with them. It was on the lawns of Urgelling Gompa, where I finally got a chance to interact with some people of the Monpa tribe. You can differentiate them from their distinct attire and their traditional hat made of yak hair. Some theories say that the Monpa may have migrated from Western Himalayas while others claim that they might have Bhutia roots.
Eitherways, I couldn’t have much of a verbal conversation with them but we spoke the universal language of a smile. It was evident that they were as curious and intrigued about me as I was about them.
Other than the Monpas, I was lucky enough to meet some men from the Nishing tribe as well. Wearing their long hair tied up in a knot just above the forehead, called the Padum, the Nishings can be easily distinguished.
The Nishings belong to the Indo-Mongoloid group of people and their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family. Most Nishings follow the ‘Donyi-Polo’ faith, which commemorated their ancestors and a belief in spirits and superstitions. However, with time, this faith like everything else is also evolving.
- Land of 101 Lakes
Tawang is known as the land of 101 lakes. I don’t know if 101 exist today but I remember crossing at least a few lakes, of varied sizes and shape. One of the most prominent of all lakes here is the Sangester lake, also known as Madhuri lake. Named ‘Madhuri’ after one song from the Bollywood movie Koyla starring Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri was shot here.
This lake was originally a distance away. But after an earthquake in 1970, and the movement of tectonic plates, it shifted to a pine forest. The eerie tree trunk jutting out of the lake is the remnant of that forest and adds to the distinct magic of this lake!
So is this lake pretty? Well, yes. The first time I was here (in May), it was covered with thick fog with dead trees protruding from deep down. It was one of the most breathtakingly sinister looking lakes I had ever seen.
The same lake in November looked absolutely different. It had crystal clear water and the weather was bright with a slight nip in the air.
So is it safe to visit Tawang?
Unlike what I had imagined, Tawang is a peaceful place closely protected by the Indian Army. The Monpas who migrated from Tibet to Tawang, live in their new world cut off, only geographically, from their true homeland but content with their farming and beliefs.
China has for the longest time laid claim on this land with some Chinese officials calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” in recent years. In fact, as recent as April 2017, they even went ahead to formalise this nomenclature in Chinese maps which also carried standardised Chinese names of six districts in the State to show that these areas were historically under China’s administrative control.
But despite the Chinese aggression, it is safe to travel and explore this intriguing place.
What is the best time to visit Tawang?
Well I have been to Tawang in May as well as October/November, and I can tell you without being diplomatic that both have their own charm, depending on what you like. In May, I could experience snow and many frozen lakes but in Autumn, all those lakes were glistening blue and the general atmosphere, happier. May was rainy and cloudy since the monsoons run from May end to September and the only issue one can face are the chances of getting stuck due to frequent landslides. While during the winter months, Tawang can be hard to reach because of the snow and slush. Therefore, my pick would be post monsoon and before the harsh winters hit. So yes, Autumn would be your best bet!
There is only one route to Tawang, starting from Guwahati-> Tezpur-> enter Arunachal Pradesh via Bhalukpong-> Bomdila-> Dirang-> Sela Pass-> Jaswantgarh-> Tawang. It totally depends on where you want to make a stop-over. Most of the people make a night halt at either Bhalukpong, Bomdila or Dirang.
You could consider taking a helicopter ride to Tawang but it just sounded a bit dicey to me. There are many factors that can affect your plan like weather or VIP movement etc. But in case of paucity of time, you can check out the link here to know more.
Inner Line Permit is required to enter Tawang. This can be obtained from offices in various cities. For more information, log on to http://tawang.nic.in/reach.html
A special permit is required to visit Bum La Pass. The Permits can be requested at the Office of the Deputy Commissioner in Tawang District.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) is common. You can combat it with either taking a day or two to acclimatize. Also do get your BP checked from time to time.
While heading back to Guwahati via the same terrible route, I was lost, reminiscing on the marvels I had recently experienced. But this time the roads didn’t hurt so much.
Like Bob Marley said, “Though the road’s been rocky, it sure feels good to me.”
If you need any other information, please do feel free to comment below! 🙂