Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Call from Monyul

The Prologue

Tashi-Delek is a magical word. Rather words. But they always go together. The former makes your lips pout and the latter makes them stretch. And together they tickle and add a sparkle and a smile on the face.
Yes, the word is like cheese: difficult to say without smiling.
This all-purpose greeting is just about all the vocabulary a traveller needs in Tawang. For “Tashi-Delek” you say and the ice melts. The door to Tawang and to the hearts of the beautiful people of Tawang opens for you.


Moored high up in the mountain ranges of the Himalayas, at 3500 metres above sea level is Tawang- the beautiful land of the Monpas. With sobriquets like “The Hidden Paradise” or “Land of Dawn-lit Mountains”, this land evokes images of awesome mountain views, remote hamlets, quaint and sleepy villages, magical gompas, rugged hills, snow-capped peaks, rushing streams, wispy mists, roaring waterfalls, tranquil lakes and a lot more. At Tawang (also called Monyul) you have a heavenly tryst with nature at its best and the heady mixture of history, religion and legends as your travel companions.

In search of Nirvana

Tawang derived its name from the majestic Tawang Monastery. Perched atop a ridge and surrounded by thick clouds and perennial mist, the Tawang Monastery seems to be suspended from heaven in an equally ethereal space. About 400years old the monastery is the 2nd oldest and the largest in Asia and can house more than700 monks. It controls 17 gompas and a few nunneries of this region. Founded by Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1681 in accordance to the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, 

Nagwang Lobjang Gyatso, the monastery has an interesting legend surrounding its name, which means chosen by horse. (Ta – horse; Wang – chosen) As the legend goes the site of the Monastery was chosen by the horse of Mera Lama. Mera Lama, who had been unable to decide a site to establish the monastery, was one day praying in cave, seeking a divine guidance. When he came out after the prayers, he found his horse missing. A search located the horse standing quietly on a hilltop. Considering this as a sign from the gods he decided to construct the monastery at that very spot. The monastery was built with the help of volunteers from the neighbouring villages. Even today, the villages are responsible for the upkeep of the monastery. The monastery is also grandiloquently called Galden Namgye Latse meaning celestial paradise and one look at the monastery on a clear night will make one realize how true to its name it stands glowing like a phantasmagoria in the blue of the night.

Built like a fortress, the monastery has huts for the lamas, meeting hall, library, a school for the basic education, community kitchen and the main building/temple called Dukhang. It houses the huge and enthralling 30 feet gilded statue of the Buddha. Apart from this it has many more idols, all steeped in antiquity, elaborate mural paintings, priceless documents and texts, thangkhas (scroll paintings having images of Buddhist deities) and precious literature written in gold. The gilded giant prayer wheels (drums) flank the entrance.
A walk through the over powering silence of the monastery entices the spiritual part of even the atheists.

Celestial Cherubs -The People

The people are like the place. Beautiful and friendly. Their demeanor guided by the beauty of the place and the serenity of the religion they practice.
Descendents of Mongoloid race and originally immigrated from Tibet and Bhutan, the Monpas are Buddhist by faith and follow the Gelugpa Sect of Mahayana stream of Buddhism preached by the Tawang Monastery, the fountainhead of faith and religion. Before embracing Buddhism they were believers of Bon faith characterized by spirit worship and animal sacrifice.
Agriculturist by occupation, they follow the terrace form of cultivation unlike the most of the tribes of the Northeast who practice jhumming. They have even tried their hand in rearing Yak and other cattle like sheep etc and have almost mastered the art.
The society is monogamous in rule but polygamy and polyandry is quite frequent. Broad in mind, the people allow widow remarriage and divorce is not a stigma here.
Despite the hardships of existence in far-flung place like Tawang, the people enjoy life, are convivial, warm and hospitable and with the bubbling urge to make the most of God’s natural bounty.

Places worth a visit:

The Pilgrims Path – The Monasteries

Tawang Monastery: The Tawang Monastery is the most gorgeous monument. Despite the medieval aura that the white walled, yellow roofed buildings and the maroon clad, solemn looking lamas evoke, the abbey is the living tradition which shapes future lives with collective wisdom of its rich and cultural past, besides preaching the religious values of life. The heavy smell of frankincense and the smoky, butter lamp-lit, silent interiors and the constant vibrations of “om mani padme hum” provide the perfect ambience to feel the gnawing urge of spiritualism. And while you make this outward journey, all the while sensing the essential inwardness of Buddhism, be followed by the curious gaze of the red-riding hoods (the boy lamas). Dressed in the monks’ robes these little lamas with frost bitten cheeks and occasionally running nose are the little (sometimes-naughty) angels residing in this paradise of a place.

Urgelling Monastery: About 5km from the heart of the town is the Urgelling monastery established by the lama Urgen Sangpo who came to this area from Bhumthang in Bhutan. Dating more then 460 years ago the monastery is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama. Apart from being a treasure trove of many ancient relics, the monastery has the footprints and fingerprints of the Dalai Lama preserved for darshan.

Rigyalling Monastery: What it lacks in history and significance, the monastery makes it up by the soothing and green atmosphere of its surroundings. The efforts of the lama Changsey to amend for the urbanization gradually creeping in resulted in rows and rows of trees of all types and shades of green like the pines, fir, oak, Popular Salix, thoza and the rare crytomeria Joponica. His green thumb has turned the place into a picturesque abode where the silence is broken only by the chirruping of birds and the rustle of the wind in the trees.

Taktsang Monastery: The Tiger’s Den as it is also called, is 45km beyond Tawang, nestled amidst breathtaking surroundings of coniferous forests and lofty mountains with their crowns covered by snow. It is believed to have been visited by Guru Padmasambha in the 8th century.


The Nunneries

The Anis as the nuns are called join the monk life voluntarily. No rules or compulsion forces them to embrace the rigorous and hermit life of a monk.

Brama dung chung Ani Gompa: The oldest of the ani gompa, it was commissioned by lama Karchen Yeshi Gelek in 1595. It houses 45 nuns and is 12km away from the town.

Gyangong Ani Gompa: Situated on a hillock, surrounded by pristine beauty is this ani gompa at a distance of 5km. It has about 50 inmates.

Singsur Ani Gompa: 28km away, built in 1960 by the Rev. abbot Gonpaste Rimpoche this nunnery is the home to about 45 nuns.

Gorsam Chorten: Situated 92 km from Tawang at Zemithang is this Stupa looming high into the sky. It was constructed in the 12th century and is the largest stupa of the area.

By now if the traveller feels he had had a head spinning experience of religion, do not worry. Take a break in the lap of Mother Nature and savour her scintillating “sights”. We ensure your senses will experience a “spiritual rapture” of totally different kind. As Tawang is endowed generously with natural beauty, which can take ones breath away.

 Shimmering Silvers-The Lakes
There are so many of them and each out does the beauty of the other. Clean and crystal clear, the lakes shimmer like thousands of shivered mirror under the blue canopy of the sky.

PTTso Lake: 17km away, the PTTso lake looks straight out of a picture postcard or perhaps straight out of the Master Painter’s canvas. For God changes its hue with the seasons. As blue as lapis lazuli on a clear day, coyly hidden under the mists on the rainy days, surrounded by flowers of all colours in October and stark white with snow in the winter.

Sangetsar Lake: Providing communion with nature is the Sangetsar Lake 42 km from Tawang. The lake formed during the earthquake of 1950 has bare trees standing like guards in vigil. A reflection of the azure sky, the lake is beautiful like a Samaritan’s soul and captivating like a gypsy’s eye.

Banggachang Lake: At the scaring distance of 101 km is the Banggachang lake but its unparalleled beauty is worth all the pain of the journey. The stories of mystical sights like candle burning in the nights, apparitions of gompa, gold coins and jewels makes the place more alluring. Visit it. Who knows the apparitions turn real for you and you come back enriched in more than one ways.

Colossal Crescendos- The peaks

If the lakes provide one with the much sought after tranquility, the rather precarious and overpowering mountains dare the mighty men to climb the peaks.

Gorichen Peak: The highest in the region, the towering Gorichen peak has fascinated the minds of many mountaineers to scale its height of 22500 feet. At a distance of 164 km it is ideal for mountaineering expeditions.

Geshila Peak: Though not very high the peak is more approachable as it is only 25 km away.

Sela Pass and Peak: At a height of 13714 feet the pass meets the traveller on his way to Tawang and marks the beginning of the district. With its two lakes and tiny flowers of enchanting shades the Sela Pass fills one with ecstasy.

Cascades of Crystals- The Waterfalls

Nuranag Waterfalls: About 42 km from Tawang and 2km from Jang, the administrative circle, is this enticing beauty of milky white water. Thunderous and enthralling like an oration.

BTK Waterfalls: They say to watch its beauty even the sun lingers wistfully here, creating rainbows across the waterfalls. And the sound of water is like music. At BTK Waterfalls Nature’s very own sound and light show is played out daily.

Healing Hotspots-The springs

Thingbu hot water spring and Tsachu hot water spring- The hot water springs not only provides warm, sulphur rich water which cures many skin ailments, they are also located in the midst of a terrain and at distance which is ideal for trekking.

Jaswant Singh Garh- Where stands the invisible sentinel.

The memorial raised to pay homage to Jaswant Singh, Mahavir Chakra awardee

 (Posthumous) of 4 Battalion Garhwal Rifles is a place where emotions swell up naturally. In the Battle of Nuranag in 1962 during the Chinese aggression this brave son of the country showed an unmatched valour by fighting and holding the invading Chinese for 72 hours all alone before he met the martyr’s end. A plaque beside the road put up by the army asks one to stop for a while, soak in the abundance of beauty and be a part of the history. The jawans offer a cup of hot tea that is so welcoming in the cold weather.

Tawang Memorial- Overlooking the imposing Tawang- Chu valley the Tawang War Memorial is a 40 feet multi-hued chorten like structure that honours the 1962 Sino-Indian War heroes. It bears the name of the martyrs of the war. The line “ How can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father and temples of his Gods” is etched on the wall and echoes in the hearts of the visitors. And odds there were many as the soldiers had to fight with antique rifles, 50 round of ammunitions and cotton clothes.
But the men in green with fire blazing in their eyes made the ultimate sacrifice for duty and the country.

Manjushree Vidyapeeth- This is the only orphanage in Tawang and is not in the conventional traveller’s itinerary but people who mix pleasure with purpose can visit the place and spend some time with the children.

Parvat Ghatak (Ball of Fire)- This high altitude warfare/commando school is not likely a tourist destination but is a pride for the nation and needs a mentioning. Located at Pemgarh, barely 2km from the Indo-China border as the crow flies the Parvat Ghatak fulfills the need felt more intensely in the immediate aftermath of Kargil where the soldiers had to fight at heights above 1200 feet. At the height of 1500 feet and temperature which drops to – 20 degree, where only the toughest can survive, the school is performing the Herculean task of turning soldiers into deadly warriors in war and in peace.

Fairs and festivals-
The main festivals are the Torgya and the Losar festivals when the spirit of bonhomie and merry making fills the air of the district. These festivals provide the people with occasions to get together and enjoy the spirit of brotherhood. They mirror the rich culture of the people of Tawang, their artistic genius and skill in expressing themselves through music and dance which occupy the main place in the celebration of these festivals.

Losar festival is the beginning of the New Year according to the Monpa calender. This 15 days festival falls in January/February. The houses are cleaned, lamps lighted, prayers offered for prosperity and good health and prayer flags are hoisted. It is a common belief that the wind carries the prayers to the heaven. Various dances like the Aji Lhumu dance, Lion and Peacock dance and the Yak dance are performed during the festival.

Torgya festival is a 3-day affair when the courtyard of the monastery becomes a hive of activity. The lamas make a torgya (a pyramidal structure of millet), pujas are offered and the monastery is illuminated with colourful lights. The lamas perform the monastic dance wearing attire rich in colour and frightening masks of animals. The dance and the festival signify the destruction of evil spirit and harmful forces and seek the rule of prosperity and happiness amongst the people.
The other festivals are of the sober type and basically mark the important stages of the Lord Buddha.
Swarga Dawa: Celebrated in the 4th month of the lunar calendar this festival marks the achievement of Nirvana by Gautam Buddha.
Dukpa Tse-Shi: The festival coincides with the preaching of the Four Nobel Truths at Sarnath by Buddha. It falls in the 6th month of the lunar calendar.
Lhabab Duechen: In the Monpas 9th month this festival marks the reincarnation of Buddha in his Shakyamuni form.
Ganden Ngamchoe: The day commemorates the death of Tsongkha-pa, the founder of Gelugpa Sect.

Apart from the monastic dance performed by the lamas during the Torgya festival, the Monpas have extremely attractive traditional dances. The dancers wear masks, which have a human, an animal or a bird face and through their rhythmic movements and gestures they depict some mythical stories. They use musical instruments like trumpets, drums, cymbals, clarion and conch shell.

Aji Lhamu Dance: One of the most prominent of the traditional dances, this dance-drama form of performance tells the tale of Tibetan version of Ramayana. The 5 people who perform it represent Gyeli and Nyapa the chief protagonists, Nyaro the antagonist and Lhamu and Lhum the female characters.

Yak Dance: This dance celebrates the joy of the discovery of yak many hundreds of years ago. It is quite interesting to note that the importance of yak in the lives of the people is completely acknowledged. The yak has a major role in the prosperity and economy of people with its multi-purpose use. No doubt it occupies a special place in their daily life and has a dance named after it.

Lion and Peacock Dance: This dance displays the story of saint Tenteling who performed an extremely difficult fast and meditation on the mythical mount Gangrikarpo in the Himalayas for three years. The two snow lions that lived in the ridges of the mountain and witnessed this severe and pious life of the saint befriended him and offered him milk and their company. Overjoyed by this strange relationship between man and animals the people danced. And till today the people perform this dance on every important occasion for they know peace and prosperity comes when there is a harmony between all living creatures of the world.

Art and craft-
The artistic genius of the Monpas is not limited to their dance and music. They have magic in their hands and make dreams with it. See the carpets to believe it. The hand-woven woolen carpets are a masterpiece in themselves. The intricate patterns and the smooth finesse are no less than magic.
Woodcarving is another art worth appreciating. The expertise with which the artists carve dragons or snow lions or the Buddha or whatever they can think of is mind blowing.
Thangkha paintings are like a wizard’s spell. You feel the brush had been dipped in a palette of mysticism and enchantment before moving it on the scrolls. Normally bearing pictures of Buddhist deities the thangkhas are a must in the connoisseurs’ list.
The people are also good in making handmade paper from the bark of Daphne-Botanica plants, colourful masks, agarbati and leather items.

Indigenous Sports--
The indigenous versions of archery (Mia Than), wrestling (Glam Nyurri), shot put (Pung Gor), discus throw (Lem Gor), and completely new games like Mahjong, Lai and Thipi add fun and some exercise in the life of people.

The traditional cuisine has the Tibetan taste and make a generous use of chili and not very surprisingly, yak milk’s cheese.
Momos (the meat dumplings) are real tasty. Various versions of momos are available to satisfy the gourmet’s taste buds.
Thukpa is another dish which the Monpas and even the tourists relish. This dish with noodles floating in hot, steaming soup garnished with a variety of stuffs like meat, vegetables, cheese etc is very nourishing and wonderful to taste.
While the momos and thukpas are the gourmets’ delight, the Zan is the staple food of the Monpa tribe. It is basically a dish prepared by boiling millet flour along with local condiments and vegetables/meat/cheese.
Khura is the traditional pancake while the Gyapa-khazi is the Monpa version of pulao. The rice is fried with cheese, dried fish, chili, ginger etc.
The local brew Chang does add cheer and “spirit” in life.

Bon Voyage-
Half the joy of the odyssey to Tawang is in the journey. It involves travelling through miles and miles of sprawling tea gardens of Assam, snaking through the hypnotic mountain roads of Arunachal Pradesh and passing through a long kaleidoscope of scenic and cultural variances. Before one reaches Tawang, one crosses Bhalukpong, famous for river rafting, angling etc, Tipi the temple of orchids (the largest in Asia), the picturesque town of Bomdila, the tantalizing Dirang valley where the serpentine river becomes one’s companion for long and the magnificent Sela Pass which awakens the poetic passions of passerby.

The epilogue

This is Tawang. Sans urban trappings and star comforts, yet a bit of paradise still left on this earth. A splendid canvas of unspoiled scenic beauty. Where the first rays of sun kiss the snowy peaks to a blushing rose and the last fills the saucer of the shivering sky to its brim with countless stars.
So this time when you hear the call from Monyul, do not neglect. The Monpas will be there to welcome you and the vale will echo with whispers of Tashi-Delek.

( The article, an old piece, was written first for the Govt of Arunachal, more as a travel guide...and then in its many avatars with personal touches, was published in many national travel magazines.) 
( It's a place I am 100% in love with and have visited many times....I know I have been lazy to upload the pix. Someday. One day.)