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Travel & Holiday

Into the wild

In the little explored north-east region of India lies the famous Tawang Monastery
The Straits Times - May 1, 2012
By: Hema Kiruppalini
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Into the wild The Tawang Monastery. -- PHOTO: HEMA KIRUPPALINI

Due to security threats and separatist movements, north-east India is an unexplored paradise, but a recent visit to its remote Tawang district was exhilarating and enlightening.

My travels took me off the beaten track, to untamed, pristine surroundings of densely forested frontiers curtained against the alpine Himalayas and to the annual festival at the famous Tawang Monastery, which dates back to the 17th century.

In contrast, I also saw people toiling in a way not often seen in the modern world, such as men using back-breaking traditional methods to mine coal fields and women with babies in slings constructing roads by hand.


It is no surprise that this little explored region is known as the Wild East of India - so wild that lavatory facilities are considered a luxury. When nature called, I had to make do by keeping an eye out for unoccupied spaces and pretend to be unperturbed by the possible intrusion of human (or yak) trespassers.

My walk on the wild side of north-east India began when I flew from Singapore to Kolkata in India, and then by an internal flight to Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya state, in December last year, to attend a conference on the Nepali diaspora at the North-Eastern Hill University there.

Meghalaya means 'abode of the clouds' and it forms part of north-east India that is made up of the politically volatile Seven Sister States of Mizoram, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura.

While in Shillong, I decided to visit Tawang, one of the districts in the neighbouring state of Arunachal Pradesh, to see its famed monastery.

It is the biggest Buddhist monastery in India, one of the largest of the Mahayana sect in Asia and the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.

I was keen to visit the district, which is about 400km from Shillong, even though the otherwise peaceful Buddhist enclave has long been a terrain of dispute.

Tawang, about 3,000m above sea level, borders Bhutan to the west, Tibet to the north and the Sela range of West Kameng to the east. It once formed part of Tibet but was hived off in the independence of India from Britain in 1947. In 1962 during the Sino-Indian war, Tawang fell briefly under the control of China. There are still occasional spats between the Tibetan government-in-exile at Dharamsala, India, and mainland China.

Entering Arunachal Pradesh was not a breeze. Foreign tourists have to get a Restricted Area Permit from the Indian government to enter Arunachal Pradesh.

The permit costs US$50 (S$68) a person for foreigners, which a travel agent can help you get.

I was also told that tourists are not allowed to enter the state alone. Although there are ways to work around these rules, it was clear that political sensitivity and security issues surrounding this part of India is high.

Then there was the problem of actually getting to Tawang. The only option was to travel by road, a journey that took nearly four days. I hired a driver with an SUV with the help of the travel agent. It was part of a package that included hotel accommodation, which came up to 27,000 rupees (S$659). Each day necessitated a minimum of 10 hours of travel on roads that were unpaved, gravelled and brutal to say the least.

Each morning, I had to set out as early as 7 since it gets dark by 5pm. Electricity shortages are rampant in this resource-rich region and temperatures go as low as 5 deg C.

I could not afford to be fussy about food or accommodation, which cost about $40 a night at hotels which were a rare find. By day four, I was nearing the gateway to Tawang Valley, the Sela Pass. Perched 4,170m above sea level, it is one of the most precarious passes in the mountainous region of Arunachal Pradesh and reportedly the second highest motor- accessible pass in the world.

Reaching Sela Pass signalled my entry into Tawang. I met a local woman who ran a small eatery from her home in a village at the pass. She made me a hot cup of chai, a plate of steamed momos (Tibetan dumplings) and a bowl of Maggie noodles, a treat in those circumstances.

I reached Tawang by late evening, along the way coming across truckloads of Sikhs and other border- patrol army personnel.

Next morning, I went to the much-anticipated Tawang (Chosen Horse) monastery. From afar, it had a majestic presence and was enve- loped in perennial mist.

It is no wonder that it is known in Tibetan as the Gladen Namgayl Lhatse, which translates to 'celestial paradise chosen by a horse'.

The origins of Tawang and the monastery are shrouded in legend. The Monpas are the dominant ethnic group in Tawang. They are Tibetan Buddhist and staunch believers that the Tawang monastery is God's masterpiece. So deeply spiritual and devout are they that it is common practice to send one child in each generation to be a Buddhist monk or nun.

The monastery, which you can enter for free, has sprawling premises and can house more than 7,000 monks. The Duknang, or main assembly hall, is home to a stunning 8m-high golden Buddha statue and a number of other equally eye-catching idols, thangkas (Tibetan silk paintings that have embroidery depicting aspects of Buddhism), murals of mandalas and divinities.

I paid a visit to the three-storey-high Parkhang library that had a repository of precious Thangka-manuscripts penned in gold, sacred books and other artefacts that date back centuries. Despite their lacklustre condition, the old charm of these treasures was a sight to cherish.

As I strolled along the monastery, I chanced upon boys clad in saffron robes running, playing and reading books on Buddhism. One of the monks told me that the afternoon prayer was closed because of dance practice.

When I went to the open field, I saw monks, young and old, rehearsing a traditional dance form with colourful masks in preparation for the Torgya festival that is celebrated in Tawang during December to January.

During this festival, the monks are attired as warriors and the procession culminates with the torgya, a pyramidal structure, being burnt on the last day of the festival as a symbol of the destruction of evil.

A few minutes away, in stark contrast to the ethereal experience of the monastery, stands the Tawang War Memorial that jogs a person into recollecting the war that was fought in this area half a century ago.

According to some sources, Indian soldier Jaswant Singh Rawat single-handedly held back the invading Chinese troops for three days and bravely fought them during the battle of Nuranang. While some argue that the war memorial stands at the place where Singh was captured and hung by the Chinese, others contend that he shot himself prior to being hung.

The war memorial and especially the heavy militarised presence in Tawang, point towards the enduring boundary contentions in Sino-India relations.

Later, safely back in Singapore, Tawang's harmonious co-existence of militarism and spiritualism, and the shared spaces between legions and lamas, seemed jarring and surreal.


Singapore Airlines flies from Singapore to Kolkata. Take a domestic flight from Kolkata to Shillong via Air India.

The writer, who works on the Nepali and Sri Lankan diasporas, is a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore.


Adventures galore