Horns resonate through a forested valley blanketed by mist. Blown by two young monks wrapped in yards of crimson-coloured cloth, the sound bounces off the surrounding snow-crested mountains. The monks put their ornate wooden and brass instruments down and an early morning silence reigns through Tawang, a verdant gorge peppered with small farming communities and ancient Buddhist monasteries in India’s northern state of Arunachal Pradesh.
The mountain tops to the south and west of here belong to Bhutan; those in the north are China. Located in one of India’s most inaccessible and far-flung corners, Tawang, a gruelling three-day, 450-kilometre drive from the Assamese capital, Guwahati, in many ways is a world away.
Creeping up through the Himalayan foothills, the road is a humpback roller-coaster of a ride, so potholed it is barely passable at times. After heavy rains during the monsoon season, landslides can cut off Tawang for days or weeks at a time. There used to be a daily helicopter service but, after a minister died in a crash in heavy fog, the government suspended the service. The mountains around mean phone coverage is sketchy at best, making the precarious road an umbilical cord to the outside world.
Drawn to remote and wild areas, my husband and I had caught a train to Guwahati, a dusty concrete jungle on the banks of the Brahmaputra River, to meet Kankanmoni Deka, a driver from Jungle Travels India, who had a sturdy four-wheel-drive to take us to Tawang. Departing Guwahati, a wide and smooth road skips across the flat, ginger-hued plains of Assam. It is deceiving, as we quickly discover when we approach the border with Arunachal Pradesh. Covered with 25 centimetres of mud from early rains, the road turns into a wheel-spinning slippery slide, slowing us to less than 10 kilometres an hour.
Leaving the border post, where gruff soldiers write our permit number into torn and dirty ledgers and duty-free shops sell cans of warm Foster’s beer, we head up through almost vertical hillsides cut by raging mountain rivers and smothered with thick forests of rhododendron and azaleas blooming in the early spring sun.
We pass the occasional village tucked deep into a ravine or clinging to the mountain side, their idyllic blue and white painted wooden houses framed by pots of mauve and purple orchids. The higher we climb the thicker the fog becomes; at one stage we have less than three metres of visibility. Dzo, shaggy black and white cow-yak hybrids with red tassels in their ears, root around in the scrubby, treeless roadside land, which cambers up the mountain like a snake.
We stop for lunch at a brightly painted pink and green restaurant serving “boiled motor” and “fry pouch” and pass misspelt road signs incongruously declaring, “Speed is a 5-letter word. So is the word Deth”. Groups of men and women work by the sides of the road; the men breaking boulders with sledgehammers, the women crushing them into smaller pieces to use for a new road. India is hoping that in a few years this fragmented, derelict pathway will be upgraded to a national highway and help woo visitors to this little-visited part of the world.
At the 4700-metre-high Sela Pass, a Tibetan-style archway welcomes us to the Tawang Valley. As we rise above the clouds, soaring views reveal snow-covered mountains in every direction. We tie strings of multicoloured prayer flags stamped with prayer mantras between posts over the pass. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the flags, when caught in the wind, send the prayers to the mountain spirits. After the pass, military postings become more common. “We kill for peace,” the sign above one post reads.
Dubbed “Little Tibet” by lowland Indians, a century ago the Tawang Valley was inhabited by tribes who paid taxes to monks living in Lhasa, a two-week walk away. In 1914, British authorities took a map and drew the McMahon Line, a crude boundary between India and Tibet, bringing the Tawang Valley under India’s reign. China and India have been arguing over Tawang’s borders ever since; 50 years ago they went to war. Perhaps it was payback for India sheltering the Dalai Lama in the Tawang Monastery after he fled Lhasa when it was occupied by Chinese forces in 1950, perhaps testing India’s strength and patience. But India was dozing when China invaded Tawang in 1962 and easily captured the town of the same name.
The Memorial of Jaswant Singh, one of only a handful of Indian soldiers guarding Tawang in 1962, is all that is physically left of that battle. Knowing that he was outnumbered by Chinese, the crafty Singh ran between several hidden posts firing his World War I-era rifle at each, making the enemy believe he was a whole army and stalling their advance for a few days. The Chinese eventually caught and hanged him where Indian army soldiers now hand out free cups of chai and samosa to passing motorists. “The myth of the invisible Chinese has been exploded!” the memorial says.
The township of Tawang is a let-down after driving three days to get there: a scruffy one-street village dominated by a handful of chapatti-and-dhal stores, smoky bars and a mediocre hotel without heating but with a very lively discotheque. The countryside is a different story: sweeping hillsides riddled with stone fortress-like houses and rolling pastureland where women wear the classical striped tunic of their Tibetan cousins and men sport felt hats resembling dreadlocks. It’s the light that is most unforgettable; a shaded dusty yellow that adds a soft glow to everything it touches.
At the heart of the valley is the fortified Tawang Monastery, otherwise known as the “Celestial Paradise in a Clear Night”. The biggest Mahayana Buddhist monastery outside of Lhasa, it was founded in 1681 by the fifth Dalai Lama to prepare for the birth of the sixth Dalai Lama, whom fortune tellers predicted – correctly – would be born in Tawang. Spread over several hectares, the white-washed buildings topped with mustard-yellow roofs can house up to 700 monks and is home to a rare collection of 400-year-old scriptures.
There is a small museum on-site with a trumpet made from a human thigh bone, and a three-sided dagger once used by high lamas and exorcists. A pair of woolly mammoth tusks, which the tag says were found in the seventh century by the mother-in-law of King Kala Wangpo, are beguiling, more so than the ear cleaner on display owned by the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, who, we are told, also used it as a toothpick.
We meet a young monk, Tenzing, who invites us into his small shared cottage for sweet milky tea and deep-fried dough twists. Tenzing has been studying at the Tawang Monastery for eight years; he left once, to travel to Bodhgaya to see the Dalai Lama. “I have seen the outside world; I don’t need to leave again now”, he says.
We head back to the monastery’s prayer hall early the next morning for puja – a daily worship ceremony. About 100 young monks have gathered along the yellow and maroon striped benches that run perpendicular to a sitting Buddha statue draped with silk scarves and a flashing neon halo above his head. The walls carry frescos of Maitreya (the future Buddha), sages, and the wheel of life; the richly decorated marble pillars are flecked with gold leaf. The young boys fidget, talk and sleep on their neighbour’s shoulder while an older monk marches up and down scolding those he sees being unfaithful to the holy hour.
A bell sounds and the young monks, now wide awake, jump to their feet and make a beeline to the monastery’s heavy wooden front doors, where they slip on blue plastic shoes and rush to a cart serving hot chapattis and vegetable curry. In a side room, three old and wizened men wrapped in woollen cloaks watch the boys and sigh as they pull ropes attached to prayer wheels and chant incessantly om mani padme hum – the bead in the lotus flower. One insists I march around the prayer wheels three times for merit and to encourage luck. I do nine rounds, stopping to push the giant prayer wheels in between. I figure I could do with the extra blessing; this morning we will start driving back down.
Jungle Travels India can arrange seven-day tours to Tawang ex-Guwahati from 32,000 rupees ($594) a person, including meals, accommodation, car, driver and guide for two travelling together. It pays to arrange your own accommodation; some hotels booked by Jungle Tours were dirty, rundown and overpriced. See jungletravelsindia.com. All foreigners need a Restricted Area Permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh. The government stipulates tourists must travel in groups of two or more; permits can be obtained in Guwahati or through your travel agent.
When to go
The Sela Pass is plagued by snowfall from December to March. The annual monsoon, from July to September, obscures the views and could block the road.