Travel: A pledge and a pilgrimage

Visiting Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh can be a life-changing experience

Tawang monastery
Tawang monastery

Vijoy K Sinha

‘Is it permitted to take a photograph, sir?’, I asked a passing monk.

Bhartiya ho, Hindi jaante bhi hoge, phir Hindi mein kyon nahin pooch sakte?’ (You are an Indian and must be Hindi speaking. Why cannot you put the question in Hindi), he rebuked me.

Arunachal Pradesh is the only state in the north east where Hindi is the language commonly in use. People identify themselves as Indians most emphatically and their antipathy to China is evident. It may have something to do with their cultural affinity to Tibet and spiritual affinity to the Dalai Lama. China is seen as the aggressor and memories and scars of 1962 are still fresh.

For me a trip to Arunachal was redeeming a pledge I had made as a child. My first introduction to Tawang and Bomdila was through All India Radio’s hourly news bulletins of the 1962 war. I was seven. The fall of Tawang and Bomdila (then part of NEFA) stung. I resolved to visit the place some day.

Planning the trip was not as formidable as I had feared. A few sessions on the Internet and some phone calls later, everything fell in place despite the Covid restrictions and lockdown.

The Road from Guwahati was good but non-descript. At the Balemu border on the Arunachal side, one has to show the ILP (Inner Line Permit), to enter the state. The online permit was on hold due to the Covid pandemic, but a local tour operator arranged it for a premium. A corona negative report was also a precondition but was not insisted upon. This was reassuring. We were definitely still in India.

A steep serpentine ascent through the rain fed greens which followed was a grind for the car but a visual treat for us. The trees gradually shrunk into Rhododendron bushes and by the time we reached the higher passes, into barrenness, marked occasionally by fern and moss. Beyond the windy pass, a short descent later the steep climb resumes.

The progress was slow till Bomdila, our pit stop. Hotel Tsepal Yongjam exceeded our expectations. But it is advisable to carry cash. We learnt it the hard way. ATMs were either out of cash or out of order, or simply out of reach (closed). The stock answer to digital payment queries was a disarming smile.

Travel: A pledge and a pilgrimage

The real beauty of Arunachal unfolds beyond Bomdila. As we descended into the picturesque Dirang valley, it was mesmerising. Clouds swirled along the lush green mountainside; tiny hamlets across the white waters of Kameng River appeared like embroideries from a distance and the few highland lad or lass on the way completed the picture postcard quality.

Beyond Dirang, the ascent towards the historic Sela pass, the gateway to Tawang, began. Ongoing construction of Sela Tunnel made driving arduous and the road was treacherous. The first glimpse of snow brought out the child in us and by the time we reached Sela pass (14000 ft), there was snow everywhere though the time of the year was of vernal equinox. People were having a good time, pelting each other playfully with snowballs. ‘When life gives you snow, make snow angels’.

In these icy heights in the freezing winter of 1962, Brig Hoshiar Singh along with his men had laid down their lives, reminded a small memorial in honour of the men. Sela Lake, like most of the 100 and odd lakes in the region, was frozen. Only the depression on the flat and white expanse helped to identify it.

The road descended sharply beyond Sela to Jang. A small detour took us to Nuranang Falls (also called Jang Falls), where water from the Nuranang river falls from a height of a hundred meters. Nuranang is named after a local Monpa (the dominant tribe in the region speaking a language by the same name) girl named Nura, who helped Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat, a Maha Vir Chakra awardee soldier during the 1962 Sino-Indian War, who was captured by Chinese forces. Jaswant Singh remains a legendary hero in the battle of Sela; the Jaswantgarh war memorial bears his name as a mark of respect by a grateful nation.

Sela lake
Sela lake

Tawang Heights hotel was clearly the best hotel around and provided value for money. The staff were friendly and helpful and the owner or his wife would drop by to spend some time with us before dinner.

We wanted to sample local delicacies other than the standard fare on the menu. She arranged to get Khabse- the traditional snack that was pleasing to the eyes for its painstakingly intricate patterns and was tasty to the palate. She also got us Shinchang - the traditional local brew made from cooked rice from her sister’s place for us to taste. Besides Thupka and Momo, the staple was millet or rice with local vegetables, meat and fermented cheese. Besides chillies, fermented cheese is a common ingredient for almost all the dishes. Yak butter tea is an invigorating all-time drink.

Tawang Monastery, is a huge complex that occupies an entire hill, can be seen from anywhere in Tawang and is over 400 years old. It also offers a stunning view of the surrounding valleys and Gorichen Peak. It is the largest monastery in India and the largest functioning monastery in the world- Potala Palace in Lhasa having ceased to be one six decades ago.

The main monastery was a beehive of activity the morning we were there. The novices and the monks seemed oblivious of the droves of tourists who moved in single file but in complete silence. There is also a museum with an interesting collection of artefacts.

I always feel a sense of unease seeing tender children in monasteries and convents. Weren’t they far too young to comprehend the enormity of the decision to denounce worldly pleasure and live the rest of their lives as celibates? Was the decision driven by abject poverty?

After the monastery, visiting the War Memorial seemed faintly ironical. It was a reminder that in war there are no prizes for the runners up. But this memorial is shaped like a Buddhist Stupa built in honour of the martyrs of the 1962 war. It is complete with prayer wheels and flags, colourful serpents, dragons and other ‘sarira’ (Buddhist relics). Names, photographs and citations in memory of those fine young men who died there brought tears to our eyes. An hour long light and sound show in the evening at the nearby amphitheatre helped somewhat overcome the weight of sadness.

For most visitors, the high point however is a day trip to Bumla. The access is controlled by the Army and a pass has to be obtained (it is never denied) the day before the visit. Only local taxis (SUVs) are allowed. An hour’s drive uphill took us to the snow line, where drivers put the anti-skid chains on wheels.

Bumla border outpost was more of a ceremonial post than a tactical one. It is a designated place for periodical flag meetings with China. The smart young officer in charge of the post gave us a crisp briefing on the landmarks including the Chinese positions and tit bits from the history of the war.

The area is dotted with lakes, the largest being the PTTso lake though the most visited is the Sangetser (popularly called Madhuri Lake after a sequence of the film Koyla with Madhuri Dixit was shot there). Checking out of the hotel was a sombre occasion with the owners and the staff lining up to say goodbye.

I had finally redeemed a pledge I had made when I was seven.

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