If the Tawang Monastery is magnificent, the story of its origin is fascinating. If the monastery seems like a fortress looking over this beautiful town, it is chiefly because of the defiance associated with its origin. There are two ways to absorb the majesty of this place, and both are important. One is to visit it, experience it. The other is to read about it, acknowledge its history.
To trace its roots, one has to go back to the 17th century or, for practical purposes, refer to Niranjan Sarkar’s definitive book from 1981 – the Tawang Monastery. The 17th century was a time when various Buddhist sects fought amongst themselves. The Gelugpas – one such sect – had begun growing amongst the Monpas in present-day Arunachal Pradesh and one of them, Mera Lama, faced a lot of hostility from the Dukpas of Bhutan. In order to safeguard his and his sect’s interests, he sought advice from the fifth Dalai Lama and decided to build a monastery.
He moved to Tawang (it was called Tsosum then), and prepared for the construction. It helped his cause that the Dalai Lama had ordered villages in that area to help in the construction. Mera Lama was given a ball of yarn – the length of which would be the boundary of the monastery. The site of the monastery though, was left for Mera Lama to decide on.One day Mera Lama went to a mountain, three miles from Tawang and prayed for help in choosing the perfect site. When he began to leave, he found that his horse was not to be found. He followed its trail and came to a spot where a former Tawang king’s palace once stood. His horse was there. This, he thought was divine intervention, and built the monastery at that very place.
he name Tawang, in fact, means “place chosen by a horse” – Ta (horse); wang (chosen). It is said that villages that came forward to help build the monastery, took responsibility for some part of it. Whenever “their” part had to undergo renovation, they would do it themselves. However, people from the Lebuchosie area could not come for the maintenance as that place went into Tibet. The complete name of the monastery is Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse or the celestial paradise of the divine site chosen by a horse!
The journey to Tawang, like to anywhere in Arunachal, can be excruciating. But it’s worth it, like it always is, in Arunachal. Even though roads are as well-maintained as they can be by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), somehow, the weather or the taxi driver contrives to make it an ordeal. After an eight-hour grind from Bomdila (a distance of 181 km), you start a slow climb up the smooth stairway to this heaven on earth. The roads might be narrow, the journey tiresome, but the sight of the monastery towering regally over the town soothes you, as a temperamental sun bathes it in myriad shades of yellow.
One can opt to drive to the monastery, but a hike – over hills and among quiet housing localities – is much better. After much enquiry, we land at the outer gates of this monument. Kids are playing cricket here, within the monastery compound, and there is not another soul in sight. The sunny day only adds to the atmosphere – it isn’t always bright here. At about 10,000 feet above sea level, the monastery is as a triumph of strategy. Prayer-wheels are placed neatly along the outer walls that lead up to the main entrance. Resident lamas can be seen doing their daily routine diligently while a few devotees can be seen turning the prayer wheels.
The main temple has the Wheel of Life painted on it. This depicts the perceived six realms in which a man can be reborn. At the altar, with a number of divinities, stands a huge figure of the Buddha. Close to it is a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Few rows of seats are placed methodically and during temple service, lamas take their position here.
Next to the temple is the library, and right opposite the temple is the museum. One of the lamas sits at the gate and ushers tourists into the museum. Again, it is well-maintained. Belongings of Mera Lama, artifacts related to Dalai Lamas, Padma Sambhava (an Indian monk from the monastic university of Nalanda) and various deities are kept here. The silence is broken only by a few visitors from the other AP who take every opportunity to take photographs with their mobiles. A smaller room, next to the main temple, has huge prayer-wheels one of which was being spun continuously by an old man.
Mera Lama had a sister who was a nun and since women weren’t allowed into monasteries, a nunnery was built 5-6 km from the Tawang Monastery. It is known as the Ani Gonpa and is situated on another hill. A foundation stone outside the monastery, from where the Ani Gonpa is visible, suggests a plan for building a passenger-ropeway between the two institutions, from one hill to another. There is no other sign of it though.
It was a day of great fortune that the sun was out and the monastery looked brilliant. The very next day, Tawang was engulfed by a dull combination of drizzle-bearing clouds and mist. However, the vast figure of the magnificent monument was still visible, as our bus to Tezpur left hesitantly.