My journey to Tawang is fabulous. It is such a wonderful day this morning that there has not been such day of clear weather the entire week. The sky is as blue as it can ever be. The snow on the mountain slopes dazzles the eye. The clear streams sparkling with mountain freshness take their leisurely courses down Sela Pass. Their swirls flirt with rocks and mossy margins. The high clouds look down on pine slopes. Open views stretch the vision as far as the pass winds and turns.
Heaven is an imaginary construct. No one has seen it. If anyone has, no one has come back to tell the tale. If imagining heaven is a difficult thing, a trip through the pass at Sela may be just the inspiration you need.
At Tawang, my mobile doesn’t work. It’s nothing new. Vodafone has neither coverage nor roaming agreements on the Bomdila-Tawang route in Arunachal Pradesh. BSNL CellOne has a tower in town and most locals have BSNL connections. It’s quite possible that Airtel customers can connect using the BSNL towers. I call home from a PCO/STD/ISD shop. After passing through a number of switches, I finally get connected after half a minute. Half a minute – that’s one measure of remoteness of Tawang.
‘When did this town get a landline connection?’ I ask the guy at the telecom shop.
‘About ten years ago,’ he says. Indeed, development at Tawang is not a recent phenomenon. The locals are used to visitors. Tourism is growing. Many multi-storeyed buildings stand on the slopes spread on these hills. There are some fine hotels, restaurants and resorts.
‘How cold does it get here in winter?’
‘It goes below zero. It is common to have two feet of snow here,’ he says. ‘We need lots of firewood to keep warm. Here firewood is like gold.’
It is common to see stacks of firewood stored in every house. Women are often busy in the woods collecting firewood for the day, the week or the coming of winter.
The key place of tourist attraction at Tawang is the monastery set magnificently on a hill. It is a little away from town and keeps its isolation well. The best view of the monsatery is from a distance. Some claim it stands like a fortress but I think it is less defensive and intimidating. There is a certain uniformity in colour and form in the main monastic buildings and the houses that surrounded them within the monastic complex. Roofs are yellow or orange. Windows and deep shaded eaves decorate the walls uniformly. Walls are white-washed. There is neatness, order and peace. I quite like the subtle mood created by these buildings. They stand together in close quarters and hold themselves well.
There are about 500 monks living here. A monk and a small boy are arranging candles and oil/butter lamps in one of the rooms. The room is full of flickering lights this dull evening. It is drizzling outside. An unmistakable peak with its barren slopes stares at me from the southwest. There is a break in the clouds to my right and sunlight filters through for brief moments. A rainbow completes a semicircle from Tawang town on one side and a green valley at the other. A little later a rare double rainbow hangs briefly in the valley.
In the main monastery, the prayer hall is busy. Boy monks are seated in many rows under the meditative gaze of the Buddha at the far end. An older monk is going around boy to boy with a calculator. He punches some numbers and dishes out crisp notes of rupees to each boy in turn. A couple of monks come in with aluminium tea pots. They pour out hot salted tea into waiting cups. Near the altar, older monks are dipping into little bowls of colourful powders. They are seated in a circle at a table. They are meticulously drawing a mandala, a cosmic representation of heaven and universe. Meanwhile I walk around admiring the wall murals. There is much art and greater symbolism here. Without a guide it is difficult to understand any of the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism.
In a building next door, four monks are turning giant prayer wheels. There is a museum nearby and I spend a few minutes studying various artefacts of Tibetan Buddhism. I walk around within the complex. Monks look out with contemplation from their high windows. Common people are making their ambulations around the monastery with rosary in hand. The rain continues to fall. I look into the deep valley behind the monastery. It is a valley thick with green forests and a stream running right through it. A cable car line runs from here to Ani Gompa, a monastery for nuns. However, I don’t see any cable cars at the moment. It is a pity to see a trail of modern garbage running down the slopes behind the monastery. I see a rustle in the high branches of a tree down the slope. For a brief moment I have a rare glimpse of a primate. Is it a Hoolock Gibbon? I can’t be sure but I like to think so.
Across town, on another hill, is a war memorial dedicated to those who gave their lives in the 1962 war in the Kameng sector. More than 2000 names are etched in black marble. The monument stands like a Buddhist stupa of the region. With a full view of the surrounding peaks, it is quite a fitting and deserving resting place.
There is probably much more to Tawang than I have seen. I have reserved only a day and it is time to move on to other destinations. All I can say about Tawang is that men and women have only one thing on their minds. I know what you are thinking. It is not sex. Rather, it is constant prayer typified in these words:<blockquote>Om Mane Peme Hung</blockquote>
The words are a little different from those I have heard in Spiti Valley but essentially it is the same prayer. The people here chant these words while waiting for transport. They chant them while walking from market to home. They chant them in the temples. They chant them at every opportunity they get. It occurs to me that their lives are dedicated entirely to this pursuit. Houses are flanked at the entrance by little prayer wheels or shelters for burning offerings.
The second thing is about the women. They carry their toddlers on their backs, wrapped by a warm cloth which is tied across the shoulders. Children are carried conveniently in this manner at all times – when sweeping their houses clean or doing the laundry; while chanting at temples; while shopping in the markets. These little things are what describe to me the people of Tawang.