Saturday, January 17, 2009

Riding High in the Low Country - IV

It was getting a little dark and we decided to make a determined push towards Tawang. The road became extremely steep and we had to stop frequently to allow road-building crews to clear the road from numerous small landslides and rockslides. As we spiraled upwards we could see the Tawang Chu (In Tibetan chu means water; in this case river) below us. One of the unique features of the entire drive from Tenga upwards must be the Gompas and chortens (stupas), which dot the hillsides. These are like little spots of white and saffron peeking out from the somewhat denuded hillsides.

There are numerous beautiful villages on the road just before you reach Tawang. One of the more famous villages is Urgeling, which was the birthplace of the Sixth Dalai Lama. The road also splits several times. One road leads to Lumla and from thereon to Zemithang, which has a beautiful stupa. There is a very interesting story associated with the Stupa. It is the exact replica of a Stupa in Kathmandu except the dimensions are smaller. The monk who got the design had carved it onto a radish but during his journey from Kathmandu to Zemithang, the radish lost some its succulence and hence, although, the design of the Stupas is the same, the dimensions are not! From Zemithang one can drive up to Taksang Gompa, Sangetsar Lake and PT Tso and reach Tawang in a circuitous route.

However this requires a four-wheel drive even in the best of seasons and is a full day’s tough and grueling drive. Lhou village, just short of Tawang, had one of the few local handmade paper units till some years ago. Although the Monpa are adept at many crafts including weaving, basketry, carpet making and wood carving, one of their least known accomplishments is the hand made paper they make from the bark of a tree known locally as shukseng or paper tree. These hand made papers are used in the Gompas for writing religious prayers and hymns. It is silk textured and retains its look for years.

We were quite keen to see this but were informed that it had shut down. We finally reach Tawang at around 4:00 pm in the evening. The area is also called Monyal, Tibetan for ‘lower country’. The Fifth Dalai Lama entrusted Mera Lama the task of establishing a monastery here. During the search for a suitable spot, the Lama’s horse strayed away. When the Lama found the horse he realized the location was suitable for the monastery. In recognition of the part played by his horse in choosing the site, he called it Tawang (ta: horse, wang: chosen) or "the place chosen by horse".

It is damp and freezing and the air is distinctly thinner. We are booked into Hotel Buddha bang in the middle of the main market. The hotel has an unassuming exterior. It is reputed to be the best hotel in Tawang but we do feel quite disappointed seeing the dimly lit rooms and the barely functioning room heaters.

Tawang like most hills stations suffers from a shortage of water. Dinner comprises of rice, dal and fried potatoes, as the hotel serves only vegetarian food. We find it a little difficult to sleep that night, as our bodies need acclimatization to the altitude. Half of the next morning is spent in getting the water pipes to unfreeze so that we may get some running water. This involves boiling a bucket of water from the hotel’s store and pouring it into the overhead tank. Our water is also available by 9 am or so, the melting aided by the sun which is shining brightly. As the weather here is always pretty dicey and we had heard plenty of stories of tourists stuck in Tawang due to snow at the Sela Pass, we decide to cram as much as possible into one days sight seeing. The first step was to get permission from the DC’s office to visit Pankang Teng Tso (PT Tso) and Lake Sangetsar, a.k.a. you guessed it –Madhuri Lake!

Surprisingly this did not take very long. As the prayers start very early in the monastery, we decided to make that our first stop. The Tawang Monastery is over 400 hundred years old and is the seat of the Mahayan sect of Buddhism in the eastern Himalayas. It is also one of the largest monasteries in Asia. As we entered the outer premises of the Monastery, the guttural chanting of the monks could be heard. The monastery complex houses the main temple, living quarters, a library and a museum. Tourists are now required to pay a nominal fee for visiting the complex. The main temple houses a three storey high Buddha statue apart from priceless antique paintings (thangkas), beautifully carved drums and statues of various Buddhist deities. The museum complex has priceless antiques associated with the monastery. The entry and tour to the Monastery is priced, as is the tour of the Museum with a premium on cameras. Thereafter we make our way upwards to one of the Ani Gompas closest to Tawang. Ani Gompas are basically nunneries and there are several around Tawang. Each nunnery consists of a small Gompa with attached hostels for the nuns. The road to the Gompa is scattered with bunkers from from the 1962 Indo-China War and it feels eerie as we walk around the spots where people fought and died. As we reach the Gompa, we see some Anis reading their texts while basking in the sun. Others went about more mundane tasks such as collecting water, firewood and grinding grain. The Anis are famous for the herbal incense that they make but we see no evidence of it. In fact the packet variety seems to have taken over. The Gompa itself is nothing much to write home about but it was new experience for both of us to visit a nunnery. Another interesting feature was a prayer wheel rotated by water which as expected was frozen.

Further up beyond the Ani Gompa lie PT Tso Lake and Lake Sangetsar. The route we take is supposed to have been taken by Guru Nanak on his way to China. Both PT Tso and Sangetsar are frozen over and it is not difficult to see Madhuri prancing away on the ice-covered lake with an amorous Sharukh in tow. Beyond lies the Taksang Gompa, this is so named because of the imprint of a tiger’s pug on a rock nearby. The Gompa itself is very mysterious with the Head Lama having a human skull for a wine cup and a human thighbone for a smoking pipe. As it was getting dark and the weather was turning ominous, we decide to return to Tawang.

The next morning, the sun is shining gloriously we make good our escape across the Sela before it closed up. After one very long drive we reach Bomdila where we check into a tongue twister of hotel called Siphiyang Phong, named after a local peak. The hotel has definitely seen better days but is a relief after the 8-hour drive from Tawang. We go down to the market briefly and see some potential for shopping, which we leave for the next day. The last day is a lazy one as we only have 5-6 hours of travel to Tezpur. The morning is devoted to shopping more for near and dear ones rather than for ourselves. We are stuck in a tremendous traffic jam at Nechiphu due an early afternoon mist but manage to reach Tezpur safe and sound.

The next day we hear that tourists are marooned in Tawang due to heavy snowfall at Sela.

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