Tata Sumo is essentially a 7-seater SUV. But when my friend Niraj and I reached the taxi stand in Tezpur, Assam, we discovered (much to our horror and amusement) that drivers squeeze in as many people as they can into their Sumos. By 5.30 am, our driver managed to pack 13 people inside his Sumo with three pigs on the top. He then said a quick prayer and we began our journey to the Frontier town of Tawang, high up in the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh. Situated at an altitude of 10,000 feet above sea level, Tawang is a picturesque town in North West Arunachal Pradesh. It’s a town of strategic importance owing to its proximity to the Indo-Chinese border. Tawang was once a part of South Tibet and is therefore claimed by China as a part of its territory.
The road to Tawang is snaky, narrow, bumpy, broken and steep. The only thing that kept us from exasperation was the sheer beauty of the surroundings. We encountered raging rivers, stunning waterfalls, beautiful green valleys, pristine lakes and snow-capped peaks. The drive wasn’t short of amusement either. Every now and then, one of the three pigs on the top would topple over the side, dangling on only by the rope that was tied to its legs to the roof luggage carrier. And every time that happened, I would promptly inform the driver, “Bhaiya, suar gir gaya”.
At 13,700 feet, we hit Sela Pass, which is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. This is where we encountered our first bout of altitude sickness. Our heads felt giddy and our breaths heavy. But that didn’t stop us from devouring bowls of hot Maggi noodles as we marveled at the sight of the vertiginous peaks that surrounded us, reflecting in all its glory on the water of the pristine Sela Lake.
We made a quick pit stop at Jaswantgarh War Memorial to pay respect to the legendary soldier Jaswant Singh Rawat, who along with two of his comrades repelled several Chinese attacks during the 1962 war, causing massive casualties to the invaders and forcing them to retreat. Legend has it—after the Chinese finally captured the post, they decapitated Jaswant Singh’s head and sent it to China. However, the Chinese commander was so impressed by Jaswant Singh’s bravery that after the ceasefire was announced he returned the soldier’s head to India, along with a brass bust of his. Today, this brass bust sits proudly at the Jaswantgarh War Memorial.
Dusk set in as we drove into the Tawang town, finally bringing down the curtains on our 12-hour journey. After checking into Hotel Sela, we sat down with the hotel’s amiable owner Tsering Lhamu and her sister Nawang for some hot chai and gup-chup, before heading out for a leisurely stroll around town. There wasn’t much to see as the sun had set in. And so we found our feet dragging us to a watering hole, which was the next best thing to do.
Mornings are quiet and peaceful in Tawang, and the stillness was soothing and calming. Nawang served us some traditional Tibetan butter tea and a sumptuous breakfast in the glasshouse located on the top floor of the hotel. We had a splendid 360 degree view of Tawang and the famous Tawang Monastery from the glass-house.
Sun rays peeping through the towering cliffs had bathed the town in a bright light. Tawang is breathtakingly beautiful, serene, sleepy and rugged. The town’s landscape is dominated by gargantuan mountains and the stunning Tawang Monastery. Monpas, the ethnic tribe that inhabit the valley, are a reflection of the land they live in. They are lovely, peace loving, polite and friendly. We were greeted with warm smiles and sweet ‘hellos’ wherever we went.
The Tawang Monastery is the largest monastery in India and the second-largest in the world. It sits imposingly on the top of a rolling hill, on the edge of the town, like a sentinel. It looks like a town on its own, bounded by a 925 feet long wall. There are 65 residential buildings inside the monastery, all of which have yellow roofs. At the entrance stands a colorful gate in the shape of a hut. The interior walls of the gate are painted with murals of saints and divinities. Inside the main temple is a beautiful 18 feet tall statue of Lord Buddha sitting in the lotus position. The statue is so tall that its head extends up to the first floor of the three-storied temple building. In the main temple, we were transfixed by the sounds of monks beating a drum and chanting a prayer. I felt contended and at peace.
I am a big fan of the Indian armed forces to who we owe a great deal. They have sacrificed their lives while protecting ours and keeping our country safe from enemies, both foreign and domestic. I was inevitably led to the Tawang War Memorial to pay homage to soldiers who sacrificed themselves in the 1962 war. Also known as ‘Namgyal Chorten’, the war memorial is built in the shape of a huge stupa. The memorial is rather beautiful with shades of different colors. Inside the memorial are names of 2420 Indian soldiers, engraved on granite plates, who perished while fighting Chinese invaders. My heart wept as I read their names.
After an early lunch, we hopped into another Sumo and drove up the mountain towards Madhuri Lake at 16,500 feet above sea level, right at the edge of the Indo-Chinese border. Originally known as ‘Sangestar Tso’, the lake became popular after a scene from the famous Bollywood movie ‘Koyla’, starring Madhuri Dixit, was shot at this lake. The road we traveled was the same road that the Dalai Lama and his followers took in 1959 to escape from Tibet and the Chinese who had occupied their land. The lake is flanked by tall mountains on two sides. The water is multi-hued due to the azure blue sky above and brown mountains around. Tree stumps jut out of the water, reminding us that once upon a time this lake used to be a forest. It was formed as an aftermath of an earthquake. It is astonishingly beautiful and a tad bit dreamlike to say the least. It’s the kind of place that would inspire poets and artists.
To get to the lake we drove through a mountain landscape that was interspersed with surreal beautiful lakes, mammoth cliffs and large army camps. The closer we got, the more men in uniform appeared. We could tell that we were in a frontier land. This was the veritable wild wild east.
A day later we rode back home, back to our lives. But glimpses of Tawang were playing in my mind like a slideshow. That’s the kind of place Tawang is. You can leave the place, but it never leaves you.