From barren to bountiful, the road plunged deep into the yawning Tawang Valley and the heartland of the Monpa ethnic group. On clear days you can just about discern the pale distant outline of Tawang Monastery while Gorichen – one of Arunachal’s highest peaks, bordering Tibet – soars to the east at the valley’s head. Dozens of elongated switchbacks eventually saw us down to the river, across a single-lane bridge festooned with prayer flags and then up the northern slopes to reach Tawang.
High above the valley floor, Tawang is a workaday place of mostly low, functional buildings, a practical bazaar and neat army quarters. Its great monastery, built in the 1640s and perched on a hillside spur, dominates the town almost like a fortress. Three centuries ago, Bhutan was the Monpas’ enemy, and medieval bullet holes allegedly pepper some of the monastery’s outer walls. We stepped through its fortified right-angled gateway and into a cluster of narrow lanes lined with simple houses, occupied by many of Tawang s 430 monks.
Fronted by a flagstone courtyard, the Dukhang, or assembly hall, stands at the heart of the complex. Early most mornings it’s a hive of monks and novices but now it was still and silent. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom, I saw its walls swirled with murals of saints, divinities and Buddhist mythology. The main altar was a medley of statuary, richly decorated brocade, white ceremonial scarves and thangka scroll paintings, all dominated by a 7.5111-high gleaming Buddha statue.
I got chatting to an elderly monk who outlined the monastery’s history; he told me how its perimeter was determined by a ball of yarn given by the fifth Dalai Lama. Back in 1959, the young, exhausted 14th Dalai Lama rested here for a few days when fleeing from Tibet. “His Holiness has since returned a few times,” he continued, “and in 2009 he consecrated our museum.”
The museum, a simple room in a modern building, stands beside the main courtyard. Labelled in English and Tibetan, its display cases hold an array of jewellery and strange relics including a trumpet made from a human thigh bone, a skull cup and the sixth Dalai Lama’s thunderbolt sceptre. “The sixth, you know, was born in Tawang three centuries ago,” explained the monk, underlining how for centuries this was a notable outpost of the Tibetan world. That reincarnation could, of course, happen here again.
From Tawang, you can easily walk in the surrounding hills and pause at a couple of small nunneries. But the stand-out trip is to nearby Seru village with its imposing tower-like Monpa houses and dinky water-turned prayer wheels. Further down the Tawang Valley and just shy of the Bhutanese border, another spectacular road heads north by the Nyamjang River to Zemithang and on into Tibet. Just below Zemithang, the huge whitewashed Gorsam stupa bears a striking resemblance to Kathmandu’s Swayambhunath, its all-seeing Buddha eyes gazing like sentinels across the pretty, steep-sided valley.