Tawang located in the western corner of Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most sought after travel destinations of Northeast India. It is visited by numerous pilgrims practicing Buddhist faith and also by travelers who are captivated by the scenic beauty of the eastern Himalayas. Tawang is located at a high elevation of 2600m beyond the snowy peaks of Sela pass and is bordered by China to its north and Bhutan on its west. Tawang was historically known as Mon-yul, or land of the Monpa tribe, in Tibetan language. It is also a region of numerous Buddhist monasteries, mountain lakes and rare wild flowers. Ideally, visitors should spend at least three full days to explore Tawang and its nearby attractions. Some of the popular and offbeat attractions in and around the area are:
Tawang Monastery, also known as Gaden Namgye Lhatse, is the main attraction of Tawang and is the largest monastery in India. It was historically the palace of Monpa King Kala Wangpo where monk Merak Lama established a monastery in 1680 to teach principles of Buddhism to the native Monpa people. The monastery houses more than four hundred monks. The Dukhang is the main altar where the monks gather for prayers, all ceremonial dances are held in its courtyard. The Parkhang library is also a heritage structure which stores age old manuscripts. The monastery also has a museum which displays religious objects and artifacts from Tibet and Tawang.
Brahmadung Nunnery, popularly known as the Anni Gompa is another important Buddhist center which is frequently visited. It is the oldest nunnery in the vast region, built around five hundred years ago by a Tibetan lama. It is located slightly away from the town and offers a view of the surrounding lofty mountains. The nunnery has several quarters housing many Buddhist nuns. The newly opened ropeway between Tawang monastery and Anni Gompa is an enjoyable ride and a delightful experience of traveling across the mountains.
- Urgelling Monastery is a historic four hundred year old monastery, famed as the birth place of the Dalai Lama VI, who was a native of Tawang. This monastery was destroyed during the Mongol attacks and battles between Tibetans and Bhutanese, only a small structure remains today. It is a peaceful spot with very few visitors around. Native Monpas are seen praying around an age old holy tree which was planted by the Dalai Lama VI.
- Craft centre of Tawang exhibits some of the finest displays of traditional and religious art and crafts of the Monpa people. Wood carving, weaving, paper making, carpet-making, Thangkha painting, mask making and pottery are some of the arts in which the Monpas excel, a sign of fascinating development of culture throughout the ages. Traditional crafts such as Chotze furnitures, Shongbu utensils, bronze statues, religious masks, incense sticks and felt shoes can be also purchased directly from the artisans at the Emporium nearby and also assist to the cause of responsible tourism.
- Tawang War Memorial honors the brave soldiers of the 1962 Indo-China war which was fought in this region. It is located at the entrance of Tawang town and is visited by numerous travelers who pay homage to the martyrs. The memorial also has a beautiful Stupa and the names of 2420 Indian soldiers who fought the war. Artifacts of the 1962 war has been beautifully preserved by the army in a small museum.
- Khinmey monastery is the only major shrine of the Nyingmapa sect (red hat) of Tawang region. The Nyingmapas were the majority sect in Tawang región in the earlier times before the emergence of Gelugpa sect (yellow hat) of Tawang monastery. It is a large and beautiful monastery located near Lhou village below Tawang. According to legend, this was the spot where the great hermit Kudun Sangey Rinpoche tamed several barking hunting dogs while meditating. The hunters were surprised to discover this and offered the forest to the hermit to establish a monastery. This six hundred year old monastery was later rebuilt into a grand artistic structure.
The landscape in the region beyond Tawang opens up into spectacular high altitude pastures and wetlands, like nature’s eye-candy. Travelers can go on a day trip towards Bum La pass (allowed for Indian travelers only) near China (South Tibet) border to enjoy the scenic beauty of the Tsongatser lake, Pangatengso lake, Y-point landscape, meditation cave and Taktsang monastery (required to obtain the special border permits a day in advance from DC office). Another secret plan can be to travel towards Bhutan to visit Zemithang village (accessible for foreigners, no special permits required) of the Monpa tribe to see the traditional lifestyle of the people and also the large Gorsam Stupa, which is a sacred pilgrimage site and resembles like the colossal Boudhanath Stupa of Nepal. For those interested in birdwatching can travel towards Bhajagang lakes where one can migratory birds in the wetlands and also see a large variety of rhododendrons and orchids.
Lhou and Kitpi villages near Tawang are also worth a visit. The Manjushree Vidyapeeth is an orphanage run by the Buddhist monks and is on the way to Lhou. It is open for visitors and many even offer help for the welfare of this institution. The scenic Kitpi village is a wonderful place to observe the traditional architecture and the rural lifestyle of the Monpa people. Short hikes are possible to the nearby sacred hotspring and the Chag-zom bridge, which is the only historical suspension iron bridge in India. It was built over the Tawang river about six hundred years ago by Tibetan Lama Thangthong Gyalpo, who built several iron bridges in the eastern Himalayas, this is the only surviving bridge in this region.
Jhamtse Gatsal is a community, home and school for about 90 children who come from nearby villages. Coming from various problems, the school’s goal is to provide the children with a better future and enable them in reaching their fullest potential. The community focuses on the wholesome development of a child by activities such as education, cultural preservation, family bonds, community outreach, food & gardening, healthcare and sustainable living. Volunteering here is highly recommended and the school assists interested individuals find a temporary vocation which will benefit the children. Tashi and the Monk is an heartwarming award winning, independent documentary about the community.
Buddhism in Arunachal Pradesh is our experiential tour to the wonderlands of Tawang and beyond, covering cultural interactions with the native Buddhist tribes, staying in homestays and enjoying the landscape and nature.
When to visit?
Due to the remoteness and the edgy climatic conditions of the area, only a few months a year allow visitors to plan a trip to Tawang. The best time to visit Tawang are between October to November and between March to April. For those interested in experiencing snow, winters are ideal, but winters can sometimes be harsh as temperatures fall as low as -10 Celsius. For culture enthusiasts, Torgya Festival (January), Losar New year (February/March) and Saga Dawa (May) are recommended time to visit. Around late April and May the region comes alive with varied flora. Most of western Arunachal Pradesh remains unaccessible and can only be explored by trekking for which August to October are the recommended time. Three full days are sufficient to cover all attractions in and around Tawang.
Seasons of the Sun!
Tawang finds four seasons every year. The winters last from November to March when the weather gets really cold, especially in the nights. Day hours during the winters are comfortably warm and sunny. From April to October, the weather changes from spring to fall, with a mix of rainy and sunny days with overall humidity. The rains peak during the monsoons from July to mid September.
Where to stay?
Due to Tawang’s location in extreme mountains and government’s inability to provide sufficient infrastructure, there are only a handful of options to stay in Tawang and none are of the luxurious kind. The newly opened Hotel Mon Paradise and Hotel Gakyi Khang Zhang are recommended as the best available in town but they are ordinary and provide decent hospitality and service. Backpackers can talk with the monasteries around town to find nominal lodging or stay in a basic hotel. As usual, Trip Advisor is a great place to find recently reviewed properties.