Arunachal Pradesh - High horse


I am not what you would call a superstitious person. I don’t have a sweaty, soiled handkerchief in my pocket that I believe will help me charm the garters off the general populace. You won’t catch me taping my cricket bat to the ceiling before a game, as a certain South African player does. If a black cat saunters across my path, my immediate reaction is to make a variety of ingratiating noises (not to mention a complete spectacle of myself) in an effort to pet it. I don’t fling salt or any other chemical compound over my shoulder, mainly because I tried it once in boarding school and deposited the stuff in some innocent’s eye (this led to a nasty incident and put me off salt for quite a while). Show me a ladder leaned against a wall and I’ll happily walk under it.

It came as a surprise even to me, therefore, when I found myself almost 14,000 feet above the nearest beach, wondering if my stars were a bit off-kilter. Readers may remember my Kafka-esque encounter with the Assam police in the previous issue. Well, I had just spent the most delightful week in Kaziranga, forgotten all about the episode and had then decided to go to Tawang, a couple of days drive away. Motoring up to the snow-bound Sela pass, I took the hardy Invader around a tight bend and found an army truck coming downhill. In these parts, there is essentially only one rule: the army is always right. Dutifully, I pulled over to the left to allow the truck to go. The driver, however, flew into a panic and slammed on his brakes, instead of simply trundling sedately past me. Big army truck + panic braking + ice on the do the math. The behemoth went into a slow, graceful slide that was quite aesthetic, except that it slid slowly, gracefully and quite aesthetically into the side of my jeep.

I got out via the passenger seat to survey the damage and promptly sank knee-deep into snow, soaking my shoes and jeans. ‘Thank you very much’, I said to no-one in particular as well as the world at large. I went up to the truck driver who was looking intensely at the two vehicles, as if he expected them to separate through sheer force of will, and scratching his head. ‘I think I hit you’, he said. ‘Really? You don’t say!’, I thought. To be fair, he was genuinely apologetic and appeared to be new to the conditions (he was from Dharmapuri in Tamil Nadu, where you’re about as likely to see snow as you are Britney Spears in a nunnery). After a bit of backing-and-forthing, we managed to disentangle ourselves and went on our way, me to Tawang and him to make funny faces at the Chinese or disarm insurgents or whatever the army does around here. Like I said, I’m normally not superstitious, but all the fun and games that I was experiencing in the north-east now made me want to reach for the nearest pile of coconuts and crack open a few. I tried to look on the bright side, though – at least I got broadsided in Arunachal Pradesh, one of the most beautiful places on the face of the planet.

Given that it is so singularly spectacular, you would have thought that Arunachal Pradesh would be teeming with tourists, especially when you consider our penchant for milking everything for all its worth. Funnily enough, it was not until 1992 that even Indian citizens, let alone foreigners, were allowed to come here (this is, after all, a militarily sensitive zone, bordering Tibet, Burma and Bhutan). Before that, hardly anyone knew anything about the area; there are still some places here that haven’t been explored yet. Let me at this juncture give you a few mildly irritating facts . Did you know, for example, that the first rays of the morning sun hit Arunachal Pradesh and not the Andaman islands, as is  popularly believed? It is also India’s most sparsely populated state and almost 60% of it is forested, making it the greenest in the country (although how long that will last is anyone’s guess, since we also have a penchant for instantly destroying any forests we come across). There are practically no records relating to the earlier history of this area except some oral literature and a number of historical ruins found mainly in the foothills, dating from the early Christian Era.   Frankly, when you’re driving up to Tawang the last thing you’re likely to be thinking about is ancient history. I’m not laying claim to having been there or having done that, but I’ve seen a bit of the country over the last while and driven some routes that are easy on the eye. The scenery here, however, is something else; I began to realise the true import of the term ‘jaw-dropping’ after I had driven a few kilometres into the state. The winding road at first passes through dense forests of an impossible shade of emerald green, which gradually give way to fruit orchards and terraced wheat-fields as you climb higher and, as you near the Sela Pass, it gradually begins to become barren, the landscape is all craggy-rock-and-snow and you’re surrounded by the Eastern Himalayas. It was all I could do to tear my eyes away from it all and concentrate on the road, something I managed to do long enough to reach Tawang.

The peaceful little town, surrounded by the mountains, is known chiefly for its 17th century monastery, the largest of its kind in India and the second largest in Asia. It also has the most astonishingly pretty Arunachali girls, another excellent reason to visit. ‘Tawang’, although it sounds rather like a guitar-string snapping, actually means “chosen by a horse” in Tibetan. Said horse, belonging to Mera Lama, the founder of the Tawang Monastery, wandered off and refused to go any further after reaching the place where the monastery today stands. He saw this as a celestial sign and built the monastery there. Although I can’t quite grasp the logic behind this (imagine what would happen if people went around indiscriminately building monasteries every time a horse stopped in its tracks), it was a very good thing for all concerned because it is an absolutely fascinating place to wander around in.

Also known as the ‘Galden Namgyal Lhatse’, the 400 year old monastery of the Mahayana sect occupies a commanding position on top of a hill and is built like a fortress. Indeed, there was a period when the monks had to regularly repulse attacks by the Dukpas of Bhutan, and some bullet marks are still visible on the walls. It is a vast complex of buildings – a veritable treasure house of ancient gold-lettered scriptures, priceless images, painted tapestries and books; a living, breathing structure where hundreds of Lamas go about the business of daily life. It isn’t so much a monastery as an ancient city, full of alleys and narrow lanes flanked by little whitewashed buildings that serve as lodgings for the monks. I realised that the system was much like the one at any boarding school, where one senior monk lives with a whole bunch of younger brats and tries valiantly to get them to read their scriptures and clean behind their ears and whatnot. According to tradition, every Buddhist family with more than three sons must send one son to the monastery to become a monk, so there are lots of giggly boys in maroon robes scampering all over the place, terrorising either the elder monks or the many dogs that live here (usually both).

The Dukhang, or the main temple, is of course the most important section of the monastery. The interior of the building, which is in traditional Buddhist architectural style, was exquisitely decorated with paintings, murals, carvings and sculptures and housed a gigantic idol of the Buddha, looking beatific as always. Here’s a couple more mildly irritating facts – the idol is hollow, is filled with scriptures and it can be dismantled. Neat, eh? I went inside with a suitably respectful air and lit some incense sticks. I wasn’t sure whether you could wish for something or not, so I did anyway. I’m not telling you exactly what, but it involved things like a lifetime supply of chocolate ice-cream and world domination.   After walking around in a pleasant reverie for what seemed like a whole month, I headed back towards the Invader. The sun was beginning to set and the mountains were glowing. Monks were gliding about silently, probably going back to their dormitories to warm their hands by a fire. The long-suffering dogs had curled up in their favourite corners, all set for forty winks.  There was a distinct nip in the air and I wished I had an additional jacket handy. Still, the cold would work my appetite up to the point where I could murder a bowl of yak momos or three. At the gate, I stopped by a row of prayer wheels and contemplated whether to give them a whirl. I’ve always felt rather silly about doing things like this, but at that moment I couldn’t quite figure it out. Then I thought about my intimate encounter with the army truck, which was all the impetus I needed. I walked along the row, spinning the wheels one by one. After all, you never
know when you’ll need that extra bit of luck.


I decided to get my hair cut in Tawang and walked into one of the many barbers shops. While getting my high-altitude haircut, I asked the barber why there were so many of his ilk in such a small town. ‘All these young fellows have no work, all they do is spend their parents’ money on clothes, shoes and haircuts. That’s why there’s so many of us’, he said. ‘They also get up to all sorts of dirty things with these girls’, he added, looking distinctly sour that nobody got up to anything dirty with him. Things won’t be quite as bad as that for you, but once you’ve seen the fabulous monastery, there’s not much to do in Tawang itself. You could do a bit of shopping in the handicrafts emporiums, most of which are run by effervescent ladies who’ll charm you into paying exorbitant prices before you know what’s hit you. A must-do is a visit to the stupa in Zemithang, 93 km away and an exhilarating drive. The Dalai Lama came through here when he fled from Tibet, which is only 13 km away. As a matter of fact, you’re effectively in Tibet, because Zemithang used to be a part of Tibet before various politicians began to criss-cross the landscape with boundary lines. Nearer Tawang is the Urgelling monastery, where the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, was born. There’s only a little temple left here, but it’s a wonderfully quiet and picturesque spot.

Tawang has decent accommodation options. Hotel Alpine (Ph: 03794–222515) has rooms from Rs 500 onwards with TV and hot water. Hotel Buddha (Ph: 03794–222359) offers similar facilities at the same prices, but is slightly more cheerful. Cheaper options are HotelNefa (Ph: 03794–222419) at Rs 250 onwards and Hotel Shangrila (Ph: 03794–222275) at Rs 300 onwards. There is a very nice circuit house too, with great views of the mountains, but the only snag is that you could be unceremoniously evicted if a VIP happens to show up.