20.10.2006 0 °C
It was a mystical journey to a destination far too divine to describe in words. Perhaps it's a paradise on this very earth itself. As we soared high up into the mountains on a three-day-long sojourn, it was as if our very souls were uplifted to make us feel heavenly and pure. The journey began in the plains of Dibrugarh, situated in the eastern fringes of the state of Assam in India's North East province. At the call of the rooster, Siddarth honked his car in front of my residence.
I was up early after a toss-and-turn night, excited as I contemplated our hilly outing. Our destination: Tawang, situated high up in the West Kameng district in God's own good old virgin land of Arunachal Pradesh. Papay the witty, Bimal the giant, Shanu the confused, Siddarth the excited and not to forget Masud da, our friend, philosopher and guide, were quite a wholesome bunch to travel with.
Entry to a Forbidden Land
After a day-long drive, passing through the plains of Upper Assam, we reached Bhalukpung, the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border point by early evening. From here entry is forbidden. After officials at the check gate in Bhalukpung carefully scrutinized our travel documents, the barricaded gate was lifted and we drove gradually into their territory. Driving a little ahead we checked into the tourist bungalow.
This bungalow was a double storied wooden structure, the typical chang ghar i.e. raised above the ground on a wooden platform. The location of the bungalow was situated alongside the fast flowing blue-watered Jia-Bhorali river providing a mesmerizing view. Soon after dusk, the campfire seemed to ignite both body and mind as we discussed the journey ahead. Finishing an early dinner we packed ourselves off to bed, as we had to start our next lap early next morning.
After a hurried breakfast, we got going. A bit beyond Bhalukpung, it was a different country altogether! We were wonder struck at the scenic beauty. The climb got steeper as we scaled ahead but I remember we stopped our car countless times, since each turn displayed sceneries more picturesque than the last.
Lofty white waterfalls gave the impression as if someone had placed a piece of frothy white linen against a backdrop of deep greenish-blue mountains. Thick lush green Pine, Oak and Rhododendron forests abound on both sides of the serpentine road as we moved ahead. By early afternoon we glided down towards the Dirang valley where stopped for a delicious lunch of rice and lamb meat.
As the altitude increased the air got thinner and we experienced some pain in our eardrums. By mid afternoon we reached Bomdila, the district headquarters of West Kameng district where we had a taste of local momos and thupas.
Late afternoon we reached Sange, a sleepy hamlet with a few scattered cottages and shacks. After dumping our luggage in the local tourist lodge we trekked down the hill to the local basti below. The residents, mostly Monpa tribals were the sweetest people to be with as we shared a few local myths and drinks.
Home they Brought the Warrior Dead
After a fast French bath early next morning, we commenced on the final lap of our journey. The weather was sunny as we contemplated getting a good view of the Sela Pass ahead. Just before reaching Sela Pass we had to pass Jaswantgarh. It is at this historic place that the valiant Jaswant Singh of the Indian army sacrificed his life, fighting against the advancing Chinese in the 1962 Indo-Sino conflict.
The Chinese were advancing at incredible speed. None seemed capable of stopping them. It was on November 17, 1962, that Jaswant Singh, assisted by Trilok Singh Negi and Gopal Singh Gosai, volunteered to silence an enemy MMG position that had come close to our defenses.
The MMG was duly brought back and handed over to the HQ 62 INF Brigade. However while returning, Negi and Jaswant Singh were martyred while Gopal Singh, gruesomely injured, came back with the captured weapon. It is said that Jaswant Singh checked the Chinese advance for 72 long hours. He totally confused the Chinese by firing upon them while changing his bunker positions repeatedly.
The Chinese were under the impression that there were countless Indian soldiers in that position. As the story goes, Jaswant had two local sweethearts - Sela and Nura who was providing him with food as he held back the advancing Chinese. In one instance when her father was bringing food for Jaswant, the Chinese soldiers caught him and from his revelation, came to know that it wasn't numerous Indian soldiers who were holding them back but just one daring Indian.
Realizing this, the Chinese gradually encircled the hill as Jaswant continued firing knowing fully well the outcome. He knew that the Chinese would capture him alive and gradually torture him to death. But he didn't let this happen. He tied a wire around his neck and hanged himself in the very bunker from where he fired his last shots.
After his death it is believed that Jaswant's spirit guarded the place and he is said to have gained the status of an avatar. Henceforth, he came to be known as Jaswant Baba and the place was christened Jaswantgarh.
Pristine Beauty in a Virgin Land
Beyond Jaswantgarh the landscape suddenly turned bizarre and barren. Thick fog made visibility very poor as we approached Sela Pass situated at a height of 13,921 feet. This is the second highest motorable pass in the world - the highest being in Ladakh. As we alighted from our car to get a good view of the pass, icy winds blowing at high velocity almost ripped us apart.
We were speechless as we stood by the majestic Paradise lake with its greenish blue water. We just could stop gazing at its heavenly splendor. We were so wonderstruck at the pristine and virgin beauty that we stood there motionless for quite a while.
With utter reluctance we made our way ahead. From Sela Pass we started downhill passing through isolated sleepy mountain villages till we finally reached Tawang by early evening. Tawang is situated at a height of 10,200 feet. After getting accommodation in the tourist lodge, we moved out to the mall to mingle with the locals.
The mall is indeed a shopper's paradise for those interested in ethnic stuff. Items ranging from delicate Chinese crockery to fine Chinese silk, carpets to jackets abound in shops with smiling Monpa girls luring all the customers they can.
Chosen by the Horse
The next morning was bright and sunny as we made our way to the famous Tawang Monastery. Perched atop a ridge and surrounded by thick clouds and white mist, the Tawang Monastery seemed to be suspended from heaven in an equally ethereal space. It is one of the oldest and the largest Buddhist monastery in Asia and can accommodate more than 700 monks.
The monastery has elaborately painted wooden windows and other motifs. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. Monpa Lama Loore Gyaltso, who was popularly known as Mera Lama, established the monastery in 1643-47 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobsang Gyatso.
There is an interesting legend that goes behind the establishment of the monastery and its name. The name Tawang signifies chosen by horse. Ta means horse while wang means chosen. As the legend goes the site of the monastery was chosen by Mera Lama's horse.
Mera Lama who was unable to decide upon the site to establish the monastery was one day meditating in a cave seeking divine guidance. When he came out after finishing his meditation he realized that his horse was missing.
He started looking for his horse and finally was able to locate his horse standing quietly atop a hill. He considered this as divine guidance and decided to construct the monastery at that very spot where he found his horse.
The original name of the Tawang Monastery was Golden Namgyal Lhatse and it is majestically seated on a ridge 2760 meters high. It overlooks the Tawang Chu Valley, at a point where routes from Tibet, Bhutan and West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh meet. When the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, his route into India was through Tawang, and he still visits the area regularly to hold special prayers.
A panoramic view of the entire Tawang Valley is a must see from the monastery. Spending a good part of the day in the monastery, we moved out for some sight seeing in and around Tawang.
Driving a few kilometers beyond Tawang we reached Te Gompa, a nunnery situated on a cliff like a hanging nest. Ladies and girls in maroon garbs kept moving the prayer wheels and continued chanting, unmindful of our presence.
From the Mountains to the Plains
After a sumptuous breakfast the next morning, we made our way beyond Tawang. Habitation is very sparse but the roads maintained by the Border Roads Organization are splendid indeed. Cut off from civilization, only a few scattered villages of these mountain people can be seen. They are majestic and pure as the mountains themselves. We stopped for a cold lunch by the side of a silvery waterfall, munching our tuna and ham sandwiches.
Finally, we reached Zemithang, the last Indian point beyond which lies Chinese territory. At stone's throw distance we saw cheerful Chinese soldiers guarding their frontiers upright. As our journey descended down the mountains and back to the plains, the memories of these hardy mountain people living a life of mysticism in a land amid the clouds provided us with a new vigor to surge ahead in the journey of our own lives.