Some 180km beyond Bomdila, the great Buddhist monastery of TAWANG, the largest in India, dominates the land of the Monpas. Perched at around 3500m and looking out onto a semicircle of peaks, snow-capped for much of the year, Tawang town feels very much like the end-of-the-road place it is. It is cold here most of the time, so bring your thermals.
Tawang Monastery, established in the seventeenth century when this area was part of Greater Tibet, was the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. The colourful fortress-like complex, a couple of kilometres beyond the town, houses around five hundred monks and is renowned for its collection of manuscripts and thangkas. There is a small museum (Rs20) filled with Buddhist ornaments and relics, and a library. The main shrine room is richly decorated and has several statues, including a beautiful thousand-armed Chenrezig (or Avalokitesvara). If you’re lucky the monks may invite you in for a cup of salted yak-butter tea. Much to the displeasure of the Chinese government, the present Dalai Lama – who passed through Tawang in 1959 after being forced out of Tibet – visited the monastery in late 2009.
Two ani gompas (nunneries) are visible from the main gate, clinging to the steep mountain slopes in the distance. They can be reached on foot in a couple of hours or by vehicle on a road that passes through a military camp and therefore requires a permit. A 5km ropeway connecting Tawang with the ani gompas was being constructed at the time of research.
Tawang is a friendly town, with festivals held throughout the year. The three-day Torgya celebration is staged every January to ward off evil spirits and natural disasters and the week-long Losar (Buddhist New Year) festival is held in February or early March, with more dancing and festivities.
Beyond Tawang, very close to the Tibetan border, is the lake district of Bangachangsa. Dotted with pristine high-altitude lakes, small gompas and caves associated with Guru Rinpoche, it is sacred to Tibetan Buddhists and Sikhs – Guru Nanak visited the region twice, hence the small Sikh gurudwara. There is no public transport but challenging treks can be arranged at Hotel Pemaling in Dirang or the tourist office in Bomdila.