Spiritual Trails

A Spiritual sojourn in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh

We live in the age of skyscrapers, airplanes, intelligent machines, and smart gadgets that were designed to make us happy. They did make life easier yet, many of us feel devoid of long-lasting happiness and a sense of fulfillment.

I set out on a journey to seek my way to happiness that was not short-lived and certainly, not based on materialistic possessions. Ancient religions were likely to have the answer.

I felt blessed to be born in India, the land of Buddha, where the major world religion of Buddhism took birth 2500 years ago. The answers I sought, were not far, but closer at home.

I arrived Guwahati by noon and decided to continue the journey to Tawang after a night’s rest.

The traveler in me was unable to stay calm at the thought of leaving half a day in Guwahati, unexplored.

I finally decided to take an evening river cruise on the mighty Brahmaputra. The best way to enjoy the sunset in Guwahati. I took a cycle rickshaw to reach the ferry terminal for boarding and excitedly took my seat reserved at the open upper deck of the vessel. The river was mightier than I had imagined it to be. While the rivers of north-east India were mostly christened with feminine names, Brahmaputra was an exception. It was called the ‘Brahmaputra’ translated as the ‘Son of Lord Brahma’.

I sipped the freshly brewed Assam tea peacefully gazing over the river. I could see boats of fishermen returning with their catch. The river was an important source of livelihood in Assam but was harsh during the rainy season, destructively flooding the region.

Onboard the cruise, I treated my eyes to a wonderful sunset experience with soft Assamese music being played in the background. As the sun disappeared on the horizon, I turned to explore the deck. The live performance of Bihu was captivating. Performers and dancers tapped to the rhythm of traditional Assamese music. The heavenly looking food platters and dessert spread suggested dinner. I indulged in tantalizing specialties of the region and watched the city lit up in a million lights across the river.

The cruise ride ended soon after. I returned back to my lodging and retired to rest for an early start. I couldn’t wait to reach Tawang.

Experiences for a memorable holiday in Guwahati

  • Spend a day in wildlife at the Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary, a two- hours journey from Guwahati. Don’t miss the early-morning elephant ride in the sanctuary.
  • Visit Kamakhya temple- A temple without an image or idol of a deity but a geological formation that symbolizes the power of procreation. Caution: There are animal sacrifices performed which may seem disturbing to many.
  • Ride over the Saraighat bridge- The rail cum road bridge over the river Brahmaputra that connects the north-east region of the country with the rest of India
  • Be enthralled by various performing- art shows at Shrimanta Shankardeva Kalakshetra
  • Eat as the locals do at ‘Missing Kitchen’ a no-frills restaurant with basic setup at Ganeshguri, Guwahati
  • Unwind and relax on a scenic evening cruise over the river-just the way I did!

I took an early morning taxi service to Tawang via Tezpur and Bomdila. It was a full day panoramic journey. The driver made it entertaining by playing radio and where there was no signal, he continued to entertain me with the local customs and stories of the Bodoland.

Beautiful wildflowers smiled in the sunlight along the u-pin bends of the hilly roads. I stopped at a military canteen midway and bought myself a cup of tea and a plate of samosas as refreshments.

Dewdrops that gathered on the windowpane of the car indicated increasing altitude and at once, I squeezed into a warm cardigan. We were greeted by misty clouds now and then. They queued up on the windward side of the mountains and the weather changed early evening. The driver suggested it was best to make a stop in Bomdila overnight, acclimatize and continue the journey at dawn, the next day. Bomdila was the headquarters of the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. It was a colorful town on an altitude of 2415 m and had several tourist-friendly lodges and shopping options.

Places of Interest on the Guwahati- Tawang route

  • Kaziranga National Park- Watch one-horned Rhinos at Kaziranga, an hour’s journey from Tezpur
  • Nag Temple – A legendary temple dedicated to snakes on the Tawang road.
  • Tipi Orchidarium( An orchid research center in Bomdila housing 500 varieties of orchids )
  • Apple orchards of Bomdila
  • Hot water springs at Dirang
  • Craft center and ethnographic museum – Shop for high-quality carpets
  • Bomdila monastery of the Mahayana sect of Buddhism

The Monks, the Monastery and the Monpas

I reached Tawang by noon the following day. The journey had sure been exhausting but did not diminish my excitement. Some lanes in Tawang were very narrow and scrambled along with the houses in an unorderly fashion revealing open drains.

The monastery was a mile’s distance from the tourist lodging, where I kept my bag and took a walk to reach there. The surroundings were quiet and dogs lay lazily soaking in the sun, undisturbed by my presence. Poultry ran freely near the cottages with an occasional hop on tinkling bicycles of students riding to school. I was greeted by local women who were on their way to work on the farm. I could hear infants cooing in the cloth- back pouch tied firmly to their shoulders.

A bunch of young monks directed me to follow them to the monastery. Dressed in ruby robes, they carried water pitchers in their hand while their smile revealed some missing teeth.

They giggled among themselves watching me struggle on the uphill climb. I couldn’t help laughing at myself too!

A blue-throated barbet, sitting on a tree curiously eyed me as I entered the colorful Kakaling (a gate-like structure). The place looked like a small town in itself. Clean and well-kept roads inside helped me navigate to different fractions within the monastery. I saw a triple storeyed building with a large assembly hall.

There were ten other functional structures and sixty -five residential quarters for students, lamas, and the monks. There was a school, a museum and a center for Buddhist cultural studies. I came across an in-house printing press used for printing religious books with locally made paper and printed with wooden blocks.

Tawang monastery looked like a large fortress when seen from the close- by Jaswantgarh war memorial.

Tawang monastery is also known as “Galden Namgey Lhatse” (translated as ‘celestial paradise in a clear sky’). Buddhist architectural elements were prominently seen and various Tibetan thangka paintings came alive on the walls of the monastery. A series of prayer wheels (which are turned in the clockwise direction, I learned.) greeted me on my way to the main building. I saw an aged monk guiding a young student, of about twelve years on discipline and the way of life in the monastery.

I was lucky to come across a monk who spoke frail Hindi and had served for a while in a monastery in Karnataka, in the southern part of India. He was kind to answer my queries on life, happiness, meditation. He elaborated on the difference between a lama and a monk. A lama would be a master of Tibetan Buddhism while a monk is a male member of a monastic order who has devoted his life for religious service, he further explained that the youngest son of a Monpa tribal household was customarily inducted into the monastery, for a life-long commitment and there were heavy penalties levied if one wished to leave the monastic order.

The sixth Dalai Lama who was born in Tawang , belonged to the Monpa tribe, one of the major tribes and linguistic groups of the region.

The main temple of the monastery was divinely adorned with murals, paintings, carvings, and sculptures inspired by the Gelug School of Vajrayana Buddhism. I saw monks praying in the Dukhang(main temple) while the local tribal villagers of the Monpa tribe sought their blessings. Some prayed for a good harvest, some for their children, while some prayed for the safety of their farmlands from wild boars and harvest -eating animals.

A large decorated image of Buddha, seated on a lotus in the temple made me realize how trivial I was, in terms of knowledge and existence There was a silver casket, next to the Buddha image that held a thangka painting of Palden Lhamo, a guardian deity of the monastery often compared to goddess kali from the Hindu mythological scriptures. I sat in silence for the next hour, meditating to the rhythm of the singing bowl, in the light of a hundred lamps that illuminated my spiritual existence.

I reckoned that while some monasteries that I earlier visited in northern India were largely commercialized, there were some like the Tawang monastery. Simple spiritual institutions easily accessible to anyone who wished to attend a spiritual discourse.

Reaching this monastery comprises of a long journey, which I felt was perhaps for self -reflection.

It tests your Determination (choosing a spiritual trip over luxury getaway where you may not feel like continuing midway, several times),  Patience (lack of network connectivity, humble tourist lodgings with little or no facilities), A difficult terrain (where mighty mountains alter the human ego),  Discipline (where you are effortlessly away from alcohol consumption, indulge in simple food, and hardly use a pair or two of clothing)

I found something, that was missing for a long time and felt happier than I did before. Someone had rightly said,

“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience…!”

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