India (October-November 2019): Tawang and around


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The town of Tawang (population: 11,202, census of 2011; elevation: 2700m) is the headquarters of the Tawang district, the westernmost district of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This district borders Tibet to its north, Bhutan to its west and south, and the West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh to its south-east. The town of Tawang is home to the Tawang Gompa, the second largest Buddhist monastery in the world after the Drepung monastery near Lhasa in Tibet. The Tawang Gompa is also known in Tibetan as Gaden Namgyal Lhatse, which translates to ″celestial paradise in a clear night″.


View of the town from Tawang Gompa.



Left: Giant Buddha statue erected on the upper part of the town (it is visible on the left side of the previous photo). Right: Nearby smaller statue depicting Prince Siddhartha (Buddha) practicing rigorous discipline for six years in Uruvela forest to attain Enlightenment.




Tawang Gompa:


It was founded in 1680-1681 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso (1617-1682). It is built on a mountain spur oriented north to south, with steep slopes to the west and south, a gentler slope to the east, and a level but narrow access from the north along the ridge. The two main buildings are the Dukhang (the main temple) and the library (north of the Dukhang). They both stand on top of the spur′s ridge and are visible in the first photo below. They overlook several dozen residential quarters, most of them located on the eastern flank of the ridge. The monastery hosts approximately 500 monks, including novices and young apprentices (students).



Views of the monastery from the town. The first photo below was taken in the morning and the second one in the late afternoon. Both clearly show the Dukhang (large white building) on top of the ridge and the residential quarters (houses with yellow roofs) below the Dukhang on the eastern flank of the ridge. The sharp peak in the background is Chongchong Ma (4270m), which is regarded as a god and worshiped by all Monpas. Note also the very tall pole in the monastery; it is erected in the courtyard on the southern side of the Dukhang and is used to attach vertical prayer flags called Darchog.





View of Chongchong Ma at sunset.



Southeast entrance gate of the monastery complex.




In an alley across residential quarters.




The southern facade of the three-storied Dukhan, with a group of eight visitors from neighboring Bhutan on the esplanade.



Other views of the Dukhang in the early morning.





Tall Darchog pole erected on the esplanade in front (south) of the Dukhang.





Inside the magnificent prayer hall of the Dukhang decorated with a profusion of silk brocades and thangkas. The hall occupies a large space from ground to roof in the middle of the building. It is surrounded by interior balconies at the second and third floors.



Statue of Lord Buddha at the center of the northern wall of the Dukhang, seen from the ground floor (first photo below), the third floor (second photo), and the second floor (third and fourth photos).








Alignment of statues in the hall.



Early morning prayer for young monk apprentices, under the supervision of senior monks.







The recitation of mantras ends with a cup of Tibetan tea (tea mixed with butter and a bit of salt).



Some of the beautiful artefacts exposed in the museum of the monastery:

- Book containing 8000 verses of Prajnaparimita (″The Perfection of Wisdom″), all written in golden letters (17th century).



- Scripture invoking Palden Lhamo, who is considered the principal protectress of Tibet (17th century).



- Molds (17th century) used to create small clay figures, called tsa tsa, that are then placed on ledges of stupas and altars. Sometimes the clay is mixed with the ashes of a deceased or with medicinal substances.



- Painted wood carvings.




Brama Dung Chung ani gompa:


This ani gompa (nunnery) is located in the hills some 12kms northwest of the town of Tawang. Established in 1595, it is the oldest nunnery in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh. Today it is home for about 45 nuns (anis).


Statues in the gompa′s prayer room.







Old (and damaged) thangka in the prayer room.



Beautiful mandala painted on the ceiling of the prayer room.



Other paintings in the gompa.


Various manifestations of goddess Tara, with Green Tara at the top.


Another representation of Green Tara.



Gyangong ani gompa:


This other nunnery is located 5kms northwest of the center of Tawang, in the same area as the Brama Dung Chung nunnery. Home to about 50 nuns, it is under the control of the Tawang Gompa, which provides for the daily needs of the nuns. Nuns dress like male monks with saffron robes and shave their heads.


Partial view of the residential area.




Left: Building housing the main prayer hall. Right: Nun opening a side door leading into the prayer hall.




Inside the prayer hall.



Masks hanging in the prayer room.




Ceiling painting.



Urgelling gompa.


Located 5kms southeast of Tawang′s center, this gompa is modest in appearance, but quite significant historically, as it is the birthplace of Tsangyang Gyatso (1683-1706), the 6th Dalai Lama (the only Dalai Lama born in present-day Arunachal Pradesh). The gompa was founded in 1487 and later extended. But it was sacked by the Dzongar Mongols around 1714. Only nine old unassuming stupas remain today, some of which shown in the photo below. According to a legend, before leaving to Lhassa, Tsangyang Gyatso planted his walking stick in the ground next to the temple and a large tree grew out of it (second photo below). His soul is believed to reside in this tree.





Tawang Festival:

The relatively recent annual Tawang festival (held on October 28-31 in 2019) was established to attract more visitors to the Tawang district. However, reaching Tawang remains difficult and time consuming. So, visitors are still few and mostly from neighboring regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. I only attended the parade on October 29 in the main street of central Tawang. This parade consisted of a potpourri of short versions of Monpa pantomime dances. Each Monpa village has its favorite dances, most of which are several centuries old. When one such dance is played in a village, it is much longer, depending of the pantomime story. In the festival parade, to cut each dance short, there was no real story, so that the parade was of limited interest. It nevertheless offered a condensed survey of dances and costumes. (It turned out that this parade was also attended by the US ambassador to India and his wife, who came and left by helicopter. The pretext of this visit was the festival, but the real intent was probably to express support for the sovereignty of India over Arunachal Pradesh, which China also claims as its own, as a former part of Tibet.)




Dance of the Nyapas (fishermen, with long white beards).





Masked characters in the Yak Dance.








One of the favorite dances among Monpas is Kieng Cham, where young men wearing monkey masks and wooden phallus execute erotic movements. A short version of this dance was not included in the 2019 program of the parade, perhaps because it was attended by the US ambassador.




Lumla is a village located some 15km southwest of Tawang (but a 45km drive along a winding road). It is home to a 30m-high statue of White Tara inaugurated by the 14th Dalai Lama in April 2017.






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