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A sea of clouds and snow in the mountains above Tawang - photos by Lakshmi Sarath
A sea of clouds and snow in the mountains above Tawang - photos by Lakshmi Sarath

Tawang, India: History and Romance at 13,000 Feet

Driving to the remote part of Arunachal Pradesh in the northeast corner of India is a surreal experience. Colors change with every curve in the mountains along with the scenery.

Bright yellow mustard fields merge with some brilliant orchids that suddenly morph into dense forests with rivers gliding past them to snow clad mountains and conifers kissed by snow flakes to frozen lakes to a valley of clouds that wrapped the mountains...

CHENNAI TO DIRANG

Day 1 - Chennai: 4 am - What a way to start a holiday. Airlines have a way of making you work hard even when you are holidaying - so here we are (my husband and I) packed and ready, traveling from southern India to the northeast corner. It is the New Year's Eve and the excitement is just about enough to keep us warm.

We flew from Chennai, transited at Kolkata, crossed the Bangalesh border to reach Gauwhati. Our holiday had begun. We journeyed on. Another long drive to Tezpur, our transit point before reaching our destination – Tawang at a distance of 400 kms uphill nestled at 10,000 feet high. So, four cities, three airports and one long drive – day one was almost over.

There was a bit of unrest and hence there was heavy security. We crossed the Brahmaputra and were instructed that we could not take a photograph of this majestic river or the bridge. It was the twilight hour as we reached Tezpur, a town filled with legends and myths and even associated with the Mahabharatha.

Everything seemed shut. There was a grim silence everywhere. We were told that there was a bandh. A dull beginning to a holiday.

ROMANCING THE BRAHMAPUTRA

A monastery in Tawang
A monastery in Tawang

Day 2 - A ray of light streaked into our room and cheered us up. The new year had dawned and the morning seemed promising. We were to cross into Arunachal Pradesh from Assam. Dirang, enroute to Tawang was our destination.

We started our journey with a glimpse of the mighty Brahmaputra. A hillock, Agnigarh, overlooking the river is a tribute to the romance between Princess Usha and Anirudha, who is grandson of Lord Krishna.

My driver told me this story which dates back to the ancient epic Mahabharat, when the king Banasura had imprisoned princess Usha in this hillock and surrounded it by a rampart of fire. Hence the name, Agnigarh (house of fire).

A few scattered ruins and an ancient serene temple, Mahabhairab, were our sightseeing experiences. We continued and suddenly the scenery changed dramatically.

Golden mustard fields, lush dense forests, gushing streams, waterfalls and colorful orchids filled our landscape as we crossed Bhalukpung, where there was rigorous security.

A bunker used by the Indian army during the Indo-China war in 1962
bunker used by the Indian army during the Indo-China war in 1962

We were asked for our permit and questions were hurled at us regarding our journey. We were finally allowed to proceed and we stopped at Tipi, at the orchidarium, claimed to be Asia’s third largest.

A small roadside motel was our next halt where we had hot noodles and chai (tea). For vegetarians like us, even that was a luxury.

The journey resumed and the mounatins and rivers kept us company. After eight hours of driving, we finally reached Dirang, a hill station tucked in a valley of orchards. We stayed in a lovely resort, overlooking the River Kemeng with the entire town on its banks.

The cold had just set in. We rubbed our palms in glee. We had no idea that this was just the beginning… but I had begun to enjoy my holiday.

A VALLEY OF CLOUDS

If there is heaven on earth, this is it. A valley of clouds that hid everything from mountain peaks to grasslands, flowers and birds and touched our cheeks gently as we got down to capture it on our lens.

The main street at Tawang
The main street at Tawang

Day 3 - We were driving from Dirang, a small hill station in Arunachal Pradesh towards Tawang set high in the Eastern Himalayas The mountains curved as River Kameng flowed along with us.

It had just snowed. All of a sudden, it was white all around. Snow, ice and clouds all around. Snow-clad mountains wrapped in a valley of clouds was all we could see till we came to a glacier which opened to a gate guarded by dragons with bright colored flags fluttering all around.

We were at Sella Pass, where history and romance meet at 13,700 feet. At the height of Indo-China war in 1960s, Sella was a local maiden who had fallen in love with Jaswant Singh, an Indian soldier. She died a martyr and the pass was named after her and here was marked as a boundary between India and China. Jaswant Garh, a memorial for the soldier is also close by.

We had noone for company except for a couple of dogs and a small tea shop that served us some hot tea and noodles. The cold breeze tickled the bones as we stopped and stared hard at the placid clouds, tugging at the mountains.

Children on their way to school
Children on their way to school

A bright shaft of sunshine pierced through our skin as we let the heat in and rubbed our frozen fingers in glee. It was just us, the dogs and nature at its silent best.

BEYOND TAWANG

Day 4 - It is an understatement to say that Tawang was freezing cold. This is a town which sees the first rays of sun in India, but ironically the sun never shines. The temperature was many numbers below zero.

We had just checked in Tawang Inn the previous evening after another seven-hour drive and had tried sleeping in the bitter cold. Morning came but the cold spell continued. We stuffed ourselves with as many layers of clothing as possible and decided to move out of our room in Tawang Inn.

Tawang, which means ‘chosen by horse’ is full of magical monasteries and mystical gompas on one end and a war memorial on the other. A heady mix of religion, history and nature, this town was ravaged during the Indo-China War in 1962.

The home of the Mompas, the monastery was founded in 17th century.Tawang is known for the lakes and waterfalls and we set out looking for them.

A thick layer of mist hung over the roads as we drove up hill. This is the road that takes us to Tibet and China, but we did not have the requisite permits to get there.

A sea of clouds envelopes everything, as mountain peaks jut out.
A sea of clouds enveloping everything , as mountain peaks jut out

A LITTLE CAJOLING

Our driver told us that there were more than 100 lakes up hill and if the army gave us permission, we would get there. A little cajoling with the army got us trudging uphill in our jeep.

The mist descended even thicker and many times we stopped dead in our tracks wondering if there was a curve ahead or if we were at a cliff. Visibility was at zero.

We kept climbing higer and higher. And suddenly the veil was lifted and we saw the blue sky. A sea of clouds encircled us, wrapping everything below. The sun shone brightly out of a clear and spotless sky.

Small peaks jutted out of the clouds which had spread themselves. We stared right into the clouds and could not see anything below. It was just that -– a 180-degree view of the clouds and the sky and the mountains on the other side.

A Shiva temple above Tawang
A Shiva temple at 15,000 feet beyond Tawang

We kept climbing uphill till we came to the first lake - the Patang Teng Tso or the PT Tso lake. It was just 20 kilometers from Tawang and it seemed like a long journey. There was not a soul around, not even the occassional yak or mountain goat. Even the army was not there.

Snow was snow scattered all over, carpeting a mountain here and there, while the lake was frozen. There were several lakes, a mix of water and ice; some with colored flags fluttering high, some dotted with a small temple.

The colors were stark, blue and white, black and brown. I had not seen anything so majestic, peaceful and beautiful. I wanted to capture every image with my lens, but a lot is still in my mind’s eye.

We saw several bunkers used by the Indian army way back in 1962. The war memorial was a tribute to the martyrs. We crossed several tombstones on the way. It is a scary thought that this peaceful place was once a battle field. And to give assurance was a temple tucked away in the ice.

 

GETTING THERE

Tawang is in Arunachal Pradesh and you need a permit to visit it even if you are an Indian citizen. You can get one at Gauwhati which was my first port of call.

It is a long journey by road via Tezpur and a stopover at Bomdila or Dirang is a must. Ideally you should break the jouney into two days. And believe me, the drive is worth it! Though there are flights to Tezpur, it is advisable to avoid the same.

ACCOMODATION

Extremely basic. There is no power most of the time. You could also stay in Bomdila, but I prefer Dirang, en route to Tawang. You need a permit to get here. For details, check out ArunachalPradeshTourism.com

 

Lakshmi Sarath

 

Lakshmi Sarath a media professional in television, radio and the internet who writes about the people and places she visits. She maintains a blog about backpacking in India called Backpakker.

 

 

Read Lakshmi Sharath's article: Kabini and Bhadra, India: Life Unfolds by the Riverside

 

 

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