The road to Tawang and beyond


Tawang, in Arunachal Pradesh, is one of the northeastern limits of India, and symbolises wonder, mystery and a sense of awe with its varied history and enchanting biodiversity. Visit it once and you will surely visit it again, just to capture the spirit of the place and wonder, yet again, what lies at the depths of its mysterious forests. And you will want to hear, on loop, about the tales of a brave soldier, who defended its borders with no thought for his own life.

Text and photos: Text: Akul Tripathi

FI have always had difficulty in understanding how people dismiss a probable travel opportunity solely on the grounds of having visited the place or some parts of the itinerary before. Some even go the route of declining an entire activity like white water rafting or paragliding because they have done it before. Whenever I come across such a situation, a visual from the Asterix comics flashes in my head with Obelix tapping his temple furiously and calling the Romans mad. The reasoning seems to me as illogical as never eating again, because we have eaten before.

So, when after a decade, surfaced the opportunity of visiting a remote corner of Arunachal Pradesh again, I said yes, before you could blink. The first trip in 2005 was an experience of a lifetime and I was excited to discover what the road to Tawang had in store for me this time around. A decade ago, Tawang was a touch-and-go destination, amongst a host of others in a true northeastern extravaganza. This time, it was the main event. And it did not disappoint. Just as I hope neither will this travelogue…

The road to Tawang
The road to Tawang remained the same on the map. From Guwahati, the nodal point of all Northeast travel, it snaked its way north in the plains of Assam till Tezpur; situated at the foothills of the Himalayas. Tezpur is the point of entry into the hills and demarcates the end of Assam and the beginning of India’s twenty-fifth state – Arunachal Pradesh.

The enchanting vistas of Tawang

The enchanting vistas of Tawang

The most northeastern of all states, Arunachal Pradesh is the largest amongst the seven northeastern states of India. With history confirming at least 11,000 years of human inhabitance and with references in the Kalika Purana and the Mahabharata, the state abounds in stories, theories and mysteries. The road from Tezpur enters western Arunachal Pradesh, and rises north with Bhutan flanking its western borders, and heading towards the northern border with the People’s Republic of China. Through the district of West Kameng, the road winds up and across through passes and valleys to reach the town of Tawang, the capital of the border district of Tawang.

While the route remained the same, save the names of places, nothing else did. Everything was so different from my memories that it didn’t seem like I had ever visited this part of the world before. Shaking my head in amused incredulity at some non-returning friends, I wiped clean my slate of memories and without the anchor of expectations, went about living a new journey…

The first major town into Arunachal along the road to Tawang is Bhalukpong. It is almost impossible for someone who knows Hindi to ignore the word Bhalu (bear) in the name. And as unlikely as it may seem, it is actually with reference to the bear that the bhalu was incorporated into Bhalukpong. Pong, in the local dialect means a salt lick and Bhalukpong became the place where the bears came to consume salt! While once it must have been bears that made this place famous, today, the most popular destination around Bhalukpong is the Pakke (also called Pakhui) Tiger Reserve – a semi-evergreen forest spread over 861 sq. km.

Orchids blooming at Bhalukpong

Orchids blooming at Bhalukpong

The Pakke Tiger Reserve was earlier called the Pakhui Reserve Forest, and over time, its status was upgraded to a game reserve, then wildlife sanctuary, and finally as a tiger reserve in 2002. The conservation narrative of the Pakke Tiger Reserve for a little over a decade has been defined by the unrelenting efforts of one man – its legendary protector TanaTapi.

Poaching and other illegal activities ran unchecked in the dense and often inaccessible areas of the wildlife sanctuary. The tribal populations living within the forests viewed forest officials with suspicion. In such a scenario, the case for the endangered species was looking bleak. However, TanaTapi and his team work in near impenetrable forests, against all odds, to protect a vital park and its wildlife.

Meeting challenges head on, Tana met with residents of villages and persuaded them to donate a piece of land for setting up anti-poaching camps, and hired the unemployed youth from the villages as forest watchers. The flourishing of any forest without the cooperation and involvement of the locals living off it, is virtually impossible. Knowing this, he formed the Ghora Aabhe (meaning village fathers in an Arunachali dialect), which constitutes former hunters and conservationists. Largely belonging to the Nyishi tribe who were traditionally hunters, they through the efforts of TanaTapi, are now an integral part of forest protection. With such solid backing, Tana carried out several anti-poaching measures against poachers, and the camera traps in the forest highlight that the sustained efforts of the forest staff have paid off.

The Kameng River forms the natural boundary between West and East Kameng districts and also between Bhalukpong and the Pakke Tiger Reserve. Getting to the reserve involves a pleasant ride across the river. Walking in a forest is always an experience to cherish, more so at a place like Pakke where the company is of friendly and knowledgeable forest guards, who are eager to reveal a side of the forest which they sense and feel much beyond our ability to see and understand. It is also primarily because of these guards that one bird species is seeing a revival in numbers and in the local consciousness – the Hornbill.

The Bompu Campsite at Eagle's Nest Wildlife Sanctuary

The Bompu Campsite at Eagle’s Nest Wildlife Sanctuary

An initiative of Tana Tapi and the Ghora Aabhe is the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme. Hornbills, the state bird of Arunachal Pradesh, are giants amongst birds. Large and bizarre, they are long ranging birds that dwell in tropical forest habitats that contain large and tall trees. Distributed across tropical and subtropical Africa, Asia and Melanesia, they are easy to identify through their size and the characteristic long, down curving bill that gives them their name. India has nine species of hornbills, five of which are found in Arunachal Pradesh.

Started in 2012, the Hornbill Nest Adoption Programme is aimed at protecting the slow-breeding hornbills from hunting and habitat loss. Under this programme, urban residents donate money to adopt hornbill nests and an honorarium is paid to members of the Ghora Aabhe who look after identified nests.

Despite the upward trend in their numbers, Hornbills were once a much more common sight in these parts. Others from my travelling group who have visited these parts earlier talk of plentiful sightings, often up close and personal. Over the period of my travel, I was fortunate enough to spot three of the four species found in western Arunachal, two of which I managed to photograph – not as well as I would have liked though. The elation at the spotting and clicking is immediately numbed by the realisation that these magnificent birds who seem too large to be able to fly and make the sound of a small helicopter with their flapping wings when they do, may not be around if it takes me another decade to visit. Unless of course, initiatives like the adoption programme are resounding successes and I pray they are. More power to them.

No visit to the Pakke Tiger Reserve should be considered complete without visiting the forest interpretation centre. Perhaps the best nature interpretation centre I have visited in my travels across India, it makes the forests come alive and represents plants and animals as people through some very interesting and interactive exhibits and models. Highly recommended, especially for children.

Back on the road, climbing towards the Tibetan plateau, the next big town on the way is Bomdila – the headquarters of the West Kameng district. Compared to the earlier visit in 2005, Bomdila seemed much bigger and if memory serves correctly, the tarred roads that took us there this time are a recent addition. Tourism, too, seems like a recent addition with the infrastructure and the local entrepreneurship learning and evolving to find the best combinations that accommodate and are hospitable at the same time. The earlier visit and the lives of us travelling then were saved by the hospitality of the Indian Army, a story you can read in a previous issue of One India One People. This time around, fortunately, there wasn’t any need to bother the armed forces, but nostalgia and a silent thanks filled my heart as we crossed the army camp which had hosted us.

This was the scene of the battle at Sela Pass

This was the scene of the battle at Sela Pass

Bomdila, this time around, was not even a pit-stop. Branching away from the road that led to the final destination of Tawang, the call of the wild came to us from a forest high up in the mountains – the Eagle’s Nest Wildlife Sanctuary. With no connection to the Eagle’s Nest in Germany of Hitler’s fame, this sanctuary is named after the Red Eagle Division of the Indian Army which was posted there in 1950. Renowned as a birding paradise, it has an incredible variety, numbers and accessibility of bird species. Of the two photographed Hornbills, it was here that the Rufus Hornbill gave us an audience.

It is part of the Kameng protected area complex (KPAC), the largest contiguous closed-canopy forest tract of Arunachal Pradesh, which includes Eaglenest, Pakke, Sessa, Nameri, and Sonai Rupai sanctuaries and associated reserved forest blocks. The complex covers 3500 km2 in area and ranges from 100 metres (328 ft) to 3,300 metres (10,827 ft) in altitude. It is accessible by an unpaved road that climbs steadily to the Eagle’s Nest Pass at 2,800 metres (9,186ft.), allowing access to its highest reaches. Amongst several mammals, birds and other flora and fauna, Eagle’s Nest is considered crucial for the continued well-being of the Asian Elephant. The elephants regularly move up from the Assam plains to the Eagle’s Nest ridge, and this is believed to be the highest altitude that elephants reach in India.

A panorama of Sangetsar Lake, aka Madhuri Lake

A panorama of Sangetsar Lake, aka Madhuri Lake

The elevation and the relative inaccessibility of the forest through the narrow, unpaved one-lane road that leads to it also protects it from dangers like animal poaching and illegal timbering, which plagues forests like Pakke in the plains. However, the same limitations act as a boon for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers as it lends Eagle’s Nest the advantage of being home to birds at various altitudes. The forest is equipped with camp facilities at various altitudes that aid the avid and adventurous tourists.

The eco-tourism camps are mainly managed by the Bugun and Shertukpen tribes in a unique and successful model where locals are involved in both conservation and commercial activities, forming a symbiotic relationship. My stay was at the Bompu camp which is one of the most important camps for birding. Once a military labour camp, it consists of 15 tents with cots and mattresses along with a dining tent and a fully functional kitchen that serves hot meals.

After a couple of days of peaceful bird watching and leisurely strolls in the forest, it was time to reach the final destination – Tawang. To get to Tawang, you have to cross the Sela Pass. This pass is at a height of 13,700 feet above sea level following a high altitude lake of crystal blue water and rhododendrons running along the road in various colours and hues.

At the Sela Pass

At the Sela Pass

The Sela Pass is of great significance in Indian military history. It is the site of martyrdom of several brave Indian soldiers in the 1962 Sino-Indian War. Interestingly, in the gap of 10 years that I revisited the place and the story – another story had taken the place of the earlier one. As per the chronicles from 2005, during the invasion by the Chinese in 1962, the Indian army had withdrawn defeated from most quarters. However, some quarters were still manned by Indian troops. One such soldier manning an outpost was Rifleman Jaswant Singh Rawat of the 4 Garhwal Rifles. He refused to withdraw from the lines and with the help of two locals Sela and Naranang fought the Chinese. The two girls would reload the guns and he would arrange them strategically and fire them together by tying them with a string. In this manner he drove back two waves of the Chinese.

However, the girls’ father went and spilt the beans to the Chinese. The Chinese now having the advantage of knowledge, conquered the outpost. By then, Jaswant Singh had hung himself from a telephone wire and Sela had jumped off a cliff to her death. Naranang was caught and executed, and so was their father. Once the war was over, Jaswant Singh’s name was on the Indian army’s list of deserters to face court martial. The Chinese, impressed by the soldiers bravery narrated the incident to Indians and declared that if the Indians did not honour Jaswant Singh, the Chinese would. Following this embarrassing incident for the army, Jaswant Singh of the 4 Garhwal Rifles was awarded the Mahavir Chakra (posthumous) and a shrine was constructed in his memory. Two peaks were named after Sela and Naranang.

Other versions of the same events add details like because Jaswant Singh killed over 300 Chinese soldiers, the Chinese beheaded Jaswant Singh and carried his head back, but after the war returned it along with the bust that is installed at the memorial site. One telling also states that Sela died in a grenade burst, Naranang was captured and Jaswant Singh shot himself.

The newer telling of events has none of the panache and fantastical emotions of the previous narration that seems right out of a Bollywood story. In a measured voice and practised script, a soldier explained the sequence of events in the war and how the Chinese had managed to get a MMG (medium machine gun) at an elevation from their post, and thence Jaswant Singh along with two comrades made a daring plan wherein they attacked the Chinese position to silence the MMG. In the effort to get the MMG back to their post, Jaswant Singh was martyred. For his exemplary bravery, Jaswant Singh was posthumously awarded the Maha Vir Chakra.

While the battle is long over, the sacrifice of Jaswant Singh lives on in these parts. While the hero may no longer be physically present in his regiment, it is believed almost without exception that his presence lingers. As much as his deeds of valour inspire those who serve there today, for the locals, he is now a ‘baba’, a saint – and the battlefield is as much a tribute to the bravery of the soldiers who died there, as it is a shrine that lives by the name of Jaswantgarh. His bed linen is routinely washed and his towel changed regularly. Soldiers claim that the bed seems ‘lived-in’ the next day. Those who polish his shoes claim that they are often found covered with mud, a sign that he has been walking around. The myth goes that convoys in blizzards have seen Jaswant directing the vehicles through the treacherous bends. Eight promotions have come to him after death and Jaswant is now a Captain. Almost no soul – soldier or civilian goes past without paying their respects.

The Joginder Singh Memorial enroute Bum La

The Joginder Singh Memorial enroute Bum La

After briefly stopping at the Jaswant Singh memorial, we descended our way to Tawang which is at a height of 10,000 feet. The area of Tawang district is approximately 2085 sq. km. bordered by Tibet in the North, Bhutan in the Southwest and Sela ranges separate West Kameng district from the East. The inhabitants of the districts are all of Monpa tribes except Shyo village which is dominated by people of Tibetan origin. The Monpas belong to Mongoloid stock. They are well built, fair in complexion. This has earned Tawang the epitaph of ‘Land of the Mon’. As we checked into a decent hotel, it struck me how Tawang has changed. A decade ago, we had lived in a monastery as there were limited establishments for tourists and none that would have held the thirty of us travelling then.

Besides being a border town, Tawang’s picture postcard is the Tawang monastery which has been around for far longer than historical and political narratives that now define Tawang. The monastery was founded by Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1681 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Nagwang Lobsang Gyatso. Tawang in Tibetan means ‘chosen by the horse’ (Ta – horse; wang – chosen). Legend says that the Dalai Lama let a horse loose and instructed that the monastery be built at the place where the horse is found. Another version says that while Merag Lama was meditating on the problem of the location, his horse went missing and was found standing peacefully on the mountain top. Taking this as a divine guidance, the monastery was built at this place. It is also called the Galden Namgey Lhatse meaning celestial paradise and one look at the monastery on a clear night will make one realise how true its name is.

Perched atop a hill engulfed in a perennial mist, this is the largest monastery in India and the second largest in Asia. It can house as many as 400 monks. It is a fortified monastery as it was built in an era when tensions between the sects of Buddhists were at its peak. This fortified complex covers an area of 135 sq. meters enclosed by a compound wall of 610 meter long. Within the complex there are 65 residential buildings and 10 other structures. The library has valuable old scriptures numbering to 850 bundles. Housed within the monastery is a museum which contains various personal possessions of the Dalai Lama and his family and other Buddhist artifacts. The monastery was built by the people from the villages in the vicinity and even today, they bear the cost for the upkeep of the place. Not far from the Tawang monastery, is the Urgelling monastery which is the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama – Tsangyang Gyatso whose life as a spiritual head is a fascinating chapter in Buddhist history.

The Tawang Memorial

The Tawang Memorial

Just as male monks join monasteries which are called Gompas the female spiritual aspirants become part of nunneries which are called Ani Gompas. Unlike the monks (Lamas), the girls become nuns and join the nunnery on their own and there is no social pressure or tradition making the practice compulsory. Tawang has a long history of nunneries and the oldest one is the Brama Dung-Chung Ani Gompa, located 12 km from Tawang, which was commissioned by Karchen Yeshi Gelek in 1595 and houses about 45 nuns. There are several such nunneries in Tawang.

The city centre in many ways of modern Tawang is undoubtedly the Tawang War Memorial – a forty-foot structure dedicated to the martyrs of the 1962 war. Locally known as the ‘Namgyal Chortan’, it has names of 2420 dead soldiers etched in gold on 32 black granite plaques. The memorial is blessed by the Dalai Lama and is flanked by two halls – one that houses the personal effects of the martyrs and another that facilitates a light and sound show depicting their heroic deeds. This one memorial elevates the horrors of battle into legends of pride, and a distant border town becomes an integral part of the vocabulary and prayers of every Indian.

It is from here that the story of Tawang in my head grew new plot lines. At, Tawang the blitzkrieg visit of 2005 had paused and then withdrawn back home. Weather, then, had prevented us from visiting the Sangetsar Lake (42 km from Tawang) also known as the Madhuri Lake after Madhuri Dixit shot there for the film Koyla in 1997. This lake was formed in 1950 by an earthquake and the locals have left a vision in our head of a picturesque lake with a perpetual floating slab of ice surrounded by tall cliffs and pine trees. This time around too, the weather Gods were playing the tricks of their trade, but perhaps half-heartedly, and a visit to the lake could finally be accomplished.

The road ends…
From Pakke to Madhuri Lake, from orchids to hornbills and tales of mysticism to sagas of bravery, Tawang showed me all. However, the one single experience that achieves pole position in my memories of the second Tawang trip is the road beyond Tawang – the road that reaches out beyond the high Himalayan passes into the reaches of the Tibetan plateau; halting for us at the Line of Actual Control with China at the mountain pass – Bum La.

The northern borders of India are a bucketful of acronyms – LAC, LOC and AGPL among others. While seemingly similar, there is a marked difference between them. The LAC is the 3,488-kilometre long, de facto border with China. The LoC, or Line of Control, is the unsettled, 776-kilometre de facto border with Pakistan (distinct from the settled 2,308-kilometre border from Gujarat to Jammu). The AGPL, short for Actual Ground Position Line is the 110-km long border between India and Pakistan in the Siachen Sector.

The board at Bum La; the road beyond Tawang

The board at Bum La; the road beyond Tawang

Unlike the LOC, which despite ceasefire agreements continues to see action and casualties on a regular basis, the LAC is a comparatively peaceful line. Despite military presence and build up on both sides, no lives have been lost in combat since the Sino-Indian war of 1962 in which several Indian army personnel lost their lives in defence of the motherland. Most prominent amongst these, distinguished by the Param Vir Chakra – India’s highest military honour – is Joginder Singh of the 1 Sikh Regiment, who led an astonishing defence with meagre resources at his disposal, and died as a prisoner of war due to the injuries he suffered and the biting cold weather.

India and China have regular meetings at this border outpost and even celebrate some festivals together. A large rock on this line has been christened the Rock of Peace and it serves as a symbolic marker for the Line of Actual Control that separates India and Tibet (PRC).
As peaceful as this high Himalayan pass is, and no matter the bonhomie between the two armies and the promises of better cooperation in the future; to the traveller, it is disheartening to encounter an invisible barrier and not carry on beyond like the wind and the whispers…
Perhaps someday the rock will not be a road head, but a landmark, and the roads shall stretch further away in all destinations to some other even distant road head and then will come a time when even that head becomes a landmark, and the world will be roads without ends. Perhaps. Someday.


Akul Tripathi

Akul Tripathi is a media professional and freelance writer.