With a lifelong interest in Tibet and its diaspora, I had opted for the epic road trip to Tawang, best known for its eminent three-hundred-year-old monastery.
Arriving in Guwahati, we three foreign travellers met our guide, Tadar Robin, then drove on into the night to cross into Arunachal Pradesh at Bhalukpong, a small town beside the rushing Kameng River. Even here, our chalet-like hotel displayed a distinct Tibetan cultural influence.
Next day began the two-day ascent into the Himalayan foothills. We climbed from sub-tropical rainforest towards an icy 4200-metre pass, the Se La. Army encampments and convoys of lumbering camouflage-green trucks were our constant companions.
Only after the 1962 border conflict with China did the Indian authorities begin building roads into these valleys. I tried to imagine the high drama as Communist Chinese soldiers scrambled down these mountainsides that year: within my lifetime. India was caught off guard and will never forget it.
After six months the Chinese backed off and, these days, the relationship is cordial enough. Nonetheless, China nurses an historic claim to the Tawang district and the border passes remain heavily guarded and off-limits to foreigners.
As we entered Tawang, the hilly streets downtown were garlanded with strings of multicoloured prayer flags in preparation to welcome another, more distinguished, visitor; the Seventeenth Karmapa Lama is a distinguished Tibetan reincarnation.
American commentator Peter Lee writes, “Tawang… is indisputably Tibetan in culture, religion and history and, indeed, is one of the great monastery towns of Tibetan Buddhism and birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama. It also straddles an important trade route as a gateway between the Tibetan plateau and the Indian plains….”
Founded in 1681, the Tawang Gompa is India’s largest Buddhist monastery and sprawls across a ridge above the town at an altitude of 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). The imposing three-storey Dukhang or assembly hall houses a nine-metre golden Buddha, and the monastic library conserves an extensive collection of ancient books and manuscripts.
In 1959 the youthful Fourteenth Dalai Lama fled his beleaguered homeland and would spend his first night under Indian protection here. Early this year he made another return visit, triggering predictable protests from Beijing.