The Emblematic Canyon of Saddle Pass
It drags, long, steep and winding, the path from the plain of Assam to the rugged heart of Arunachal Pradesh. At a certain point, it approaches 4170 meters of altitude of the Saddle Pass, a frigid, windy gate that separates West Kameng from Tawang.
We crossed the Buddhist portico between its fluttering prayer flags. We skirt the semi-frozen lake that the frame reveals to us and continue on through the last of the districts. A few kilometers below and beyond Sela, those on the road are dotted with green canvas and camouflage.
There are hidden tents and magazines, trucks and other lighter vehicles. Thousands of soldiers, hailing from all over the India, populate and operate these strategic war colonies, which we would see repeated up to the last meters of northern India.
From the heights of Sela, we reach the slope that leads to the edge of the Tawang Valley and the villages that settled there: Dungkhar, Khalengche, Tongsheng. Tawang, the city, stood out high up on the opposite slope. The plan was to take shelter there for the night.
Before doing so, there is a final detour to Thinmey, the site of a great monastery, even so, in the shadow of the largest and most famous in the region.
A Buddhist Badminton Tournament
We arrived under the last breath of the afternoon. We distract ourselves for a while with a giant prayer wheel until a sudden din from the back of the complex arouses our curiosity.
A slender shed that served as a room separated the main building from a raised dirt courtyard, equipped with a volleyball and badminton net.
There, the monks of the monastery were concentrated, in the middle of a raquetted sport tournament. Two brave pairs had already got rid of almost all of their burgundy outfits. They were faced with a pent-up fury because of the sacredness of the place and the presence of young disciples.
These were waiting for their turn to play sipping tea. And why the smoke released by the large scorched pots that crossed the kitchen's tin roof and ascended to the sky, sublimed at the time of the communal dinner.
The cook on duty accompanied the mischief of the boys of Buda and, at the same time, the cooking of milk tea in her hands.
Sunset dictated the end of the tournament, the time to take refuge in the Yangzom Hotel and the imminence of our own meal. We were coming from twelve hours of fascinating but painful road expedition.
We can't resist many more.
We wake up to the new day well before sunset. We take a look at the house that saw the birth of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, a young man of the Mompa ethnicity that predominates in these parts.
Afterwards, we cross the urban Tawang and visit a huge statue of its inspirer: Buddha.
A Buddhist Monastery in Monta
It was barely dawn. A platoon of believers circled the red base of the sage's colored throne, unraveling the beads of his malas, the Buddhist rosaries. The sun's rays began to gild a distant sanctuary, so resplendent that it caught our eyes at once.
It was much more than just another monastery, the castro of white and yellow buildings that we admired and photographed to exhaustion, against a whimsical cutout of shadowy mountains.
Founded in 1680-81, at 3000 meters above sea level, the Buddhist monastery of Tawang remains the largest in the world. India. It is, in fact, the second largest in the world, right after Potala, which resisted the Chinese-Chinese invasion in the Tibetan heart of Lhasa.
By eight, the monastery and the resident monks were going about their business. We saw them gather in front of a long school wing, then group in front of the building, back to the city and the surrounding mountain range scenery.
Eccentric Morning Debates
Others arise from inside the classrooms and from different parts of the complex. They bring notebooks and notebooks. They form new groups on the terrace and begin a lively Buddhist debate session, filled with clapping, syllogistic shouts and defiant retorts.
An hour and a half later, the debate and teachings are closed. A battalion of monks and little monks form on the terrace and watch a leisurely speech from one of the monastery's mentors.
A group prayer ensues followed by the younger ones, those in the front row intent and eyes closed, under the breathless supervision of the old tutors.
However, also that session of faith and discipline comes to an end.
Adolescents and children disperse between obvious relief and ecstasy, many of them into the monastery's driveway that they soon sweep in chains.
A Military Party on the Way to a Convent
We keep the monks busy with their fascination. Tawang also housed a convent, that of Ani. John, the local guide was of the opinion that we should visit.
Thus, we set out on the way, but without ever expecting it, we found ourselves ambushed by a military battalion that controlled not only the access road, but a vast area around it.
For reasons that we will soon explain, Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most sensitive Indian provinces in terms of security and the presence of foreigners. We were part of an entourage of journalists, all of whom had special visas that gave them coverage of the place.
Even so, when a huge Sikh soldier stops the car we were in, it occurs to us to think we might be in trouble.
The military's English is poor, so the driver can help us translate. “They organized a Punjabi party there in their battalion. They insist that they participate.”
At first, we turned up our noses. The other half of our group had already arrived at the convent. We didn't want to lose the feminine side of Tawang's Buddhist religiosity.
But when the driver tells us we have time; that there would be no problem if we arrived at the convent later, we stopped feeling restrictions and valued the invitation as it deserved.
Moments later, we find ourselves living with dozens of Indian officers and soldiers: Punjabis e Sikhs, almost all of them robust and with a haughty posture, as is their hallmark. offer us daddy and other specialties in thalis assortments.
We soon realized that we lacked stomach for the spicy used, we apologized and moved on to smooth desserts of kheer, the Indian sweet rice.
More and more military and popular join the conviviality and the allied attack of a long buffet table. Festive music sounds but, contained by the seriousness of the battalion's mission, the party never ends up in Bollywood reveries.
The Indian War Force That Deters China
There, as around the Sela Pass and elsewhere in Arunachal Pradesh, the presence of the Indian army has a historical and a present reason for being. Between the two lies the security and supremacy of its vast and mega-populous nation.
Around 500 BC, the Tawang region was already dominated by the Mompa ethnic group. It was part of the kingdom of Bhutan. Tibet and so it remained for centuries on end.
In 1914, with the British increasingly predominant in this part of Asia, a so-called Shimla Agreement between Great Britain, the India and the Tibet, forced Tibet to cede several hundred square kilometers to Britain. The treaty was despised by the China.
From the beginning of the uprising and especially during the 1959 uprisings, India provided support to Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, to whom it immediately granted asylum.
At the same time, he started his Forward Policy in which he established several military outposts, even north of the McMahon Border Line (defined by Foreign Secretary Henry McMahon).
For its part, months after Shimla's agreement, the China it had already established its own outposts south of that line. As might be expected, the divergence led to confrontation.
Brief Border Confrontations
Unable to carry out their intentions, the Chinese launched offensives in the region of Ladakh and, at the same time, through the McMahon Line. They did it in the heart of the High Himalayas, in one of the wildest war scenes ever.
Pleased with the outcome of their invasion but cautious, the Chinese declared a unilateral ceasefire and backed off from some of the positions. Tawang was one of them.
From November 1962, it returned to Indian control. As might be expected, Delhi never recovered from the trauma. With the house stolen, he locked the door.
We left the banquet, grateful for the conviviality and the kind group photos, committed to recovering the original plans.
When we arrived at the convent, the other half of the group was leaving. Only a portico with the Tibetan message of “Tashi Delek” welcomes us, translatable as “Blessing and Good Luck” or “Auspicious Greetings”.
The Convent of Ani and the Return to the Monastery
We piss off, second-hand, the few elusive nuns we find there.
From the convent, we return to the heart of Tawang and explore its frenetic street market. In the afternoon, we visit Tipki, a traditional Mompa village at the bottom of the valley, where we are greeted with such a feast, pomp and ceremony that we prefer to narrate it in a dedicated article.
We leave the village at sunset and return to the hotel's night shelter.
New day, new suffering awakening, even earlier than the previous one. We return to the monastery of Tawang, determined to attend the morning prayers of the apprentice monks.
When we enter the complex it is still night and we do not detect a soul. We sat at the door of the main temple in sleepy anticipation.
Finally, with the first rays of sunlight piercing the clouds to the east, a torrent of “little buddhas” emerges from the monastery's housing wing, crosses the courtyard and bursts into the temple in a great rush.
The young monks sit in several rows and receive a cup of milk that breaks their fast.
Next, an adult priest begins the ceremony with resonant chants and prayers that even our increasingly dynamic intrusion does not get in the way.
We left the monastery under pressure from John who, for the rest of the day, had to lead us all back to Guwahati, the capital of the neighboring province of Assam.
The sun that poured in through the temple's windows, hit the faces of a few elected monks. And it revived the defensive mission of the many battalions of the Indian army deployed there.
More information about Tawang and its monastery on the website Incredible India.