Near the roof of the world

The landscape on the way to the 5072 meter high Bum La pass, on the border of India and China, is beautiful. If you reach Tawang, there is no reason not to press on to Bum La. There is a lot of material on the web about travelling north of Tawang which is garbled or plain wrong. Here are the facts: you can take your own car to any of the lakes or monasteries north of Tawang, there is no need to hire a local taxi. You need a “Restricted Area Permit” (RAP) only if you want to travel to the border pass of Bum La north of the Y-junction. Your hotel can arrange for this pass. There is a canteen at the Sangetser lake where one can have lunch. In case you are interested in planning your trip, I give distances and times in a table right at the end of this post.

We traveled to the border of Tibet in China on the day of Diwali. Since the army post on the border invites their counterparts in China for a lunch every year on that day (and five others) we were only permitted to travel north of the Y-junction after 2 PM. We decided to visit the Penga Teng Tso, the Sangetser Tso and the Taktsang Gompa before this. We also decided against taking our own car because Avatar Singh refused to travel on roads where he had not gone before. However, we saw many private cars on the way.

pttso

Penga Teng Tso is a beautiful lake which stands less than half an hour’s drive north of Tawang. The road up to this lake was very good. Although our driver was not keen to stop here, we had heard so much about it that we insisted that he turn off the main road here. There is a path down to the lake, and a good path right around it. I went down and touched the cold and clear water. On the far side of the lake I saw a herd of yak, and my intention was to walk around the lake to it. Behind me the driver pleaded lack of time with my companions, and they asked me to turn back. I took some photos of the lake and the herd, and came back.

tsotso

As we drove on the road did not remain good for long. We saw work gangs repairing the road at intervals. The whole landscape was full of lakes. We did not know the names of most of them. Although our driver was local, he did not know their names either. He claimed that since no one lived here, nothing was named. This is clearly false, since some of them were named. In any case, we could not possibly stop at all of them. I took some photos, like the one above. You can see the red bush which is ubiquitous as you climb towards 4000 meters and beyond. I haven’t found what it is called in English, Latin, Mon or Tibetan, but surely it is well known and must have been described years back.

tgompa

As we climbed, it became colder. There was hardly any snow on the ground. What little there was speckled only north-facing slopes. Eventually we passed Y-junction and took the fork towards the Sangetser lake, Taktsang Gompa, and the Zemithang valley beyond it. The road wound down towards Sangetser Tso, but climbed very rapidly from there towards Taktsang Gompa, about 6 kms further along the road. The guru Padmasambhava brought Buddhism to the Himalayas, and is credited with having founded three Gompas called Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest). We had done the two-hour climb to the one in Bhutan perched magnificently over a cliff. We could drive right up to this, although it is also placed as precariously overlooking a valley far below. The gompa is small, but very atmospheric, and full of travellers from Zemithang.

snowpigeons

We had given up on bird watching at this height. In the cold weather almost everything would have moved down. But The Family saw a flock of about forty pigeons come to land on a tree near the monastery. When we looked carefully at them we realized we’d never seen anything like them before. The fat birds were clearly cold, and tucked their heads into their shoulders as they sat on the tree. Later we managed to identify them: they are snow pigeons. Another lifer!

sangetser

We went back to Sangetser Tso. We were told that this lake formed when a recent earthquake dammed the outflow of a river. One can see that it is connected to a river. In fact this is the same river which flows through the valley above which the Taktsang gompa sits. Unfortunately I don’t have maps which name it. I wish I had asked for this information from one of the many friendly army guides we met. In any case, you can see that the lake bed was flooded fairly recently, because the disaster killed a lot of trees. The trunks of these dead trees still poke out of its blue waters, and makes it one of the most distinctive lakes in the vicinity. In fact, distinctive enough that Bollywood superstars Madhuri Dixit and Shah Rukh Khan were filmed dancing around here in a long-forgotten movie.

We ate at the canteen which the army has built near the lake. The building was warm, and there was quite a variety of food available. As we ate, the driver began to get agitated and wanted us to leave immeidately. It was barely noon, and if we left now, we would have to spend almost two hours waiting at the Y-junction for the army to let us through. The driver was agitated and would have nothing to do with this logic. We realized later that he had never been to Bum La and was scared of getting stuck on the road. He was much more reasonable on the way back. In any case, we delayed a little, and had to spend only about forty five minutes at the Y-junction.

badroads

The army had given the same start time to many cars. The road towards the border are bad, and the army likes to bunch up cars so that one car can help another in an emergency, or at least convey a message about a stuck car to them. The photo above gives some idea about how bad the roads are. In some places it can be told from the surrounding terrain only by the fact that the stones on the road bed are somewhat smaller than most of the stones around. The steep grades that would have to be negotiated now and then were made very difficult by this kind of surface. On the other hand, there were no dangerous sections overlooking cliffs. We had reached a high plateau, and the road was roughly flat. The land sloped up towards a height of 5000 meters, and the cold was becoming intense.

tibet

Suddenly we were at the end of the road. There was a muddy parking lot for the cars. We got off and some army men told us to walk ahead towards a reception hut. We sat down there, and were offered a tea. Apparently some people have trouble breathing at this height, so the attempt to make you sit down. No one around us seemed to have an altitude problem. It was bitterly cold, however. We walked the last few meters to the border. Our army escorts requested us not to take pictures of the Indian installations, but did not care if we took photographs of the Chinese side. Some mountain dogs played a game of tag, crossing borders at will.

We were shown a line which was apparently the border. There were many Indian tourists and some Indian army men at this line. Strangely there was no one from China. Their border post was apparently three Kms away. No Chinese tourists ever came to see the pass across which trade had historically joined Tibet and India. In the bitterly cold wind we photographed each other. One of my panoramas turned out to include two of our army guides. In retrospect I see that they look cold too, although they put up an act of bravado in front of us. I was so cold that as soon as I got back to our car I had to wolf down a small bar of chocolate.

heartlake

When we started back it was still bright daylight. Our driver was clearly under less pressure now. He was very willing to stop and look at the lakes which we passed. One of them was this beautiful heart shaped lake: a beautiful blue surrounded by slopes covered with white ice and red plants. It had turned cloudy in the previous couple of hours. Now the clouds began to lift and the sun began to shine through these breaks.

When we got back to Tawang it was 4 degrees below freezing. 1500 meters above that it must have been easily 5 degrees colder, and with a pretty big wind chill. This was one of the most exciting Diwalis that I have ever had.

Times and Distances

Distances and times are from the Tawang Circuit House. The full on-road timing for the circuit Tawang to Y junction to Sangetser Tso to Taktsang Gompa to Sangetser Tso to Y junction to Bum La to Y junction to Tawang is about 350 minutes.

Penga Teng Tso 15 Kms 30 minutes
Y junction 21 Kms 50 minutes
Sangetser Tso 35 Kms 90 minutes
Taktsang Gompa 42 Kms 99 minutes
Y junction (again)
Bum La 33 Kms 100 minutes

Tawang monastery: a high point

tawanggompaTawang gompa is the second largest monastery of the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism (the largest being in Lhasa). Attending morning prayers here was definitely one of the high points of our visit. The monastery is well endowed, with many of the buildings undergoing restoration or having recently been restored.

shoppingboyAfter visiting the Urgelling monastery we came back to the hotel, picked up The Victors and left immediately for Tawang gompa. As we entered the gate of the monastery, we saw a shop near the entrance where a young monk was buying a packet of biscuits. The boy-monk finished his transaction and ran away into the monastery. Much of what we saw of the life of novice monks reminded me of a school.

oldmanOur first stop was a little shrine inside the gompa where there were a couple of chhortens, with lamps burning in front of them. An old monk sat looking at us while I took photos. The family decided to light a lamp, and she seemed to light up the old man. When I took a photo of him, he asked me where we were from. I told him Mumbai. He said people from Mumbai believe, people from Kolkata do not. A random act by The Family has perhaps forever changed the way this man and his friends will view Mumbai.

chantWe walked into the main prayer hall and found a prayer was in progress. This is a tremendously awe inspiring thing to hear and see. The chants fill up the cavernous space of the hall, and at times the various musical instruments join in: cymbals of various sizes, drums, and wind instruments. I diffidently asked one of the monks whether I could take photos, and he said as many as I wished. I walked around, sometimes between rows, and no one objected. If I go back, I will definitely try to record the prayers: it is a sound that I want to take apart and understand.

longhornThe most impressive looking instrument is the horn whose photo appears above. I’ve seen this instrument in many of the gompas and dzongs which we have visited. In each place I tried to take a photo of it, but I never could step back enough to capture of the sense of its size. In Tawang gompa I think I succeeded finally. The instrument is used sparingly in the ceremony. It must require tremendous power to blow this horn, so the person playing this technically challenging instrument is allowed time to recover. In this photo you can also see two other smaller horns, and the drums.

boymonkAs far as I could make out, all the adult monks who do not specialize in the horns play cymbals and chant. Some of the teenagers played the drums. The youngest monks may chant, but do not seem to be required to in any clear hierarchical fashion. As far as I could see, the youngest boys were only required to be patient. They had enough freedom to talk to each other, or even be extremely curious about the photos I was taking.

theendEven so, at the end of the prayer the boys rush out boisterously, shouting as if a school recess has begun. They even play the same kind of mischievous games which I remember from my own school days. On the day when I watched, they converted the shoes of one of their mates into a football and kept kicking it around the courtyard.

The monastery is not as charming as the Urgelling gompa, but it is more lively. The novice monks here seem to be under less strict control than in most places we have seen in Bhutan. The Dalai Lama’s public personality is very open. I wonder whether it is that openness which is influencing the course of things here and in other Gelugpa monasteries.

Urgelling Gompa and the sixth Dalai Lama

urgellingIf Tawang is remembered in Tibet, it is because of Tsangyang Gyatso, who was born here and then became the sixth Dalai Lama. Our first stop was to be the Urgelling Gompa, where he was born.

The Victors wanted to get up late. Avatar flatly refused to drive in Tawang unless we had someone who knew the roads. We’d studied the layout of Tawang on the way in, and could navigate by GPS, but Avatar was deathly afraid of getting lost. So we asked the hotel if they could spare someone for half the day. The head cook, who called himself Lobsang, had nothing to do, since he’d already farmed out his work to the young boys in the kitchen. So he was elected as the guide to The Family and me.

The Urgelling gompa is a small structure, standing serenely in the middle of some woods. We walked in through the half-closed gate, and skirted the building counter-clockwise, running our hands over the prayer wheels as we went. Ever since I read Terry Pratchett’s "Thief of Time" I’ve always set prayer wheels in motion. We came out on the courtyard in front of the entrance to the gompa. The morning sun made everything look cheerful.

tsangyanggyatsoThe gompa was closed, but Lobsang found the caretaker, who opened the door for us. The inside was stunning. Colourful paintings lit up the small room. Suspended above them were thangkas with portraits of the successive Dalai Lamas. I asked Lobsang to point out the sixth. There was a bit of consultation between him and the caretaker, a bit of counting, and they pointed to the portrait alongside. Interestingly, in his own birthplace, the sixth Dalai Lama is revered, but not really remembered.

She smells sweet of body
My sweetheart, the highway queen;
Like the worthless white turquoise
She was found, to be thrown away.
— Tsangyang Gyatso

Being ignorant of Tibetan history, I researched his tragic-romantic story later. The fifth Dalai Lama had died in the middle of messy politics involving Tibet, China, and Mongolia. The search for the next reincarnation was carried out in secret by the Dalai Lama’s regent. When Tsangyang Gyatso was found, he was already fourteen years old. He was administered the vows of a novice monk by the Panchen Lama. The rebellious teenager was said to be constantly at loggerheads with his instructors. He renounced his vows, dressed as a lay person, was seen to drink and often left the palace to visit prostitutes. He wrote love poems which are still known today. His lack of interest in governing destabilized the political balance in the region. A Mongol warlord invaded Tibet, and conspired to send the Dalai Lama to China. He disappeared at the age of 24, in the year 1706, on his way to China as a prisoner.

thringchenga verychanga

The murals on the walls were clearly religious stories. I took photos as Lobsang translated the caretaker’s words from Mon to Hindi. Unfortunately the stories mostly left out important details, perhaps the locals know the stories so well that they assume that we too can fill in the gaps. My notes mention Lappan Rinpoche, Thring Cheng and Tsokta. The person in the picture above to the left, is clearly a powerful being; he has on the yellow hat of the Gelugpa sect and holds a tiger in his left hand. The picture on the right could depict the entity whose statue is shown in this post.

serene monk

I could not make out whether those powerful entities were entirely benign. But what about these? The one on the left above is clearly a very powerful person. But he is not totally benign, judging by the three heads which he holds in his spear. The man in the red robe is clearly a monk. He too has the green halo of a superior being. Could this be a Dalai Lama? We did not get a full story, but the caretaker offered us interesting biscuits: salted crackers with cheese between pairs. They looked like they were ordinary sweet cream biscuits, but they were salty. The Family found them later in the market; they are made in Kolkata.

Still bemused, we followed our two guides down the external stairs to the lower level. This was the basement behind the prayer wheels. It was filled with chhortens. Lobsang and the caretaker lit some lamps here and changed the water for the flowers. We followed them out. We were led to two trees to the right of the entrance gate (visible as the middle tree behind the gompa in the photo on top). When Tsangyang Gyatso left Urgelling, he planted three trees and said that he would return when they died. One of them withered a little before the 14th Dalai Lama walked into Tawang in 1958. The other two seemed very healthy.

The place where the soul of the Dalai Lama is said to reside. Our guides are on the left, the caretaker closer to the camera.
The place where the soul of the Dalai Lama is said to reside. Our guides are on the left, the caretaker closer to the camera.

This would have been the end of our tour if Lobsang had not accompanied us. But the caretaker now decided to show us a little local secret. We clambered down the slope outside the gate. About a hundred meters down was a little pool of water with a stone in the middle of it. The area around it was covered over with colourful prayer flags. This is where the soul of the Dalai Lama resides, we were told. The unlucky boy, Tsangyang Gyatso, had good taste. The forest was calm and peaceful, and I hope it remains so, a little neglected, but alive in people’s memories; like a favourite old uncle you wish you could visit, but no longer have the time to.

An initiation into Tibetan history

tibetan

This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.