In the Land of the Rising Sun and with the Himalayan peaks as a backdrop, lies Tawang in western Arunachal Pradesh. It is bordered by Tibet on its North and Bhutan on its South West. The name Tawang is derived from Ta meaning ‘horse’ and wang meaning ‘chosen’, based on the legend of how the location for the monastery was decided upon. Standing at an altitude of about 3000 m, the Tawang Monastery lies around 2 kms from Tawang town and is the oldest monastery in Asia and the second largest. This ‘chosen’ site is surrounded by mountains on three sides except on its east, as isolation from domestic life was considered to create an ideal environment for monastic pursuits. The site was originally a meeting point for traders from Tibet, Arunachal Pradesh and Bhutan.
The Gaden Namgyal Lhatse or The Tawang Monastery was built in c. 1680 during the time of the 5th Dalai Lama, H. H. Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. The Gelug sect that the monastery belongs to, was introduced in the region by Lama Thangston Gyalpo of Tibet, a disciple of the 1st Dalai Lama. According to legend, he arrived in Tawang in the 15th century and meditated in a cave there. During this time, he met a local villager, Berkhar Targe, and told Targe that if he kept his begging bowl safe, he would be blessed with seven virtuous sons. Berkhar Targe obeyed and the Lama fulfilled his promise. Of his seven sons, the second and seventh sons went on to become monks in Tibet. They returned home to build numerous gompas of the Gelugpa.
Centuries later, in the house of one of the brothers was born Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso or Mera Lama, a chief disciple of the 5th Dalai Lama. He was believed to be the reincarnation of the second son of Berkhar Targe and would go on to lay the foundation of the Tawang Monastery. The 5th Dalai Lama gave him a ball of yarn and told him that the area of the proposed monastery should be as large as the yarn could cover. As instructed by the Dalai Lama, each village also constructed a part of the outer wall and a residence for the monks.
Tawang is also the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, Rechen Tshangyang Gyatso (1683-1707) who was born in Urgelling. Before the 6th Dalai Lama set forth on his journey to Tibet, he planted his walking stick and prophesied that when its three tree trunks attained equal height, he would return to his homeland. This prophecy is believed to have been fulfilled when the 14th Dalai Lama first came to Tawang in 1959, as he escaped from Tibet.
Tawang is unique, and its culture greatly differs from the rest of Arunachal Pradesh. The tribes of Tawang and West Kameng districts initially practised Bon and animism, but mainly profess Tibetan Buddhism today. The present Tawang township gradually grew around the monastery, as Buddhism established firmer roots in the region. Most followers of the Gelug sect belong to the Monpa and Sherdukpen tribe, with the population of Tawang mainly consisting of Monpas. Monpa means “from the land of the Mon”, loosely translated to “people living in the South of Tibet”. Their language belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family, and they use the Brahmi Script. Customary law dictates that if a Buddhist family has three sons, the middle son ought to pursue monkhood. Therefore, a majority of the monks in the Tawang monastery are mostly middle sons of these families.
For the upkeep of the monastery, it levies a charge on the villages which is due twice a year, known as the Khrei. Since the Monpas are an agrarian community, the initial payments were made in grains, butter and other farm and animal produce measured in Bres. There also exists a system where the land owned by the monastery is cultivated by the laity, and the produce from it is divided evenly between the monastery and the family. This shows the connection shared between the people and the monastery, which acts as a centre of religious, social, and economic importance. The monastery is also a cultural hub that promotes craftsmanship like Thangka painting, wood carving, and Monshug paper making. Mon comes from Monpa and Shug means paper, loosely translating to “paper of the Monpas”.
At the entrance to the monastery, one is greeted by a Kakaling or a colourful gateway. The Tawang Monastery comprises the assembly hall, museum, library, school for monks, and the monks’ residential quarters. It stands like a fortress guarding the valley of Tawang Chu, a suitable choice of location given that its founders faced constant threats from other sects. In olden days, the monks were also trained in combat, and the strategic location and architecture of the monastery served as an excellent military post.
The monastery’s yellow roofs make for a striking landscape against the greens of Tawang’s hills. Its centuries-old walls made of stone masonry are skilfully erected to leave minor incisions in which bamboo or wood is inserted. This ensures that the structure is safe from the region's seismic hazards.
The two-storeyed Dukhang is the most prominent building in the monastery, with the main assembly hall covering the entirety of its ground floor. On its first floor is the Labrang, or the residence of the Rinpoche (abbot), and the second floor is the residence reserved for the Dalai Lama. It is believed that the lower section of the Dukhang was constructed by the villagers of Tawang and West Kameng districts and is still maintained by them. Contributions were also made by other villagers as per the 5th Dalai Lama’s instructions.
The museum was inaugurated by the 14th Dalai Lama and houses objects that highlight the history, belief and culture of the monastery. It hosts curiosities like a human skull, an elephant tusk, ritualistic masks, and a copy of Prajana Paramita Sutra written in gold and believed to be as old as the Buddhist religion. One interesting artefact is a 19th century floorboard on which is imprinted the footprints of a monk who prayed in the same position every day. Another engrossing object is a framed photo of the 14th Dalai Lama, taken in Dirang during his 1959 escape from Tibet.
The monastery's library is a centre for religious research and knowledge dissemination. The ancient Par Khang (library) was renovated and inaugurated by the 14th Dalai Lama in 2009 and hosts a rich collection of Kanjur and Tanjur (Tibetan Buddhist canons) religious manuscripts called Pechas. Tawang Monastery is believed to house more than 1000 invaluable manuscripts, prints and digital collections. These manuscripts are made of palm leaf, birch bark and paper and were acquired as donations and gifts from local and international bodies. Its contents cover topics ranging from religion and philosophy, art, history, culture, Amchi (Tibetan Medicine), science and technology. The library is managed by religious, local and government bodies and is run by a dedicated library committee.
The Tawang monastery belongs to the Gelug sect, one of the four sects of Vajrayana Tibetan Buddhism who revere the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. An idol of the sect's founder, Je Tsongkhapa, stands near the altar flanked by his two chief disciples, Khedrubje and Gyatsabje.
The main idol of the Tawang Monastery is the 28ft. golden statue of Lord Buddha, that sits in Padmasana as the focal point of the assembly hall. His left hand is in Bhumisparsha mudra, symbolising the moment the Buddha attained enlightenment and called upon the Earth Goddess to witness his win over Mara (temptations). In his left hand he holds his begging bowl. It is believed that if one throws a coin from the upper storey and it were to land inside the bowl, then one’s prayers would be answered.
The Buddhists adhering to the Gelug sect believe that we are living in the era of the Buddha, as he prophesied that his teachings would last for 5000 years after which the 8th Bodhisattva, Maitreya Buddha's era would begin. This belief is manifested in the idols of the 8 Bodhisattvas being placed in the assembly hall.
The Buddhist philosophy of reincarnation mediates the practice of careful mindfulness. The Monpas’ hardworking and generous nature is also attributed to this Buddhist teaching that emphasises a life of simple living. It teaches us to be wary of even the most minute consequences that our actions may have. This is also reflected in the peoples’ preference to offer sacrifices of animal produce, rather than the animal itself.
Exquisite murals and thangkas of the Goddess Tara, Avalokiteshvara, Manjusri and various Dakinis and Yoginis decorate the spaces of the Tawang Monastery. An interesting mural of the Mongol commander, Sokpo Jomkhar was commissioned as a sign of gratitude for his assistance in defending the Gelugpa against the Dukpa. He is also believed to have donated Kanjur texts to the monastery.
The pillars of the Dukhang are covered in prayer flags, with thangkas and banners hanging in colourful abundance. One such thangka is that of Palden Lhamo or Sri Devi, the guardian deity of the Dalai Lama, which was gifted to the monastery by the 5th Dalai Lama during its consecration. Even today, this precious gift hangs in the Dukhang, along with a throne that is reserved for the Dalai Lama.
Festivals in the monastery are marked with the lighting of hundreds of butter lamps. The annual Torgya Festival is held at Tawang Monastery as per the Lunar calendar in the month of January. In preparation for this, resident monks practise the masked Cham Lang dance for over a month, as this monastic dance is believed to drive away evil spirits. Procession of the monks wearing the yellow hats of their sect based on their ranks and blowing of the Dungchen (trumpets) are an integral part of the festival. At the end of the procession, an effigy or Torma symbolising evil is carried and then burnt amidst music and dance. This also shows the festival’s Bon influence, a religion that was practised by the Monpas before the onset of Buddhism. On day three, the festival ends on a convivial note with the drinking of Tse Chang (traditional beer). Every third year, the festival is celebrated on a grander scale and is called the Dungyur Torgya. Dungyur means ‘10 crore’ as during the festival the mantra of Avalokiteshwara is chanted 10 crore times. During Dungyur Torgya the idol of Maitreya Buddha is carried around the monastery.
Monks are expected to follow a code of conduct according to the chai and chebamarna instituted by the 5th Dalai Lama at the time of the establishment of the monastery. They are to be attired in red robes, signifying their low societal status. A monk's day starts before sunrise at 4am with prayers led by the Rinpoche, followed by breakfast and lessons on Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. Monks are also taught sand mandala making and tasked with crafting wax and butter idols, items which constitute important aspects of a traditional ceremony. They also act as advisors for devotees and perform rituals at their behest, further deepening the bond that the monastery and its people share.
A young boy may be initiated into monkhood as early as at the age of 6. There is no upper age limit or social and religious affiliation required to become a monk, as long as one follows the teachings of Lord Buddha.
The Tawang Monastery has 17 associated gompas and each is presided over by a monk with a tenure of 3 years. It also has two associated Ani Gompas (nunnery), or residences for the female monks. Mera Lama had a sister who was a nun. As a female could not reside in the monastery, a nunnery was established to accommodate her, known as Gyangong Ani Gompa. What makes Gyangong Ani Gompa unique is that the other nunneries in Arunachal Pradesh are dependent on the donations made by the laity and not by provisions of a monastery. A nun's duty includes performing minor chores at the monastery.
The religion, philosophy, culture, heritage and architecture of the Tawang Monastery is a testament to the resilience of its inhabitants and believers. In today's world where there is a constant push to be homogeneous, the Tawang Monastery stands unique and self-sufficient. A world within a world, it is an immaculate addition to the blue skylines of Western Arunachal Pradesh, true to its name of "Celestial Paradise on a clear night".