Saturday, 19 September 2015

Tea and Tales from Tawang

Sela Pass
The cup of tea on the table in front of me is quite repulsive, to say the least. The container is squat, made of greyish, flimsy (possibly toxic) plastic that wobbles when held in the hand, threatening to spill out its contents. The tea, thick, dark brown and glutinous, is forming a crinkly skin on the top. It’s 7 am and I’ve just bought this brew at the Guwahati airport.

I’m seated on a large brown faux leather sofa in the VIP lounge. On another sofa, across me, Mr Nitin Gadkari, BJP ideologue and current minister for roads, is reading aloud a joke about the Congress on his cell phone and giggling happily along with his retinue. He is waiting for a helicopter to take him to district Zero in Arunachal Pradesh. I too am waiting for a chopper to get me to Tawang. 
A Stream by the Road
I drink the tea. It is hot, sweet and thick, as is all tea you might get at an airport – and nothing like the milk-less light Lipton Green Label I’m used to. I feel it travelling down my food pipe in a mass and hit the stomach. Instead of jerking me awake, as I had hoped (I’ve been up since 2 am to travel), it has a strangely soporific affect – and I fall immediately and deeply asleep. The next thing I know, I am being shaken awake: “Madam, the helicopter is ready, it’s 10 o’clock.” This is a commercial flight run by the state government and I go through the security check again and soon find myself on the tarmac, near the helicopter. Mr Gadkari and his group fly by overhead in a couple of Army copters. 
The Road to Twang, from the helicopter

The only other passenger in our chopper is a Washington Post journalist who is worried about altitude sickness in Tawang – the town is located 10,000 feet above sea level. Since I had not thought about this, I too begin to worry but not for long. Our helicopter takes off and soon we are engrossed in the visual delights outside our windows. We are travelling over hills clad in thick virgin forest, the green broken only by the pale thin ribbon of a road winding up and down endlessly. The road trip from Guwahati to Tawang takes about sixteen hours and the chopper ride a little over an hour. However, the latter is dependent on weather conditions and quite erratic.
White Tara at Lumla

We soon arrive at Lumla, and hover almost eye level with a huge, beautiful statue of White Tara, seated atop a hill. At the helipad, my host, the district commissioner of Tawang, has sent a Jeep and driver to meet me and soon we are on our way to Tawang Township. The air is crisp and cold, the temperature hovering around 12 degrees centigrade. The journey is an hour-and-a-half long over very bad road. Small waterfalls and streams trickling down the hillside, fields of brilliant yellow flowers, an occasional flowering rhododendron tree, a yak grazing in a meadow, prayer flags fluttering gaily from poles and rooftops, and people busy with their daily lives in the small village we pass are some sights that keep me visually engrossed and cushioned from bumps. 
Monpa women dancing
Tawang district is also known as the Land of the Monpa. The Monpa are an ancient tribe that migrated to Tawang and adjacent West Kameng district from Tibet and Bhutan over time. They are followers of Buddhism; in fact, the only Dalai Lama – the sixth – to be born in India took birth in Tawang in 1683. There are many myths and stories about his life as a child, his journey to Tibet and his eventual mysterious disappearance. In the mists of time, Tibet held sovereignty over Tawang and later China became involved. The McMohan line demarcated Tawang as Indian Territory in 1914, but China still lays claim to the area. In fact, Chinese troops over-ran the place in the 1962 Indo-Chinese war and later retreated when peace was signed. The bravery of the Indian soldiers in this war is commemorated through the War Memorial in Tawang and the Jaswantgarh War Memorial close by.
White Rhododendron

Tawang’s other claims to fame are the Tawang Monastery, said to be the largest in Asia, and the fact that when the current (14th) Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1953, he entered India through Tawang. I can see the sprawling Tawang Monastery’s buildings with their whiter than white walls and vibrant yellow roofs from the Circuit House where I am staying. The structure dominates the town which is built on the spines of a couple of green hills – and the entire vista is really as pretty as a picture.

Having arrived at the Circuit House, I proceed to ask Yadavji, the 
Monpa men with Yak dance costume
general factotum, for ‘separate’ tea which means that the hot water and tea leaves arrive in a tea pot accompanied by milk and sugar in separate containers as opposed to the thick curry-like masala chai which is a near universal favourite. The tea arrives on a tin tray with the three containers on it. But…. the teapot contains the hated masala chai, with additional sugar and milk in case I felt like making it sweeter or milkier! I swallow my disappointment and the tea, and head out to see the sights of Tawang.

There’s a fair amount to see within the small radius in and around town. 
Tawang Monastery

Tawang Monastery
The first stop, of course, is Tawang Monastery. We enter the ancient building into a courtyard that plays host to the annual Torgya monastic festival every winter. Up front is the assembly hall that is home to the 25-foot beautiful gilded statue of the Buddha. The room is festooned with banners, the floor has prayer mats on it and the walls are richly decorated with intricate murals and thangkas. Other buildings around the courtyard include a museum, an impressive library, storage for provisions and a cook house. Beyond are buildings that are home to the male monks and novices; every Monpa households sends one son here at a young age to learn the scriptures. 

Tawang Monastery
We then wind our way downhill to the modest Urgelling Monastery. It has some antique thangkas of the sixth Dalai Lama, prayer wheels, lamps for lighting, and other accoutrements of faith. On the first floor, in the hall, we find a priest and his family. I light the lamp at the altar and am invited to share tea with them. The Monpa butter tea or sueja is salty and made from jari or crude tea leaves that are churned together with a little milk, butter and salt in a long cylindrical churn made of bamboo or jan dhong. The sueja is served warm. The taste, though unlike the tea we’re used to, is pleasant and soothing; a certain sense of contentment falls upon me, brought on by the place and the tea.

Mentally shaking myself, I take my leave and we make our way further down to yet another monastery, Khinmey. This is a beautiful structure that has been renovated recently at the behest of the current dynamic Rinpoche. Inside, apart from the statues of deities and saints, the walls are covered with tantric (fairly erotic) paintings showing life in all its stages, especially the fate that awaits the wicked and the sinful.

Khinmey Monastery

By now it’s late in the evening and the temperature has dipped further. I decide to head back and turn in for the evening. Along the streets, especially in the market, the local people are busy transacting daily business. The Monpa are a good looking people. The young men and women sport the latest haircuts and clothing:  jeans, boots, jackets and scarves. I think that if you were to transfer them to, say, Bangkok or KL, they’d be quite at home. Not many wear the traditional gear - which uses a stunning combination of brick red and cobalt blue – everyday; it is usually reserved for festive occasions. 
Pond by the roadside

The driver informs me that yaks can sense the weather change and know it’s going to snow higher up so they rush downhill.

Yaks running downhill

The yaks are right. Weather rapidly deteriorates and it is raining in earnest by the time we hit Tawang. There’s a cultural festival on – the reason for my visit to Tawang -- and I leave my driver at the parking lot and walk down to the grounds where the festivities are organised. Luckily, it’s stopped raining but the ground is full of slush.
PT Tso Lake

Regardless, the place is bursting with activity. People from different tribes across Arunachal in their traditional, colourful costumes and beads, wearing exotic headgear and masks; men roaming around in the yak dance costumes or dance masks; musicians tuning their instruments; young and old monks; and the town people excitedly talking – it’s a scene that fills the senses. I cannot but help marvel at India and her diversity.  The governor of the state arrives and we witness local dances performed by five or six different tribes. My cup quite spills over with excitement and happiness.The yaks are right. Weather rapidly deteriorates and it is raining in.

PT Tso Lake
The only fly in the cup is the telecommunication in Tawang; it belongs to the dark ages. The Airtel service comes on for a few seconds then vanishes for hours. I can’t make contact with the driver, so I eventually hitch a ride with two young monks in a bright red Maruti 800 back to the Circuit House. 
Twang Monastery from the Circuit House
Much as I don’t want to, I have to think about getting to Delhi. Since there is no chance of the helicopter taking off in this weather, I prepare to embark on the sixteen-hour journey to Guwahati. Next morning, my host sees me off in a taxi at around 11 am. Leaving town, we descend and then ascent up to the snow covered Sela Lake and Pass at 13,500 feet altitude. Again I get that sense of the majesty of nature and our smallness in its face.
Yak Dancers
We drive steadily through virgin jungle along the road that I had seen from the helicopter. There is hardly any traffic and the road is seriously bad in several patches. I get the opportunity to feast my eyes of lush green, unspoilt forests that we are passing interspersed by valleys of incredible beauty. We reach Bhalukpong in Assam by 7.30 in the evening and start again at 6 am next morning, reaching Guwahati airport by about 11, well in time for my 1.40 pm flight back to Delhi.
A young Lama
Ever the optimist about tea, this time I go to the slightly upmarket restaurant at the airport so that I can try some excellent Assam tea. The ‘separate’ tea arrives. But a bag of Taj Mahal masala tea dangles in hot water in the pot. The waiter assures me that this is the only Assam tea he knows of. I give up! And console myself that home just a few hours away. The first thing I’ll do on reaching will be to make myself a cup of tea the way I like it.

Urgelling Monastery   

Ananda Swaroop is a itinerant traveller. An editor by profession, she edits corporate publications and is also the editor of garam masala chai. A watercolour enthusiast and practitioner, she works with the realist genre. Ananda lives and works in New Delhi, India.