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The other side of the mountain


The coldly aloof Paradise lake

THE chill Himalayan air, filtered by the forests of Arunachal, cooled by its ice-glittering peaks, should be sharp and clear in Tawang. It isn't. There's a faint, blue, haze over it all and a clean resinous fragrance. The gentle Monpa people burn juniper branches in their outdoor sangbum altars, every morning and evening, because, as our escort, the graceful Tsering Dekey, said: "It gives perfume to us and our neighbours, and then it rises to the gods and makes them happy." The gods must be happy with us because we have a feeling of deep, effervescent, elation. Cynics will probably say that that it's a mild case of altitude sickness brought about by our 3,500 metre elevation. But we doubt it. This morning we were at the 4,114 m high Sela Pass and we were certainly not light-headed. If we had been, the wind would have wrapped its cold, clawed, paws around us and carried us away! It's easy to believe in the Dragons of the Wind in this haunting place.

There's a gateway, and a stupa commemorating those who died here during the 1962 Indo-China conflict, and small, frigid, lakes that look as if they've been beaten out of hand-hammered steel. The coldly aloof Paradise Lake has been so named, we were convinced, because whoever fell in would be teleported, instantly deep-frozen, into the hereafter! But, in spite of this, the keening wind and the patches of snow crystallising into ice, impudent little yellow primroses clung to tiny folds in the mountains, protected by wind-rounded black rocks upholstered in moss. They gave a touch of delicate beauty to this challengingly inhospitable place.

The Rimpoche (far left) presiding over a ceremony at the Urgelling monastery

We left the forbidding pass behind us and began to descend into the valley. Now we were driving through bleak glens with stunted conifers, gushing ice-melt streams and mist snagged in tattered veils on the crags like the wraiths of lost warriors. Ominous old bunkers began to appear. They were covered in stubby rhododendrons gnarled with the cold, defiantly flaunting their flowers of white, yellow, pink and the colour of the blood that had drenched this soil, 40 years ago. We visited Jaswant Garh, a memorial raised and guarded by the Army in honour of Jaswant Singh Rawat, MVC. In the Battle of Nuranang, he, Trilok Singh and Gopal Singh of 4 Garhwal Rifles had held off three attacks by the invaders for 72 hours before they gave up their lives. But they had changed the course of that critical Sino-Indian battle.

The battlefield diminished behind us as we snaked down a sinuous road. At the end of a long valley, 6,488 m high Gorichen glittered like the Koh-i-Noor on the curving bosom of the sky. A little later, over the hills and far away, Tawang was dotted confetti scattered over the mountains. And dominating it was the enormous, golden-roofed, spread of the second largest monastery in Asia after Lhasa's Potala. The 17th Century Galden Namgye Lhatse gompa can house over 500 monks of the Gelukpa order. It is more commonly known as the Tawang monastery and has given its name to the town.

The sun has just set and the monastery is now ablaze with curtains and festoons of coloured lights. Its brilliance has begun to glow on the dark underbellies of the clouds rolling overhead. We'll visit the lesser places in Tawang, and then the dominating monastery: if it doesn't deluge tomorrow.

* * *

It didn't. The sun rose in this north-eastern town at four-fifteen as bright and cheerful as if it had been polishing its face the whole night. We set off after an early breakfast, dragging scarves of juniper smoke behind us and visited the tall stupa blessed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and built and maintained by the Indian Army. The chorten is ringed by regimental flags and glints with their crests. It honours the memory of the 2,420 men who died in the Kameng sector in 1962. The army is a reassuringly pervasive presence here because the Chinese are only 35 km away, we were told.

The 17th Century Galden Namgye Lhatse Gompa

Tawang was a scene of conflict in the first half of the 17th Century too, because the traditional routes from Tibet, Bhutan and West Kameng met here. The Dukpas of Bhutan and the Monpas fought for the control of this strategic town which is why the great Gompa is as much a fort as it is a monastery. We walked through its triple gates, up its winding, and easily defended, paths, to the huge terrace before its three storeyed Assembly Hall. Inside, a gilded statue of the Buddha, almost nine metres high, gazed down on devotees. Incense sent thin blue reeds of smoke into the still air, butter-lamps flickered gold, worshippers prostrated themselves in veneration. A group of monk artists painted a thanka; other religious paintings looked down from the walls: the 32 Sin Purification Buddhas, the 16 Arhats or Buddhas to come. In the museum on the top floor, other religious objects were on display, including a rare painting of the Sixth Dalai Lama who was born in Tawang. In spite of the lively presence of strawberry-robed young acolytes, or perhaps because of them, we got a strong sense of scholarship, authority and permanence. We felt that the medieval monasteries of Europe, sanctuaries of nurtured knowledge during the Dark Ages, must have had the same powerful character. The Abbot of this monastery is a reincarnated monk, a rimpoche. We met him as he presided over a ceremony at the old Urgelling Monastery, marking the place where the Sixth Dalai Lama had been born.

And now, as we stand at the window of our room looking across the sunset-drenched valley of Tawang, we ask ourselves if we too believe in reincarnation. Somehow, at this time and in this place, it is difficult not to. Or has the thin air, and the beauty, of Arunachal woven a compulsive, magical, spell on our minds?

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