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London to Tawang. Not your average first liner on a travel itinerary…and a name that has no meaning to the vast majority of us. Despite having travelled extensively in India and working as a tailor made Asia travel consultant I myself was intrigued to find out that I would be visiting Tawang. A place I knew nothing about.
The name, Tawang, did not conjure up any intriguing imagery or a yearning to explore that the keen traveller graves. But if you are willing to join me on a journey of discovery this name may too settle in your heart and become a companion in all your future endeavours….
Tawang. Undoubtedly the word has a beautiful ring to it and, as I was to discover, this ‘ring’ could not be more apt when one finally reaches this remarkable location nestled high in the Eastern Indian Himalaya. The ‘Ta’ of ‘Tawang’ means horse. It is thought that by this ancient means of transport the site was originally discovered by Merak Lama (or monk). Step onto the horse (or the modern day equivalent!) and allow this ancient travelling Lama to guide you to the land of ‘Wang’ or blessings.
As our guide before us discovered and in turn passed this knowledge to the modern day traveller, it is a journey not without its hardships! First to Calcutta; no direct flight from the UK! Alarm bells are already ringing for some. But trust in your guide and endure the 2 hour stop over in Dubai or Bombay!
Tawang. It is necessary to stay a night in Calcutta; a city of immeasurable interest and intrigue for the traveller that has captivated and amazed for centuries. But we must be stern faced and blinkered to reach our summit; like a monk in his solitary retreat cave; focused in meditative equipoise, we must press on! But we have a problem; as countless travellers will testify, India can push and pull the foot loose wanderer away from the original goal. Indeed it is testament to the incredible wealth and diversity of this country that I find myself, at this very moment, wanting to write about the culture and heritage of West Bengal; a state headed by the mind boggling city of Calcutta. Alas! The temptation is too great and, as a trainee in the art of ‘travel meditation’ I cannot resist the urge to lose focus and describe what must be one of the world’s most incredible cities.
To get an understanding of this place we could do far worst than to leaf through Dominique Lapierre’s celebrated and incalculably worthwhile novel ‘The City of Joy’. A stark but simultaneously joyous portrayal of life in this incredible metropolis. But only by visiting can we truly experience the vibrancy, movement and sense tingling pace of this city of cities. It is the gateway that must be passed through, but equally, we cannot resist to stand and be amazed at the cities incredible architecture, thrilled by ‘The lights of the World’ (A phrase used by Lapierre to describe the cities inhabitants), bewildered by goats in the street, enveloped by a cacophony of sound at the Eden Gardens cricket stadium…. the list goes on. Suffices to say that, whatever our experience of this city, one is not left feeling underwhelmed. It is tempting to say however that Calcutta is at the polar opposite in relation to final destination of Tawang; and in many respects this statement is true. But miracles are to be found on every corner of Calcutta’s streets and in ever cup of tea poured in the earthenware receptacles found throughout the thousands of tea stalls dotted across the city. We can allow the sense of excitement to grow a little now, for miracles also await high above us amongst the snow capped peaks.
Tawang. From the veritable melting pot of Calcutta we must again find our resolve and move North to the state of Assam. We are ‘off the beaten track’ now and can, if time allows, find ourselves on a totally ‘trackless path’ in this wonderful state. As is said in many a meditation guide ‘the Path is the Goal’ and in this case ‘the way’ transforms into the form of the sprawling and mighty Bramahputra River as it eases its way down to the delta in Bangladesh. We can afford a few days to relax here and, against the wishes of our master, even indulge in a G & T as the sun melts into the expansive horizon. A horizon that can be explored on elephant back in one of Assam’s many stunning national parks such as Kaziranga….. Tigers stalk these forests so, since we are here, why not give ourselves the chance of spotting this often elusive big cat; a creature, according to Tibetan Buddhism (the school of Buddhism practised in the Indian Himalaya), that inspires unconditional confidence, disciplined awareness, kindness and modesty. All traits that will keep us in good stead as our final ascent into the clouds begins.
And what an ascent! It will take two days of solid travel from Guwahati, the state’s capital, and for those of you put off by the indirect flight from the UK this will be the knock out blow that resigns Tawang as a destination to be viewed only from the ever present ‘Google lookout point’. Push on however and be rewarded by pristine forests, a sore back, spectacular mountain views, military instillations, long stops at check points, short bursts of adrenaline (looking down is not always recommended!), inquisitive mountain folk, obstinate India Army officials (don’t tell them this!) and even a glimpse of rare and elusive Himalayan wildlife. Incredible India! Words, as the meditator is instinctively aware, cannot and will never do justice to this, or indeed any land. We must ourselves taste to know, enter into and be a part of the juxtaposition that is India. For if we only look at the hand, we may never see the Moon at which it is pointing!
Tawang. As our celestial body orbits this Blue Planet so too does the monastery of Tawang hover over the valley that goes by the same name. We are close now and must only cross one more high pass before we catch our first distance glimpse of this impressive structure that houses treasures beyond the grasp of its walls. With the changing light that reflects from the white outer surface the inhabitants understand that change is the nature of reality. To the untrained eye it may seem a place of incredible monotony. A relentless cycle of prayer, meditation and introverted reflection. But again we must pause and ourselves bear witness to these silent ambassadors of peace. They are the guardians of this high altitude setting and it is to them that the local people, known as the Monpa, turn for guidance. Wisdom; that which is gained through experiential practise as opposed to learning, is etched on many a face that wander the narrow pathways and ‘foot smoothed’ wooden planks in this vast monastic complex.
Tawang. One visit is not enough. More hardships have to be endured tomorrow! Rising at 4am we enter into a timeless morning chanting session attended by hundreds of monks. From our practise, that is to say, our Himalayan journey, we by now have learnt to accept that which is presented to us and after a couple of photos taken on ‘the digital’ we too should ‘just sit’. To observe; this is our only aim. For we, the traveller, are as much a part of this session, if only momentarily, as the monks themselves. As we gaze at the ancient Thangkas (Tibetan Buddhist painted scrolls) that adorn the walls we can allow ourselves the freedom to move back through the years and realise that we to are now a part of this incredibly rich establishment that has trained and nurtured young monks to become the guides and teachers who the valley’s people, the Monpas, so intensely revere. It is to perhaps the most famous and revered monk the modern world has ever known, The 14th Dalai Lama, that a special seat is reserved at the foot of the huge statue of Shakyamuni (the historical) Buddha. A statue that watches over the monks, who in turn, watch over all the sentient being of this world.
The mind moves and so must we. We cannot stay. It is but for a moment that we can dwell here. Like the summit of the earth’s highest peaks or the depths of the ocean we can only be visitors to such a place. Nothing is permanent, but there is time enough for one last effort; to see that within this rigid daily cycle lies a freedom seldom experienced in our modern lives. This does not have to be a matter of religious contention; all it takes is a simple smile from an elder monk that, without realising, is both received and reflected, for us to realise why we travelled so far and exerted such effort to journey to a place that we once didn’t even know existed. The cry of the Monpa echoes out across the valley as we slip back to our modern world beneath the clouds. Blessed are those who have travelled to this place that shall ring in our ears whenever we recall its name.