Tawang is easily the most famous tourist destination in Arunachal, and in fact, in the entire Northeast. Yet, most people do not get to know much about the place and visit 4-5 major attractions in and around the Tawang Monastery. Now, this monastery is a great place to visit but there is much more than that in Tawang. So, here is a quick list of the offbeat things to do in Tawang. When I say “offbeat”, I genuinely mean it. So, these do not include the likes of War Memorial, Bum La and Madhuri Lake, which are known to you anyway.
Unusual Things to See and Do in Tawang
Mukto Village: The Last Papermakers
It is a small village not known to many but it is home to one of the most unique crafts, that of papermaking through traditional means. They use the barks of a specific plant for this and there is a very unique process that they use. This paper is used mostly for writing religious texts at monasteries. Even I was not aware of it till the guys at HolidayScout took us there. That is why you need to be in touch with a local operator. Here’s a detailed post about Mukto paper makers.
Geshila Peak: A Different Detour
It is a lesser-known route that starts somewhere near PTSD Lake and circumvents Tawang to reach Jang. It runs at a higher altitude, so much so that you can see the Tawang Monastery below you at a distance! A great offbeat route, Geshila route is covered with rhododendron forests and splattered with nameless lakes, and can be a delight for cyclists, bikers, and offroaders. Trekking can be great here too although not yet explored fully. Just imagine the rhododendron forest in the spring.
Khinmey Gompa: A Nyingma Stronghold
Khinmey Nyingma Monastery also known as Sang-ngag-choekhorling, is located a short drive from Tawang. The name comes from the Monpa word meaning a place for listening to the sound of barking dogs. As per legends it was thick forest teeming with wild animals. A legendary hunter from a nearby village met Rev. Kundun Sange Yeshe, the founder of the monastery, who was meditating in the jungle and became his disciple by giving up hunting. It is a Nyingma monastery dating back to 1440 AD. A massive statue of Medicine Buddha has been built nearby.
Around half an hour from Tawang, Chankzam is known for its hanging bridge over the powerful Tawang Chu river. However, this is just not another bridge! It is almost six hundred years old iron bridge built by Tangton Gyalpo (1385-1464), a famous architect and builder of the Tibetan world who was a disciple of the first Dalai Lama. He was also known as Lama Chag-Zam Wangpo and the bridge is named after him. It is a great example of medieval engineering that is still functional.
Ani Gompas: Nunneries of Tawang
Tawang has a long tradition of Buddhist nunneries popularly called “Ani Gompas”. So, do note that there is not one but many such nunneries in Tawang and so do not get confused if different people give you different locations. The most famous and oldest one is the Brama dung- chung Ani Gompa (Also called Thukje Choeling), located 12 kms from Tawang. It was commissioned by Karchen Yeshi Gelek in 1595 and houses about 45 nuns. Some other famous nunneries include Gyangong Ani Gompa about 5 km from the Tawang Township with 50 nuns and Singsur Ani Gompa 28 KMs from Tawang, built by Gonpaste Rimpoche, housing around 45 nuns.
The sky looming high stupa about 92 Km from Tawang was constructed by Lama Prathar from Kharman village in Zemithang, in 13th Century A.D., it stands featuring 186 feet base and 93 feet high is the modeled after that famous stupa in Nepal. Thousands of devotees visit during Gorzam Kora festival to observe the virtuous occasion during the last day of the first month of the lunar calendar
Lumla: Tara Devi Statue
Lumla is a small settlement around 45 kms from Tawang on the way to Zemithang. It is famous for the massive statue of Tara Devi (Jetsun Dolma), a major Buddhist deity. A prayer hall is present underneath the statue. It is not far from Bhutan border and from the statue atop a hillock, you can see the hills of Bhutan. Sadly, the statue was under renovation when I visited and so you can see it covered by bamboos.
This is a small village around 25 kms from Tawang. It is one of the places where the Dalai Lama spent a night while he escaped from Tibet. To commemorate that event, a big monastery has been built here. You can also stay in the village and enjoy rustic lifestyle for a day or two.
Taktsang Gompa (Not the One You Think)
Do not confuse it with the famous monastery in Bhutan with a similar name. However, this only shows how close the relations are between Bhutan and Tawang. This gompa is located around 45 KMs from Tawang, around 5 KMs from the Sungester Tso (Madhuri Lake). It was consecrated by a visit of Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century CE. It is located atop a hill and needs a short hike to reach.
Meeting Brokpa Herders
The Brokpas of Arunachal (Do not confuse them with Ladakhi Brokpas) are nomadic yak herders who make the yak cheese essential in local Monpa cuisine. If you go there in the winters, you can visit one of their settlements near the town. In the summers they disappear into the mountains with their hers, looking for grazing grounds for yaks.
Most people know about the Tawang Festival which is a touristy affair that takes place in October but if you want something deeply entrenched in local history and culture, visit the Torgya Festival at Tawang Moanstery in January. The town will be covered in snow but those masked dancers will be in full flow.
Birding in Tawang
Birding is Tawang is not very frequent but is growing. Several interesting high altitude birds can be found here around Se La as well as the interior areas of Tawang such as monal, blood pheasant, snow partidge, Satyr and Temminck’s tragopans, ward’s trogon, alpine accentor, white-throated redstart, slender-billed scimitar-babbler, brown-throated tit-babbler/fulvetta, eurasian treecreeper, fire-tailed sunbird, beavan’s bullfinch, etc. But you will need a good local birding guide to spot them.