Saturday, May 25, 2013
Last Updated: 24 May 14:33 PM IST
24 November 2012
IF Shangri-la conjures up images of a hidden paradise, happy folk, mellifluous chants floating in the air and mystical monks absorbed in prayer, then Tawang is that fabled land. Beginning at Bhalukpong on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border and traversing hundreds of kilometres across mountainous terrain, one is transported to the piece-de-resistance — Tawang Monastery. Aptly named Galden Namgyal Lhatse, meaning “Celestial Paradise”, it is surpassed in antiquity only by the temple at Lhasa.
So on a drizzly August morning, we hauled up in front of the majestic structure perched atop a ridge shrouded by a perennial mist. We met Lobsang Thapke, an elderly monk of soft demeanour and tiny eyes effusing intelligence and compassion in about equal parts. Over the next few hours he unravelled a fascinating tableau of the monastery, his riveting oratory frequently interspersed with lighthearted vignettes. Tawang derived its name, he explained, from Ta, meaning horse, and Wang, meaning chosen. This in reference to the myth that says the monastery’s site was chosen by the horse of the Merak Lama.
Several stories later, Lobsang Lama took us on a tour around the complex. He led us into the community kitchen, a whopping rectangular space housing behemothic cooking paraphernalia that churned out the daily fare for 400 monks. We could not help wondering how those unassuming pots and pans, grounded to terra firma, must have been witness to the myriad history of the place since whenever.
Aptly named Galden Namgyal Lhatse, meaning ‘Celestial Paradise’, it is surpassed in antiquity only by the temple at Lhasa, says ipshita chakraborty
We ambled around the courtyard, soaking in the warmth of the simple, unpretentious people. Surrounded by misty mountains, the place seemed to have an eerie, ethereal quality. The senior monks diligently went about the day’s administrative work. The novices, clothed in maroon robes, were a delight to watch. They were ever so slightly tempted to break into a run or leap in the air but were bound by a subdued restraint. The two of us made an amusing spectacle, one making copious notes, the other clicking incessantly. Every so often we stopped, mused and marvelled at the numerous inscriptions and stone carvings. The history of the place was almost palpable; every stone seemed to have a story of its own.
We strolled around before arriving at the intriguing and gorgeous main temple, called Dukhang. A delightful fragrance filled our nostrils, warm and fresh and flowery all at once. A soft glow from the butter lamps illuminated the interiors in a mellow light. In this half-light came alive a plethora of deities, elaborate mural paintings and thangkas (Buddhist scroll paintings, all steeped in antiquity. And presiding over the pantheon was a colossal, richly gilded statue of Lord Buddha. As we stood transfixed, drinking in the celestial splendour, Lobsang Lama embarked on an ecclesiastical elocution. To the left of the altar he pointed out a silver casket wrapped in silk. It is believed to contain the thangkas of Goddess Dri Devi, the principle deity of the monastery, given by the fifth Dalai Lama. To its right was the mural of the Maitreya, the future of The Buddha. We luxuriated in this convivial religious discourse until we almost stopped in our tracks on seeing the mural of Tara Devi and her uncanny resemblance to the many-armed Kali. Within Tibetan Buddhism, Tara is regarded as a Bodhisattva of compassion, the female aspect of Avalokiteshvara. Our minds kept going back to the striking resemblance to Kali. We kept asking whether somewhere down the line the Hindu and Buddhist cults had mingled.
Lobsang Lama excused himself since it was time for the novices to pray. We found our way back but were taken by surprise by the stream of boys rushing vigorously through the door. The Dukhang was instantly transformed into a sea of maroon robes. The lama proceeded to the altar while the novices went about their customary genuflection. The collective chanting began. The sonorous tune from the gyaling pervaded the surrounds. Some of the starry-eyed denizens stole furtive glances of us two strange visitors. They seemed to be quite perplexed with our taking notes and clicking a million photographs. Soon it was time for us to break away; we expressed our gratitude to the benevolent monk, mumbled a last prayer to the Lord and quietly slipped out. As we strolled downhill, we continued to feel the reverberating chants echoing through our minds, leaving us addled in surreal intoxication.