A Pilgrimage to Tawang by, Verrier Elwin




Tawang, with its great monastery in a beautiful upland valley in a corner between Bhutan and Tibet, came into world-news as the first place of importance visited by the Dalai Lama, when he sought political asylum in India four years ago. It came again, more tragically, into the headlines when it was captured by the Chinese and yet again as the scene of rejoicing when, it was reoccupied by its Lamas and the Indian administrators a few weeks later.

Tawang is a long way off, and when I went there the journey had to be made on foot or pony; now a wonderful mountain road makes it accessible. Lila and I went there in May 1956 and, since we covered the exact route taken by the Dalai Lama and his party when they travelled down to the plains, I will describe our experiences, for he saw the same places and met the same people that we did, though in reverse order.

From Tezpur, where over two hundred journalists gathered to greet the Dalai Lama when he arrived there, we drove through Charduar at the foot of the mountains, and then up the new road towards Bomdi La. The Dalai Lama was able to make the entire journey between Charduar and Bomdi La by jeep, but when we went we were only able to drive about twenty-eight miles, in the course of which we climbed 8,000 feet, to the road-head, after which we went on foot and pony along a rather narrow bridlepath. It was not an easy journey, for to those unaccustomed to riding on the little mountain ponies, their habit of walking on the extreme edge of precipices (and there are many of them) is somewhat alarming, we were badly bitten by dimdam flies, horrid insects whose bites leave poisoned and itching sores; and before long our leg-muscles began to ache excruciatingly. But the path led us through such lovely scenery, valley and stream and hill, with sacred shrines to bless us on our way, that we quickly forgot the discomforts. The dust and tumult of mechanized transport were left behind us; ahead was pilgrimage among the snow mountains and the holy places.

This is, in fact, one of the most memorable adventures that NEFA has to offer.

There is first the beauty of the countryside – the distant mountains white with snow, the nearer hills dressed in pine, oak and fir; the smell of the pines; the waterfalls and streams; the banks carpeted with wild strawberries; the great displays of rhododendrons and a score of other multicoloured flowers. The journey over the Se La is unforgettable; haunted, mysterious, remote, the great Pass gives the authentic thrill – distance and height are forgotten in wonder. And as you descend, there are the flowers. If there is a Paradise in NEFA, this is it, this is it, this is it.


At Bomdi La, which we reached after a two days’ journey, we bought a dress suitable for our pilgrimage. I had a brown silk shirt and a long dark coat to the ankles with a red sash and a fine fur hat; Lila had a red shirt, a black coat, an apron decorated with gay brocade, ornamental boots, and a charming, brilliantly coloured little hat which was perched on the side of her head – she looked enchanting.

From Bomdi La, escorted by a very dear friend, R.S. Nag, who was then Political Officer, and a fine young anthropologist, Sachin Roy, we went along a river valley to Dirang, eighteen miles away, which is one of the prettiest places I have ever seen. Monpa houses are substantial two storey stone buildings, and here they are perched picturesquely on a number of small hills between which runs a lovely little stream of crystal-clear water. There are several Buddhist temples and other buildings which house prayer-wheels and grindstones worked by water. The great prayer-wheels, like the flags fluttering in the breeze, repeat endlessly (if inaudibly) the sacred words Om Mani Padnie Hum.

In the middle of the village is an imposing old fort (dzong) and above it is a temple where we made our camp. This is a fine building with an upper storey containing many small images of the Buddha and a little library in which Lila and I were accommodated. Below, there was another room with some large images where the rest of our party stayed. It was refreshing to be in a really natural religious environment, in a temple where you could put up your camp-bed and sleep under the gentle and compassionate gaze of the statues. In Buddhism religion is not a thing apart from life: it is a part of it.

At Dirang we first met the Abbot of Tawang who happened to be staying there on his way to his monastery. This Abbot is one of the few real saints that one may meet in a lifetime. Looking at him, the phrase ‘the beauty of holiness’ came into my mind. Gentle, courteous, simple, luminous with inner joy, he is a completely charming personality and every time I met him I felt the better for it.

A mile or so outside Dirang we experienced the first of the welcomes with which the local people greet visitors. There were the Head Lama and his band of trumpeters (some of the trumpets were seven or eight feet long) and drummers, and with him was a large crowd of local officials, chiefs and delightful school-children, all in their own attractive dress, very pretty and charming children too. At every village along the way the procedure was the same. We were met by the local dignitaries, generally with a band. Each garlanded us with a white scarf and we gave scarves in return. Then they led us in procession to a small tent, tastefully decorated with flowers, in which a number of seats covered with brightly-coloured carpets or saddle-cloths awaited us. There were low tables and on them silver, china or wooden cups. Sometimes there was a bowl of walnuts or wild strawberries. Then the wife of the leading inhabitant filled the cups with butter-tea – an alarming concoction of tea, salt and butter – and raised them one by one first to my lips and to my wife’s and then to the rest of the company in strict order of precedence. I myself usually only touched the cup with my lips, for I found the smell of the often rancid butter overwhelming, but everybody else enjoyed it and some drank as many as eight cups in succession. After the tea, we were often offered rice-spirit, one of the strongest drinks you can get, rather like vodka.

This was sometimes a real embarrassment, especially when offered early in the morning and then reappearing in village after village throughout the day. But we learnt that if we dipped one finger in the bowl and sprinkled a little of the spirit three times in honour of the Lord Buddha, it was not necessary to drink it. Occasionally, however, the woman offering the drink would catch you by the ear and, tilting up your head, force the fiery spirit down your throat; sometimes she would sit in your lap to do so. I had heard that this was done by the prettiest girl in the village but, in my case, perhaps because I was chaperoned by Lila, I always got old ladies.

These Monpa people are singularly courteous, gentle and friendly. They take off their hats and, holding them between their hands, make a little bow at every word you speak. They still, in some places, put out their tongues by way of greeting. In my whole tour I never heard a child crying and I do not remember hearing a singie angry word.

As we continued our march from Dirang the country got more and more beautiful, the mountains became higher, snow peaks appeared, and now as we approached any village people lit fires of aromatic leaves and branches to greet us. At Senzedzong, where the Dalai Lama halted on his journey, we had a wonderful reception on a broad plateau under the towering Se La mountains. It was a perfect day and the colour, the beauty of the scenery, the picturesque delightful people, the trumpets, the dignified ceremonial were unforgettable.

Now we had to cross the Se La Pass, over 14,000 feet high. We had been warned that the way was steep, that we should not be able to breathe, that it was sure to rain. And alas, rain it did, both on our way up and our way back but, though we could not see the distant views, it was a memorable climb. At the top, where we had a picnic lunch, there are twin lakes or tarns which are called the ‘Eyes of God’.

When we reached our little camp by a stream, half -way down the other side, we found our tent had been made by the Monpas into a sort of bower of flowers, most beautifully done.

But flowers do not keep out the cold. It was the smallest tent I have ever been in; it was pouring with rain, and at about 12,000 feet we had the coldest night I had known for a long while. But at sunset Lila and I had a wonderful time picking wild strawberries.

Then we went on for another twenty miles to Tawang. From a distance of fifteen miles we got the first view of the great monastery riding like a ship on its hillside, 10,000 feet above sea level, and as we approached we had a dozen receptions in little villages along the way. As we drew nearer Tawang, the Prior and some of the senior monks in their splendid robes and impressive hats of yellow cloth
came three miles out to meet us. The following day, May the 24th, Buddha Purnima, 2,500th anniversary of the birth of the Buddha, we visited the monastery: there could not have been a more auspicious moment.

We were met at the entrance of the monastery by the Prior and other monks; scarves were exchanged; trumpets were blown, and we walked slowly through a fantastic medley of buildings into the great courtyard and the main temple, which with its great statue and hundreds of smaller images is the centre of an ardent devotion, of the Mahayana type of Buddhism with strong Tantric elements. Fantastic images of demons, dignified images of great saints and Rinpoches (holy men who have been reincarnated in another birth), scrolls, flags, temple-hangings, bells and lights, human thigh-bones used as trumpets, rich carpets, gave the temple, which tradition decrees should always be illuminated by artificial light, a rich and sombre magnificence.

As it was Buddha Purnima day, most of the monks were sitting in long rows in the temple chanting prayers. We went round offering scarves to the principal images. The temple on this day was lit by a thousand lamps and decorated with some remarkable pictures made on the ground with coloured butter. There were also a thousand little Buddhas made of butter round the walls.

Later we went to the very fine library whose great treasure is the Getompa, eight large volumes, three of which are lettered in gold. There are also copies of the other main Buddhist scriptures, some printed and some handwritten; over seven hundred books in all. This may not sound very much, but a monastic book is a real book, about the size of half a dozen ordinary books of this careless modern world. The Lamas have a great reverence for knowledge, even though many of them are not themselves learned. Every temple has its sacred books which are carried in procession round the village on festal days. Books are worshipped, even if they are not read. In the library we were entertained with some strange-tasting but pleasant dishes and, of course, the butter-tea, and from the balcony we watched the dances performed in honour of the festival. The most moving of these was the Thutotdam, the dance of the king and queen of death, which reminds the spectators that death awaits every man and that they must not, therefore, be too much attached to worldly existence.

The monastery awoke nostalgic memories of Oxford or even, for I am a broadminded person, of Cambridge. There was the same casual atmosphere which conceals so much dignity and protocol. There were the little narrow streets dividing the tall houses where the monks had their cells. There was the dignified common room where the leading Lamas met to decide monastic policy and affairs. There was a great kitchen, and I especially noticed the enormous tea-pots in which the Lamas make their butter-tea. The courtyards were paved and there were many horses about. In a basement below the library was a large room in which were kept the great boxes containing the masks and elaborate dresses used for ceremonial dances, and even a printing press. Printing was a laborious business. Books here are in the shape of long narrow rectangles and every page carved separately on wooden blocks.

This pilgrimage, as I have always called it, meant something much more to me than the ordinary official tour. I had always been interested in Buddhism and inspired by much of its teaching: now it became real to me. These few weeks brought a definite change in my life, a step forward in spiritual realization.


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