The word monastery conjures in mind revered destinations that offer a peaceful experience for people who want to connect to their spiritual side. A reflection of Buddhist culture and values, monasteries in India have religious roots spread all over the country. However, a few can grab the attention and eye of even the most unwitting believers, and Tawang Monastery is one of them.
The Largest Monastery in India, Tawang is tucked away far from the reaches of the modern world, in the quaint town of Tawang in Assam, it is also the second-largest in the world. If you wish to tap into your ‘enlightened’ spiritual side in solitude, pack your bags and head to a monastery, which is considered the spiritual, cultural, and social blend of Buddhist culture.
A “Celestial Paradise”
Perched on top of a mountain at 10,000 ft, the monastery offers a picturesque view of the valley and snow-capped mountains and coniferous forest. Its full name is Tawang Galdan Namgye Lhatse, which means “celestial paradise in a clear night.”
The origin of the Tawang monastery dates back to the 17th century between 1680-1681. Merak Lama Lodre founded it with the blessings of the 5th Dalai Lama. The monastery was influenced by the Gelug (Yellow Hat) school of Vajrayana Buddhism, Buddhist traditions that have a connection to tantras. However, before the rise of the Gelug sect, Nyingmapa- the oldest of the four Tibetan Buddhism schools was dominant in the area.
The fort-like structure of the monastery was under the control of Tibet up until 1914. After signing the Simla agreement, the area was ruled by the British.
The revered spiritual abode is not a haven for monks but is also a monastery surrounded by intriguing legends.
The first legend narrates the story of the origins of Tawang Monastery. Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso’s horse found the location of the monastery. During his search, Merag failed to find the right place. He took refuge in a cave to pray and seek divine intervention. He left the cave only to find his horse missing. After a long search, Merag Lama found his horse grazing on Tana Mandekhang, a mountain which was earlier the palace of King Wala Wangpo. The lama took this sight as a blessing and established the monastery in 1681.
The second legend talks about Terton Pema Lingpa, a saint who spoke about the initiations of Tamdin and Kagyad, which led to the name Tawang. Ta is an abbreviation of Tamdin, and Wang means initiation. The third legend revolves around the white horse of the Prince of Lhasa. This horse wandered into the Monpa region and was later found grazing at the monastery’s current location.
Enter the monastery through a colorful gate structure called the Kakaling, built in the form of a hut. The side walls reflect the supreme craftsmanship of stone masonry. Kakaling features mandalas on its roof along and interior walls painted with murals of saints and divine figures.
The mural of Ningmecahn, the protector of Bon religion and guardian deity of Tawang, is quite distinct and unique. According to a legend, the 5th Dalai Lama ordered a thread to be tied around to determine the monastery’s extent.
Tawang Monastery is a big three-storied building with an assembly hall, residential quarters, and other structures. It also serves as a center for Buddhist cultural studies. Ritualistic dances are performed on the ground floor of the building. Thangkas of Buddhist deities and saints are found on the walls. Thangkas are unframed Tibetan Buddhist paintings on silk, cotton, etc. Curtains hanging from the balcony feature Buddhist symbols.
The main temple is called the Dukhang. It was built between 1860-61 and houses an 18 ft statue of Buddha in a lotus position. There is also a silver casket right beside the statue that holds a thangka of goddess Palden Lhamo, the monastery’s guardian deity. According to lore, the painting on Palden’s thangka was drawn from the blood coming out of the 5th Dalai Lama’s nose.
The library in the Tawang monastery has ancient scriptures and Buddhist teachings. There are books whose letters have been washed in gold. One notable example is Gyentongpa, which has letters on all its pages washed in gold. However, some scriptures and texts have been lost over time.
Torgya Festival- A celebration of good over evil
Every year Tawang monastery hosts its Torgya festival to ward off evil spirits and spread around the feeling of happiness and prosperity to people. It is a three-day festival that features dancers wearing colorful costumes and masks. Each dance is a reflection of a myth and costumes, and masks represent different animals.
How to reach Tawang Monastery
The closest airport is in Tezpur, Assam. The fastest route is via Chariduar- Tawang road. The best option will be to hire a cab.
Distance: 326 km
Time: 11 hours
The closest railway station is in Bhalukpong. If you want to save the hassle of traveling for long hours, go via NH 15 and Balipura- Bhalukpong road.
Distance: 50.5 km
Time: 1 hour
Curated by Ruchit Rastogi
(Featured image credits: Tawang)