Exploring Tibetan Buddhism in Tawang

Second of a two part series. Read the first part, “The Road to Tawang”

Tawang Monastery from the opposite ridge of the valley (photo by nachbearbeitet von obiger Quelle)

Our first view of Tawang came just below the Jawant Singh Memorial, still two hours drive from the town. The monastery sits on a ridge overlooking the steep valley we had still to traverse, its yellow roofs cutting into the deep blue sky.

Nuranang Falls

When we reached the town, after a visit to the famous waterfall pictured above, we found a town that hugs the valley wall below the monastery, sprawling around the many ridges and crevasses. The topography makes walking the town a fun adventure of stairways and views.

Tawang Monastery

Main square at Tawang Monastery

Tawang is home of many important Tibetan Buddhist sites in the world. Historically, the area was part of Tibet before it was ceded to the British in 1917. While the people very strongly identify as Indian Nationals, they proudly embrace their heritage, especially Buddhism.

The major Buddhist cultural site is the town’s monastery. Tawang Monastery was founded by the Mera Lama Lodre Gyatso in accordance to the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama. It is the largest Buddhist monastery in India, and the second largest in Asia. The name Tawang means Horse Chosen.

Monks at Tawang monastery

The monastery is home to about 900 monks. Novices live in group housing where the older monks take care of the younger ones. They cook, clean, and study together.

Tibetan Buddhist Art

The art of the monasteries in the area floored us. It’s worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status. No less meaningful that the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes, and no less beautiful than the works of the Musée d’Orsay.

Every monastery entrance was guarded with depictions of the gods of the four directions and a bhavacakra, or Wheel of Life. These are meant to ward off dark forces and instruct visitors on the tenants of Buddhism.

Temple guardians, representing two of the four directions
The bhavacakra, or wheel of life. According to Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha himself drew the first version of this image as a way to teach about the nature of life, suffering, karma and liberation

Within the monasteries, the walls and ceilings were painted with elaborate murals, depicting Mahayana Buddhist gods, the incarnations of the Dalai Lama, and teachings of the sutras. Words fall flat when describing these stunning works of art, but here are some of our favorites:

Mural depicting the Dalai Lamas
Monastic Mural
Monastic Mural

The Dalai Lama and Tawang

Every monk asked us if we had met the Dalai Lama on his recent visit. Unfortunately, we have missed him by 36 hours. Every monk expressed significant regret. It was evident how much his Holiness’ visit meant to the people of Tawang. They spoke of the deep lessons his Holiness had imparted, and it seemed that much of the population was still in deep reflection upon these matters.

Tawang and the Dalai Lama have history. The 6th incarnation of His Holiness was born in a village there, and his birth is associated with many local miracles. The current Dalai Lama escaped the Chinese invasion of Tibet into India through Tawang, spending a few days in the monastery. He has returned to Tawang since then, attracting pilgrims from hundreds of miles around.

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We really enjoyed our time in Tawang. The people showed us incredible welcome and kindness. The monasteries opened a whole new scope of art to explore and appreciate. The landscapes took our breath away.

If you ever get to chance to visit this corner of India, Mana Organics highly recommends it!

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Originally published at www.manaorganics-usa.com, where we share our adventures making organic Assam black, green, and specialty teas