Exploring Tawang – The north eastern gem of India

As we left behind the rugged terrains, pine forests and rustic villages on our way to Tawang, I wondered what else was left to see. I almost declared to myself that the journey was the real deal because nothing could possibly be more beautiful. Somewhere deep down, I also felt the fear of disappointment simmering. What if Tawang doesn’t live up to my raised expectations? What if it just turns out to be another commercialized tourist spot at the end of a breathtaking journey?

Catch up here on the journey to Tawang.

As we left the highway and took the final sharp turn to climb towards our hotel, we were greeted by a dense, misty, right out of a fairy tale kind of a forest that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. A signboard somewhere said that it was a sacred Buddhist forest. It sure felt divine. I filled my lungs with the icy cold forest air and felt it spreading through every inch of my body. I felt silly for my fears and inhibitions. I decided to bury my prejudiced thoughts somewhere in that jungle and move on with an open, lighter and happier heart.

It was a chilly summer evening in Tawang when we reached. The gloomy overcast sky, fluffy bed and sore muscles demanded me to take a nap. But we had ordered some tea and snacks already. Nevertheless, I slept right after having the tea and woke up that evening only for dinner. Tea being a sleep buster is a myth.

The next morning after a late breakfast, we headed to the Tawang monastery. This enormous Tibetan Buddhist monastery is spread across a hilltop that overlooks villages scattered below. This fortified complex consists resident buildings for monks, a museum, a school in addition to the main monastery building that houses a giant 8m high lord Buddha statue. The sight of the monastery from a distance gives one an idea of its magnitude however it is when one enters the monastery, one realizes why it is called the celestial paradise.

Tawang monastery as seen from the War museum. The outer wall length is approx. 925 ft (282m). This is the second largest monastery in the world after the Potala palace at Lhasa, Tibet.

It takes approx. 1-2 hours to check out everything in the complex including the museum. However, if you are someone who enjoys learning more about different cultures and religions especially Tibetan Buddhism or are a seeker for spiritual experiences then I recommend spending more time here. You can interact with the monks to understand their rituals or you can choose to meditate. But one thing that you must do is to attend the evening prayers session when the monks chant along with some traditional musical instruments. The sound of the drums and trumpets mixed with the holy chants charges the surroundings with positivity. It is one of the most soothing and happiest memories from my trip.

Tawang monastery temple
Main temple at the Tawang monastery which houses an 18ft (5.5m) tall Buddha image in lotus position. The temple is beautifully adorned with mythological paintings, carvings, sculptures and tapestries from the inside.
Sand mandala
The monks at Tawang monastery engrossed in creating Sand mandala (Rangoli like ancient Tibetan art) which would be used for ceremonies / rituals. Once the rituals are done they would ceremoniously destroy the mandala symbolizing transitory nature of material life. Until the mandala is completed, the main temple would not be used for daily prayers by monks.
Young monks drink their butter tea before the evening prayers.

After spending a few hours at the monastery, we visited Dharma coffee house for snacks and then headed back to witness evening prayers. This lovely cafe serves delicious food and excellent coffee and has a warm cozy ambience. This cafe is run by the Thubten Shedrubling Foundation and all the profits from the cafe go towards the foundation’s purpose.

It was almost sunset when we left from the Monastery to visit the war memorial and see the light and sound show. The war memorial is built in the honor of martyrs of the 1962 Sino-Indian war. Do visit it to pay respect to the bravehearts who sacrificed their lives for India’s integrity. Unfortunately, since we are never taught about the wars post the Independence, we hardly know about the sacrifices, consequences and regional dynamics related to them. Hence I strongly recommend visiting this war memorial to learn about the 1962 war and the work done by Indian army in this region post the war. It will definitely leave you humbled and refill your hearts with patriotism.

The next morning we headed to the Bum la pass which is approx. 37 Km from the Tawang town at the height of 15,200 ft (Tawang town is approx at 10K ft) .When we reached Tawang with sore spines we had almost made our mind to skip the bum la pass. Because it is infamous for bad roads and moody weather. It rains here almost every other day. But then the earlier evening something happened… the weather got better and as if our spirits forgot the pain from the bumpy Dirang- Tawang ride. We requested for a very last minute permit and crossed our fingers. The omens were good – we had a good sleep, sky was clearing, no rains since the evening and magically our permits too were approved. I am so glad we took our chance. There were a million reasons to skip this yet we didn’t. Yes, my back got sore again and I couldn’t really look downward but I couldn’t care less about it! It was one of the most (or probably the most) visually satisfying ride ever. Time and again, the universe was telling to take a chance hoping for the best. Because we may not really know what’s in store for us until we try.

Traveling to Bum la pass
The road from Tawang to Bum la pass is simply magical. Mother nature flaunts her beauty in all glory leaving you completely awestruck. The snowy mountains unfolding before you glisten in occasional sunshine. The whole experience is ethereal.
On the way to Bum la pass from Tawang
On the way to Bum la pass from Tawang. This pass was historically used by traders which was later used by China to invade India. Some of the most intense battles took place around this region.
Photo from the bum la pass border of the Chinese land
During your Bum la pass visit, don’t miss to visit this natural marvel called Sangestar Tso. One has to take the other road from the army check post at a Y junction. You can visit this on the return journey from Bum la pass. The road is in a really bad condition (almost non existent) and avoided by many tourists however it is worth the effort. The lake was formed in an earthquake where the tree trunks can still be seen rooted in the water. The lake is at a whopping 15.2 K ft height. It could get really windy here so just pray that the clouds don’t ruin the show for you. We reached here right in time to catch a glimpse of the lake. After 10 minutes everything disappeared behind the curtain of clouds.
A lovely cottage by the Sangestar Tso

Though we did not face any significant difficulties while planning or during the trip (thanks to a family friend who has frequented these parts before and stays in Shillong), I feel the need to share a few facts which may not be known to everyone.

5 facts to remember while visiting Tawang

  1. Tawang is a small town nestled in the eastern Himalayas. This area has seen dark days in the past due to the Sino- Indian war and ongoing border issues, natural calamities and overall accessibility issues due to its difficult location. The people are new to tourism so the services may not match your expectations. Be kind and gentle, give your feedback in the most constructive manner and try to figure out if you could be of any help to them in order to help them improvise.
  2. There is water scarcity in this region. Also, the weather doesn’t favor agriculture so they have to import most of the fresh produce from low lands. You will realize what a task that is while reaching Tawang. Be a responsible tourist and avoid wastage of water and food. Carry your food and water if you are planning to make day trips.
  3. Beyond a certain limit, only local vehicles are allowed to carry tourists and require a special permit. Be aware of touristy limits to avoid any unpleasant consequences. You can hire a local vehicle to take you to Bumla pass, Sangestar Tso etc. which require permit from the Indian army. You will need to produce a valid ID proof upon which your driver will do all the paper work for you. Make sure you book the vehicle at least 24 hours in advance. Despite all this, the army can disapprove the permit pertaining to weather conditions, number of vehicles allowed during a season or other unforeseen reasons.
  4. The idyllic town of Tawang has a small market with very few options to shop and dine. It is better to make your dinner arrangements in the hotel that you are staying rather than checking out in the market because when we stopped by around 7:30 PM, the whole area seemed deserted.
  5. It is absolutely safe to visit Tawang (as long as you don’t try to act over smart). The roads are difficult, the weather can be fanatic and some areas are highly sensitive due to military’s presence. But, there are clear instructions written on the road and the driver (if local) will guide you well. Generally, while going to Bumla/ Sangestar Tso the local vehicles travel in a bunch of 3-4 taking care of each other in case of breakdown. The rule of thumb is – respect your driver’s judgement, don’t click photos / selfies with military bases in the background and don’t go off the path unescorted /unannounced.
The giant Buddha statue in the main market, Tawang

Over the last few years Tawang has gained considerable popularity among Indian tourists (especially from the eastern states) who flock in here during vacations in large numbers. It has put this gorgeous idyllic town at the risk of losing its authenticity. In our 3 days stay, not once did we get to taste any local dish. The reason being, most of the restaurants served what most of the Indian tourists wanted.  Our hotel “Hotel Tayatha” was a lovely guesthouse run by a family whose kitchen too was a homely affair. We would have regular north Indian menu to select from for every meal. On inquiring last day about why we did not get momos (which are served at every nook and corner in Mumbai) they said that since the tourists were generally not interested in the local food they did not put it on the regulars however if we wanted they could happily prepare them or any other local delicacy for us. This was really heartbreaking. The least we can do as responsible tourists is to encourage the locals to preserve and flaunt their cultural heritage.  

Do you have any questions? Shoot em in the comments. I will be more than happy to answer 🙂


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  2. Hi Madhura! Thank you for taking me to one of our favourite regions in India. We almost made it to Tawang in 2014. We canned the trip because of local elections. We got to see a bit of Arunachal Pradesh and were so taken by it. Your photography is stunning. And thank you for spreading the message for responsible travel. Cheryl

    • Hi Cheryl! I am glad you liked it! Definitely Arunachal Pradesh is one of the most beautiful regions in India. Such a pity that you couldn’t make it to Tawang 😔 so close yet so far… hope you make it next time.
      I sometimes feel like more than the willingness, people lack the awareness about being responsible tourists. I am just doing my bit hoping for the best 🙂
      Thank you so much for the encouragement! Have a great day ❤️

  3. Wow! Tawang looks absolutely stunning! May have to add it to my “to travel to list ASAP”.

    • Yes!! If you can, do visit it ASAP 😊 I believe they have relaxed the rules for foreign tourist permits lately so things are easier now. Spring will be very lovely there

  4. Breathtaking photographs….and nice post with lots of insight about the unexplored region.

  5. Such a beautiful place. And that Mandala…i couldn’t imagine destroying it. I’d probably spend my life, guarding it, if it were my creation. But I guess that’s the difference between monks/saints and other people. But hats off to their hard work, patience and creativity.

    • I cannot agree more! We cling on to so many things that we call ours be it materialistic or emotional or relationships… and here they are rising subtly above all these attachments… guess if we could implement it even a little bit in our lives, we could live a more peaceful life.