Tawang is a beautiful Himalayan town located in the district of same name in Arunachal Pradesh, India. It is surrounded by the Tibetan part of China on the North, and Bhutan on the west and south. At an altitude of about 3050m / 10000 ft above sea level, the district is home to many stunning landscapes, surreal views of hills and valleys, and a huge number of picturesque lakes. Though Tawang is not short of natural attractions, it is very less explored. So if you want to visit a place that is somewhere remote, somewhat less crowded, amazingly beautiful, then you are at the right place to decide on your next travel adventure!
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History of Tawang
Even though Tawang is naturally endowed, it also has a significant history. Tawang was historically a part of Tibet. Tawang Monastery was built in 1681 according to the wishes and recommendations of 5th Dalai Lama, and is now the second largest monastery in the world, after Lhasa’s Patola Monastery.
In 1914, according to the Shimla Agreement, Tibet defined a border line called McMohan Line, that relinquished several square kilometres of land to the British occupied India. This includes the Tawang district, and it is because of this reason that it is now part of India. Though the McMohan line was an agreement between India and Tibet, when Tibet was taken over by China, it disregarded the McMohan line as an international border as it believed that Tibet was not a sovereign state to sign such treaties!
In the 1960s, when the Tibetan Government was in exile, the 14th Dalai Lama and his followers had set his foot in India in this very district. The popularity of the beloved spiritual leader was such that thousands of residents of Tawang cheered and welcomed him. It was the Tawang Monastery that gave him the shelter to him and his followers before he shifted to McLeod Ganj in Himachal Pradesh.
Town of Tawang
If you like taking a stroll through the town, you can start by visiting Buddha Park that is located close to the town. Buddha Park has a huge statue of Buddha on the top of a hill. Being located at a height, the statue is easily visible to most part of the town.
While on the roads, it may be 2-3 kms (depending on where you stay), you can also try to climb the hill from the main market area. It takes about 15-20 minutes to reach the Buddha Park by foot. If you have a vehicle, you can also drive/ride to the park. From the park, you can get stunning views of the hills and valleys around Tawang. In the evenings, you can get an awesome view of Tawang Monastery, as the sun sets right behind it!
Tawang Monastery is the second largest monastery in the world. About 400-450 monks stay at the monastery. It has about 65 residential quarters which can accommodate upto 700 monks. It also has a school and a centre for Buddhist cultural studies. If you are in the region, be sure to join the daily ritual at the Tawang Monastery which starts as early as 4 AM.
The war memorial at Tawang is dedicated to heroes from the Indian Army to remember the sacrifices made by them during the Sino-India war in 1962. You can find the names of Indian soldiers on granite plates, and also several statues of the soldiers all over the place. The memorial also runs a light and sound show, that introduces the history of Tawang, the bravery of soldiers, and few scenic spots to visit.
Birth Place of 6th Dalai Lama
The 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, is born in a small village called Urgelling (Ugyenling in Tibetan), about 5 km from the town of Tawang. The two-story building where he spent is childhood is now converted into a monastery. The monastery has information of all the Dalai Lamas till date.
Bum La Pass
Bum La Pass is located at a distance of 37 km from the town of Tawang, and is at an altitude of 15200 ft / 4630 m above sea level. It is the international border of India and China. It is also believed to be the pass that 14th Dalai Lama took to enter India from Tibet. Also, during the 1962 Sino-India War, the Chinese army marched into Indian territories at this very pass. The Pass remained closed due to this very reason since then. It was after 44 years, in 2006, that the Pass was opened for trade, and continues to remain open even today.
You can also spot two monuments: Heap of Stones and Rock of Peace. Placing a pebble in front of Heap of Stones is considered to be a tribute to the Indian Army who guards the international border. At the top of the stones, there lies a special stone that has Indian Flag painted on one side, and China Flag on the other. That stone is placed exactly at the border, while the some of stones surrounding it cross over to the other side.
Rock of Peace is seen as a mark of trust and friendship between the two countries. The visitors can get to the international border, and can have “one leg” in China and the other in India, without the hassles of having a valid visa. This is a huge step taken between the two countries, at a place which was once used by the Chinese army to enter India during the war!
To visit Bum La Pass, you need a special permit from the Office of DC, Tawang, and the same permit has to be stamped by Indian Army. There are many check-posts enroute where the permit is checked. The permit should also include the vehicle number that you would be using. If there is a change of vehicle at the last moment, the permit will be invalid, and you will not be allowed to proceed.
Shungatser Tso, PT Tso and other beautiful lakes
The route to Bum La Pass has numerous beautiful lakes, filled with crystal clear water. For the most part of the year, the lakes remain frozen, and during winters, they are covered with snow. Some of the lakes have a thin layer of ice throughout the year. It is believed that the district of Tawang has a total of 108 lakes, and about 15-20 of them can be seen on the way to Bum La Pass, and the surroundings.
Shungatser Tso is the most popular of all the lakes in the region. The lake is also called Madhuri Lake after the actress Madhuri Dixit. This is because one of the songs in the movie Koyla was shot in this very lake. History says that the lake used to be a green pasture that the flock from the nearby villages used to graze. However, in the year 1971, a devastating earthquake gave birth to this lake. Even today, you can see the trunks of several trees in the middle of the lake!
Shungatser Tso (Google, if you are looking for directions, spells it Sungester Lake for some reason) is located at a distance of 35 km from Tawang, and at an altitude of 12500 ft / 3810 m above sea level. The lake can be visited on the way back from Bum La Pass, with a small detour of 12 km. As the lake is very popular, you can now find a small cafe that serves tea and snacks.
PT Tso (or Pankang Teng Tso) lake is another popular lake that is easily accessible from Tawang. It is located at a distance of 15 km from Tawang. The road next to the lake is at a height, giving you a birds’ eye view of the beautiful lake.
Apart from these two popular lakes, you can find numerous other lakes throughout your journey. The clear water reflecting the colours of the sky, greenery, colours of the barren land, or sometimes just reflecting the sunlight! If you are fond of lakes, you will definitely remember the drive for a long long time!
Kitpi Village and ChagZum/ChukSam Bridge
Most of the native inhabitants of Tawang belong to a tribe called Monpa. While there are other cultural ethnic groups in the district of Tawang, Monpas form a huge majority of about 97%. Monpas are also present in the neighbouring West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Monpa is also a recognized cultural ethnic group in the Tibet region of China.
The village of Kitpi, about 5 km from Tawang, shows a glimpse of the tradition of Monpa tribe. The basic houses made of cut wood, growing crops in terraced fields, shepherds taking their flocks for grazing are the common sights in this village.
A little further away is the ChagZum bridge (also spelled Chukzam or Chuksam). This is a one of its kind iron suspension bridge that is built in the 15th Century to cross the river. History has it that Tibetan Lama, Thangthong Gyalpo, had built several such bridges in this region. However, ChagZum Bridge is the only one that has survived till today (for over 600 years).
Nuranang Waterfall is a hidden gem that is located just 1 km away from the Sela Pass – Tawang road. The beautiful two-step falls is formed when water flows down 100 m / 300+ feet, and is surrounded by high mountains on all sides. The water from this falls then joins Tawang Chu River flowing through the valley.
If you reach the falls during noon time, you can see beautiful rainbow formed. You can also get closer to the falls by walking through the slippery rocks nearby. That is the closest that you can get to any rainbow!!
Jaswant Singh Memorial, Jang
There is an interesting story behind this memorial. The story filled with love, romance, betrayal, war, all of which come together! The story is after a local girl named Sela who was in love with a soldier from Indian Army, Jaswant Singh. However, her father was against their love, and she ignored the wishes of her father! During the 1962 Sino India war, Jaswant Singh bravely fought the Chinese Army single-handedly. With shortage of army personnel, Jaswant Singh cleverly places army rifles at frequent distance, and placed himself on the hilltop. This gave the impression to the Chinese army that the whole Indian Army was behind him. With this arrangement, he fooled the enemies for three days! However, Sela’s father came to know of this and decided to betray Jaswant Singh and revealed this to the Chinese. The Chinese Army eventually captured Jaswant Singh and beheaded him. Unable to believe that her own father betrayed Sela, and lost her love, she committed suicide by jumping off a hillock!
Jaswant Singh was awarded with Param Vir Chakra for his bravery during the war. To honour the hero, a brass bust of Jaswant Singh is installed at the site of battle (now close to Jang), and a memorial is built. Opposite to the memorial, there is an army camp where they serve free and hot tea for all the travellers passing by. A beautiful watch tower is also built where you can sit and enjoy the amazing views of the hills and valleys which sipping the hot tea!
To remember the sacrifice of Sela, the pass that is used to enter Tawang is named after her.
To reach Tawang, you need to drive through Sela Pass, which is located at an altitude of 13700 ft / 4175 m above sea level. Sela Pass is the entry to Tawang, bordering West Kameng district, and is also referred as the gateway to Tawang. As you reach Sela Pass, you see a sudden change in the landscape, from wet grasslands to dry mountains. The beautiful brown mountains, against dark blue sky, and twin lakes at Sela Pass gives you a picturesque welcome to the district.
How to plan a visit?
Entry to Arunachal Pradesh is allowed only if you have an Inner Line Permit (for Indians residing outside of Arunachal Pradesh), and Protected Area Permit for foreign nationals. You can apply for ILP online at http://arunachalilp.com/ for Rs 100 or you can apply by visiting Deputy Commisioner’s Office at Guwahati, Delhi, Kolkata, Shillong and other major cities in Assam. If you apply online, it takes about 2-3 working days to get the permit, and one day after you pay the fee to receive the soft copy of the ILP. You can also get a permit at the Bhalukpong entry gate, but it takes about 2-3 hours (sometimes more) to get the permit.
How to reach Tawang?
The nearest airport is Guwahati which is 450 – 500 km away (depending on the route you take). The nearest railway station is Tezpur in Assam. For a quick getaway, there are helicopters available from Guwahati to Tawang, that costs about INR 5500 one way.
As far as public transportation is concerned, you can find many shared Tata Sumos plying between Guwahati/Tezpur to Tawang. It may be overcrowded at times, but is definitely the cheapest way to reach Tawang.
The most popular route to Tawang is via Tezpur in Assam, Bhalukpong, Bomdila, Dirang.
Another less explored route from Guwahati is via Udalguri, Bhairabkunda (which goes just few meters away from India-Bhutan border), Rupa, Bomdila, Dirang. Most part of this route is in excellent condition, and has very less number of vehicles plying.
The condition of the roads from Dirang to Tawang is not in a great condition. Hence, it is recommended to take a break at Bomdila or Dirang, and continue to Tawang via Sela Pass the next day.
When is the best time to travel?
The climate of Tawang ranges from cold to severe cold. I visited the place during end of October, and the minimum temperature was -1C / 30F!
Between mid-September to end of November is a good time to visit as the temperature is at its best during this time. Similarly, it is a good time to visit after winter (from March to June) which has moderate temperature.
During the winter months, the temperature gets many degrees below zero, and the snowfall makes it tough to reach the destination within the specified time. Sometimes, if the weather is very bad, the Army personnel may not allow you to drive further.
As the roads are not in good condition, it is best to avoid driving/riding during monsoon. The roads get slushy making it much harder to drive/ride the vehicle.
Where should I stay?
The town of Tawang has many hotels / budget rooms to stay. You can even share rooms with other travellers to get cheaper accommodation. However, if you are expecting a luxury stay, then the options are limited.
How long should I stay at Tawang?
Most ready made itineraries (family or backpacking) include one or two day stay at Tawang. While it may cover most places mention in this post, I recommend that you stay for at least 4-5 days to explore all the places nearby. Tawang is abundant with natural beauty that you will not regret the extra amount you spend by extending your stay! You can also explore the Zemithang, located at the tri-nation border (India-Bhutan-China), and Hot Water Sprints (about 90 km from the town of Tawang, each require one full day to explore! If you are interesting in trekking/hiking, you can also plan to visit Mago hot water springs!
How many lakes do you plan to visit on your next trip to Tawang?
I also recommend you to spend about two days at Dirang. Dirang is also abundant with natural beauty and has several places around to explore (post coming on it very soon).
How do I travel?
Once you reach Tawang, you can hire a car/taxi, or a motor-bike or cycle to explore more. There are several places in the town of Tawang where you can hire a vehicle.
Need help in planning a trip to Tawang?
As I mentioned earlier, there are several itineraries you will find on various sites that promises a trip to Tawang. However, most itineraries are standard, and spend only two days at Tawang. If you are planning to Tawang, I recommend at least 4 days at Tawang. You may say it would become expensive (and so will many agents), but I can guarantee you will not repent it. Remember, it is still cheaper than planning to visit Tawang again! If you need help in planning your itinerary, or to arrange for you tour, then you can get it arranged through Zikation. They arrange the trips as per your needs, completely customising it depending on your interest. Take a look at their Road Trip to Tawang Tour for the recommended itinerary.