Northeast’s frontier province
The almighty allegedly plays dictator in heaven, wherever it is. In the next best place, on earth, He lets His democratic incarnate take over. At least within the territorial and spiritual reach of a monastery 8,500 ft above sea level.
The Gaden Rabgyelling Monastery or Upper Gompa lords over Bomdila, almost the halfway mark on the 360 km road between Tezpur, Assam’s cultural capital, and Tawang, heart of Buddhism in the Eastern Himalayas. It is as most Buddhist monasteries go-a profusion of white, maroon and gold with a hint of pagoda styling. And like some gompas, its abbot is a living god. But not all monasteries boast of a tourist-oriented guesthouse with suites.
It was a more renowned monastery, though, that took me on the often-treacherous road to Tawang. We had left Tezpur at 6am, confident that the hired SUV would drive us into the land blessed by the Tawang Monastery before sundown. Tezpur was uncharacteristically chilly that January morning, and it was raining after we passed the Bhalukpong checkpoint to be in Arunachal Pradesh.
Nechiphu, a breathtaking paragliding point 52 km from Bhalukpong, was nippy. A signboard by the roadside said 5602 ft, and we knew why. The temperature increased a couple of notches as we descended towards Tenga Valley, a massive army base. Tenga gave us no indication of what lay ahead in Bomdila, just 20 km beyond.
Driver Arif Ali slammed the brakes 10 km short of Bomdila. Until then, he had bragged about having driven on all sorts of terrain, “but how does one steer on slippery snow?” You couldn’t blame him; the only place where he thought it snowed was Kashmir.
He switched on the ignition only after a packed Tata Sumo ferrying locals laboured past. It was the longest 10 km I had ever traversed, and the inch-forward ended at Upper Gompa, for the living god I intended to meet at Lumla near Tawang, had been “snowed in”. In hindsight, I discovered Upper Gompa by accident. Thank God for the accident, and thank the living god for enabling me to make the most of that accident.
Heaven and hell
“I am told it has never snowed so heavily in these parts in 30 years,” said Tenzin Jampal Wangchuk, revered as Tsona Gontse Rinpoche. The 13th reincarnation of Sherap Sangpo, founder of the Tsonawa sect of Mahayana Buddhism, Rinpoche had renovated the Upper Gompa in 1997. “And I am told too there isn’t any decent place to stay because most travellers to Tawang have been forced to camp in Bomdila. So why don’t you stay here?” asked Rinpoche before attending to those who had come for his blessings.
My apprehension of a dharmshala-type accommodation evaporated after manager Sonam escorted me through one-feet snow to Doe-Gu-Khil guesthouse some 150 paces below. “Rooms like ours will cost a fortune in Arunachal Pradesh, but Rinpoche wants the tariff subsidised so that people can stay here longer to draw in the sights and sounds of this divine part of India,” she said. Of Tibetan descent, Sonam asserted the land of her forefathers was “more heavenly” until the Red Army turned it into hell. “Maybe, heaven and hell somewhere up there share the same boundary too,” she mumbled, breaking off to say, “Rinpoche wants you to have lunch with him.”
What do you do when God invites you for lunch? Is there a dress code other than stepping into his chamber barefoot? Do you sit at the same table, or are you expected to eat from a lower surface? I needn’t have worried; this 40-year-young living god had no inhibitions. And if he maintained a distance, it was because the icy weather had forced us to sit on opposite sides of a ‘maythap’, a local variant of the Kashmiri ‘bukhari’. “Please do not mind the vegetarian fare,” he said.
Mind? How often does one get to lunch with God? And if this is the perk of staying in an upscale guesthouse of a modest Gompa, blame it on Rinpoche’s stint as the state’s tourism minister.
Fruit or nectar?
Bomdila, the headquarters of West Kameng district, isn’t too picturesque after the snow melts. But the landscape beyond is mind-boggling, the snow-covered peaks of the Eastern Himalaya contrasting with a profusion of green in the foreground. If you are adventurous, hit the hiking trail to the top of the hill to which Bomdila clings. If not, there the mid-town Craft Centre to lure you with exquisite dragon carpets, Thangkha wall hangings, paintings and masks. Or just amble around town to count the number of people who don’t smile at you. “If you count more than 10, this place will cease to be Bomdila,” says Rinchin Dorjee, retired officer in the culture department.
Bomdila, nevertheless, has ceased to be the town it was. Until a couple of years ago, it thrived as a transit point for travellers to and from Tawang. Most of them now prefer Dirang 45 km beyond. Dirang is on a valley that dips some 2,000 ft from Bomdila, and has hot springs, walnut and apple orchards to add to resorts and budget-to-luxury hotels. But Dirang grows a New Zealand “native” called kiwi that makes a stay all the more memorable. At Rs 30 a kilo, you can never have enough of the fruit whose Kiwi cousin costs more than 10 times as much in the malls. “This is no fruit; it is the nectar of this heaven,” says kiwi grower Sonam Thungon.