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MENAFN - Muscat Daily - 09/12/2013

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(MENAFN - Muscat Daily) In Tawang, the slumbering stir to life far before the cockerel's insistent crowing.

Nestled at 10,000 feet in the snowy reaches of the eastern Himalayan range, in India's eastern state of Arunachal Pradesh, the icy predawn air in this mountain town is truly rarefied stuff.

Not easily kept at bay by a lone quilt. And so it is that the day begins early in Tawang, unsurprising enough seeing how this is India's 'land of the rising sun'.

Under a thick blanket of fog, the convivial Old Market comes to life. A myriad small businesses and hole-in-the-wall joints raise shutters as gaggles of blue cardigans trudge down the meandering central artery to school.


Ugyenling Monastery, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, is the heart of the Monpa mythos

An almost postcard-perfect tableau, but for the machine gun-toting Army foot patrols. Between gunny-sack checkpoints and severe-looking, but polite, troops in olive-green fatigues, there's no missing that, beyond the idyll, Tawang remains a fiercely guarded frontier town.

Only a few hours' drive away is Bum-la and a contested border, over which India and China have found themselves at crossroads and famously between cross-hairs in 1962.

That's ancient history for most, but for the locals, green Army trucks and Howitzer gun huts are a daily fact of life. About as indispensable as the giant centuries-old golden-domed monastery that overlooks the town and gives it its name.

Tempted by the promise of a dejeuner of eggs and toast (an isolated hillock is about the last place you want to chance a stomach bug), I make my way to the Snow Yak 'restaurant'. Not flinging myself onto the throng jostling for their morning tea draws a curious glance from the ancient manager.

Picking out the only cushioned chair in the place gets me an admonishing ''Oi!!'' ''Don't you know whose chair that is?'' asks ''Just Tashi'', a second before he gets close enough to make out that I'm not the sort he typically gets custom from.


Tawang, which has all the magnificent vistas you like

''That seat is reserved,'' he mumbles. From whom? No answer but for a snort. I'm supposed to know that. I don't. Now, I need to.

The poached eggs and hot ginger tea hit the spot. For perhaps the first time since the scenic, if bumpy, hour-long chopper ride to Tawang, the food stays down. A second order later, the manager is all smiles and pliable. ''Ah that,'' Just Tashi says.

''Every self-respecting Monpa (the local tribe) keeps a seat empty for the Dalai Lama, you know.''

Yes, people live history here. Even wedged between rows of cruel concertina wire, they cling to it like a warm blanket. Whether it's is in-your-face like the imposing War Memorial (and its elegant stupa and distinctive chorten) or the many Gompas (monasteries) that dot the rutted hillside or the abstract unseen of their near and distant past. An oral lore woven to life on chilly nights and (re)lived daily.

The most famous telling is of how the Tawang Gompa (and the town) came to be so named. Monpa legends speak of a time when the mountains were fuller, their foothills greener and the fog thicker.

Of how in the 17th century, a local lama, his name lost to posterity, decided to site the monastery at a spot chosen by his favourite colt. Tawang, thus, is literally ''chosen by horse''.


A traditional monastery dance performed during the local festival. Its enthusiastic rendition here, though the season, was made all the more special for it

In the monastery complex too, legends walk hand-in-hand with traditions. Texts of learning, carefully preserved, lie undisturbed next to articles of faith.

Red-robed and shaved-head, the monks and young initiates intone hymns and blow alpenhorns in the inner sanctum as costumed dancers contort and whirl themselves into a dervish frenzy in the courtyard C watched over by sombre townspeople and villagers from afar.

The statues, gilded and gigantic, are silent observers with disquieting eyes. My own are focused on the one empty seat astride the regent's.

No Monpa worth his salt... Against the backrest sits a framed photo of the current Dalai Lama, the 14th of his order living an exile's life in India after fleeing Tibet.

After crossing over into India, the monks say, he rested here for a time before moving to the Indian heartland. Some five decades hence in 2009, he returned with greater pomp and in better circumstance, drawing crowds of his fellow exiled Tibetans and all who come together for a sermon on peace.

But it is in his first coming that Tawang reads the designs of providence. It is without a doubt the most loved tale of the local canon.

The prophecy that purports to have foreseen the homecoming of the institution of the Dalai Lama, if not the man himself in flesh.

Only some dozen clicks away, across broken roads, made truly treacherous by the thick morning mist, was the prediction made. In serene Ugyenling Gompa, the birthplace of Tawang's favourite son, the sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso.

And the heart of the Monpa mythos. Born to a Monpa mother in 1683, Gyatso is revered here as nowhere else. Besides the numerous accounts of 'miracles' in his childhood C the ubiquitous footprints and hand markings set in stone that act as milestones on the road come to mind as does the modest stone home in his maternal village that is said to house his nearest living relatives C there is living proof' in the myth of the shorn tree that dominates the Gompa compound.

It's said to have been born of a walking stick Gyatso planted prior to his being taken to Lhasa, Tibet, for ordination.

The story goes that the departing Lama-to-be consoled his weeping caregivers by proclaiming his return when the ''three branches of the tree have grown equal in length''. This is to have occurred, we are reliably informed by a kind-faced old monk, when the current Dalai Lama entered Tawang in 1959.

The story is wondrously anecdotal (but no lesser for it) and taken to heart by the Monpas. Even today, the once and still-magnificent tree is religiously festooned with prayer flags and brass lamps. The monks still clear its overgrowth, wizened fingers pulling out stubborn ferns.

The episode details just how easily antiquity and apocrypha lend themselves to each other. This too is part of the charm. What plays out is a Himalayan musica universalis of sorts, the chords resonating as deeply in the newly-initiated as in the old. But then seeing things where there are none is easy up here, in the thinner air and under the shroud of a fog that cloaks over everything.

The locals love to say how only the stark colourscape of the rhododendron bush in bloom can hope to cut through it. In the Shangri-La of James Hilton's Lost Horizon, the protagonist Hugh Conway finds' himself in a lamasery utopia, and gives in to its quiet harmony. Was his, as here, the filling of an empty seat? T


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