There are many Tibetan monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh, which was once a part of Tibet. The people are Indian now, but they still have Tibetan roots in terms of how they worship, how they dress, what they eat etc. Since people are prohibited to practice Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet, places like Tawang and Bomdila are perfect to learn about the religion. Unlike some Buddhist areas in the world, here they don’t have to send a boy from their family to be a monk at the monastery. It’s all by choice of the boys themselves. The monasteries also serve as schools for children where they learn the local language, English and Tibetan. The best time to visit these monasteries is between October and April. There are three main monasteries — Tawang, Bomdila and Urgelling — and a couple of smaller ones that you can visit in Arunachal Pradesh.
Established in 1860, this is the largest monastery in India and the second largest in Asia, after the Lhasa Potala ‘palace’ which is in Old Tibet, China. It’s also called Galden Namgey Lhatse and was founded as per the wish of the 5th Dalai Lama. It preserves two ancient scripts, Kangyur and Tengyur. The gompa is situated at an altitude of 10000 feet and is ‘the must see’ place in all of Arunachal Pradesh.
This is the birthplace of His Holiness Dalai Lama 6th. It’s just 5 km south of Tawang, so you can visit it on the same day you see Tawang Monastery. This is as old as the 15th century. In the 1700s, it was ransacked and many things were stolen. It’s now a very simple and small monastery, and not often visited. They believe that the leaves of the tree planted by the Dalai Lama 6th can cure illness when kept in hot water.
Also known as Gentse Gaden Rabgyel Ling, the absolutely stunning gompa is the largest in Bomdila. Mahayana Buddhism is practiced here by people, who are called Monpa. It was built in 1965 and blessed by HH Dalai Lama 14th. During festivals, one can see amazing mandalas made from sand. After the festivities, monks mess up the detailed design as a symbol of their belief in the impermanence of life. It’s located at 8500 feet above sea level, and is a replica of a monastery in South Tibet. You have to pass Bomdila to visit Tawang, so you can stop here on your way up or on your way back home.
Tsun Gon Thog Jee Choeling is actually a nunnery. You can warm up with a cup of hot tea and chat with the nuns. It’s very interesting to see how female ‘monks’ or nuns live. The woman who greeted us, Sonar, was the sweetest girl I have ever met. While we were there, the nuns sat outside and had a lively debate.
Thegtse Sang-ngag Choekhorling Monastery of Mon-yul Kid-mo Jong.
The gompa is located near Tawang in Khin-mey, which is derived from Monpa word that means ‘listening to the dogs bark’. The monastery was earlier covered in forest and people could hear the hunting dogs bark. Once they met a guru while hunting who taught them not to kill and they thereafter made a monastery there in 1480. You can visit the gompa and the walk up to there is stunning. The gompa is a part of Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism, where monks can marry and have long hair.
These are the main monasteries that must be visited while in Arunachal Pradesh, but there is more you can do to get acquainted with the culture of the state. Other than trying food, you can meet locals and learn more about the culture. Besides, visit craft centres to see men at work making and painting sculptures of Buddha for monasteries. Some also make masks that are worn by monks during festivals, and you can even buy these as souvenirs. Also, see the women weaving clothes and painting Tibetan artwork.
Rather than just walking around the monastery, try to interact. The monks seem happy to talk with you, and the teachers and people in charge will even give you a tour if you ask. They’ll probably offer you tea or hot water as well. Take time to listen to some of the students being taught in classes, and talk with the kids about what they are learning. There is a monk called Sange Lama in Bomdila that can read future.
Furthermore, there is a new monastery being built where foreigners and Indian tourists will be able to learn about Tibetan Buddhism.
The charming little town of Bir बीर, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas, is around 29 km from Palampur पालमपुर. The greater Bir area is home to a diverse community including villagers, Tibetan refugees, travellers who come here for meditation and outdoor enthusiasts, all living in harmony. The place can be best explored on foot. There is a beautiful Dirru Sakya Monastery that you can visit. There are a couple of good restaurants and cafes in the Tibetan settlement. You can also try some local food in the villages around. Besides, Bir is the landing site for paragliders who take off from Billing.
Barot बरोत is a small village nestled in the lap of the Himalayas on the banks of the Uhl River and surrounded on both sides by parts of the Dhauladhar range. Around 75 km from Palampur पालमपुर, it’s a perfect off-beat getaway for those who want to relax in the middle of serene nature away from the crowd. You can even take a trolley from Jogindernagar to reach here. Spend a day trout fishing, nature walking or just relaxing. You can also visit the former summer palace of Mandi rulers. Barot serves as the gateway to the Nargu Wildlife Sanctuary which is home to a variety of flora and fauna, including goral, Himalayan black bear and pheasants.