Tawang Monastery


Tawang Monastery, in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, is the largest monastery in India and second largest in the world after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. It is situated in the valley of the Tawang River, near the small town of the same name in the northwestern part of Arunachal Pradesh, in close proximity to the Tibetan and Bhutanese border.

Tawang Monastery is known in Tibetan as Galden Namgey Lhatse, which translates to “celestial paradise in a clear night.” It was founded by Merak Lama Lodre Gyatso in 1680-1681 in accordance with the wishes of the 5th Dalai Lama, Ngawang Lobsang Gyatso. It belongs to the Gelug school of Mahayana Buddhism and had a religious association with Drepung Monastery of Lhasa, which continued during the period of British rule.

The monastery is three stories high. It is enclosed by a 925 feet (282 m) long compound wall. Within the complex there are 65 residential buildings. The library of the monastery has valuable old scriptures, mainly Kangyur and Tengyur. Of all the festivals celebrated in the monastery, Torgya is the most elaborate and colorful.

Three legends are narrated to the establishment of the monastery. In the first legend it is said that location of the present Monastery was selected by a horse which belonged to Merag Lama Lodre Gyatso who was on a mission assigned to him by the 5th Dalai Lama to establish a Monastery. After an intense search, when he failed to locate a suitable place, he retired into a cave to offer prayers seeking divine intervention to choose the site. When he came out of the cave, he found his horse missing. He then went in search of the horse and finally found it grazing at the top of a mountain called Tana Mandekhang, which in the past was the palace of King Kala Wangpo. He took this as a divine and auspicious guidance and decided to establish the monastery at that location. Seeking the help of the local people, Mera Lama established the monastery at that location in the latter part of 1681.

The second legend of the derivation of the name Tawang is linked to Terton Pemalingpa, diviner of treasures. At this location, he is stated to have given “initiations” of Tamdin and Kagyad, which resulted in the name “Tawang”. ‘Ta’ is an abbreviated form for “Tamdin” and ‘Wang’ means “initiation”.

According to the third legend, a white horse of the Prince of Lhasa had wandered into Monpa region. People, who went in search of the horse, found the horse grazing at the present location of the monastery. The people of the area then worshipped the horse and the location where it was found and venerated it every year. Eventually, to honour the sacred site, the Tawang Monastery was built at the site.

One more legend narrated is about the goddess painted on a thangka in the monastery which is of Palden Lhamo.

This female deity is compared to the Hindu Goddess Kali. Like Kali, Palden Lhamo’s thangka is drawn in black colour, with flaming eyes, dressed in skirt made of tiger skin, and a garland of skulls around her neck. A moon disc adorns her hair, similar to the one seen on Shiva. She is also associated with Goddess Saraswati and Ma Tara. Legend also states that in the past she had lived in Sri Lanka as the consort of a demon king who practiced human sacrifice. As she was not supportive of this practice she fled from the kingdom. As she was running away, the king shot her shot with an arrow, which struck the backside of the mule that she was riding. When she drew out the arrow, it left a gaping hole in the mule’s back, and through this gap Palden Lhamo could watch the teachings of Lord Buddha.

Monastery Architecture

The majestic monastery can be entered from its northern side along the ridge by the gate ‘Kakaling’, which is a hut-like structure with its walls made of stone. The ceiling or the interior roofs of the Kakaling are painted with Mandalas or the Kying-Khores, while the inside walls have been painted with pictures of the saints and divinities. After Kakaling, comes the main gate of the monastery in its northern side. Its eastern wall is about 925 feet long while the height differs in between 10 to 20 feet.

The Tawang monastery houses several structures within its premises, the most prominent being the ‘Dukhang’. The Dukhang or the assembly hall, which is the main building of the monastery, stands on the northern side of the main court. This three storied complex houses a temple and a ‘Labrang’, which is the establishment of an Abbot. The interiors of the Dukhang are equally well marked with a magnificent work of art. Its inner walls have been painted with the sketches of several saints and Bodhisattvas, whereas the northern wall of the hall is covered with an altar, used for religious ceremonies; and again, towards its(altar) left lies a silver silk casket holding the Thangkas. The Thangkas have been dedicated to the chief deity of monastery, Goddess Shri Devi, also known as Palden Lhamo. This Thangka, which was painted(Painting known as Ja-Droi Ma) with blood drawn from the fifth Dalai Lama’s nose, was given to Merak Lama by His Holy Highness the fifth Dalai Lama himself. Besides, the northern side of the building nests the largest image of the monastery, a huge statue(26 feet high) of the Lord Buddha, standing in the middle of the hall.
Another prominent structure of the monastery is the ‘Court’, situated at the back of the Gompa(monastery). The stone slab court hosts religious dances and other ceremonies, held according to the lunar calendar of Monpa. On the western side of the court lies a three storied building, known as ‘Par-Khang’, the library. The Par Khang houses numerous sacred scriptures and Buddhist texts. A two storied structure is located on the southern side of the court, with its one part storing the monks’ provisions, while the another one being occupied by Dra-Tsang Buk and his associates. Lastly, on the eastern side of the court is located Rhum-Khang, a two-storied structure. The Rhum-Khang is used for cooking sacred food on the rituals and refreshment for the monks on festive days.

The ‘Sha’ or hut(60 in number) is another important structure of the monastery, used as residential quarters by the monks. The Centre for Buddhist Cultural Studies is an integral part of the monastery, and act as a learning centre for the young monks, who are taught traditional monastic education along with several subjects like English, Hindi, Arithmetic and others.

Customs and festivals

The main Monpa festivals held in the monastery are the Choksar, Losar, Ajilamu, and Torgya. Choksar is the festival when the Lamas recite religious scriptures in the monasteries. Following the religious recitations, the villagers carry the scriptures on their back and circumambulate their agricultural land seeking blessings for good yield of crops without any infestations by pests and to protect against attack by wild animals. In the Losar festival, which marks the beginning of the Tibetan New Year, people visit the monastery and offer prayers.

Torgya, also known as Tawang-Torgya, is an annual festival that is exclusively held in the monastery. It is held according to the Buddhist calendar days of 28th to 30th of Dawachukchipa, which corresponds to 10 to 12 January of the Gregorian calendar, and is a Monpa celebration. The objective of the festival is to ward off evil spirits and ushering all round prosperity and happiness to the people in the ensuing year. During the three-day festival, dances performed by artists in colorful costumes and masks are held in the courtyard, including the Pha Chan and the Losjker Chungiye, the latter of which is performed by the monks of the monastery. Each dance represents a myth and costumes and masks represent animal forms such as cows, tigers, sheep, monkeys and so forth.




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