Tawang- Beyond Devotional Expression

Tawang- Beyond Devotional Expression

The purpose of visiting “Gaden Namgyal Lhatse” Monastery in Tawang District, Arunachal Pradesh, can’t be completed without lighting a butter lamp and offering prayer in front of the statue of Lord Buddha at the ‘Dukhang’ (main temple).

“Gaden Namgyal Lhatse” is the second largest Monastery in the world after the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet.
Yonten needs to walk several miles to reach the Monastery from her village but her knee-pain troubles her nowadays.
On the way to Tawang, a senior Lama is greeted by the people.
Thupten climbs the stairs as he needs to attend the prayer. By following ‘Monpa’ tradition, his mother offered Thupten to the Monastery while she was pregnant with him.

Historically, after completing his religious study in Tibet, Merak Lama who belonged to Monpa tribe, founded the Monastery “Gaden Namgyal Lhastse” in 1680-1681 in Tawang. ‘Ta’ means Horse and ‘wang’ means Grace. Earlier this area was dominated by the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism. Hence, Merak lama and his Gelung Buddhism followers had to get involved in the conflict with the Nyingmapa followers. While Merak Lama represented Dalai Lama, the Nyingmapa followers represented the king of Bhutan. After the establishment of Gelung sect of Buddhism in Tawang, Monpa tribe began to pay taxes for Lasha.

In 1914, by the Simla Accord, Tawang became a part of British India. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama entered into India via Tawang. Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang in 2018 was a political controversy as China does not recognise the Simla Accord and claims on Arunachal Pradesh based on the historic religious tie between the “Gaden Namgyal Lhastse” monastey and Lasha, Tibet.


Throughout the history, Tawang Buddhism is not only a devotional expression, but the collections of ideas, practices, values and stories that are embedded in the culture. Today, almost everyone has a mobile phone with an internet connection in Tawang, but a significant number of young kids join the Monastery instead of attending regular schools. Living in the monastery, as a Lama, is not always rooted in religious beliefs or tradition and is rather a convenient economical option for some children and their families. In the contemporary world, such religious practices have been criticised, but understanding the religious influence on modern human affairs is essential.


In Tawang, which has been a stress point between China and India can we separate religion from politics? I argue that the religious aspect of the Gelug school of Vajrayana Buddhism cannot be understood in isolation, and its cultural and political context is to be taken into account. On the other hand, it is also impossible to understand the Monpa culture and political issues surrounding it, without considering its religious dimension.

Archana Sharma is pursuing MA in Diplomacy, Law and Business from O.P Jindal Global University.
Photography location: Arunachal Pradesh

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