Tawang Monastery & the Tale of the Hats



The largest Buddhist monastery in India, the Galden Namgey Lhatse better known as Tawang monastery in Arunachal Pradesh, has had an interesting past. Strategically located on a knot, flanked by India’s neighbors Bhutan and China on either side, this monastery was at the heart of a religious battle between the rival sects of Tibetan Buddhists in the medieval world. Today, the peace and serenity of the verdant valleys around the Himalayan ranges, offer no trace of this past conflict...except in old historical records.

Prior to the introduction of Buddhism in Tibet between 7th to 9th centuries CE, the Tibetans followed the native ancient ‘Bon’ religion, which involved the worship of spirits. Buddhism came to Tibet in several waves. The most prominent was in the 8th century, through the great Indian Buddhist scholar from Odisha, Padmasambhava. Legend has it that Padmasambhava, who was a great Buddhist tantric, defeated the Bon spirits and incorporated them into Tibetan Buddhism. This led to the introduction of a unique tantric form of Buddhism in Tibet, which is still practiced, called Vajrayana.

Painting of Ngawang Namgyal
Painting of Ngawang Namgyal|Wikimedia Commons

Over the centuries, schisms however appeared and Tibetan Buddhists split into different schools and sects based on different interpretations of Buddha’s teachings. They were known from the colour of the hats which they wore on formal occasions. These included the Gulegpa or Yellow Hats, Kagyupa or the Black Hats and the Nyingma, Sakya and Drukpa who wore Red Hats. The Yellow Hats, the sect to which the Dalai Lama belongs, held power in Tibet, the Black Hats were prominent in Sikkim while the Drukpa sub-sect wearing Red Hats, were prominent in Ladakh and Bhutan. The Himalayan states were thus carved out by the different sects.


Tibetan Buddhism split into different sects and sub-sects such as Nyingma, Drukpa, Sakya and Gelugpa

All was peaceful, till the 17th century CE. The Yellow Hats and the Red Hats co-existed in the eastern Himalayas until 1616 CE, when Ngawang Namgyal, a Tibetan Lama from the Red Hat Drukpa sect established his power in Bhutan. Known as Dharma Raja, Ngawang Namgyal is considered a national hero in Bhutan as he is credited with unifying the nation state and giving it its distinct identity. However, this new identity that Ngawang Namgyal aspired to create, also came with a purge of all the Tibetan influence in present day Bhutan.

During this time, the leader of the Yellow Hat sect in Bhutan, was a preacher named Lodoi Gyatso, who was better known as Mera Lama (named after the village of Mera where his monastery was in Bhutan). Gyatso's Yellow Hat monastery faced several attacks from the Red Hat sect in Bhutan and there were even attempts to assassinate the Mera Lama. With tensions flaring up, it was getting increasingly difficult for non-Red Hat sects to preach or even survive in Bhutan.

Tawang monastery
Tawang monastery|Wikimedia Commons

Sometime in the 1640s, on the advice of the 5th Dalai Lama in Lhasa, Mera Lama decided to shift his base and move out of Bhutan. In a bid to seek divine guidance, Mera Lama decided to meditate in a remote cave, in the adjoining hills. When he came out, he realized that his horse, who never left his side, was missing! After a long search, the Mera Lama found his horse grazing high up on a hill overlooking a beautiful valley. Thinking it was a divine message, Mera Lama decided to shift his headquarters to this new site, which he named Tawang or ‘Chosen by a Horse’ (Ta = Horse, Wang = Chosen).

Though the exact date of its construction is not known, it is estimated that the Tawang monastery was built between 1643 and 1647 CE. This large monastery has a network of prayer halls, assembly halls, a library and accommodation for as many as 500 monks. All of this is enclosed within heavily fortified walls.

Tawang Monastery Assembly Hall
Tawang Monastery Assembly Hall|Wikimedia Commons

The bitter battle between the Red and Yellow Hat sects of Buddhists continued all the way to Tawang despite the fact that the Yellow Hat sect had moved out of Bhutan. Finally in 1647 CE the 5th Dalai Lama sent a large Mongol army under a general named Gursi Khan, from Lhasa - forcing the Red Hats of Bhutan to sue for peace. This finally brought the bitter wars between the rival Buddhist sects to an end.

Go to the Tawang monastery and you will see a large mural of the Mongol general in the assembly hall - a mark of gratitude for what he did.

Buddha statue at Tawang monastery
Buddha statue at Tawang monastery|Wikimedia Commons

With peace came prosperity. The Tawang monastery grew in wealth and in fact by the 19th century CE it owned a number of villages even levying taxes on them. In 1844, the monastery signed two agreements with the British East India Company surrendering parts of its land. Finally, the area came under the complete control of British India after the Shimla accord of 1914, signed between British India, Tibet and China, which clearly demarcated the boundary between India and Tibet.

Today the Tawang monastery is a complex of more than 65 buildings built over centuries. It holds a priceless collection of old scriptures, rare paintings, manuscripts, and a towering 18ft high gilded image of Buddha.


LHI Travel Guide

Due to its sensitive location near the Bhutan and China border, a special in-land permit is required to visit the monastery.

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