On November 8, Tawang dawned as a picture-perfect morning for an exciting street parade in the town, marking the beginning of the three-day long Tawang Festival.
Set against the breathtaking backdrop of mountains, the festival is celebrated as distinctively as the stunning Tawang valley itself. The entire town actively participates in the festivities, beginning with a procession, or a religious tradition known as “Sebang”.
Vibrant dances and rich traditional practices collectively create an unforgettable celebration, making it a truly immersive experience for all attendees, showcasing various traditions of the Monpa community at large.
Distinguished guests, including chief minister Pema Khandu, local MLA Tsering Tashi, and Lumla MLA Tsering Lhamu, graced the occasion, adding to the festive spirit.
The street carnival not only attracted the attention of dignitaries but also drew thousands of tourists, both national and international, apart from local residents, who reveled in the rich cultural tapestry on display.
Two beauty queens, Rualhleng Lalnunthari, Mizo actor and former Femina Miss India Mizoram and Thounaojam Strela Luwang, Femina Miss India Runners Up 2023 from Manipur, were also present at the carnival.
It was held in the old Tawang market where the cultural parade changed the tapestry of the town. The cultural groups, Monpas and Sherdukpens of Tawang and West Kameng districts, who are the followers of the Lamaistic tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, took charge of the cultural street carnival.
The famous Aji-Lhamu dance, Arpuchham (war dance) by various villages, yak dance, lion dance, Ngagchham (the tantric dance), Phan Chham (the flag dance) and Yapchenapayumchhen Ama dance, were performed, along with various other traditional dances and rituals. The monastic dances and street performances were particularly delightful.
These performances also provide insights into the Monpa way of life.
For Guwahati-based pulmonologist, Dr. Moitreyee Kalita, the Tawang Festival is all about rich traditions. “I grew up learning Bharatanatyam and Hindustani Classical music, and I am here with my eight-year-old daughter, Tuhi.”
“With the company of endearing friends and the cultural melee of colours and music, the festival infused in me a dream-like quality . I can never get enough of this place; it’s like a grandmother’s embrace. It will continue to be simple yet breathtakingly gorgeous,” she added.
Significantly, the yak dance in itself is a vibrant and colourful performance that celebrates the significance of yaks in the lives of the Monpa people. Yaks are revered for their utility in this region as they are used for transportation, milk, and wool.
The performers dress up in elaborate costumes, resembling yaks, complete with masks and fur. They mimic the movements and behaviour of yaks, such as engaging in activities like grazing and playful interactions. The dance is often accompanied by traditional music and songs, adding to the cultural richness of the performance.
For Longnit Terang, a senior Assam Police Service Officer, with a deep passion for photography, it was his first visit to Tawang for the majestic festival. “The vibrant colours, the beauty, and the serenity of the land are beyond words to describe. There’s a kind of divinity in the air of Tawang and to capture the cultural parade through my lens and to carry the warmth of Tawang back home is an experience that I’ll cherish forever and it does feel surreal.”
Moreover, within the ancient tapestry of Tibetan traditions, a dance unfolds that whispers tales of mythical grace – the Snow Lion Dance. Cloaked in the ethereal white of pristine snow, performers embody these legendary creatures, symbols of power, strength, and unyielding fearlessness in the heart of Tibetan lore.
When joy cascades down the valleys and jubilation graces the air, the Snow Lion Dance takes center stage. Its choreography, a dance of delicate rhythms, mirrors the heartbeat of a culture rich in history. Adorned in costumes that mirror the majestic snow lions, resplendent in white with accents of vibrant hues, the dancers become living embodiments of folklore. With each graceful sway, they carry the weight of tradition, a symbolic odyssey through the annals of time.
An independent researcher working on indigenous cultures and traditions of her land, this is Girbani’s third visit to the Tawang Festival. “In the mountains that echo happiness, this festival is a tale where the winds chant a zillion dreams, where colours splatter hope and where hearts beam with joy. Befittingly called the Festival of Dreams, it is as gorgeous as the land.”
She further said, “Every visit to Tawang for me has always been very enriching and the simplicity of the people, its food, the textiles, the aroma of the land and its culture and the ‘Tashi Delek’ greetings with a bright warm smile now and then is a reminder of the warmth in the hearts of every Monpa.”
“The hospitality we received as tourists was overwhelming,” said Priyanka Gogoi, an Avid illustrator, based out of Dubai. She added, “It was a surprise to see special seating arrangements made for tourists to witness the cultural parade, covered seats at the evening cultural programme and the likes; kudos to the tourism department for showering such hospitality!”
Another dance form that drew everyone’s attention was the Keng Cham. It is often associated with Buddhist rituals and is performed to invoke blessings, ward off evil spirits, and celebrate various cultural events within the Monpa community. It is performed by bare bodied dancers in a pair of shorts and a skeleton-face mask. This dance symbolises defeat of evils.
A spirit of cultural unity and diversity
On all the three days, as the sun dipped below the horizon, the festivities transitioned to the grand Mentsem-Tse Tawang festival ground. The monks of the Tawang Monastery set the tone with the Mangalacharan, despite the bone-chilling cold weather on the very first day. The chief minister officially inaugurated the festival from the festival stage, greeted by a packed assemblage.
“The spirit of festivals fosters cultural unity and strengthens the idea of diversity, and moreover, we are proud of our state, which is a biodiversity hotspot,” said the chief minister, clad in his traditional black Khanjar.
Foreign dignitaries, domestic tourists, and artists from Bhutan and various other Indian states added to the festive spirit, making the occasion truly remarkable. Among the artists invited to the festival were Bhutanese alternative rock Band, ‘Misty Terrace,’ featuring frontman Tandin Wangchuk; singers Rito Riba, Ladakhi Faisal Ashnoor, and Nepali singer Anjhila Regmi; Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs winner Jetshen Dohna; and singer Monali Thakur.
For the record, the Tawang Festival is a relatively recent addition to the cultural calendar of Arunachal Pradesh. It was first organised in 2012 by the Arunachal Pradesh Tourism Department, with the primary goal of promoting tourism in the region and safeguarding the indigenous culture of the Monpa tribe. Since its inception, the festival has gained prominence, drawing visitors from distant places.
“We consider this festival as a means to showcase our age-old traditions and heritage to the world. We make special arrangements for the tourists who can benefit from this festival. They can witness and immerse themselves in the rich cultural tapestry of our state,” said artist and festival curator Ranjan Engti.
“Nestled amidst the picturesque landscapes of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, Tawang is renowned not only for its breathtaking beauty but also for its profound cultural heritage,” he added.
Moreover, one could engage in gluttony amidst the array of stalls with delectable dishes at the festival ground, such as Zan (rice porridge), Thupkas, a noodle soup mixed with minced meat, and spices, juicy momos, and others . “I am fond of the Dheb-Thukpa, which is cooked with rice and the Thukpa made of maize, meat, and beans, which we traditionally call “Ashum Thukpa” and it’s yummy,” said Tenzin, a local farmer, with a gleam in his eyes at the festival ground. Meanwhile, Monali Thakur belted out her hits like ‘Sawaar Loon’, ‘Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’ and others on the concluding day of the festival.
Sattyakee D’com Bhuyan is founder director of the D’Passion Collective.