Urgelling Monastery, the Small Gompa with a Big Story
The most famous and visited place in Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh, is the Tawang Monastery, the largest in India and the second largest monastery in the world, after the Potala Palace in Tibet. However, a trip to Tawang is not complete without a visit to the less touristy and modest monastery with a fascinating story, and a complete guide to the Urgelling Monastery. Tawang is a blessed land for being the birthplace of Sixth Dalai Lama.
A Brief History of Urgelling Monastery or Ugyenling Gompa
This story begins with Terton Pema Lingpa. A Terton is a very highly respected spiritual leader of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, who could find and understand religious treasures, called terma, and revealing & explaining it to the people for their good. A terma could be manuscripts, teachings or interpretations of ancient gurus. He was one of the most eminent of the 5 Terton kings. So, a Terton, loosely translated, is a spiritual treasure-revealer.
Pema Lingpa gave the responsibility of building the Urgelling Monastery to his youngest sibling, Ugyen Sangpo (hence the name Ugyenling) and the human habitation around it was called Urgelling Village. The Gompa (a monastery or a temple) was a modest one with plans of expanding it in the future.
Our guide explained that at that point in time, neither Tawang Monastery nor the city of Tawang existed, making Urgelling Gompa, the oldest in the region. About 200 years older than the famous Tawang Monastery!
Significance of Ugyenling Gompa or Urgelling Monastery
Fast Forward 2 centuries, when the Tawang monastery was just two years old, a boy was born in Urgelling, to Lama Tashi Tenzin, one of the direct descendants of Ugyen Sangpo (same family as the great Pema Lingpa) and Tsewang Lhamo, a monpa girl of an elite family from a nearby village in the region. The importance of Urgelling Monastery changed for good with the boy being identified as the reincarnation of the 5th Dalai Lama and the boy, who was the Sixth Dalai Lama, was named Tsangyang Gyatso.
The original monastery was sacked by a general of the Mongol army, as soon as the 6th Dalai Lama was deposed, as they were against Gelugpa sect. At that time all riches and religious artifacts were moved to Tawang Monastery for safe keeping.
Also Read : Things to do in Bhalukpong, Arunachal Pradesh
A Visit to the Urgelling Monastery (Ugyenling Gonpa)
We decided to leave a bit early to go to the Urgelling Monastery about 2.5 KM away from our homestay in Tawang, near Tawang Monastery. Within a couple of kilometers, it looked like we had already exited Tawang and were on a sparsely populated stretch of greenery called the Sacred Groves. A sharp left turn and some minutes later we were at the gates of the small but beautiful Ugyenling monastery. We saw a huge tree on the right side after entering the Gonpa.
Legend of the Tree
In the year 1697, the high-ranking Buddhist monks from the Potala Palace, came here to take the newly ordained 6th Dalai Lama from his family, back to Lhasa. At that time Tsangyang Gyatso was just a boy of 14 or so. Legend has it that at the time of leaving home, he stuck his walking stick in the ground and prophesied that three trunks would grow out of it and when they became equal size he would return. In the beginning of the year 1959 the 3 trunks were of equal size but one of the trunks was destroyed by a storm. It was surely an inauspicious sign. People and monks were equally concerned and frightened.
And then it happened. True to the prediction of the 6th Dalai Lama, the 14th Dalai Lama was persecuted in Lhasa, Tibet and in March 1959, he had to flee to India via Tawang. It is said he stayed a few days at Tawang and visited Urgelling Monastery before proceeding to Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh, where He has his current government in exile in place, even as I write.
Fresh water from the stone mortar
It is said that there were a few miracles that happened before the 6th Dalai Lama was born. As per his mother, once during her first month of pregnancy, she was using a stone mortar. Suddenly the mortar was filled with fresh water, and it would keep filling up. We tasted the same and found it to be quite good.
Once, as a boy, when the young Dalai Lama went to the stream nearby to drink water, it turned to milk! However, I could not locate the stream.
Prayer hall of the Urgelling Gompa
After tasting the sweet water from the mortar, we went up the steps leading to the small prayer hall. It was nothing like I had seen before. The hall with its wood flooring was quite modest and congruent with the overall structure of the monastery and its surroundings. First thing that was conspicuous by its absence was, the big figure or statue of Buddha at the end of the hall as is there normally in many gompas.
There were smaller images on the walls though. What strikes you is the sheer simplicity of the prayer hall, which had a calming effect on me. The second most interesting thing was, this was probably one of the very few places where the walls adorn the images or thangkas of all the Dalai Lamas, starting from the first who became a Dalai Lama in the year 1411 to the current 14th who lives in exile, Dharmshala in Himachal Pradesh, India.
At the far wall are the imprints of the foot and the forehead of the 6th Dalai Lama, which is considered very sacred here and devotees make sure to pray there.
Other things to see within the premises
On the ground floor, behind a closed door, are 8 stupas belonging to some of the important heads of the Ugyenling Monastery, in one of the rooms. There is also a room to light butter lamps as a form of prayer, which we did, just like we did in Tawang monastery. There is a huge cylindrical prayer wheel much taller than me.
On three sides of the building, there’s a long niche with a continuous array of small prayer wheels.
As luck would have it, we were invited to an event during the World Tourism Day, held at this very village Audung, about 20 KM away by road. By walking down the mountain, which is what folks back then would have done, it is probably just about 3 or 4 KM! Claim to fame of Audung village is, this is where the mother of 6th Dalai Lama, Tsewang Lhamo, was born and lived before her marriage.
We were also directed to visit a two-storey building, which was the house of the family of that Monpa girl. Probably rebuilt many times over, still looked quite ancient. We met a lady who was part of the Monpa Group Dance and who was introduced to us as the descendent of that very family! Wow!
Useful Information about Tawang
- Nyingmapa School of Buddhism – The oldest buddhism sect of Tibet, began the Guru Rinponche, Padma Sambhava from undivided India.
- Gelugpa School of Buddhism – The newest and the most widely followed sect from Tibet of which all Dalai Lamas are part, including the 14th Dalai Lama who currently lives in India.
- Gompa – Gompas are the temples of worship and also place of learning. Nearest equivalent in English is a Monastery. Also spelt as Gonpa.
- Tawang region was part Tibet till 1914. So when the sixth Dalai Lama was born in Urgelling, it was part of Tibet.
- The predominant tribe of Tawang and West Kameng districts of Arunachal Pradesh are the Monpa.
- Sacred Groves are regions of forest land owned, maintained and managed by the monasteries.
- Although most monasteries open very early, Urgelling does not open early.
- Photography is allowed outside and inside the prayer hall too.
- Please remove footwear before entering the prayer hall.
- Please dress modestly. (Anyway most of the time the weather is so cold or rainy that one is quite covered on that front).
- The distance between Tawang Gompa and Urgelling Gompa is about 5.5 KM.
- You may visit the Tawang war memorial which is nearby.
- The birthday of the current Dalai Lama is celebrated with great fanfare here.
- This Tawang Circuit was curated by Holiday Scout, one of the best Tours company in North East.
How to reach Tawang?
The best way to reach Urgelling monastery is by car or cabs. If you are the more adventurous kind, you may walk, taking the mountain shortcuts.
Where to stay in Tawang?
Tawang has a lot of accommodation options such as hotels, guest houses and homestays too. However, there are no big hotel chains or star hotels yet. Homestay are the way to stay here to understand more about the Monpa culture and their cuisine. We stayed in a homestay called “Pal-Mo homestay” very close to the Tawang Monastery.
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