When It Comes to Renaming Places in Tawang, China Is Not Alone

Since last June, members of the Monpa tribe have been restoring original names of native places from Sela Pass onwards through the Arunachal government’s Department of Karmik and Adyatmik Affairs.

Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh: After traversing for hours on mountainous terrain ringed with broken roads, it is a moment of absolute delight when you pass through the gateway to Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang district, decorated with traditional Tibetan Buddhist festoons, to arrive at Sela Pass.

Tibetan prayer flags playing with the icy cold winds at the height of 13,700 feet make quite a racket in an otherwise silent, pristine setting. Bounded by the jagged mountains of the eastern Himalayas covered in a thin blanket of snow, the still azure waters of the Sela Lake is a sight to behold, reminding you of the legendary words of Verrier Elwin on Tawang: “If there is any paradise in NEFA, this is it, this is it”.

A green signboard, standing not too far from the lake, welcomes you to “Zela” and not Sela, as we all know it.

As you drive further towards the Tawang town, the last Indian district headquarters bordering China, more such green signboards with names written in white – in both English and Tibetan Bhoti language – pop up, adding to your curiosity. More so, because underneath the names, a little known department of the Arunachal Pradesh government finds mention – the Department of Karmik and Adyatmik (Chos-Rig) Affairs (DoKAA).

A signboard announcing the local name of the area near the district hospital in Tawang. Credit: Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

A handful of boards, also in green and white, however, credit Buddhist Culture Preservation Society (BCPS), a locally-powerful civil society organisation which runs many academic institutions and monasteries, including the JangChub Choeling Nunnery in Lhou and the Gontse Gaden Rabgya Ling monastery in Bomdila, the headquarters of the West Kameng district adjoining Tawang.

BCPS has its head office in Bomdila, the headquarters of the adjoining West Kameng district. However, its secretary general Dorjee Norbu resides in Tawang town. It is not until you meet Norbu that you begin to understand the reason behind the signboard exercise being undertaken by the Monpas, the majority community of the Tawang and West Kameng districts, with the help of the government.

The initiative becomes particularly interesting when you think of the recent Chinese action of naming some places in the area.

“Don’t go by the spelling of those names given by China, read them aloud, go by their pronunciation. You will then find the similarities between the names of those we have and the ones they have given,” Norbu, a Monpa, told The Wire.

“The Chinese never ruled us, we were a part of an independent Tibet and then we separated from it, much before the Chinese could capture Tibet. So from that angle, they naming some of our places is plain absurd. But the question arises, where did then they get those names from? I would say, they must have picked them up from old official records in Tibet, from the time of the kings,” he added.

Though experts of strategic affairs in India have guessed six places in Arunachal to be the ones that the Chinese government has recently named, the exact geographical locations given by that country, however, do not quite match with them.

Norbu – and many elderly people of Tawang that this correspondent spoke to – are quite unanimous in their belief that Wo’gyainling has to be Urgelling gompa, a holy place for the Monpas which was the birth place of the sixth Dalai Lama, Bumola is certainly Bumla, the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, Namkapub Ri is Namka Chu river, Mainquka has to be Mechuka in West Siang district, situated 30 kms from the LAC and Qoidengarbo Ri is none other than the revered Gorsam Stupa in Zemithang, the western end of Tawang district where India meets both China and Bhutan.

Follower of oral culture, the Monpas, Norbu related, never kept a written record of the names of their native places.

“But by word of mouth all Monpas know the places by their local names. In our everyday conversation too, many, particularly the old people, have continued to refer to them by those names. Since ours is an oral culture, some of the names have, however, undergone some changes over time,” he added.

“Problem began,” he said, when the Indian army and the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which lays and maintains the roads of the Tawang and West Kameng districts, began expanding their presence in the area.

“After the Mon region joined India (in 1950), the BRO kept building roads, kept coming inside the Mon region and kept giving their own names to our places. They never consulted us. So on your way up to Bomdila and Dirang (Monpa-dominated areas), you will find names of places like, Munna, Sapper, Rama Camp. Then from Bomdila to Tawang, there are places like Baishakhi, Madhuri lake, Jaswant Garh, etc. even though we refer to them by different names,” Norbu pointed out.

While most of the places Norbu mentioned were named after camps set up by the security forces, a part of Nuranang was named Jaswant Garh, in memory of the soldier Jaswant Singh Rawat of 4 Garhwal Rifles, who showed exemplary courage in the Battle of Nuranang in November 1962 by defending the area from the advancing Chinese army for three days before he died.

The Zo Na Tseir lake, close to the LAC, began to be referred to, mostly by taxi drivers, army personnel and tourists, as ‘Madhuri’ lake, after the Bollywood actor Madhuri Dixit danced by it to a song featured in the film Koyla.

Norbu said, “It is to correct some such anomaly that BCPS came up with the idea of renaming places with our names. Otherwise, the original names will vanish one day.”

BCPS was started by Lama Tsona Gontse Rinpoche in 1987. “Besides looking at preserving the other aspects of culture and language of the Monpas, Guru Rinpoche felt BCPS should also work to preserve the original Monpa names of their native places,” Norbu added.

“To do that, Guru Rinpoche began collecting names by discussing with old people. He thereafter compiled a thick catalogue of names of places in Tawang and West Kameng districts. We then began putting up boards in some places in Tawang,” he related.

A hugely popular figure, the Rinpoche, better known as TSR, the only lama to contest elections and become an MLA among the Monpas, was a direct political rival of yet another stalwart of Tawang, the former chief minister Dorjee Khandu.

Guru T.S. Rinpoche. Credit: BCPS

Sensing the popularity of TSR’s move to restore old names of places done through BCPS, Khandu, at the beginning of his second term as the state chief minister, installed the DoKAA and offered its chairmanship to TSR in August 2009.

Headquartered in Itanagar, the objective of DoKAA was set to be “protection, promotion, preservation, conservation and creation of awareness of the rich cultural heritage of these regions, which have become vulnerable to destruction for various reasons in modern era.” The popular annual Tawang Festival is also an initiative under DoKAA.

“We at BCPS agreed to be a part of Khandu’s move because by then we, under TSR’s leadership, were beginning to demand creation of an autonomous district council (ADC) for the Mon region. Though the state assembly passed the resolution for creation of the ADC during Dorjee Khandu’s time, the central government was yet to give its go ahead. TSR felt Tawang being a border area will take a while to become an ADC. There was also opposition to it from some quarters within the state. So he agreed to Khandu’s offer to head DoKAA,” stated Norbu, a founding member of BCPS.

In 2014, TSR died a “mysterious death” in New Delhi. Though the Delhi police termed it a suicide, BCPS members like Norbu “are still not satisfied with it.”

Meanwhile, though DoKAA embarked on other work, including renovation of old monasteries, protection of the Bhoti language in which the Buddhist religious scriptures are written, etc., it was only in June last year that it began to act on the name restoration exercise begun by TSR.

Inaguration of the pilot project of DoKAA at Tawang in June of last year. Credit: DoKAA website

“On June 6, 2016, DoKAA started a pilot project of christening regions with their original Monpa names by putting up a hoarding at the entrance of Tawang deputy commissioner’s office. It renamed the area from AIR Colony to the original name Zhitrotse,” present DoKAA chairman Jambey Wangdi told this correspondent. According to a report in Arunachal Times then, “The inaugural function was held at ZhitroTse, commonly known as Topovan Colony, with chanting of prayers.”

Though Norbu said BCPS handed over the catalogue compiled by TSR to DoKAA, Wangdi said, “We at DoKAA have held village council meetings, deliberated with panchayat leaders, district councilors, the elderly people, etc. to zero in on the original names.”

As a part of the pilot project, 33 prominent places of Tawang district have already been renamed.

“In the second phase,” he said, “DoKAA will start renaming places in West Kameng districts too.”

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