TAWANG, India (RNS) — The sixth Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, born in 1683, is known for his poems extolling the beauty and uniqueness of the black-necked cranes that live in the remote Tawang Valley in Himalayan India, and to this day the people of the valley’s Indigenous Monpa tribe take pride in a small shrine called Lama Tsabtsey, which they believe contains the lama’s footprints.
The shrine is just one sacred site threatened by the Indian government’s plans to develop Tawang for its hydropower, to provide electricity to the region and beyond. The Buddhist Monpa, nomads who tend yak, sheep and goats below snow-capped peaks, have organized to oppose any project that would destroy the monasteries, hot springs and temples that dot their homeland.
“These aren’t just sacred places,” said 82-year-old Lama Tashi, a spiritual adviser to the Save Mon Region Federation, a group led by over 700 monks. “If we buy into false promises of progress by politicians and big businesses, our identity and Indigenous traditions will be destroyed forever.”
Tashi lives in the monks’ quarters in the cobblestone lanes behind the Tawang monastery, built in 1681 on the wishes of the fifth Dalai Lama. The three-storied monastery has a 26-foot-high gilded statue of Buddha and life-size paintings dominating its inner sanctum. The drone of monks in prayer and the rotation of prayer wheels echo across its vast premises housing more than 500 Gelug monastics.
It is the second largest monastery in the world and belongs to the Gelug School of esoteric Buddhism. The current Dalai Lama found shelter there when he fled Tibet in 1959. “Every time I visit these areas,” he said in 2017, “it’s very emotional for me. I see a place where I had enjoyed freedom for the first time.”
The monk-activists of Save Mon Region say dams will not only destroy the monastery and other irreplaceable sites but will compromise an ecologically fragile region and intensify tensions with China, which claims Tawang as part of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
In 2007, the National Hydroelectric Power Corp., a government-owned company, was designated to develop hydropower projects in the Tawang Chhu river basin, while a private company was solicited to work in the adjacent Nyamjang Chhu river basin.
The monks of Tawang have led peaceful anti-dam protests since 2009, with the support from Monpa and rights activists. “We were mobilizing people across villages,” said Lama Jhampa Jha, a member of the Save Mon Region Federation who made his visits in a maroon robe and yak hair hat characteristic of the Monpa.
In May 2016, police opened fire at demonstrators who had gathered outside the Tawang police station to demand the release of anti-dam activist Lama Lobsang Gyatso. A Buddhist monk and civilian were killed and several others were injured.
“That was the turning point in our movement,” said Lama Lopsang Phontso, president of the Save Mon Region Federation.
After the shooting the monks and Indigenous people intensified their campaign. More rallies, petitions and protest marches followed, and community support swelled across Tawang. The solidarity overcame the powerful pro-dam lobby, which has allegedly got backing from the government’s chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh state, Pema Khandu, a member of an influential family in the region.
Tsering Tashi, a local politician, says the government’s development company is cognizant of the culture and tradition of the people and insists the projects would “boost the economy and tourism and generate jobs.”
V.R. Srivastava, the executive director of National Hydroelectric Power Corp., says that environmental studies for the project are still being completed but that NHPC is focused on sustainable development. “Millions of dollars have already been spent on these projects,” said Srivastava. “We only need assent from the local community.”
That assent is increasingly hard to come by. In 2018, Save Mon Federation sent a letter to district authorities saying unlettered villagers had been duped into signing no-objection certificates for the projects.
“If we knew our signatures were being taken for the NHPC projects, we would never have agreed,” said Tsering Tempa, who was severely injured in the 2016 police attack. “We are concerned about our land and identity, not material gains.”
Today, the Save Mon monks still set out regularly from the Tawang Monastery to stage peaceful protests and meet with activists and locals to discuss how to save their fragile region.
“We’ve been sensitizing the Indigenous people about our nonviolent protest,” said L.T. Khom, the vice president of the federation, in part by telling stories about the sacredness of the region and reading from scripture. “Their faith is bolstered when monks quote from Buddhist texts and urge them to join in their rallies and fasts.”
Though the Monpa most immediately fear for historic sites, such as the Chagzam Bridge, built by a disciple of the first Dalai Lama over 600 years ago, or the rock cave where tantric Buddhism mystic Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, is said to have meditated, they also worry about less tangible rituals, meditation practices and after-death ceremonies that center on these places. “These will all go and with that our sacred rituals,” said Sang Thinley.
Villagers in Lhou who’ve been agitating strongly against the power projects echoed these concerns, adding that their faith may be watered down by the arrival of outsiders who come to build the dams. “Laborers from outside will not only outnumber us but also spread their own beliefs, destroying Tawang’s identity as a Buddhist center,” Thinley said.
The resilience of the Monpas and their spiritual leaders finally has halted the NHPC projects for this year, but the government’s zeal to tap into Tawang’s hydropower hasn’t gone away.
The Indigenous people say their “moral victory” has sent a powerful message.
“We will never allow projects that enslave people,” said Jha. “We aren’t maroon robe-wearing monks who only read scriptures; we work for the betterment of society.”