Guardians of the Sacred Peaks: Tawang and Climate Change

The Buddhist Channel, 22 November 2023

Monks in Tawang’s Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery Lead Conservation Efforts Amidst Climate Crisis

Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh (India)
-- In the heart of India's easternmost state, Arunachal Pradesh, lies the Bhagajang wetland, a realm of divine significance for followers of Tibetan Buddhism. Home to 20 pristine lakes and a myriad of unique flora and fauna, this sacred high-altitude sanctuary faces mounting threats from climate change.

Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery at Tawang, Arunachal Pradesh

In response, monks from Tawang's Ganden Namgyal Lhatse monastery have taken up the mantle of environmental stewardship to preserve the abodes of Tibetan Buddhist deities.

At the core of this spiritual commitment is Palden Lhamo, the fearsome protector deity associated with the lineage of Dalai Lamas. Palden Lhamo is believed to guide senior monks in identifying the next Dalai Lama through visions at the sacred Lhamo La-tso, or Oracle Lake, nestled in the remote mountains southeast of Lhasa, Tibet. The connection to these sacred sites prompted the monks of Ganden Namgyal Lhatse to act in the mid-2000s when they noticed the potential deterioration of nearby natural sanctuaries.

Phuntsok Wangchuk, a 39-year-old monk from the monastery, spends three months each year tending to the Bhagajang lakes, guiding Buddhist pilgrims and ensuring the cleanliness of these sacred waters. As climate change intensifies in the region, with projections indicating significant temperature increases by 2050, the monks recognize the urgent need to protect these fragile ecosystems.

To address the environmental threats exacerbated by tourism, innovative solutions have emerged. Wangchuk and his fellow lamas have discouraged the traditional practice of tossing religious silk scarves, known as khadas, into the lakes by providing wooden hangers as alternatives. Furthermore, the monastery implemented a ban on extracting firewood from the area in 2012, promoting the use of high-efficiency kerosene stoves to minimize the impact on the surrounding forests.

These conservation efforts have yielded positive results, transforming Bhagajang into a thriving ecosystem with undulating ridges, vibrant rhododendron, juniper shrubs, and a diverse range of bird species. The success of these initiatives extends beyond Ganden Namgyal Lhatse, with other monasteries in Arunachal Pradesh actively engaged in forest and biodiversity conservation.

Motivated by a combination of the global climate crisis and the lingering influences of the Bon religion, these efforts draw upon Buddhist and cosmological beliefs associated with each sacred site. The intertwining of conservation measures with religious lore enhances their effectiveness, as locals tend to respect restrictions embedded in their spiritual traditions.

Monasteries like Lhagyala, situated in Kalaktang, have leveraged customary jurisdiction rights to conserve vast forested areas. Thupten Pemson, a lama from Lhagyala, emphasizes the duty to safeguard the domains of deities, illustrating the dual benefit of earning merit through environmental protection and preserving critical habitats for species like the red panda, alpine musk deer, Asiatic black bear, and various pheasants.

The commitment of Tibetan Buddhist monks goes beyond environmental activism; it extends to political engagement when necessary. In 2016, monks from Tawang organized resistance against a proposed hydropower project threatening the habitats of the rare black-necked crane, a sacred symbol associated with the region's religious history. The monks' efforts resulted in the suspension of the project, demonstrating their unwavering dedication to protecting both their cultural heritage and the environment.

In the face of climate crisis challenges, the monks and monasteries of this region remain steadfast in their commitment to environmental preservation. As Phuntsok Wangchuk reflects, "I do all I can to preserve the abode of Palden Lhamo; you may call that conservation." These guardians of the sacred peaks serve as beacons of hope, showcasing the power of faith-driven environmental stewardship amidst the evolving climate landscape.
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