The Monpa people inhabit the Tawang and West Kameng District of Arunachal Pradesh. These people follow the Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddism and speak the Tibeto-Burma language. The Monpa people are spread across Arunachal Pradesh in India, Bhutan and Tibet. Their numbers are highest in Tawang, where they made up 97% of the district population, which is considerably large in a state with numerous tribes and ethnic groups.
Out of the 45,000 Monpa living in Arunachal Pradesh, around 20,000 Monpa are centered in the Tawang district. Considerably fewer Monpa still live in Tibet and are featured among the 56 ethnic groups recognized by the Chinese Government. The Monpa geographical alienation and demarcation can be termed as a political decision. From 500 BC to 600AD, the Monpa lived autonomously as a small kingdom and it was only in 1914, under British Colonial tyranny that their kingdom was torn between the two countries by the McMahon Line. There are around 25,000 and 3000 Monpa in Tibet and Bhutan respectively.
Tibetan Buddhist culture had seeped deep into their life. By the time a Monpa boy became a Dalai Lama in the 17th century, they had totally incorporated themselves into the Buddhist culture. Today most of their life and culture are centered around the Tawang Monastery and Buddhism. Their festivals like Choksar Harvest, Losar, Ajilamu etc. are celebrated at the Tawang Monastery. People from all parts of Tawang District and beyond traveled to this monastery to be part of the celebration. It is also a place where most of the Monpa children are sent to become monks.
Apart from skillful wood carvers, the Monpa are also known for their artistry in Thangka painting and weaving carpets and clothes. They dress colorfully with thick blankets and jackets. Most of their clothing is made from coarse, red material made from yaks’ hair. Living at such an altitude, the Monpa culture, food and clothing are in many ways dependent on yaks. Women and men flaunt headgear made of yaks hair and tails.
I got to observe the Monpa closely as they gathered at a small ground near the Tawang Monastery for a festival which happens only once in three years. They started arriving in groups with their large families. Most Monpa men marry more than once and therefore they've big families. Honestly, it was a bit confusing and odd to see the camaraderie shared between wives. I guess what is odd to one culture can be just about normal to another.