Mandala… What does that word remind you of?
A certain oriental circular art? Well, that connection seems a bit serendipitous in the case of Mandala Top in West Kameng District. In this case, the name actually comes from Manda La. As you can see, it is a medium level mountain pass at around 3000 meters. Just like Bomdila, we are now used to combined spelling. However, unlike Bomdila, Mandala hasn’t bloomed to become a big town or even a village. It is just what it is, a pass, and unlike nearby Se La, it doesn’t even fall on the main highway. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point that is going through a transition.
In the olden days, only locals and hardened adventurers crossed it. As per the accounts of F Kingdon Ward, the plant-hunter, they hiked over Manda La to reach Dirang Dzong from Sheragaon through colourful rhododendron forests. A few years ago, the area achieved fame suddenly as it started attracting birdwatchers. Around the same time, a new project was conceived to construct the 108 Manes at the top. I think this goes well with the present trend of building massive structures all over the Tibetan Buddhist world, from Ladakh to Spiti to Sikkim to Tawang. So, the Mandala Top is now home to these 108 Manes while the sparsely populated hills around it are a paradise for birdwatchers.
Birds of Mandala
So, Mandala became a birding paradise a few years ago although it was not inside a designated wildlife sanctuary or national park. Although we were not really hardcore birders and nor did we have any equipment for the same, our hosts were determined to show us the place. Even Before reaching the top, we stopped at another point which is important for birders. Strategically located literally on the edge and above the clouds, the snowy peaks were also managed to make their presence felt on that bright November morning. There is a facility here for serious professional bird photographers although we were mesmerized more by the clouds beneath us.
As for the birds, we spotted some but could not click much. As per records, birds like fire breasted flowerpecker, pygmy blue flycatcher, dark sided flycatcher, white browed bush robin, rusty flanked treecreeper, fire-tailed myzornis, beautiful sibia, rufous-throated wren-babbler are only some of the more than 300 species spotted here. I have taken a couple of images from Lobsang Tsering, our birding guide, however, at the time of leaving I finally managed to click what seemed like a Himalayan buzzard.
Mandala Top: The 108 Manes
After that point we quickly drove to the Mandala Top and had our breakfast at a hut. It is not really a village but some families live here who are mostly involved in construction work. So, the main attraction here is the newly constructed 108 Manes and assorted facilities built around it. A giant Buddha Statue is also being built but it was under construction, which was somewhat obstructing the views. We also met the team behind the site, who conceived the project. .
“Mane” refers to the prayer walls in these areas. Just like Mani stones, prayer flags, and chortens, these are Buddhist constructions with the sacred hymn encrusted over them. 108 is a sacred number in all the Indic religions including Buddhism and that is why 108 of them have been built in a circular pattern so that devotees can circumambulate them. The circular structure is best viewed from the top and that is why I have borrowed a drone image from my hosts.
So, this is all about Mandala. It is a combination of birding plus Buddhist pilgrimage. Hardcore birding though will require you to leave the road and go a bit deeper into the jungles. Maybe someday I will do it when I return with better equipment.
Mandala Travel Guide
What and Where Exactly is Mandala Top?
Mandala is actually an ancient mountain pass. The Mandala-Phudung area forms a contiguous unit with Shergaon and Kalaktang tracts of the high altitude mountainous region, lying in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh. Nowadays it is a motorable road with a cluster of Buddhist Manes developed as a tourist attraction while the deeply forested hills in the area are ideal for bird watchers. The nearest major town from Mandala is Dirang.
What is the altitude of Mandala?
The Mandala Top is around 3000 meters or 10000 feet high. So, if you are going from Dirang, you are quickly ascending from 1500 meters to 3000 meters.
What to see and do in Mandala?
As mentioned before, you can visit the 108 Manes at the Mandala Top and also go for bird watching in the area. However, you will need a vehicle to get there and birding will require the help of a trained birding guide. Holidayscout can help you with both.
How to Reach Mandala?
It is around 20 kms from Dirang Dzong but much higher up from there. There is no public transport here. So, either you have your own vehicle or your host or tour operator takes you there. You can also ask the cabs at Dirang but rest assured that it’ll cost a bomb.
Where to stay in Mandala?
There is a facility of birders a few KMs before the Mandala Top. General tourists will be better off making quick day trips from Dirang.
Best Season for Mandala?
While you can go there anytime, winter to early spring, i.e. November to March are best for sighting birds.