At an elevation of above 4,000 metres in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh lies the Bhagajang Wetland Complex that has around 20 high-altitude lakes.In 2009, concerned about the impact of tourism on the environment, officials from the Tawang Monastery and WWF-India partnered to address some of these issues and conserve the environment in the wetland region.Among the monks who are silently doing their bit in environmental protection is Phuntsok Wangchuk. Over the past 14 years he has spent around three months every year at the Bhagajang Wetland Complex to guide and care for pilgrims that visit the sacred wetlands. Seated on a carpet on the floor of the Buddhist monastery in Itanagar, Phuntsok Wangchuk cuts a lonely figure on this particular Friday morning. With a rather flimsy surgical mask covering his nose and mouth, the lama or monk, appears to still be taking Covid-19 precautionary measures when most people in Arunachal Pradesh have discarded them. Using a wooden twig, he is rolling cotton wicks that will be used to light oil lamps that are used to offer prayers. Wangchuk is a Buddhist monk from the Monpa tribe that traditionally live in the West Kameng and Tawang districts of the state. Scattered groups of the tribe are also said to reside across international borders in Bhutan and China. For centuries, the Monpa have been adherents of Tibetan Buddhism and Tawang houses the largest monastery of Tibetan Buddhism in the country and is second in size only to the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Founded in around 1680-81, the Tawang Monastery’s Tibetan name is Gaden Namgyal Lhatse (celestial paradise in a clear night), and was affiliated to the Drepung Monastery in Tibet until the Chinese occupation. Located at around 3,000 metres above sea level, the monastery’s complex reportedly houses around 500 monks. Having spent two months in the town of Tawang, the administrative headquarters of the eponymous district, Wangchuk is now in the state capital Itanagar and living at the compound of the gompa or monastery. At this particular time today, he is alone inside the gompa. “The other lamas have gone to the chief minister’s house to perform a religious ceremony,” he informs. Dressed in the standard-issue maroon/orange-hued clothing, he seems to be blissfully unaware of the important environmental work he does for three months of the year. Over the past 14 years, Phuntsok Wangchuk has spent around three months every year at the Bhagajang Wetland Complex to guide and care for pilgrims that visit the sacred wetlands in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo by Ranju Dodum. The sacred wetlands Arunachal Pradesh has 1672 high altitude wetlands (above 3000 m altitude), among the highest such wetlands in India, after Kashmir. At an elevation of above 4,000 metres in Tawang district lies the Bhagajang Wetland Complex that has around 20 high-altitude lakes ranging from 0.01 sq km to about 0.35 sq km. At least 12 of these are said to be considered sacred by Buddhist communities. Bhagajang and other wetland complexes in the state act as reservoirs for the three major rivers – Tawangchu, Nyamjangchu and Kameng River, which are important tributaries of Brahmaputra. Bordering West Kameng in the south and Bhutan to the west, the wetland complex is around 18 kms from the national highway on Sela Pass – a strategic mountain pass connecting Tawang district to the rest of India. For residents who live in the rugged mountains and thick forested areas of Arunachal Pradesh, coupled with bad road infrastructure, distance is measured not in kilometres but in hours – “There is a road and it takes around seven hours to reach from Sela Pass,” the lama says, rolling more cotton wicks. At an elevation of above 4,000 metres in Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh lies the Bhagajang Wetland Complex that has around 20 high-altitude lakes. Map from Google Earth. Since 2006, Wangchuk has spent around three months from August to October every year at the Bhagajang Wetland Complex to guide and care for the pilgrims who visit the site during that small window of time when the road and area are not covered in snow. He says that pilgrims from the two districts of Arunachal Pradesh as well as from Bhutan come for an annual pilgrimage. This year the Bhutanese pilgrims could not come because of the Covid-19 travel restrictions. The entire complex is held in religious reverence, said Wangchuk, adding that there are images of deities pained on stones and boulders in the area. During that period, as pilgrims come and go, there are usually two or three monks who stay for three months, as do the Brokpa yak herders who bring their livestock to graze in the area. As we converse, there is very little he speaks about on the issue of environmental protection work that the monastery is reportedly doing.