Tapping Buddha’s friend


Lama at Tawang Monastery. All photos by SUKHENDU BIKASH NANDI

ARUNACHAL PRADESH, India’s land of the rising sun has enough hydropower to meet the need of eastern India. But Tawang, the hub of Buddhism on the northwestern tip of this frontier state, is hit by frequent power disruptions.

So the 330-year-old Gaden Namgyal Lhatse or Tawang Monastery, one of the most revered pilgrimages after Potala Palace in Lhasa, turned to “Buddha’s friend” to meet its energy requirement.

Buddha’s friend is the sun. Some religious texts refer to Buddha as ‘Aditya Bandhu’ that in Sanskrit means ‘the sun’s friend’.

Three years ago, Abbot Tulku Rinpoche and some 450 lamas of the monastery decided to install five 1000-litre solar water heaters atop a two-storey building flanking the Dukhang (main prayer hall).

“Landslides and snowstorms often lead to power disruption in these parts. We had the solar water heaters installed primarily to ensure warm water for the lamas even when there’s electricity,” said Lobsang Thapke, secretary of Tawang Monastery Society.

Indian religious institutions have been more than proactive than others is using renewable energy sources. Tirupathi in Andhra Pradesh has the world’s second largest solar energy driven community kitchen after the Vatican, resulting in saving of some 30,000 tonnes of carbon emissions. More than 28,000 gurudwaras (Sikh temples) across the world had decided to adopt solar energy to run community kitchens.

Tawang Monastery’s decision inadvertently sent a haloed message to the state and it became an advertisement for the Arunachal Pradesh Energy Development Agency (Apeda) to push for solar lighting and water heating in remote areas along the border with China.

“The idea of installing solar water heaters on Tawang Monastery could have been divine intervention, but we are glad to have started the go-solar campaign from there,” Apedia director Marki Loya said from state capital Itanagar. “We then targeted the civil hospital and a public school in Tawang for solar water heaters. There have been a string of applications from private organizations and people since.”

Solar water heaters atop Tawang Monastery

The Buddha’s ‘blessing’ has also seen Apeda setting up solar photovoltaic panels atop 38 isolated households in the district’s border areas. Besides, 546 border villages in other districts have also been provided solar lighting. These villages had been in darkness until a couple of years ago.

The way Tawang Monastery inspired Apeda, the United Nations believes involving religious organizations in promoting renewable energy sources can bring a big change with least cost. “Many times people listen to religious organizations more than the governments,” a UN official said recently.

A recent World Bank report said that India has a capacity to generate 65,000 MW of renewable power every year provided right policy decisions and incentives are given. India already has a National Mission on Solar Energy to incentivise use of sun to generate 20,000 MW of power by 2022.

Solar has huge untapped potential and Arunachal is an example of that. More 150 hydroelectric projects are lined to produce 50,000 MW of power, resulting in protests from people, but renewables have remained a second choice.

“These mega projects might make Arunachal Pradesh power-rich, but the state and its people will have to pay a heavy price for it,” said green activist Vijay Taram. “Non-conventional is the way to go, and Tawang Monastery has perhaps set the trend for other religious institutions to follow.”

(A concise version of this post appeared in Hindustan Times on 23/03/2011. This post was enriched with inputs from my colleague Chetan Chauhan.)

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About rahconteur

A mid-career journalist who's worked horizontally across India - from Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat
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