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rumtek-monastery (photo by Wanphai Nongrum)The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, known as Guru Rimpoche (literally “Dear Master”). Back in the eighth century—contemporary with the great mystic Japanese Kobo Daishi—this extraordinary character spread the esoteric version of Buddhism all over the Himalayas.

Like Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered as a great saint in Sikkim. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in this region is therefore very old, and it was recently reinforced in number by the tragic exodus of Tibetans. One of those monasteries is Rumtek, located just a few kilometers from Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital), and the official residence of the “official” Karmapa. Unfortunately, he was on a trip and we couldn’t pay him our respects.

The armed guards stationed in turrets, and the sign with the prohibition of access to the temple carrying guns, were images that seemed totally inappropriate for a monastery. However, the confluence of the tension between the Indian and Chinese governments on matters relating to political asylum, coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two nominations for Karmapa—which ugly controversy has underlying economic and political implications—explains the measures of safety.

Once past the first impression, Rumtek is welcoming. The many monk-children scurrying throughout its courtyards and terraces makes one quickly forget the shady business of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious (which until then I only interpreted metaphorically): a long white natural plume coming out of his brow. One of the few occasions I regretted travelling without a camera.

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After the massive welcome we got from the children of Gangtok, my friend headed to the top of the city. I preferred to remain stationed on a slope, like a sniper waiting for the presidential motorcade.

When the cross of the peephole of my heart focused on the limo, I pulled the trigger. A bullet hit its target, only that, instead of deadly lead, it consisted of equal parts of compassion and justice.

A few days later, the Presidents of India and China met and agreed to opening the border of Sikkim, closed for more than forty years!… Curious coincidence.

(Romanticism aside, that was the sad political rubric with which India recognized a Chinese Tibet, and China an Indian Sikkim.)

A serious fault in the motorbike upset the plans with regard to the mode of transport. We left it behind in a workshop at Kalimpong, and boarded one of the jeeps that cover the route to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.

The narrowness of the road, the cliffs and the speed of the jeep are factors that may cause some distress in the weak of spirit. Even worse, they can prevent the enjoyment of the natural beauty of southeastern Sikkim, a curious mix of exotic jungle and rugged topography.

Gangtok has that indefinable atmosphere of all the provincial capitals, transited by people who come to the market and to make small transactions.

Coinciding with our arrival there was also the Prime Minister of India (AB Vajpayee), who officially visited Sikkim for the first time, an event for which the streets were decorated with flowers and flags. The next morning, when we left the hostel to visit the city, we found all the school children, flags in hand, flanking the main road.

The decision to take the children out of the schools to give a warm welcome to the president of the nation was an obvious political maneuver. The Sikkimese were the last to join India, unable to keep up their neutrality between the two bullies of the “neighborhood,” India and China.

When detecting the two big Western guys, a few children began shouting, “Namaste, namaste!” Those initial shouts of a handful of bored kids propagated in the crowd and derived into the rehearsal that would welcome the Prime Minister, with thousands of screaming children eager to shake our hands. When we turn off the road leading to the presidential palace, we were both under shock, really moved.

The Kalachakra ceremony lasted one week.

Every evening we returned to the hostel to have dinner and sleep. The views over Gangtok were spectacular. Its poor public lighting, with frequent blackouts of entire neighborhoods, looked like a network of bright beads floating on the valley.

One of those evenings, while chatting in the terrace with a couple of Dutch people, a huge cloud began to develop over the valley till making a perfect dragon with every detail. The four of us were amazed. Checking that I was not the only crazy guy who sees dragons in the clouds produced me a secret satisfaction.

My friend decided to return to the capital before the conclusion of the ceremony for exploring the possibility of enrolling in one of the alpine expeditions. I preferred staying at Rumtek until the end of the week. He would not stay for the climax of the ceremony, when the mandala is destroyed.

The high ranked-monk (lama) grabbed a liturgical device with the shape of a three-dimensional eight called vajra (literally lightning), and drew a line in the sand from the east side to the center of the mandala. Immediately after, his aides destroyed the ephemeral work of art piling the sand at the center. All the monks approached to shower a pinch of the sacred sand on top of their heads.

I watched spell-bounded the whole process from my dark corner. Once every monk was anointed, the lama gestured with his hand towards me. I was being invited to the “sandy baptize.” With the last of the pinches of sand still on my balding top, I returned to the hostel, happy and grateful.

The equivalence between cosmic cycles and those ruling human lives is the Kalachakra motif, one of the subjects that I have studied more deeply. There is great wisdom in the Kalachakra ceremony, deeper than we can fathom with our limited intellects. We modern and postmodern people use only our rational minds to analyze such rites, which necessarily concludes in labeling them as superstition. Too bad.

I’m afraid our society is not becoming wiser, but the opposite. We are losing the real wisdom of our ancestors, substituted by technological products that make life more comfortable but, unfortunately, more disconnected from its real purpose.

The hallmarks of Sikkim are associated with the mystical figure of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rimpoche, literally “Dear Master.” This extraordinary character spread throughout the Himalayan region the most esoteric version of Buddhism, around the eighth century.

Likewise his contemporary monk Kobo Daishi in Japan, Guru Rinpoche is revered in Sikkim as a great saint. The presence of Buddhist monasteries in the region, reinforced recently by the tragic exodus of Tibetans is therefore very old. One of these is Rumtek monastery, a few kilometers from Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim), the official residence of one of the two candidates to Karmapa (who unfortunately I couldn’t meet because he was absent) .

The armed guards stationed in towers and the sign with the ban on access to the temple carrying firearms seemed extremely inappropriate for a monastery, however, the confluence of the tension between Indian and Chinese governments on matters related to political asylum coupled with the schism caused by the appearance of two candidates for Karmapa, whose ugly controversy is underlined by economic and political implications, explains the security concerns.

Passed the first impression, Rumtek can be even cozy, and the many child-monks running around the broad patios and terraces make one to quickly forget the murky affairs of adults. One of the children had a facial feature considered very auspicious, that I thought was only a metaphor: a long white plume coming naturally from its brow. “Too bad I had not a camera.”

Rumtek was preparing for a one week long ceremony called “Kalachakra,” literally “wheel of time,” focused on the correspondence between cosmic and human cycles, between the external and the internal. Unable to pass up the opportunity to participate in this special event, we stayed in one of the hostels near the monastery.

A board perfectly oriented to the four cardinal points presided over the temple, on which a great mandala had been prepared for the occasion using fine colored sands arranged in complex geometries brimming with symbolism.

The monks produced supramundane music with trumpets, conch shells, drums, cymbals and small bells. Occasionally, there were interludes in which everyone received a cup of yak milk tea, sweet in the morning and salty in the evening. I felt in heaven.

For the child-monks the long ceremonies made them terribly bored, and it was not uncommon to see them throwing rice each other, playing with their robes, or simply bored to death. One of them, approached us one day and said in broken English: “Tomorrow the ceremonies begin one hour earlier.” When we appeared at four o’clock in front of the monastery gates, even the guards were asleep. Later, we reproached him the joke, and he burst into a loud laugh. It didn’t take long for all the monks (children and adults) to know about it. Apart from the questionable amusement of the matter, Tibetans are the most cheerful people I’ve ever known (which should not be confused with the best sense of humor).

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"Manuel Vega has written an extraordinary book. He has turned history upside down. I strongly recommend this book."
–Gavin Menzies, author of 1421 and The Lost Empire of Atlantis

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