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After several hours walking along the Rathong shore, I arrived to a town where my legs voted unanimously to board a jeep; a very timely decision in view of the relatively intense traffic of vehicles loaded with tourists that constantly came in and out of a cluster of hostels known as Pelling. In the jeep I met a skinny guy topped with a disproportionately large head (an effect to which contributed his lion-like hair), and who turned out to be a son of Spanish immigrants in France, who made a living playing the saxophone in locals all over India.

Pemayangtse is a gompa built in a place originally chosen by Guru Rimpoche, and today is one of the main temples of Tibetan Buddhism belonging to the Nyngma School, the oldest. Likewise in Darjeeling and Rumtek, the week of my visit to Pemayangtse “coincided” with a special assembly. Hundreds of monks and lay people from all over Sikkim had gathered there to recite the mantra of Guru Rinpoche for peace (Iraq had just been invaded). I was moved by those inhabitants on the roof of the world, who anonymous but deeply convinced of the power of their recitation, gathered there for that noble purpose.

I could not find lodging in the monastery, so every day I left early in the morning my room in a pension of Pelling, and walked about twenty minutes to reach the monastery, where I remained until the end of the day. The mechanics of the ceremony could not be simpler: the senior monk, a venerable looking old man, began and ended the sessions, consisting of reciting aloud the mantra: “Om Ah Hung Benza Guru Pema Siddi Hung,” each one at its own rhythm and intonation. The result was a constant hum sometimes broken by a louder voice that soon faded again among the others. Each one of us counted the number of times we recited the mantra by using a rosary of 108 beads, with a couple of extra strings with ten metal earrings each to keep track of the tens and hundreds. At the end of the day, a monk recorded in a notebook the number of recitations of each one of the participants. I used to report about twelve thousand a day, but there were those who reported twice.

During an intermission, the monk in charge of counting the mantras came to chat with me (the only foreigner), and I took the opportunity to ask him about his work, “Why counting the recitations?” Before answering, he opened the notebook and pointed with his index to an entry from someone who had declared thirty thousand mantras in a day; then he said smiling, “I do not believe it.”

He then added, “There is no more merit for reciting more mantras. Counting them is an expedient method to maintain the attention and the interest for many hours and days in an repetitive activity. The slight movement of the fingers over the beads helps to hold the senses so they do not get scattered.”

“Has each mantra a specific effect?,” I asked.

“Each mantra has its own resonances and specificity of results, although reciting mantras aloud produces, in general, a breathing pattern consisting of rapid inhales and slow exhales. The result is that the mind, first relaxes and then enters into a state of deep concentration focused exclusively on the mantra.”

“What happens from there?”

“One enters the territory of the mystical, where words no longer apply. Union?, love?, detachment?, compassion?, God?”

“I never had such a mystical experience,” I said, “but my mind is always grateful for a respite in which to appease, either by reciting mantras or by sitting in meditation, the chattering in my mind that starts with the alarm clock in the morning and ends with the first snoring at night …”

“And extends in between through nightmares,” he replayed, causing us both to laugh out loud.


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

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