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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.


Yuksom is a town in the west of Sikkim, with the aristocratic particularity of being the first capital of this ancient kingdom, absorbed as another Indian state since 1975. Yuksom survives as a camp from where expeditions depart towards the high mountains of the eastern Himalayas.

My only plan was to walk around visiting Tibetan Buddhist temples (gompas). A little less than one hour’s walk, I reached what is considered the first gompa in Sikkim. I was “lucky” that its custodian let me visit an adjacent sanctuary closed to the public. As soon as I took a glimpse of its interior, I understood the reason. It was decorated like a house of horrors, with all sorts of monsters and scary scenes. To meditate inside must be quite challenging, even for those who take pride of being bold. Before I was offered such a possibility, and to avoid the discourtesy of refusing such “tempting invitation,” I bid farewell and instead I went to sit in meditation at the edge of a small lake, very calm, decorated with the traditional Tibetan banners and strings of little flags with mantras waving in the wind.

At dusk, I sat on the terrace of a small eating place at Yuksom. The dinner –a big plate of boiled rice and several small bowls with different veggies– arrived after a long waiting. Under the light of a dim bulb and dominated by a ravenous hunger, I hastily poured all the bowls over the plate of rice and proceeded to mix everything. With the first spoonful, I discovered, horrified, that one of the bowls had not what I thought was a soup… it was Indian chilly! (a concoction of cayenne pepper mixed with other spices). The strength of my principle of not wasting food, supported by a ferocious appetite, disregarded the pleas of my tongue and pores of the scalp and I managed to pour the fiery paste down the throat.

When the waiter came and saw the empty container of chilly, he looked at me as if he was in front of the yeti. He went inside and returned with another bowl filled to the brim, that he put very slowly on the edge of the table opposite from where I was; he did it while staring at me, ready to belt out at the slightest sign that I might jump on him.

“Are you OK?,” he asked with trembling voice and eyes wide-open, while mine, injected with blood, raced with the nose to find out who freed more mucus.

“Okay,” I said almost inaudibly. “I like it hot… a bottle of water, please.”

When I finally regained my composure, a couple of Westerners asked permission to share the only table of the terrace.

“I was leaving,” I said while getting up.

Then, the woman asked: “From Spain?”

“You can tell, right?” I replied. That was the beginning of a long evening in which I enjoyed one of the most interesting conversations I ever had. She was Portuguese and he was American, and both were among the few Westerners allowed to live and work in the northern part of Sikkim, of restricted access. She was a doctor who had traded Lisbon (and its comforts) for one of the remotest and poorest places on Earth.

“The Indian government is more interested in imaginary boundary lines than in these people,” she said bitterly.

“Perhaps, a neglecting government could be a kind of blessing to keep up this place pristine?,” I commented with the naïvety of an amateur anarchist.

“There are no virgin cultures anymore. What people, however remote their habitat, remains today unaffected by tourism or television? The wisdom to live in harmony with the natural environment is disappearing, even at this remote corner of the world. Soon, all that will remain will be a handful of superstitions,” she said and, after a pause, she added, “I wish I had more support from the government to build schools and hospitals. Although my work focuses on fighting disease, my real fight is against suffering in general. I teach mothers how to prevent infections during childbirth, but I also teach them how to read.”

The three of us remained in silence…

Note: A bodhisattva is someone who renounces to enter nirvana to continue anonymously and selflessly helping others.

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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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Sailors of Stonehenge