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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.

We decided to visit the ancient kingdom of Sikkim, nestled among places with evocative names: Tibet, India, Nepal, Bhutan… Before leaving Darjeeling, we had to apply for a visa at the Governor’s Office.

We stopped the motorbike at Kalimpong, a city at a lower altitude than Darjeeling, with one of the best climates in the region.

There we met a witty French man who had retired from “civilization” to live as a marquis for the same price as in France he’d survive as a nobody (ipse dixit). We also met a Tibetan old lady who invited us to tea at her place, as Baroque as a Gompa. She considered herself a follower of the Karmapa, the spiritual leader of one of the four major sects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karma Kagyu.

Before dying, the Karmapa gives clues to find him again in the next reincarnation. The same thing is true with the Dalais Lamas, although the lineage of Karmapas is even older.

Unfortunately, at present two monks claim to be H.H. the 17th Karmapa.

One of them lives in a temple of Kalimpong, so we headed there hoping to meet him.

We bought the white silk scarves called “kata,” usually offered as a token of respect, and humbly requested the meeting. After a while, a Tibetan monk with western manners informed us that we were granted audience. We were led to a room where we could cordially chat with Trinley Thaye Dorje. He proved to be a charming young man of twenty, with good command of English and not lacking in charisma. Whether he was the true Karmapa or not, during those minutes, for me was totally irrelevant.

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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