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Photo by AFP/Getty Images

Photo by AFP/Getty Images

As already had happened in Darjeeling, the Monastery of Rumtek was preparing for a special celebration of one week called Kalachakra, which means wheel of time, focusing on the correspondence between cosmic cycles 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 mandala perfectly oriented with the four cardinal points presided over the temple, prepared for the occasion using colored sands arranged in complex geometries full of symbolism.

The chanting of monks intermingled with weird music produced by trumpets, conch shells, drums, cymbals and bells.

Occasionally, there were interludes in which everyone (including us) got a cup of tea made with milk of yak, sweet in the morning and salty in the evenings. I was in heaven.

For the children-monks, the ceremony was way too long, so it was not uncommon to see them throwing rice each other, playing with their robes, or simply bored to death.

One of them, not so much of a child, approached us one day and said in broken English, “Tomorrow the ceremony begins one hour earlier.” When we stood at the gates of the monastery at four o’clock in the morning, even the guards were asleep. Soon all the monks, children and adults, got to know the joke of the altered “wheel of time” and cracked up at us.

Apart from how funny you consider the matter, the Tibetans are the most cheerful people I’ve ever met, which should not be confused with sense of humor!

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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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