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The Inside Story -- Centuries-old saga

October 31, 2010

The Hindu
October 28, 2010

There's something magical about a monastery. Spinning the prayer
wheels, we enter the Lingdum or Ranka Monastery near Gangtok. While
the lamas are in the midst of their evening chants, some of the
younger boys are practising their ritualistic dances in the
courtyard. As they swirl around, their movements synchronise with the
sonorous music from the monastery.

Watching them perform, I recall some of my earlier trips to Sikkim
when I visited a couple of monasteries. Steeped in myriad myths, they
had a mystical aura about them.

Our first stop is at Enchey Monastery, built atop a ridge near
Gangtok. We are admiring the views of the city, when we hear this
story from our guide. The 19th Century Gompa was home to a flying
saint who had built his hermitage here. Lama Drutob Karpo, a tantric
who could levitate, is believed to have flown in here from South
Sikkim and blessed this site. Even today, people from Gangtok believe
that the Gompa (known as the Solitary Temple) contains and preserves
the spirits of protective deities that take care of them.

A little further from Gangtok is the older Rumtek Monastery, one of
the largest in Sikkim. We are awed, not by just the sheer size of the
monastery, but also by the heavy security. The silence, however, is
all-pervading, as we walk around the Dharma Chakra complex, the
Institute of Buddhist Studies and the Golden Stupa.

Our guide explains that the monastery was the seat of the Karmapas,
who belonged to Karma Kagyu, one of the schools of Buddhism. Rebuilt
by the 16th Karmapa in the 1960s, who took refuge here after his
exile from Tibet, it was founded in the 16th Century. Even today,
precious relics along with the remains of the Karmapa are preserved
in the Golden Stupa.

The Karmapas are also called the Black Hat Lamas, on account of the
Black Crown that symbolises their power. Legend has it that the first
Karmapa was visited by several dakinis or the Buddhist versions of
fairies, and each of them gave him a strand of their hair as a gift.
These strands were later woven together into a black hat, and the hat
handed down by one Karmapa to another. My guide explains that the
black hat is at Rumtek Monastery, and has to be either worn by the
Karmapa or tucked safely in a box, for they believe that otherwise,
it will fly away.

The monastery was mired in controversy and sectarian violence over
the selection of the 17th Karmapa, which led to heavy security. As
the guide finishes the narration, I look around at the peaceful
monastery set amidst the mountains, and find it ironic that it has to
be protected by men with guns!
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