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Madhurima Vidyarthi

  • Writer's pictureMadhurima Vidyarthi

Below Heaven's Wide Arch

First Published in the Lifestyle supplement of The Statesman, Calcutta,10th October, 1998

From Ganesh Tak, - one of the three "morning paints" around Gangtok - Rumtek looks like a little golden dot on a green hill. A golden dot that resolves itself into a wondrous place of worship at the end of the 24km long road from Gangtok.

What is beautiful about the drive to Rumtek is the view one gets of Gangtok town. Built on steps, like all hill stations, it falls gently into the valley to merge effortlessly with rolling field of paddy. Farming in the valley is of necessity by terrace cultivation at different levels. Grand golden staircases of the ripe crop invite the hurried and harried traveller to step off into the unknown learning behind the burden of a weary worrisome existence. Not at all an incongruous thought in the land of the Lamas.

Located on a hill facing Gangtok, Rumtek is situated at the end of a typically winding hill road with the inevitable bad patches of loose stone and wet ground. The road itself is a diversion from National Highway 31A and a fjord has to be crossed al Adampool (Adam's Bridge) before the drive is completed. A fair sprinkling of hill streams and rippling baby waterfalls dot the route as do the votive silken flags proclaiming the faith of the Buddha.

The taxi stops at the main gate where a crowd of cars is parked. You traverse a short step road to the main complex, slightly breathless when you arive. On the way you tum the numerous prayer wheels that line the walls, either from a feeling of devout faith or simply because you want to. An unostentatious tin hoarding, very reminiscent of a railway platform, now informs you that the destination has been reached - the Rumtek Dhama Chakra Centre (RDCC).

The Rumtek monastery is the seat of the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, the board outside the office says, "Intenational Kagyu Headquarters". Directly opposite is the main gateway - exquisite in its lacquered framework, yet fort-like in appearance and proportion. As the RDCC is an almost exact replica of the original Kagyu headquarters in Tibet, the following comment in Johm Morris's Living wih Lepchas (1938) holds special interest: "It seems likely that in Tibet the original monasteries also served as forts, as is often still the case. In view of the unsettled state of that country, there was need for the people to keep close together, so that instead of living in scattered houses they all lived together inside the forts."

Through this main doorway visitors step into a spacious courtyard which has a pillar in the middle and is flanked on two sides by the living quarters of the occupants of the monastery. And for those who take an interest in tinsel trivia, the sequence of the song 'Hoton Mein Aisi Baat' (Jewel Thief) was shot in the courtyard in 1967.

The main monastery itself is three-storied and the principal shrine and prayerhall are on the groud floor. The prayerhall is intricately decorated with priceless thankas and statues and serves as a librury in vivo for the numerous religious books used by the monks. The circumbulation of such holy shrines must always be done in the auspicious clockwise direction passing in front of the main altar.

The main altar here is extended and placed on it are several gilded images as well as photographs of the Dalai Lama and the XVIth Karmapa flanking that of the XVIIth Karmapa. The Karmapa is the head of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. The l6h Karmapa seltled in Sikkim during tlhe Chinese occupation of Tibet and built the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre. He passecd away in 1981 and the present Karmapa is a lad of some 12 years resident in Tibet believed to be a reincarnation of the earlier Karmapa.

In front of the gilded images there are always seven small bowls of water, in order that the gods may wash and drink. These are emptied at dusk and refilled again at dawn, usually by some novice as part of his daily duties. When the water is taken away it is replaced usually by butter or oil lamps.

On the first floor of the main monastery company are the living quarters of the last Karmapa and the top floor has a terrace and a small stupa.

What is striking about the RDCC complex is its meticulous cleanliness. Watchful guards are at hand to see that not even a pigeon desecrated the edifice. Red id the predominant colour with shaded blues, oranges, greens, yellows, browns and co., merging into their brilliant originals. The murals on the walls are lovingly executed and their gilded outlines only serve to accentuate the fantastic depiction of the various characters.

With due respect to all that is good and godly, the RDCC is also human. The people living in it are flesh and blood in spite of being monks or on the way to a monastic life.

A vulnerable looking litter of pups is playing outside the main entrance - one of them is in the arms of a 10-year-old tourist, who, deaf to his mothers explanation, insists on taking it back home. Two children, barefoot, noses running, chase each other, regardless of the temperature. And old wizened Lama, rosary in hand, pauses to smile at the owner of the soft drink shack before climbing up to his quarters with surprising agility.

At Rumtek, man, nature and theology are at peace with one another, content with their respective places below heaven's wide arch.

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