THE LAMAS OF DHANKAR GOMPA
By B S Thapliyal
Sudarshan Krishnamachari was an orphan. He was brought up by his maternal uncle. Since his childhood he was an introvert, mostly glued to his books but with brilliant academic performance. After post-graduation, he was appointed as a lecturer in Government Degree College, Madurai; a small town in South India known for its Hindu temples. After college hours, Sudarshan gave most of his time studying Buddhist literature and visiting Buddhist shrines during vacations. Even though he belonged to a chaste Brahmin family, he was an ardent Buddha follower.
He had studied all the five sects of Buddhism in general but he believed in the doctrines of Theravada sect, which gave an individual, freedom to find his own way to enlightenment and nirvana- emancipation from the cycle of birth and death. He was also convinced that Buddha was a normal mortal who attained enlightenment and should therefore be respected and not worshiped. Sudarshan didn’t believe in the re-incarnation theory and hence his heart remained away from the Mahayana sect even though it is the largest sect of Buddhism. His interest lay in Tantric Buddhism, which is a mix of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan beliefs evolved in seventh century.
The Tantric Buddhists worship by reciting prayers and sacred texts, along with chanting of hymns. They meditate sitting in circular formation signifying the shape of the universe. The Lamas blow trumpets, play drums and dance wearing masks while performing rituals to scare away spirits. They extol the supernatural by mystical incantation, which endows them with magical charms.
Sudarshan found out from the web site of Himachal Pradesh Tourism that there was an eleventh century monastery in the Spiti Valley on the left bank of a Pin River resting on an overhanging cliff. The pictorial depiction fascinated him.
Sudarshan decided to visit the monastery. But he had no money. He learnt that July-August were the ideal months when the weather in the valley was moderate. He applied for leave; sold his car, the gas oven and his refrigerator; the only material assets he possessed and left on his mission in the last week of July without waiting for the formal sanction of the leave he had applied.
Dhankar Gompa is about two hundred kilometres from Shimla. An inner line permit is required to go beyond Rampur Bushair, a small town on the bank of Sutlej River. Sudarshan obtained the permit from the district authorities and took the morning bus from Shimla to Kalpa, the district head quarter of Kinnaur district and reached there by late evening. He purchased some dry fruits and biscuits from a local shop and the next morning took a bus going to Samdoh and further to the ancient town of Tabo. The road is narrow and hazardous, fraught with the risk of frequent landslides. Luckily, Sudarshan was in Tabo by late evening without much hassles.
Sudarshan had learnt that there were a few houses which accepted paying guests and that the Headmaster of Tabo School was a very informed person. Sudarshan went to him and sought his help in his mission. The Headmaster told him that a private lorry was likely to go to ‘Dhankar’ village in couple of days and arranged a lift for him to the famous monastery.
It was beginning of August, the summer month in the Spiti valley. Days were warm and bright but there were still snow humps on the shadowed patches. The valley was however getting lively with trees getting new green coat and locals coming out of their houses along with their goats and yaks.
Tabo monastery is on a plateau. On its one side is the government school and little away is a picket of Indo-Tibet Border Police. Sudarshan had lively discussions with the Head Lama of the monastery but noticed that he was not willing to discuss the tantric practices known or exercised in the monastery.
“Isn’t it true that a sect of Buddhism practices tantric powers and some of the Lamas possessed supernatural powers?” Sudarshan asked the Head Lama.
The Head Lama just smiled without responding. Sudarshan could not elicit any information from him on the subject. During his stay in Tabo, he spent his time talking and discussing various aspects of Buddhism with the monks there.
Next morning Sudarshan took a lift in a truck going to Dhankar village, which is at an elevation of 3800 metres in the Spiti valley on the bank of Pin River. It is a small village with a head count of less than hundred.
The village chief spoke little bit of Hindi.
“A new monastery has been built on the plains of the Pin River. The scrolls and other scriptures have been shifted to the new monastery,” the village chief told Sudarshan and then added, “This has been done for the safety of the devotees since the path leading to the old monastery is hazardous. Moreover, the old monastery is in a dilapidated condition.”
“I want to visit the old monastery,” Sudarshan told the village chief.
The village head stared at Sudarshan. “No one is allowed to visit the old monastery.” He sounded crusty.
Sudarshan deemed it proper to let the matter rest at that point and decided to take it up with the senior Lama of the new monastery.
Next day Sudarshan went to the new monastery and spent the whole day there. His interest and knowledge of Buddhism impressed all and sundry. At the close of the day he went to the Senior Lama and requested him to permit him to see the old monastery.
“I am writing a book on ancient Buddhist monasteries. It will be incomplete if I don’t include Dhankar Gompa in my book.” He pleaded.
“We don’t allow non-Buddhists to enter the old monastery. Besides, one should be a member of our order.”
“I am devout Buddhist even though I was born in a Brahmin family. I have presented more than twenty papers on Buddhism in the international seminars. And if you insist, I am willing to convert; accept Buddhism right now.”
“What is your area of interest?”
“I am working on the tantric powers of your sect. I understand Dhankar Gompa was one of such centres of Tantric Buddhism.”
The Senior head Lama paused, gave Sudarshan a hard stare and then closed his eyes. Both sat motionless. The Senior Lama looked in a trance like state as Sudarshan sat waiting expectantly for a favourable outcome.
“Good. Come here before Sun rise. Make sure you have no camera, no recording gadget and no pen or paper,” the Senior Lama told Sudarshan with a feeble smile.
Sudarshan nodded quietly and left with a bow. Next morning Sudarshan reached the new monastery where the Senior Lama was waiting for him. “Come let’s go to the river,” he told Sudarshan.
The water of the Pin River was cold; colder than the ice water from a fridge.
“Take out all your clothes and have a dip and stay in water until I ask you to come out,” the Lama told Sudarshan.
Sudarshan obeyed. While in water, he felt as if his body was shrinking and the time had frozen.
“May be, the Senior Lama has forgotten me. Sudarshan was on the verge of collapsing when the senior Lama appeared.
“Death is of the body; the soul is imperishable,” The Lama spoke as he came near Sudarshan. And then after a little pause he handed Sudarshan a white cloth sheet to wrap around and signalled him to follow.
They walked quietly to the old monastery ascending the cliff hanging over the Pin River. Sudarshan was overly frightened to walk over the terribly narrow path with gorges on either side.
“Fear visits when desires supplant the mind. There is no fear if you desire nothing,” the Lama spoke.
Has he read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised by the Lama’s words.
They entered the monastery. Sudarshan was gleefully happy.
I am close to accomplishing my mission. He thought.
Inside the monastery was a giant Buddha statue with oil lamps lit all around in glistening golden pots. On one side were few bhikshus sitting in a circular pattern on woollen mats meditating and behind them was a Lama sitting on a podium.
He was the Head Lama of the monastery.
There was a mat lying unoccupied. The Head Lama beckoned Sudarshan to sit on it.
Sudarshan was still naked with the white sheet wrapped around him. He was uncomfortable but his mind was agog, expecting exhibition of some supernatural powers.
“Supernatural is something to be experienced within. It’s not for exhibition. It is within you, don’t seek it out side.” The Head Lama spoke looking at Sudarshan.
Was it telepathy? How was he able to read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised once again.
“Meditate and seek answers to all your queries from within,” the Head Lama spoke with a smile this time.
Sudarshan closed his eyes. He feigned meditation. He was a near atheist; never had gone to any temple in his adulthood and had little faith in the domain of meditation.
Suddenly he sailed into his past. He remembered the banyan tree of his village temple and felt as if he was sitting on one of its branches. Then he felt the banyan tree was taking him through his life journey. He saw his mother waiting with his clothes after his bath and his father holding his lunch plate. He saw his friends in his school playground. He saw his college and the college where he taught. And then he saw all his folks and friends receding slowly behind the skyline.
Sudarshan was shaken; his whole body was trembling. He opened his eyes and saw himself sitting on the woollen mat inside the monastery.
Then his eyes got closed again and he felt the mat was getting warmer and soon it became unbearably hot. He started sweating profusely; the white sheet of cloth fell off his body.
Thereafter he forgot everything; his personal life, his people and his ambition. Nothing existed but a cool blue light before his eyes; blissful and serene. All his strains had disappeared. There were no questions and no doubts remained in his mind.
There was a smile on his gleaming face. Sudarshan felt he was levitating in the air.
The Head Lama came down from the podium and gave him a golden rob to put on. Sudarshan wanted to stay for some more time in the monastery in front of the large Buddha statue but the words wouldn’t come to him. .
“You can stay here until evening prayers,” the Head Lama told him without his asking.
Sudarshan was not surprised now.
He bowed before the Lamas. He shared lunch with the monks and then joined the evening prayer with them. After incanting of mantras was over, there was absolute silence.
Everyone in the monastery took his seat and started meditating with eyes closed. Sudarshan followed. It was a genuine effort on his part this time.
It was blissfully quiet; pin drop silence in the monastery. Sudarshan had no idea how long it was. He experienced a glowing light passing in front of his eyes and when he opened his eyes, he saw himself sitting in front of the Buddha statue.
And then he realized he was all alone. There was not a single living being in the monastery. Sudarshan smiled. It reflected his inner happiness.
He came out of the monastery.
It was pitch dark outside save the twinkling of the stars high in the sky. Walking alone in the dark over the dangerously precarious path didn’t bother him not did the Pin River, swishing past the rocks.
He walked over the log-bridge to cross the Pin River devoid of fear and reached his lodging place.
Next day Sudarshan was on his return journey. Travelling past the valley, he was reflecting over his experience at the Dhankar Gompa monastery with a serene smile on his face.