16 September 2010
The prospect of chance encounters and discoveries, I think, are the most exciting part of travel. I met Baichung at one such unexpected moment, while loitering around the premises of the Rumtek monastery. The journey to the Rumtek monastery from Gangtok town was a tedious one. The roads were long, winding and often filled with potholes. But then when you reach the little hill on which Rumtek rests, a sense of calm envelops you that you quickly forgive the rough ride you’ve just had. At its gates and in its premises are gunmen from the Indian army, guarding one of Tibet’s most controversial treasures. The Black Hat crown of the Kagyu sect. The Rumtek Monastery (aka Dharma Chakra Center) includes a beautifully structured main shrine temple and monastery with monks' quarters, where the Karmapa resides and where the most of the important relics are enshrined; a three-year retreat center; a monastic college, where the relics of the Sixteenth Karmapa are enshrined; a nunnery; stupas; a protector's shrine; institutions for the lay community; and other establishments. I had walked straight into the main temple hall after going through a rigorous check by the security guards at the entrance, looked around the courtyard and stepped out. I was standing there, lost in thought when I felt someone’s gaze on me. What I saw when I turned around was a beautiful picture. Of Baichung, the 17 year old Kagyu monk looking out of his window, with a steady gaze and a disarming smile. I walked straight upto him and asked if I could take a picture. He obliged. “Have you been to our Devi’s temple?” He asked me after a while. “What Devi?” “ Our Goddess, the White Tara. The Black Hat was created with hair strands from a thousand incarnation of our Goddess.” “But there was no special Devi temple in the main hall. And the Black hat was closely guarded and no visitors were allowed.” “The Devi and her manifestations are in one of the rooms in the monastery. Not in the main hall.” “Nobody told me.” “You have to ask. And someone will tell you,” he smiled ingratiatingly. “So can I see it now?” “It will be locked.” “Oh” “But I can take you there.” I was happy. Baichung took me through some narrow passages and dark corridors in the structure lining the courtyard to finally reach the Devi’s temple. It was a small room, heavily laden with sheets of silk, statues, books and an overwhelming sense of secrecy. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the disputed head of Karmapas and (rumored to be) Dalai Lama’s favorite choice for the next heir to the Buddhist throne, was himself a refugee said to have crossed the Himalayas from Tibet at the age of 15 to escape the Chinese intervention. His picture too hung on the wall, like it did in the other worship areas of the monastery, smiling genially at his people. “You can take a picture if you like,” Baichung was talking in a soft voice perhaps owing to the sanctity of the sacred room we were in. “But isn’t photography prohibited in this temple?” “Yes. People fight over nothing. I trust you. You can take a picture if you like.” I wished there were more Baichungs in this world. Innocent, trusting and simple. I left the monastery after taking down his address so I could post him his picture. I left without a picture of his sacred temple.