The mural in the Tashiding Monastery is of a graceful woman mounted on a yak in a lotus blossom garden. “That is Tara,” explains a monk: a virtuous form of Buddha.
“And that?” A fierce figure resembling something out of a Japanese cartoon sits astride a snow lion, scattering thunderbolts. “He disperses ghosts, chases evil spirits.”
Another mural shows creatures in a mountain pond, a beast with an elephant trunk emerging from a conch shell, a winged lion with a bird’s beak and horns.
“These you will not find here. If you go farther north into the jungle, you will find them.”
“And these?” The monk smiles, wraps and rewraps his scarlet shawl. “You know, in the rainy season they come out of the ground and fly about.”
“Dragons, you know how they fly about?”
It is dragon season in Sikkim. Monsoon storms hurtle against mountains with a savagery matched only by the ferocity with which the earth responds to this onslaught. Overnight, things sprout and grow. Little clusters of huts are lost in a wild exuberance of cardamom, banana, and deadly nightshade. The Tista and the Rangit rivers leap through jungle of teak and incandescent fields of paddy. Ginger is being harvested, and the freshly dug roots spice the air.
Sikkim is possessed of an almost mythical bounty. The mountainside is so steep, the vegetation seems confounded: everything grows. Cactus, orchids, orange trees, rhododendron, oak. Higher, in the alpine reaches where rumors of the yeti and Loch Ness monster–like beasts live on, the gullibility of travelers is tested by yak herders attempting to sell shriveled ginseng root as a bit of a yeti arm, or the pelt of a Himalayan bear as yeti fur. Higher still, proffering an aching beauty that alters constantly with the light, is Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, a plume of snow blown by dervish winds at its summit.
The Monastery of Tashiding was built in 1717 when a rainbow was seen connecting the site with Kanchenjunga. The interior is aglow with the fluttering flames of copper lamps. Before images of the Buddha and various high lamas, there are offerings of rice and oil, water, incense, bananas. The monks sit in two rows on either side. Old spectacled monks, tiny novices in toddler-size robes, looking like so many marigolds. Earlier, these little monks had helped me pull off the leeches—five, ten, fifteen—that I’d collected on my walk through the jungle from Kalimpong to Tashiding. They carried them out, placed them gently, respectfully on leaves, giggled madly when I suggested delivering them the death sentence with a big stone. Surely I was making a very funny joke?True to the teachings of the Buddha, the monks will kill no living creature. Not even malevolent bloodsuckers.