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Himalayan Beauty in Sikkim

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Photo: Christian Peltenberg-Brechneff

The sound of chanting rises; it catches the rhythm of the rain outside. Conch shells trimmed in silver and long horns encrusted with turquoise are blown, cymbals are clashed together, bells rung. The murals, in addition to the Tara and the ghost chaser, present a demon with the wheel of life clasped in its fangs and talons to indicate the knot that binds us: rooster-snake-pig as lust-anger-foolishness, each chasing, each feeding on, each consumed by the other. Also displayed is the tantric symbol of the Kalachakra, demonic forms of male and female power in grotesque sexual union, Dracula teeth and pink tongues fiercely intertwined, multiple heads crowned by skulls, a snatch of leopard-skin skirt for modesty’s sake, tiny naked humans being crushed under their careless feet. Nearby, a Buddha sits, serene despite this arresting sight. Lust upon these walls, and fear, peace, grace, and fantasy. Images that simultaneously inspire and terrify.

Guru Padmasambhava (Lotus Born), the tantric master who is depicted with a wrathful smile ensconced in a curling mustache, introduced this particular brand of Buddhism, “the ancient Nyingma (Red Hat) order,” into Tibet in the third century. When the reformist Gelugpas (Yellow Hats), the order of the Dalai Lama, rose in power in the 14th century, three Nyingmapa monks convened at Yuksom in Sikkim to reestablish power. They crowned the first chogyal (“Righteous Monarch”) of Sikkim, then called Denzong, or Valley of Rice.

In all, there are about 200 monasteries in Sikkim. Some are being renovated with poster paints and fluorescent lighting, bathroom-tile floors, jail cell–like steel crisscross doors, metal grilles in the windows. Some are as yet unspoiled; the pigments are jade, bronze, and garnet. They are faded, but the demonic energy still seems potent. The floors are of teak and the prayer wheels are made of buffalo hide. Photographs of head lamas are displayed at the altars, and should you ask, “Is he still alive?” you sometimes get the answer “Yes, his reincarnation is here already.”

In the years after the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950, Sikkim became a haven for fleeing monks. Residents describe the hillside burning scarlet as if with fire while lines of monks came streaming down the old salt and wool trade routes from Lhasa. They’re still leaving. The monasteries of Tibet are being emptied at these borders. Visit antiques shops in Darjeeling, and if they deem you a serious buyer, bundles of dirty cloth and newspaper are taken from beneath the counter, unwrapped to reveal treasures being offered for a pittance. It is so dreadfully sad to see the heritage of a nation being sold in this soiled, ignominious way, sold by the desperate, bought by the unscrupulous. Silver and gold prayer books and scroll containers; prayer wheels made of bone, silver, copper, leather, wood, coral, and turquoise; and jade bowls so transparent the day shines through to illuminate patterns of deep thunderclouds approaching.

Delicate border politics with China, Bhutan, and Nepal account for a heavy military presence here. The North is largely off-limits to even Indian visitors, and in the rest of the state, passes are checked and rechecked, policemen making a little extra finagling bribes for permission to drive through sensitive areas. Foreign nationals must request permits to visit Sikkim. Their stays are limited to 15 days.

Terrible landslides. The roads falter across a vast morass of boulders. Sometimes they are transformed into riverbeds. I travel from Gangtok in the east to Pemayangtse in the west, stopping at all the monasteries along the way in a hired diesel Jeep Commander, a skeletal frame attached to a rough, kicking machine, so every organ is given a tremendous shake. Monsoon clouds billow into the vehicle, hiding everyone from each other, oneself from oneself. Now and then, a brief moment of sun, and dozens of butterflies sail forth, yellow, iridescent blue.

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