Rumtek - Visited And Revisited
Till the other day, I had barely heard about the place; even our guide book said precious little, except that during Feb, Tibetan Cham dances are staged there.
For starters, there is some really complex politics being played out at Rumtek, with rival Karmapa Rimpoches, other Lamas including the Dalai Lama himself and Chinese agencies - and of course, our own - all intricately involved. There is a surprisingly heavy military presence and foreign visitors are seriously checked.
The main monastery consists of a four-storied inner shrine with a spacious quadrangle in front and monks' quarters around. In the center of the space before the shrine stands an inscribed pillar. From a tall mast hangs an elaborate gyaltsen (a victory banner, one of the eight auspicious symbols of Tibetan Buddhism; very uncannily close in design to the 'tazha', an elegant prop displayed atop elephants, along with colorful parasols, during some temple festivals in far away Kerala).
When we entered, a large troop of monks, from little boys to middle-aged men, were wrapping elaborately sleeved maroon cloaks and robes over each other's basic monastic uniform. Two other smaller groups sat before mike sets, equipped with long horns, cymbals and a large drum.
Despite the apparently solemn activity, access to the inner shrine was not restricted. The interior, housing a whole gallery of Buddhas, Bodhisatvas and fierce guardian deities of Tibetan Buddhism looks splashed with brilliant colors - indeed, the color schemes were among the most glaringly beautiful I have ever seen(*). Surrounding the entrance, there are again brightly colored murals, including a Ganesha image (inspired by a miraculous vision a Karmapa had of the popular Indian God, I am told).
We stepped out to take a look at the Golden Stupa chamber in the adjacent Dharma Institute building. This place, again very heavily guarded by soldiers, has several images of enlightened beings - glaring Padmasambhava, attentive Milarepa, and other figures displaying a wide range of expressions - beatific to smug to quizzical to wrathful.
Back at the monastery quadrangle, the monks had finished the robe-wrapping and had gathered in a tight group near the entrance of the inner shrine. I asked a novice if there is any special ceremony going on: "They are going to dance!" he said.
The drums and the horns came alive and the groups near the mike sets rustled up some basic rhythms on the cymbals and started a quaint chant - at unnaturally base frequencies; and presently, the monks, in groups of 4 abreast, stepped out into the quadrangle and began a simple dance movement, to the drum and cymbal beats, lifting hands, stepping back and forth and pirouetting. Soon the full group had arrayed itself in a large ring.
The chanting and the horn music continued; the dance went on and on - rehearsed but with a dash of spontaneity and freedom, totally un-selfconsious, repetitive but nowhere near boring; indeed the overall effect was rather funny. Watching them at it, a phrase occurred to me: "the dancing woolly masters".
The novice had much else to tell me: "Day after tomorrow is Losar, our new year. Tomorrow, they will dance with masks. (oh, so the masked dances are performed by the monks themselves!) .... That ( he points out among the dancers a chubby boy-monk of about 8, one of the few wearing bright golden sleeved costumes, the rest don red sleeves) is the new Rimpoche; he was born in Ladakh and was identified as the chosen one by the instructions left by the previous Rimpoche when he passed away; you know we believe he is the reincarnation of a late Master.... and these chosen ones are exceptional, even as children; the new Rimpoche is extremely intelligent!"
"This dance and tomorrow's puja are dedicated to Mahakala. There is a sacred Mantra dedicated to Mahakala which goes: "Om Mahakala.... Swaha!"
He further asks me about the status of Buddhism in our part of India. My an answer is more optimistic than honest: "Of course, all over India, Lord Buddha's teachings are much revered".
The next day, we are back. The military presence is more in-your-face and a helicopter whirls overhead. An army man tells me: "these people have some mela thing; so no entry fee!"
Right next to the inscribed pillar in the courtyard, a brightly painted effigy of a large face had been set up. Several devotees, locals and some Europeans were prostrating themselves before this image and wrapping white scarves around it...
The inner shrine was out of bounds. Sets of musician monks had stationed themselves on either side of the entrance. Today they wore big yellow hats, which vaguely resembled, in design, Greek infantry helmets.
The portico of the main shrine was barred by curtains; but behind them, we could make out some brightly colored images which were not there yesterday...
The drums, cymbals,... start up and the ultra-low-pitched chanting begins... the curtains are yanked aside and a group of monks wheel out a large and fiercely colored effigy of a guardian deity - he wears a garland of severed heads, a la Kali, and sports a massive crown studded with skulls and rides a Bactrian camel. The deity goes around the quadrangle in a procession. Next comes a similar and equally strikingly colored deity, who rides a blue horse; he too is taken around... Finally comes a very big image somewhat similar to the earlier two - fiercer in aspect as well as color and holding a kapala (skull-bowl) dripping with blood; and he rides a chariot. The big image is positioned himself between the earlier two. Mahakala, I presume ...
The curtains close. A longish wait.... The steady drone of the chanting continues.
The curtains reopen; the drums and cymbals start up and four dancers in strikingly colored overcoats and masks which resemble the Mahakala images stride out and break into dance moves identical to what was seen yesterday. Then come another 4 dancers, then 4 more... the overcoats remain similar but the masks span a huge range - beaked birds, antlered deer, horned buffaloes, ... Each holds weapons - bow and arrow, swords, stylized Vajras; and each has an empty skull-bowl in the left hand; and they go round and round in a big circle...
The dancers pause briefly. Two monks bring in a small, made of sponge-looking human effigy and lay it in the center of the quadrangle as if it is a corpse, and step back. The dance restarts, then one of the dancers breaks from the ring and approaches and stabs the 'corpse' with his sword; an attendant monk comes forward and wipes the sword clean of 'blood' and the dancer rejoins the ring. Then comes a bowman-dancer and shoots an arrow at the corpse and returns; and the other dancers follow ....
A solitary unarmed dancer with an antlered mask steps out into the center. He dances far more vigorously than the others - perhaps, possessed by Mahakala's spirit. A monk approaches him with a pan of rice. He grabs a fistful and flings it into the air, then another fistful... (just as the 'oracles' at Kali temples in Kerala do, when 'possessed').
The possessed dancer approaches the 'carcass' and crouches before it. A monk hands him a sword; the dancer spends a few minutes in silent contemplation, then works himself into a frenzy and with thrusts, each more violent than the other, makes mincemeat of the carcass.... And finally, his fury abated, the dancer throws away the sword.
Attendant monks gather the 'flesh', go around the ring of dancers and put small chunks into their kapalas. And then,full kapalas raised and weapons flashing, off they go again....
And I have to leave it at that; we saw no more. Pity we did not plan a longer stay there. I am told, further dances, even more vigorous and featuring effigies of yaks and dragons and so forth, would go on thru the day. Maybe ...
(*) - Tibetan artists and architects must have spent a lot of time researching how to juxtapose and arrange strong and bright colors - their works are distinctly more pleasing and attractive than, say, the multi-colored gopurams of the South.