'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Rumtek - Visited And Revisited

Rumtek Monastery sits near the crest of a hill that faces Gangtok. Detailed info is available at

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.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A Ride To Nathu La

Note: This post is about some real incidents. The names of characters may have been changed.

A clear morning in Gangtok. We get up early and walk hard to the Taxi Stand. The arrangement: a large jeep would leave at 8 am for Nathu La pass on the China border. We did our booking rather late and, as advised by our travel agent, hurry to get there and grab the front seats...

We find the jeep well before 8 but there is no sign of the driver. We park on the front seat and wait. At about 8.30, a portly, mustachioed man in his mid-fifties approaches and says: "The front seat is ours!" There is an equally portly woman with him, her hair dyed brown, face painted.

"But we were told, if we get here early, we could take the front seat." I venture.

"Look. We have specifically booked this seat... We will see!" he stops, ominously. Sensing trouble, we leave the seat.


By 9, the vehicle is full, the driver too arrives and we finally set off, Mr. and Mrs. Portly having squeezed into the front seat.

The rest of the passengers are young honey-mooners from various parts of the country. From their general talk, it's clear they are all new to Sikkim - and quite excited about going to Nathu La.


Ten minutes into the journey, Portly turns back and addresses the rest: "Hi everyone, I am Doctor Khanna from Delhi!" A young lady in the group is excited to hear that: "Oh we too are doctors!" she says, nudging her husband. "I am a physiotherapist!" declares Khanna; "and am in the army (pauses) and my brother-in-law is a Director of Police(*)! And this is my fifth visit to Nathu La."

A pause. The driver, a rather morose-looking Nepali, speaks: "All of you, please remember, we shall do our best, but if there is some block or something, we will have to return. Road conditions are quite unpredictable!"

"Why, man, are you saying such inauspicious things right in the beginning?" Khanna admonishes the driver. "If there is something wrong, I will manage it. Nathu La is army territory and this is *our* army!"


The road climbs sharply from Gangtok and Khanna begins a lecture of sorts on what lies ahead:
"Guys, this is sensitive military area. China often creates trouble. But you should see our jawans who guard the border post at Nathu La. Absolutely, the cream of the cream of Indian manhood. You know, they are from the Jat regiment, Sikh regiment, ... not one of them is under six feet in hight! ... and those Chinese who face them, not one of them is above five feet!"

"The Tsangu lake which we shall pass, is a sacred site. Lord Shiva himself used to visit the place and offer Puja"

"And you should know of Baba Harbhajan Singh, whose Mandir is next to Nathu La. He was a jawan, all of twenty two years when the Chinese attacked; he faced an entire battalion single-handedly and polished them off, you know, like Abhimanyu! Then, he disappeared somewhere there. The army does not treat him as a war casualty; he is still on its rolls, his personal belongings are still kept intact and every year, they travel to his village in the Punjab, as if he is going home on leave. And he continues to guide and help his beloved colleagues. When those Chinese are up to some mischief, he warns them in dreams; he never ever fails his men..."

We are just beginning to see streaks of snow atop hills when the jeep halts at the tail of a long queue. "There is a jam up ahead" says the driver and gets down - and disappears somewhere.

It is a few minutes before we realize that there is some serious problem ahead. I go off to investigate.

A couple of hairpin bends above, a truck carrying a JCB has broken down - and totally blocked the narrow road. About half a dozen military men stand around and discuss. I tentatively approach a Jat-looking soldier (he is tall, a tick over six feet) and ask: "Saabji, how long will it take?"

"Nothing can be said." he says pleasantly "The truck can't move unless the JCB is taken down. There is an army camp a few kilometers ahead and a relief machine is on its way. So, hopefully in a few minutes,..."

I stay. A few workers are piling up rocks and soil next to the truck. The soldiers, many more in number than them, watch; a couple of dozen stranded tourists have collected and they too watch. Half an hour on, there is no sign of any 'relief machine' from higher up. I go over to another soldier (the tall Jat is not to be seen now) and ask him about the situation.

"Somebody is saying we the army are not doing anything. Can you not see that we are working hard?" he responds.

"Sure Saab" I answer.

"Anyways, these coolies (he points at the toiling gang of workers) are making a ramp for the JCB to be moved off the truck. Then we will see!"

The tall Jat soldier reappears briefly, gives me a smile and watches. A short while later a stout and well-decorated armyman appears and calls out: "Mahinder, let's go back. This won't get over anytime soon!"; the Jat gallops over and a few minutes later, I see him start up a car in the queue with the decorated armyman in it and make a u-turn and go off...


To summarize, watched by over a score armymen and over twice that number of tourists, the four or five workers took well over an hour and a half to set up the ramp, a driver got on to the JCB and with considerable skill and a dash of luck, got the lumbering brute off the back of the truck. Whew!


Our journey continues. A fellow-traveler wonders: "Man, if this road link is so fragile, what will happen if there is a war?"

Doctor Khanna says: "Arrey, don't underestimate our army. We can give those Chinis a pasting!...(pauses) yes, but there are some handicaps. Like, you know, our minister is a lungi-wallah!"

"Who are you referring to?" the hitherto silent painted woman asks.

"Arrey, that Anthony!" says Khanna. "These fellows, they go everywhere in a lungi, whether to office or a war-zone or to the UN, they have zero sense of perspective! So how can they possibly understand what the hell the army is for? Defense minister it seems!"


A military camp appears. I see a board in English letters and hear myself reading out aloud: "Pathomabathe, Vetri Namathe(**)! Hey, Madras Regiment!".

"Have you not heard enough? Why don't you just keep your southie-ness to yourself?!" I hear a sharp admonition and fall silent.


Flakes, then lumps of snow begin to speckle the grass on either side of the road. More army camps,... The ascent continues,... And here are proper snow-fields, "10000 feet above Sea level", "11000 feet..." boards declare.

At a military camp, Khanna tells the driver: "I am hungry. Stop at a shop!".

"Sir, you won't get anything here" he says.

"Hell, you never stopped anywhere!" Khanna thunders. "All day we have been starving. There was that bloody jam, and now you won't stop. Stop, let me check."

"No, no, let's proceed, we are already late. Uncle, please..." a chorus of voices from the passengers.

There is anyways, no shop visible. We move on.


Tsangu lake hurls into view, hemmed in by snow-blanketed hills, half of its surface covered by a vast slab of ice. A solitary cloud is seen rising from its surface (or has the cloud just dipped down from its heavenly path to replenish its stock of water, as Kalidasa(?) said somewhere?).

The car stops. The honeymooners get busy taking snaps. Khanna shuffles in the direction of an eatery which lies about 20 steps down from the path. I ask the driver: "How much more to Nathu La?"

"One more hour" he says. "But we have no time left; so enjoy here and we will go back!"

"But that is not enough!" I protest. "... Okay, if we leave just now...?"

"Hmm, we can make it. But Saab has gone to the hotel to eat. So..." he trails off.

I approach the honeymooners and inform them of the situation. "Let us call Uncle back!" tells a bride. Her husband and another in the party move off in the direction of the eatery.

I watch from afar as a conversation, first casual, then animated, then pretty heated ensues down in the eatery. "Amit, Amit!" a bride calls out imploringly. The young men return and they have a talk with their women who now proceed towards the eatery.

I ask 'Amit'. "What's up?"

"That old scratch has ordered some trash and won't move it until he has had his fill. I even asked him "if you are tired, we shall quickly go over to Nathula and get back!" and know what he started threatening us: "I challenge you, if you dare to leave us here, go. But I will fix you proper. And I will get the driver's license canceled!" And he told me: "You are young but keep your stupid attitude to yourself!" Attitude it seems, bloody a*****e!"

I confine myself to: "your description of him is very saatvik"; and as we wait, I can helplessly sense blood beginning to hiss and seethe within my skull ....

The brides retreat. "He is adamant!" they say. "Auntie too pleaded with him but... Now let us wait".

10+ minutes, I see the couple get out of the eatery. Khanna takes a further 5 minutes to haul his massive frame up the flight of 20-odd steps. Amit looks away and spits vigorously on the snow.


40 more minutes spent skirting progressively thicker snow deposits and we are halted by a military checkpost just 2 kilometers short of the frontier. "Nathu La closed for the day!" the Driver says "We can turn and go to Baba Mandir"

Baba Mandir, at almost 14000 feet above sea level,in a snow-bound setting, is a well-visited shrine. It is suddenly cloudy and extremely chilly; but sunbeams slant onto the snow which glows golden - and the odd crystal shimmers...

Nearby, a Buddhist-style military shrine stands atmospherically atop an icy, desolate hill, prayer flags fluttering against a cloud-laden sky.

While returning, we pause for half an hour at Tsangu and take more snaps and drink some surprisingly good tea at the same eatery where Khanna had his meal. I experiment with pouring some boiling tea over my painfully numb fingers - and it works like a charm.

The driver comes over to me and asks for my name and phone number. I ask: "What for?"

"I may need you to speak on my behalf. That man is threatening me saying because of my prompting, you spoiled his meal so that he will lodge a complaint against me to somebody high up and get my license scrapped!"

I answer: "Don't worry. He wont do anything!" Amit, who has been listening, butts in: "And he simply can't do a thing. Bloody fool, if he acts smart, we will..." he trails off, perhaps chewing down the rest of the sentence.


During the entire return journey, Khanna stays silent. Exception: one of the brides is distributing cookies. "Uncleji.." she makes an approach. "No!" Khanna declines the offer monosyllabically.

(*) I was reminded of the movie 'Utsav'; a flabby and mustachioed Shashi Kapoor declares loudly and repeatedly - "Hey, I am Sansthanak, and I am the King's Saala!"

(**) That means "The Nineteenth. Victory is Ours!" in Tamil

Monday, February 15, 2010


“I was told (by a resident of Darjeeling) that the summit of Kinchinjunga is often hidden in the clouds, and that sometimes a tourist has waited twenty-two days and then been obliged to go away without a sight of it. And yet was not disappointed; for when he got his hotel bill he recognized that he was now seeing the highest thing in the Himalayas.”
- Mark Twain, sometime in the 19th century (before Everest was measured accurately).

I remember a time long gone when the wonderfully alliterative name 'Kanchenjunga' first hurled into view in a children's atlas and one went 'kanjenjenjenjen...' with it. Sure enough, 'Kanchenjunga' is to mountains what 'Tintoretto' is to artists(*).

A decade and some ago, I first glimpsed the peak - had made the hugely over-hyped 'mountain flight' from Kathmandu and the flight attendant pointed out a wall-like snowy range far to the east and said: "...and that's Kanchenjunga!"

A few days ago, at Gangtok, Sikkim, I got lucky with the weather and saw the mountain again. Just under an hour of power-walking from Gangtok is 'Tashi Viewpoint' where stands a tower from atop which a whole range of mountains consisting of Kanchenjunga, Siniolchu and so forth are impressively visible. A slight goof-up with scheduling ensured that I missed sunrise "pour molten gold over the peaks"; but an hour of staring at silvery ice was not bad at all by any means. Indeed, the visual impact of the spectacle is comparable to (although not quite an equal to) the view of the Annapurna Range from Sarangkot, Nepal.

Wiki says Kanchenjunga has five separate peaks. From Tashi, only two could be made out; an identical pair of protuberances rising from the broad and rugged visage of the mountain - they were reminiscent of Moses' horns. Presently, a solitary plume of white vapor rose from the very top; it persisted and snaked quite some distance into the deep blue above. The mountain looked like a steaming volcano.

The 'book' says the mountain is the guardian diety of Sikkim.An online source says: the name means “Five Treasures of Snow,” referring to Kangchenjunga’s five peaks. The Tibetan words are: Kang (Snow) chen (Big) dzö (Treasury) nga (Five). The five treasures are Gold, Silver, Precious Stones, Grain, and Holy Scriptures. So the correct spelling should be 'Kangchendzonga'.

A much simpler derivation of the name could be the Sanskrit kanchana+jangha = 'golden thigh'
But then, it is difficult to correlate anything of what is visible of the mountain to the thigh of any living being.

Aside: the phrase 'golden thigh' does have significance in a different context. Among the several semi-divine attributes tradition assigns the great Greek philosopher Pythagoras was a mysterious 'golden thigh'!

The smaller Siniolchu peak has been described as the most beautiful on earth; it might well be that but not when viewed from Tashi; what I saw of it is not really in the class of Machchhapuchre (as it appears from Sarangkot).

(*)- Let me quote myself from an earlier post: "Tintoretto was the best-sounding name any painter ever had!"
And nearly a quarter of a century ago, a smart and daring bit of investigative journalism was seralized in a newspaper in far-away Kerala. The theme: scary details of illegal ganja (cannabis) cultivation and drug processing in the high ranges of Kerala's Western Ghats. The title: 'A journey through 'Ganjanjunga''

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Duke of Candallah

I have been to the hill station of Khandala many times over the last decade and a half. I have done the very enjoyable walk up the sharp-pointed hill near there called 'Duke's Nose' at least thrice. But I never knew - or even wondered - who the 'Duke' was.

Until the other day that is. The prominent rocky crest, which overlooks the Express Highway and is locally called 'Nagphani' (the Cobra's hood), was given its English name after Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington - the same general who was the nemesis of gentlemen ranging from Napoleon (who he finished off militarily at Waterloo) to Tipu Sultan (whom he simply finished off at Seringapatam). For the record, Wellesley could not (or did not) finish the 'Lion of Kerala', Pazhassi Raja (Wiki says Wellesley left India in 1803 "after 3 years of inconclusive war" with Pazhassi).

The source for the above info: a couple of paintings of 'Candallah' done by Brit colonial landscape artists (sadly, I did not note down their names), which were recently on display at the Victoria Memorial, Calcutta. One painting showed a caravan trail winding up the Bhor Ghat and the other, a far view of the Nose. The description given alongside revealed the Wellington connection. Of course, that Wellington had a big nose and was famous for it was news to me.

There is a bit of an anachronism in 'Duke's Nose': Wellesley was in these parts around the year 1800 but he was no Duke then - Indian history remembers him as just Wellesley and not "Duke of Wellington". The Duchy came his way only after he liberated Spain from Napoleon (1814). Indeed, while he was in India, he wasn't even a General. In Kerala history, he is only 'Karnal (colonel) Wellesley'. So, it is likely, the rock might have been named 'Colonel's Nose' or whatever - and 'promoted' later.

One more bit: the most impressive view of the Nose is not from up close but from Rajmachi fort - a long walk from Lonavla in a different direction. From that distant point, the Nose really looks a nose (from close quarters, Nagphani is, any day, a better name) and the hill as a whole looks uncannily like an aquiline-nosed man asleep - or stoned out.


And here is a three-score year old episode narrated by Pop:
"In an English exam, I mis-spelt the word 'duke' as 'duck' - several times. Our teacher left a one-line comment: "Do not play 'dukes and drakes' with the riches of English!""

Wiki says, "the Guinness record for 'stoneskipping' is 51 skips, set by Russell Byars on July 19, 2007". And coincidentally, one of my own earliest memories is of watching in sheer disbelief as Pop gave a demo.

Continuing the ramble on ducks and drakes a bit more, here is an episode from an old and very tacky mythological film, 'Jason and the Argonauts': A contest is on between Hercules (a huge warrior, in his prime) and a fresh-faced lad. The setting is a beach. Hercules powerfully hurls a discus and the projectile, having soared high, lands on a rocky islet quite some distance offshore. The boy nonchalantly asks "Should I hit that rock or go beyond it?" and sends another discus skipping happily over the sea - its last skip neatly clears the rock.