The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, March 16, 2003

The solitary splendour of a stupa in the wilderness

Legends have it that Lama Sangye Pradhar built the colossal Gorsam chorten in an effort to rid the area of evil spirits, says Partha S. Banerjee

Gorsam Chorten: Surrounded by legends
Gorsam Chorten: Surrounded by legends

IN remotest India, a colossal monument. Who built it and why? Look on it, ye traveller, and admire! And ask not questions, for the answers are uncertain, lost in documents that have long disappeared. There are the fables, of course, stories that Monpa grandmothers in Zemithang tell their grandchildren. Of a lama bearing a monkey name who travelled far and wide in search of funds and ideas. Before Gorsam Chorten came to be built.

When we first sighted the gigantic chorten (stupa or reliquary monument), it quite took our breath away. From high on the steep ridge, as our vehicle negotiated innumerable hairpin bends to approach Zemithang (alt. 7,250 ft) from Tawang (alt. 10,000 ft) in Arunachal Pradesh, the stupa looked like a white, unusually shaped pyramid. built mistakenly perhaps in a lush green Himalayan valley.

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Prayer flags in Zemithang
Prayer flags in Zemithang

Closing in, the chortenís enormous dimensions became more evident. Soaring to a height of 99.7 ft (about the same as a modern ten-storeyed building), Gorsam Chorten towered over the narrow river valley like a behemoth And it stood there apropos nothing. For nothing around suggested the site was once a major religious or administrative centre. No ruins of structures remotely comparable to it anywhere in its vicinity.

The village of Zemithang lay a mile away, an unpretentious Monpa (Buddhists of Tibetan stock) settlement at the head of a wide scenic valley carved by river Namjang Chu, flowing in from Tibet. The Tibetan (Chinese) border, in fact, could not have been too far away while Tawang, famous for its monastery and headquarters of the district with the same name, was 93 km to the southeast. This was Arunachalís north-westernmost corner, sandwiched between Bhutan and China, remote and isolated.

But watched by the gods. Four enormous eyes of the "all seeing Buddha", painted on the pyramidal crown of Gorsam Chorten, keep vigil in all four directions. much as the ones on Kathmanduís famous Swambhunath stupa. Indeed the chorten is a virtual replica of the Nepalese landmark: its giant hemispherical dome, crowned by a pyramidal head, resting on a square three-tiered base just as in Swambhunath, with small stupas on the plinthís four corners.

Monpaman wearing the traditional Yak hair cap
Monpaman wearing the traditional Yak hair cap

And what little deviations there are from the Swambhunath stupa, blame it on the radish. For legend has it that Lama Sangye Pradhar, who supposedly built Gorsam Chorten, travelled to Kathmandu and carved a miniature model of the shrine using radish. But the radish shrivelled on his journey back to Zemithang, crumpling the model somewhat. It took 13 years to build the chorten, but no one is quite sure when exactly it was built. Early 18th century is one widely held guess through legends stretch its antiquity by another 400 years. The written records of its history are all missing: one set, kept at the Tawang monastery, was destroyed by fire, while a second set was lost from a monastery in Tibet after the Chinese invasion. Descendants of Lama Sangye Pradhar had a third set, but that too can no longer be traced.

That leaves no option but to fall back on the legends. And the legends have it that Lama Sangye Pradhar built the colossal chorten in an effort to rid the area of evil spirits. Said Sony Khandu, the amiable Zemithang circle officer, "It is said that the region then was going through a terrible phase: crops were failing, strange diseases were afflicting people. It was then that the saviour was born, and one day, when his mother went to work in the fields, a monkey picked up the baby from a basket. The crying mother prayed fervently and after a day or two, the monkey brought back the baby. So they named him Sangey Pradhar ó pradhar meaning monkey, and Sangey connoting enlightenment, for the child soon showed signs of prodigious knowledge and wisdom."

He grew up to become a lama but found little support from the villagers when he proposed building the chorten to drive out the evil spirits. Undaunted, he set off for Bhuttan, collecting funds, and finally ended up in Kathmandu and fashioning that miniature Swambhunath with radish.

For a person so remarkable, Sangye Pradhar couldnít have had normal parents. So the legends have it that his father was an ascetic who mediatated in a cave up in the hills. But one day, some village women managed to distract him, they plied him with rakshi, the strong local beer, and inebriated, he lay with one of them. Thus was the Great One conceived.

Now you neednít, of course, believe in the story but thereís no harm going on a trek to the cave where the ascetic reportedly mediated. Itís a one-day excursion and the views, Circle Officer Khandu assured us, are great. We did not however have the time for it.

Nor, indeed, did we have time for another short one-day trek to Lake Chamling Tso, close to the last Indian village on the Chinese border. The waters of the lake are thought to have aphrodisiacal qualities. The people in that village are all very sexy," laughed one Zemithang resident. The lake warns you also of impending danger. "If something bad is about to happen to you," he said, "you wonít be able to see the waters, so thick would be the mist." Well, we made it safely back to Tawang and then on to Tezpur and Calcutta. Surely, the waters that day must have been clearly visible.

Travel tips

Access: A trip to Zemithang must obviously be part of a tour of scenic Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh. A few buses operate between Zemithang and Tawang but hiring a vehicle would be advisable. Buses operate to Tawang from Tezpur (365 km); it is a two-day journey with night halt at Bomdila. Tezpur has regular buses connecting it to Guwahati (190 km) which is linked to Calcutta and Delhi by train and air services. There are also twice-weekly direct flights (IA) to Tezpur from Calcutta. Taxis can be hired for the entire journey from Tezpur at Rs 1300 day; shared Sumo taxis (Rs 350) are also available.

Accommodation: Zemithang has a government rest house which should be booked in advance from Tawang. Tawang and Bomdila have reasonably good hotels; there are also the state tourist lodges.