Little is known about the monasteries that dot the region of the Himalayas. Spreading from Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur to Sikkim and Bhutan, a mystic value is attached to these places even today. Over the centuries, these monasteries have been depicted as places far removed in time and space, places where time stands still like the barren landscape and the surrounding rarefied air, devoid of the chirping of birds. Though many centuries have passed by, several things still remain the same—the age-old monastic ceremonies, the warmth of the people and their religious fervour manifested in numerous festivals.
Like the travellers of the 19th century, explorers, linguists, scholars, botanists and adventurers even today can see, all along the Himalayas, people listening with rapt attention to tales indicating the charm of the region. It is very difficult to describe in a few words what accounts for the mystique of the monasteries in this region which is a cultural zone and an extension of the Tibetan cultural area, extending from Ladakh in the west to Sikkim, parts of Nepal and Tawang in the east, to as far as the frontiers of China, Mongolia and Russia respectively. Time-honoured rituals and social conventions, established under the influence of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism flourishes here, overseeing the continuity of traditions. Generations of people come and go, centring their lives around the monasteries, locally called gompas. Perched on hilltops, cliffs and overlooking precipices, they seem to be floating clouds in a realm entirely their own. Being the repositories of Tibetan culture, the gompas embody a living tradition. Monks clad in red can be seen going about with their prayer wheels, dutifully praying for society.
With prayer flags
fluttering in the background, the gompa breaks the silence of
the rugged landscape with its sacred ritual dances, chants, music and
chiming bells. Words cannot fully capture the magic of the Himalayan
monasteries. Their mystic calm, even today, lends to the amazing tales
of travellers that can be heard in all the small town cafes dotting
the last outposts to the inaccessible valleys that open out a gateway
to another century—the gompa.
After giving up his
family, position and riches, he set out on a new path as an ascetic on
a goal to discover the means of eliminating sorrow. This event in
Buddhism is called the Great Going Forth in Tibetan Buddhist
monasteries. Even today, young boys entering the Sangha (Order)
are bedecked in royal finery which is ceremonially removed. Following
the Buddha who shaved away his handsome locks, boys are ritually
tonsured. They then don the robes of the Sangha recreating the
path-breaking event from Buddha’s life.
Like many ascetics — a
common sight in northern India during the 6th century BC —
Siddhartha became a wanderer in search of the ultimate truth. India
was in a state of intellectual ferment. Asceticism became widespread
on account of far reaching changes in society, like the rise of a
money-based economy, the spread of agriculture and the development of
towns. This resulted in a feeling of alienation. Many people longed
for the simple and pure land they were used to and were confounded
with the new state of affairs. In Indian history, this great upheaval
is called the second urbanisation and is almost parallel to the
Industrial Revolution in Europe in the 18th century. As many as 37
religious sects blossomed in India, all of them seeking solutions to
the meaning of life. Some even received patronage from the ruling
houses of the day. Today, of the 37 sects, only Buddhism and Jainism
Siddhartha roamed as a wandering mendicant for six years inflicting torture upon himself through fasts and penances according to the prevalent methods. Many of the sects believed in self mortification, while some sects, like the materialist Charavaka school did not believe in a soul and an afterlife exhorted their followers to live life to the fullest, affirming that the only reality is the material world. Other sects such as the Akriya believed that all actions were useless and whether a person did good or bad deeds did not matter. In such an intellectual environment with debates raging, Siddhartha continued fasting and living a life of forced asceticism. Things had reached such a level that Siddhartha was emaciated and about to die; his skin had dried up and his body had blackened with the approaching of death, salvation to help others attain theirs. The earlier Theravada school (the Lesser Vehicle, or the branch of Buddhism which aims at individual salvation) gave way to the Mahayana concept of the ‘saviour’. Here we see that the emphasis is not on individual salvation, but the concern for all sentient beings and a societal base that is at the heart of the Bodhisattva ideal. It closely fitted in with the concept of a saviour, an image that was very popular among the different Brahmanical sects in contemporary India.
Developing from the Mahayana was the Vajrayana (literally, thunderbolt) form of Buddhism, also referred to as Tantric Buddhism. Here the view is one in which enlightenment arises from the realisation that opposing principles are in truth really one. It is this form of Buddhism that is followed in what is known as the Tibetan cultural area, or the Lamaist Himalayas. It would be appropriate to use the term Tibetan cultural area to refer to the vast areas comprising Tibet, Ladakh, Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur (all in the western Himalayas in India), the Indian state of Sikkim, and the adjacent kingdom of Bhutan.
The northern areas of Nepal where the sherpas live and the areas of Manang, Lo, Mustang and Dolpo are the Tibetan cultural areas in Nepal. In the extreme northwestern flank of India, in the state of Arunachal Pradesh, lies the Tawang corridor adjacent to Tibet which is also part of the Tibetan cultural area. Beyond Tibet lie Mongolia and the Mongol territories of Buryatiya and Kalmykia, which are autonomous republics within the Russian federation and are also part of the Tibetan cultural area. It is interesting to note that Kalmykia is the only Buddhist political entity in Europe.
Early Buddhist art portrayed the Buddha as a superhuman with strong limbs and a broad chest. This is evident in the sculptures of the Kushana period where the Buddha and the Bodhisattavas are shown as strong beings. With the growth in philosophy and the awareness of the importance of meditation, the deities began to the portrayed as gentle beings with drooping eyes or inward-looking eyes which symbolised inner peace, poise and a certain restraint. This phase is represented by the inward-looking eyes, which conveys the idea that a superhuman is one who has conquered himself and not the world.
Photos by Thomas L.