Monday, March 13, 2006

Serene Realms

A pilgrim meditates in front of an idol of the Buddha at his holy samadhi in Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh. The Buddha achieved salvation, his followers believe, at Kushinagar when he died there in 483 BC.

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 livening 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.

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