Saturday, January 8, 2011

sikkim: rumtek monastery, institute of tibetology, chili momos

I woke up feeling more rested then I had in weeks. Some confluence of altitude and the incredible stillness of Sikkim, even in its largest city—I went to my window and looked out of it for a while. The clouds had burned off, at least for the time being, and Gangtok was spread out before the valley, houses and schools, built tall and clinging to the sides of the hills. The monasteries stood out, built at elevation and catching the light adeptly, as monasteries ought. Kiran and I had planned a day of tourism for ourselves. We had contracted a car for the day for something around 15 bucks, and we were going to see as much as we felt like seeing of Gangtok and the area around it. On the agenda was the famous Rumtek monastery, the seat of the hotly contested Karma Karmapa. We would also work in the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a theoretically authentic Tibetan lunch, a visit to a scenic overlook (if the weather held) and perhaps a look at some charming native handicrafts. Promising.

Breakfast was paratas and toast with real jam, not that candy flavored stuff you find down in India proper, and a sort of delicious and thick honey cake the proprietors made themselves. And the local tea, strong as anything, served out of that same porcelain ware. You couldn't beat the view.

The taxi picked us up: a standard car, nothing much four-wheel about it. Rumtek Monastery is located on the other side of the valley, and getting there requires a steep descent down to the depths of the river valley, and an equally steep and bumpy climb up to the other side. "Maybe it take two hours," the driver said, optimistically, when we asked him how long getting there and back to our side of the valley would be. We were already feeling concerned about lunch.

Sikkim is at a very high elevation, but Gangtok, especially around the bed of the river, is aggressively tropical, a real Asian wonder-land of banana palms and rice paddies and endless, towering bamboo in all sorts of curious shapes and sizes. This incredible wealth of vegetation would impress us throughout our trip to Sikkim: we were both more accustomed to the high-elevation places of Europe and the USA, where high altitude inexorably means scanty plants and rocks and not much water. This kind of aggressive life, high up, was new to us. It explains why the Sikkimese have managed to live here so long and with such relative ease, in any case: finding enough to eat in these parts is not much of a struggle.

We hit the valley floor and crossed over the stream, which was filled with rocks and flowing with an aggressive, alpine sort of force. Then, climbing up again: the road was poorly paved and full of gravel, and we bumped around a lot, since of course there were no seatbelts. The Biswakarma celebration was in full fling, and truckloads of excited men would go by us intermittently, hooting and screaming and blowing their horns, the trucks all covered in marigolds and orange paint—and we kept on climbing, up the hill, switchbacks, crossing over roads where waterfalls had covered the track, all the way up to Rumtek.

The Rumtek monastery is not particularly old, having been rebuilt from older foundations in 1959. It was rebuilt when the 16th Karmapa washed up in Sikkim after fleeing Tibet, and, finding the area pleasant, decided to restablish him in the environs of Gangtok. Sacred objects were brought from the Tsurphu Monastery, back home in Tibet, and the Sikkimese and Indian government funded the project: the new monastery was officially inagurated in 1966.

This would all seem fairly ordinary for a Tibetan monastery if not for the Karmapa controversy. The Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyua school, a sub-school of Tibetan Buddhism, an influential school that holds the "black hat," supposedly said to be woven from the hair of dakhinis, or the Buddhist semi-equivalant of angels. When the 16th Karmapa died in 1981, it was, as is the case with Tibetan Buddhism, time to locate his young reincarnation. The Sharmapa, the head of another major sect, is often given the job of recognizing the Karmapa, at least from the 14th century until the 1790's. Due to a bout of politicking, the Tibetan government banned the Sharmapa from reincarnating, a ban that formally held until 1963. This meant that the Sharmapa had to live in secret for a few hundred years or so, give or take.

You can see how this gets complicated.

When the 16th Karmapa passed in 1981, then, two young men were submitted as his reincarnation. They were Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje. Mysterious letters involving ancient prophecies were disseminated about both boys. That's part of how the system works, lots of mysterious letters and ancient prophecies.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, born to nomadic parents and recognized by a search party under the supposed final instructions of the 16th Karmapa, has been officialy endorsed by the Dalai Lama, Situ Rinpoche, and Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He was formally enshrined as the Karmapa at the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet in 1992, but eventually chaffed under Chinese control and decided to escape to India at the age of fourteen. He resides in a monastery near Dharamsala and operates as a spiritual teacher.

Shamar Rinpoche, on the other hand - the person theoretically responsible for choosing the 17th Karmapa in his religious school - advocates Trinley Thaye Dorje, born in Lhasa and the son of Mipham Rinpoche, another reincarnated lama. He currently studies under Shamar Rinpoche and resides in Kalimpong, very close to Sikkim (in fact, once part of Sikkim, like Darjeeling). He was appointed by the 16th Karmapa's Karmapa Charitable Trust as the legal and administrative heir of Rumtek. This theoretically gives him the right to reside at Rumtek. Naturally, it isn't that simple, as the monks that control Rumtek don't want him.

Two people claiming to be the 17th Karmapa, two warring camps that don't agree with one another, and a whole lot of legal battles and trash-talking. The soldiers are here to quash any sectarian violence between different factions: they'll probably be here for a long while yet.

All this controversy and politicking means that Rumtek is a much more contentious place then most other Tibetan monasteries. The army officers are stationed at the entrance and around the perimeter of the building. Posters demanding the return of Ogyen Trinley Dorje to the monastery are tacked up everywhere you look (as they are around most of Sikkim).

We walked through the huge doors and into the main monastery. It is large and imposing in that darkly lit and mysterious way that Tibetan buildings excel at, and covered in the colorful and very typical paintings of the Tibetan tradition: butter fat lamps hung in the main room, and there were niches containing thousands of Buddhas, and endless drawers of sacred texts. A group of monks crouched on the floor with pencils and rulers, intently laying out a mandala painting: I watched them for a while, and they good-naturedly waved at me.

We tried to see the other parts of the complex, including the 16th Karmapa's stupa and the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, but they were closed for lunch. Monks were ambling around the campus holding plates of daal and vegetables. We got hungry ourselves.

The view from Rumtek.

We made our way back to Gangtok, down the same bumpy and fractious road. MG Marg: Gangtok's main throughfare. It's a walking street, done up for pedestrians only, and has a lot of little clothing shops and casual eateries.

Gangtok putting on a pretty reasonable bustle.

Nothing too fancy, but when taken in comparison to the rest of India - well, almost magical. Quiet, not crowded, kept clean, everyone minding their own business, no one tugging at you and attempting to sell you things: semi miraculous. Kiran and I walked down it in a somewhat dream-like state. "This isn't India," I think I kept on repeating.

We ate at the Tibet Restaurant. Simply and honestly named: all Tibetan food, all the time. Momos: Tibetan dumplings filled with meat, vegetables, or cheese. Gyathuk: Tibetan noodle soup with some kind of protein involved. Lots of tea. We never did sample butter tea. Not quite brave enough.

Kiran took this photo.

These chili momos were excellent: pan fried dumplings served in a thick and slightly smoky chili sauce, with plenty of kick to it.

Kiran also took this one. His camera is swell. (I in fact ran out and bought the same camera when I got to Bangkok, but more on that later).

Chili chicken is another ubiquitious Indian dish, and Kiran and I both happen to love it. It's difficult to go wrong with fried chicken pieces with onion, green peppers, and a big hit of chili. It's the Indian answer to buffalo wings and is consumed in about the same quantities at bars across the subcontinent.

Kiran took this one.

Gyathuk soup with pork. Honestly, gyathuk tastes roughly the same as any other Asian noodle soup. The broth is usually made from boiled pork, and the flavor is usually pretty delicate, though you can lump some chili in there if so inclined. Which I usually am.

One acquiese to India post-lunch (while our cab driver doubtless waited with impatience, watching the storm cloudes). Softy Cones. Soft-serve ice cream, that's all it it is, of course. But they made up some of the fabric of Kiran's Andhra Pradesh childhood. "We have to get them," he said.

I must report that I looked almost everywhere and could not find a single cheesy I WENT TO SIKKIM type shirt. I felt let down. This is probably indicative of something important about Sikkim, however.

Then back into the taxi, and off to the Tibetology center. A storm was coming in, from over the mountains, and we readied our umbrellas. It was the rainy season, after all—not like we hadn't been warned— but it was jarring all the same, to look up at an angry and festering sky and think, "Well, wait, we're going to be trekking for twelve whole days out in this, out in the middle of nowhere, and wait just a second, hold up."

The rain had begun to fall by the time we got to the center: we huddled under our umbrellas and dashed indoors. The Center possesses a museum and a couple of libraries.

The library upstairs was a magical sort of place, if you are (like me) inclined to libraries. Tons of books up there, old and dusty and bound in an archaic fashion, and new ones as well, endless series of dictionaries of some sort, some cracking scrolls: all of it written out in Tibetan script, incomprehensible to me. A small man sat in a desk in a corner and flickered his eyes at me when I walked in: otherwise, it was empty. The rain fell down outside and I walked contemplatively through the rows of books for a while. \\

The Tibetan tragedy, the Tibetan loss of self and land. I feel bad about it, I do. Still: I have been to Xinjiang, far Western China, I've met a couple of Uighurs, I know a bit about what they are going through as well. It is easy to draw parallels between these two peoples, both caught under the foot of an ever-more-powerful China, unable to get away, watching their culture and their history taken away from them, reconstituted into the immensity of the Chinese Borg. In all honesty, I feel more sorry for the Uighurs. No cute and cuddly Dalai Lama to interest Western kids, Muslims (scary) instead of Tibetan Buddhists (hip!), living in a place so back-of-beyond and inhospitable that no one except the really dedicated takes adventure-travel-tours out there. They are both living out tragedies, the Tibetans and the Uighurs, but publicity is, sometimes, not a *bad* thing.

We went to the overlook. It was raining. There were little brochures with pictures of the overlook and the mighty Kanchdenzonga looming over it and exalted looking tanned tourists, and there we were, looking out at rain mist and not feeling sure what to do. "Tea?" I said," and Kiran agreed, "Tea," and we went to the tea shop. Kiran ordered pakoras. "This is home for me," he'd say often, "eating pakoras and drinking tea."

So we ate pakoras and drank tea and talked about nothing in particular, listening as some Sikkimese kids played guitar and sang. Tons of Sikkimese kids play guitar around here, many of them surprisingly well. We hung out like this until we got bored of watching the rain mist, and headed towards home.

Dinner was at the afore-mentioned Hidden Forest Retreat, which can give you all your meals if you feel inclined to do so. I normally avoid eating where I'm staying, but this was a worthy exception: they make an effort to prepare organic food, and it's all authentic Sikkimese cuisine.

Kiran took this one.

They even take requests. Kiran is an Andhra boy who is extremely fond of karalla, or bitter melon, and I happen to love it myself. We sat down and there was a big bowl of fried bitter melon awaiting us. Excellent.

We would leave the next morning for Yuksom, a fairly remote village in eastern Sikkim, where we would start our trek in the mountains. We both loved Gangtok and wanted to stay longer, but you know, lure of adventure, that kind of thing. Off we went.

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