Saturday, May 21, 2011


Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim

On May 10, I rode 129Km (about a four hour drive) north of Darjeeling to the Indian Protectorate of Sikkim in northeastern India to see the chham (mask) dances at Rumtek Monastery, the capital Gangtok, listed in the book, One Thousand Places to See Before You Die, and to ride a yak at Tsomgo Lake.  Sikkim borders China, is predominately Buddhist and, my young Bhutanese monk friends tell me, it is similar to its neighbor, their homeland, Bhutan.
Although circuitous, the road to the border of Sikkim is much better than the one I traveled from the Indian boarder to Darjeeling.  At the border between India proper and Sikkim, I had to clear immigration just like I would to go into a new country, giving them an extra picture and photocopy of my passport.  Even though I was traveling north, because much of the southern part Sikkim is at a lower altitude than Darjeeling, there are tea plantations, and at lower elevations along the roads are Palm and banyan trees, bougainvillea, hibiscus and many other plants native to south Florida. I learned from the ‘moss man’ (more about him later) that this was called a Mountain Tropical climate.  At one point we stopped on a high cliff to see the convergence of three major rivers, which was quite beautiful.  At the turn off to the monastery the whole road went to hell.  There were areas where the road was just dirt or large sharp stones, and some of the runts in the road were so deep the car actually bucked as we drove over them.

Upon reaching the monastery I found that Sungay Guesthouse, where I had arranged to stay and supposedly right next to the monastery, was actually at the bottom of a very steep hill.  It was inside the monastery gates but I refused to walk up that hill daily.  Being told that another guesthouse was much nearer; we drove up to check it out.   As I walked out of the second one, called Sangay, a veritable hellhole, (probably why it cost only 150 rupees – about $3.00 a night), a man leaned into the car window and said, “there’s a guesthouse right at the monastery.”  I thanked him and up we drove.

Eureka!  A habitable room, well not quite, I mean I really could not put my bare feet on the floor; there was no hot water shower, only a hot water faucet and a large and small bucket set.  A dirty gauze dust laden cover was over quilt and a very large, very fast spider in the corner of the ceiling, but it would do. The sheets were clean; one side of the gauze quilt cover was torn, so I took the liberty of helping along the damage and removed a very clean quilt from its dirty cover.  I carry flip-flops with me just in case of emergencies like these and they solved the floor problem.  The cost was 300 rupees, about six US dollars a night.  Conveniently, there was also a restaurant used by both the monks and the locals (see the pictures), albeit most of my friends wouldn’t eat in because of sanitation concerns, but I could walk across a cement parking area and I was in the monastery.  I took it for three nights. ---- Twice, I found other little creatures trundling across my sheets but I removed them carefully before I got into bed, so as not to hurt another living being.  After all, they were not what I consider in the insect/bug universe my worse enemies, cockroaches and mosquitoes, which I kill on sight.   Any one who has been so bad in their previous life that they are reincarnated into a cockroach or mosquito needs a second chance and I always give it to them when I can.

That evening when I went down to order dinner in the kitchen, hanging over the stove were strings of disgusting looking greasy, wine colored sausages.  It was then and there that I decided I would be absolutely full vegan (not entirely - I did eat egg the next morning for breakfast).  While I waited for my dinner in the dinning room, six young monks ask me to join their table.  These young men ranged in age from 15 to 19 and were here from Bhutan to study in the academic school or Institute.  They told me there was no religious/academic education at this level in Bhutan and that they were to study at Rumtek for eleven years.  The fee paid by each of their families was 1500 rupees ($35) for the full eleven years. After finishing their studies, they each planned to go back to a monastery in Bhutan and become teachers.  They wanted to know where I had been so I showed them pictures of the places on my computer.  Interestingly, although they had all seen television, they had never hear of the Great Barrier Reef, and were surprised at the pictures of coral and to learn they were living beings.

Chham Dances

On the eleventh the monks began with their daily puja at 3:00 am, ending at 6:30, so when I awoke at six I could hear the drums and horns of the prayers.  It was really the chham dance dress rehearsal day on the 12Th

After the dances, the young Bhutanese monks took me to the Golden Stupa. Inside a glass-enclosed room, which is always locked is the large stupa. The monks prevailed upon the grossly fat old monk (lama?) who sat in the corner reading his mantras to let us in.  He not only opened the room but also locked the outer door to the stupa entry room so we were the only visitors.  On the walls around the center stupa are bust effigies of all the sixteen former Karmpas of this monastery, the bust of he current 17th Kamala, a Buddha bust statue, and two other scary effigies that were a mystery to me.  Inside the center stupa laid the body of the 16th Karmapa.

Rumtek Monastery consists of five distinct parts, (1) the Academic School or Institute where monks study Tibetan, Sanskrit, English, grammar, Buddhist philosophy and mantras, then there is the separate (2) Ritual School where another group of monks learn the mantras, dances, chants and music of the religion, (3) the housing for all the students, (4) the monastery itself, which is the focal point and meaning for the religion, (5) the Golden Stupa and (6) the Karmapa’s, house which is currently falling apart (more about this later).  Each school has about 200 students, and there are over 400 additional Lamas at the monastery.

The next day, the 12th, the monks had their puja from midnight to 3:30 a.m., then prepared for the mask chham dances.  They started at 6:30 am with the Black Hat dance (Rumtek monks and lamas are of the Black Hat Sect), and then we saw the Skull Dance, which is always fun to watch (I had seen it previously in a monastery outside of Leh).  The monks continued their dances until 4:30 in the afternoon.  There are eight major chhams and each have a distinct meaning.  (Hopefully you all get the photos I send, if not seek out a friend who does). There are scary masks, lots of jumping and whirling, and very colorful costumes – some of very old silk that have been used for many, many years.  Behind where I was sitting just happened to be a room of unfinished masks which were obviously made right on the premises for either the dances or for tourist sale in the local shops.

Dignitaries from the High Court of Sikkim and also from Bhutan came and were seated in a special area. They were given gift snack boxes, box juices and lunch.  I rushed down to my very own elegant restaurant and they made me a bowl of veggie chow mien, which I carried back to the dances and ate as I watched.

The next day there was a famous Rampoche giving blessings but I had to leave because I had already arranged a driver and tour to Gangtok.  I was sorry to miss it but having just been blessed by the Manang Rampoche in Kathmandu, I figured I could survive a missed blessing – but maybe not – who knows.  But I was blessed by the opportunity to meet, Sungay’s (one of my young Bhutanese monks) adopted Gangtok family and have my picture taken with them.


It is my guess that the author of the book The Thousand Places to See before You Die, who suggested Gangtok as one of those places, has never been there.  As Gangtok really has no distinguishing features except as a way station to plan treks and get the paperwork done for permission to go to other parts of Skim.  The hotels, although a few quite nice, were generally unpleasant or booked. It’s about three or four kms long covering three very hilly streets.  The amusements around the area were under-astounding and there weather in May was just ‘warm.’   There is no commercial transportation to there except jeeps/cars.  But because I did not get permission to go yak riding on the day I requested (had to leave the next day to catch a train), I may go back, but that would be the only reason.

Note:  I am not an authority on Buddhism but I know there are two different major groups: Theravada, which is practiced in parts of Southeast Asia (Thailand) and Sri Lanka, and Mahayana which is the Tibetan Buddhism we hear so much about and also practiced in Korea, Japan and parts of China.   In Tibetan Buddhism there are four main sects: Yellow hat, Red Hat, Black Hat and White Hat. The Dali Lama (he’s a yellow hat) is the highest reincarnated lama. There is a Puncha Lama (the current one and his family have been hidden away or killed by the Chinese Government and another  has been put in                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              his place – now about 22 years old, a puppet of the Chinese government –and leader of one of the four sects ), Karmapas (here the highest is a young man who escaped from his monastery in Lasa at age 15 and now has a monastery in Dharmsala in Northern India –he is now about 26 - leader of one of the four sects) are the next highest level of reincarnated Lamas who are also heads of important monasteries throughout the Buddhist hierarchy.  The fourth Karmapa is of course the head of the Black Hats of Rumtek but there is a mystery about him (see next entry).  Next are Rampoches who head monasteries under the Puncha Lama, the Karmapas and/or the Dali Lama. There is also a title for a pre-monk but I don't remember it off hand.

Levels: Monks, Lamas, Rampoches, Karmapas, Puncha Lamas and Dali Lama.

At Rumtek I was shocked to see a monk who was four years of age. He was visiting with a group of monks from another monastery in the area to see the dances.  I was told he was placed in the monastery at the age of three.

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