According to my map, getting to Pelling from Rabangla ought to be straightforward. Not really. Perhaps it is easy if I hire a vehicle, but that’s an expensive affair. I have the policy of travelling the way most locals do. I share vehicles with others.
So I take a jeep to Legship, change there for Geyzing and finally arrive at Pelling by the third vehicle. By now I am used to these mountain rides but I am not always enjoying them. Crowded around and crushed, tossed from side to side with the turns, twisting and stretching to get into the back seats without any views – these are the aspects of such rides.
The only redeeming thing is the people you meet on these journeys but even that was absent today.
At Pelling, I check into a hotel where there is hot water. For the first time in two weeks I am getting access to hot water. No cold water bath for me today. Many hotels at Pelling are run by Bengalis; so too are many restaurants.
It is a lovely walk to Pemayangzte Monastery by a winding road flanking by forests of pine. The monastery is a wonderful exhibition of religious art of the medieval period. Walls are painted beautifully. First floor has many statues gilded in gold. These are of Guru Padmasambava or his many manifestations. In the other room on the first floor is a library. The books are neatly arranged in glass cabinets. These are not our everyday books but palm leaf type of books, wrapped in cloth and bound with painted wooden plates and strings.
On the second floor, is a wooden representation of heaven. In religious lingo, this may be called a mandala. It is elaborate with many levels of parapets, balconies, stairways, halls and thrones. Dragons and garudas are in flight. Colours flags seem to flutter in the dynamism portrayed in their forms. Guru Padmasambava and his manifestations take seat in magnificent grandeur. The structure is most painted but also gilded in gold in some places. It is the creation of one monk’s labour of love.
It may be said here that early Buddhism was without the form of Buddha. Only symbols were used in worship. Sometime in the 1st century AD, Buddha assumed human figure and began to be worshipped in addition to the symbols. Buddha of this period was plain and unadorned. He was a monk who had understood the mind and preached his methods without gilding them in tales, legends or mysticism.
Sometime in the 9th century AD came Padmasambava who introduced into Buddhism the concept of destroying evil in its many personifications. He came with his vajra, a weapon that could not be destroyed. Symbols became more elaborate. Gods and goddesses were introduced. Mandalas were created. Buddha and the bodhisattvas wore crowns and jewels. Gods with many arms and heads appeared. Gods appeared with swords, stamped on personifications of evil. Gods rode on tigers. The meditative gaze of the Buddha gave way to the majestic stare of Padmasambava. Non-violence was adopted under the pretext of destroying evil. In short, Buddhism seemed to have borrowed many elements of Hinduism. The simple message of the Buddha and methods of meditation had become too difficult for the common man.
From the monastery I can see the Rabadense Ruins. Pelling had been an early capital of the kings of Sikkim and these ruins are what remain of the original palaces and royal places of worship. From the monastery it is a descent back to the road and then an uphill path to the ruins. There is however a steeper shortcut to the ruins across a little dam that is being constructed at the base of the hill on which the ruins stand.
Only walls and foundations remain. Three little chortens in stone signify a place or worship. The view from the ruins is outstanding. I can see far out into low deep valleys and out to far high peaks. It is drizzling. The sky is cloudy. A clear view of Kanchendzonga still eludes me. Other than this setting, the ruins themselves are ordinary. There are no sculptures to admire, no architectural elements to study.
After a good night rest, I leave the hotel at six. I head to Sangacholing Monastery. This is near Pelling but the climb to this monastery is steep. The monastery is on a high hill and can be seen around for miles. Equally stunning are the views from the top.
‘Normally you can see the all the Kanchendzonga peaks from here,’ tells me a foreigner. She is clean shaven. She is wearing ordinary clothes. Perhaps she has adopted Buddhism but has not been ordained formally as a nun.
I mean to ask her what drew her to Buddhism but the moment is missed. She has wandered off to a tap to brush her teeth. Later I find her in the first floor of the monastery seated in sukhasana and in meditation.
I admire the gilded sculptures. I notice again a Buddha coupled with a nude female. I ask a monk what it means.
‘The woman is trying to distract the Buddha from his meditation. It is sort of a test for the Buddha,’ he explains. Indeed, the Buddha’s meditative gaze has not faded. This form of Buddha is called Kuntu Zangpo in the Tibetan tradition. The normal meditative form of the Buddha is called Amitayus.
I wander around the monastery. There are huts built around. I assume these are for laymen who aid in the works of the monastery. In general these are wooden and bamboo structures built on wooden trunks. Sometimes they are reinforced with stones. Cane walls are sometimes plastered with mud but the wooden beams are left bare. This gives the huts an Elizabethan look. Balconies with wooden pillars are common. An entrance porch is also common. I found a woman washing vessels on her porch while another was playing with a child on her lap. The roofs are either thatched or covered with tarpaulin or asbestos as is common in modern times.