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Losar Pilgrimage, Part II

Tso Pema (Rewalsar) is my favorite town on the continent. For now.

The drive to Tso Pema was pretty epic, and unfortunately none of my pictures of the tea plantations really came out. Also, these pictures just don’t do justice to the scale of the terraced farms (for winter wheat and mustard greens in the winter/spring, and rice in the summer/fall, apparently). But maybe you’ll see why the Tibetans say the Indians are like mountain goats—anywhere that it’s possible to live, no matter how high up the mountain, there are people living. And their terraces, and shacks selling chai and Maggi (basically masala-flavored instant ramen).



I’m going to miss this place. But not the carsickness.

This picture was taken in a town whose name escapes me, not far from Tso Pema, and beautifully demonstrates the flexibility of the English language here in India.


I’d have to agree. This is the best Hair Staylist Saloon I’ve ever seen.

So, Tso Pema itself. Much like Dharamsala, in inner section (here the street around the sacred lake) is primarily Tibetan, while the outer section (the street that connects to the main road) is primarily Indian and has shops selling all kinds of practical things. Unlike Dharamsala, this is what you see from all the way down the valley as you approach:


That’s Guru Rinpoche (Sanskrit name: Padmasambhava. Other Tibetan name: Orgyen Pema Jugne), the tantric master who was brought to Tibet because, although the king at the time and the Indian teacher Shantarakshita really wanted to establish Buddhism in Tibet, the local demons/gods/spirits weren’t letting that happen. So they called in Guru Rinpoche, who used his powers and pacified the demons of Tibet, making the land safe for the Dharma. And he has crazy eyes:


The story goes that, before coming to Tibet, Guru Rinpoche and his consort, the Indian princess Mandarava, were staying somewhere around here when the local king, not a Buddhist, decided he didn’t trust them and ordered them executed. So they built a big pile of wood, poured oil on it, and tied up Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava. The flames roared up and lasted for several days. But when they died down, it became clear that the oil had turned to water, forming the lake, and inside the lake were the two executes, sitting unharmed in a giant lotus flower. Nobody gave them any trouble after that.

But that’s not the only story going on here. Tso Pema (tso = “lake,” pema = “padme” = “lotus”) is the Tibetan name, but the Indian name is Rewalsar. Here it is said in the Mahabharata that the five Pandiva brothers and their mother hid here while exiled from their kingdom, before taking it back. Nearby there’s another lake, arrow-shaped, which one of the brothers formed by shooting an arrow into the mountain when they were thirsty. There’s also a Sikh gurdwara (temple) here, though I’m not entirely sure why.

Isn’t that fascinating—three religions coming together at one lake? It leads to an interesting assortment of people doing kora (circumambulating) the lake, though the Tibetans have really built big in the town, and most of the pilgrims we saw were either Tibetan or Himalayan—especially Kinnauris, easily distinguished by the green bands on their hats.

Here’s a view of the lake from the base of the statue. The yellow rooves from right to left are a Kagyu monastery, a Nyingma monastery, and a small shrine. The red building on the other side of the lake is another Kagyu monastery, and the large white structure is the Sikh gurdwara. Out of the frame to the left there are two Hindu shrines—lavender purple and pastel blue, if memory serves, and an enormous new Nyingma monastery on the opposite hillside. When I visited that one the monks and craftspeople were busily adding the finishing touches, painting the gold on the decorations, etc.


The first place we visited was a large Hindu temple complex at the top of the mountain behind Guru Rinpoche. Our jeeps took us there, but it took us about the same length of time to walk down the stairs as to drive up the windy road:


Here’s the view from slightly below the temple. Tso Pema is off to the left, and the messy jumble of rocks and trees in the lower-left of the image is actually covered with prayer flags. That’s where we went.


It’s traditional to hang prayer flags on the third day of Losar, and this was only the first day, but the astrologers had said this was the more auspicious day. Who are we to disagree? Passang-la led the event by making a fire of juniper twigs over which he recited mantras and we passed our really long string of prayer flags (it was at least 70 feet once we’d tied everyone’s together). We wrote our names and those of others on the flags before hanging them to help direct some of the blessings that are still flying out to the gods as I write this.


It was really impressive how good these Tibetans are at hanging prayer flags—but they have practice enough to overcome their short stature. Phil had the honor of climbing the last pole to secure the end:


Another pretty view of the site and the surrounding mountain villages:


And this is the other side of that same spot, which is on top of/behind a small nunnery:


Inside the nunnery is a series of rooms in a cave where Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava are said to have meditated. Three chambers in, there’s a 12+ foot statue of the master himself which wasn’t really an appropriate place to photograph.

Nearby we stopped in to see the cave with what is supposed to be Guru Rinpoche’s footprint, tended by a yogin (dressed as a monk but with long dreadlocks; probably Kagyu or Nyingma) who’d been living there in a little hut for something like 18 years.

We walked around a nearby village and down the hill, passing this fellow and his goats:


Back at the hotel, I turned on the geyser (water heater, pronounced like “geezer”) for a shower. About an hour later, the tank was still warm… and there was a little lizard curled up for warmth. See his tail?


And guess what was on TV? The Lord of the Rings, dubbed into Hindi.


The next day was for exploring town, including the statue. Underneath was this beautiful new temple where workers were just putting the last few strokes of paint in preparation for the Dalai Lama’s visit to inaugurate the place on April 2. So here’s the main Buddha statue…


(Naia would have loved the three garudas on the ceiling, of which this is one)

The view out the door, with some ladders and such…


a few panels telling the story of the construction of the place…


… and the Gelukpa masters, with Je Tsongkhapa in the middle. Recognize the fellow right below him?


Later on, I met up with a friend, bought some puffed rice, and fed it to the fish that live in the lake:


[Insert musings about how symbolic this is of our shared state in samsara…]

The next day, driving back, we stopped at Dzongsar Shedra, the monastic university run by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, the Bhutanese-born rinpoche who’s the author of What Makes You not a Buddhist? and the producer of the first films made in Bhutan, The Cup and Samsara. The temple there is apparently the largest building in Himachal Pradesh. Kinda reminds me of how the Middlebury College Science Center was the largest building in Vermont until the new Vermont Teddy Bear Factory opened up.


Here’s a view of the grounds. There are three large cloister-like areas like this. The facilities are about as nice as at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, but that place has 70 nuns, while there are about 600 monks living here. Dzongsar’s other monastery nearby is my roommate Dimey’s home base, and he considers Dzongsar Kyentse one of his main gurus (even though Dimey is Shakya and Dzongsar is Kagyu. Funny how that works here.)


An American monk we got to know at Sarah gave us a nice tour, though I didn’t appreciate that place quite as much as I would ordinarily have—the mountain roads had me feeling a little queasy. I haven’t gotten carsick much since I finished elementary school, and the only time I remember feeling off in the last several years was a bumpy van ride with the fencing team on the way to winter NIWFAs. But these Himachali roads are a whole new level and part of me is glad to be staying in town for break.

We also stopped at this lovely Shiva temple on the way back because a festival was going on. Passang-la told us the story, though honestly I can’t remember it. What I do remember was greatly enjoying that this place was much more open and clean than most Hindu Temples we’d seen.


So… that’s all for now. I’m starting my 8-day retreat tomorrow and won’t have Internet access during that time. Feel free to comment, email me, etc., but I won’t respond until the end of next week at the earliest.

Posted by cageissler 02:38

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The architecture you're seeing is fascinating. That last temple you went to, the Hindu one, shows the parabolic stupa/pagoda shape which then migrated to China with Buddhism (weird how that works. have you seen any pagodas, by the way?). The parabolic shape really stood out (still does) because all Chinese buildings tend to be flat with upturned eaves...
Anyway! If you see any interesting architecture, let me know...

by Eugenia Sokolskaya

Thank you for letting me experience that wonderful part of the world so impressively.

by sergio

Breathtaking pictures and commentary. While you are exploring the historic landscape, see if you can find us a cave to which we can dispatch the Republican candidates before it's too late!

by Norman

Oh. My. God. All these pictures are just so amazing. LOVE the garudas, and everything else in that temple besides. I've never seen pictures of one in still in the process of being painted. That's amazing. And the Shiva temple is amazing too. We've been covering Hinduism for the past few weeks in Power of Images, and it just makes me wish I was in India so bad. SOMEDAY.
Those fish are kind of freaky. So many of them! They remind me of hungry ghosts. Which reminds me, next time I see you I should lend you this book I found in a Himalayan craft store on Tibetan folk beliefs and practices (not all related to Buddhism). It was really really interesting.

By the way, have you seen anybody get possessed while in India? I can't help but wonder what it's like, ever since Professor Hopkins was talking about sitting next to a woman when she became possessed by... I guess it was Kali? Or maybe it was Durga. I can't remember. I love traditions in which possession isn't a bad thing. I'll take that over a stupid exorcism movie anyday.

by Naia

Eugenia—Chinese-style pagodas? None I can think of. There isn’t really a Chinese presence here, and the Tibetans wouldn’t appreciate having anything visibly Chinese around. Interesting, seeing that many of them—those more recently arrived from the other side of the border—listen to Chinese music and watch Chinese TV. Those who’ve been in Exile longer frown upon such activity.

by cageissler

Naia—what was the name of the book? I may have read or seen it—I’m planning on writing a paper in a couple weeks about modern “folk religion” practices—largely based on observations/interviews of some of the ordinary Tibetans I’ve met here. Remarkably elaborate home shrines, tea offerings to Palden Lhamo (protector goddess) at the big temple, that sort of thing.

Posession. Yes, but only of the formal variety, and only among the Tibetans. The oracles. I’m going to cover this in more depth in a later post, but my host family took me to the Nechung Oracle’s public trance, then another day to look into the windows of the temple as the Parliament of the government-in-exile consulted Nechung and two other oracles.

These were not the little folk oracle-preist-typles that are all over South Asia (indeed, the whole world), but rather the official, state-sponsored consultants of the Tibetan government-in-exile. Absolutely wild stuff.

by cageissler

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