Urgelling Gompa and the sixth Dalai Lama

urgellingIf Tawang is remembered in Tibet, it is because of Tsangyang Gyatso, who was born here and then became the sixth Dalai Lama. Our first stop was to be the Urgelling Gompa, where he was born.

The Victors wanted to get up late. Avatar flatly refused to drive in Tawang unless we had someone who knew the roads. We’d studied the layout of Tawang on the way in, and could navigate by GPS, but Avatar was deathly afraid of getting lost. So we asked the hotel if they could spare someone for half the day. The head cook, who called himself Lobsang, had nothing to do, since he’d already farmed out his work to the young boys in the kitchen. So he was elected as the guide to The Family and me.

The Urgelling gompa is a small structure, standing serenely in the middle of some woods. We walked in through the half-closed gate, and skirted the building counter-clockwise, running our hands over the prayer wheels as we went. Ever since I read Terry Pratchett’s "Thief of Time" I’ve always set prayer wheels in motion. We came out on the courtyard in front of the entrance to the gompa. The morning sun made everything look cheerful.

tsangyanggyatsoThe gompa was closed, but Lobsang found the caretaker, who opened the door for us. The inside was stunning. Colourful paintings lit up the small room. Suspended above them were thangkas with portraits of the successive Dalai Lamas. I asked Lobsang to point out the sixth. There was a bit of consultation between him and the caretaker, a bit of counting, and they pointed to the portrait alongside. Interestingly, in his own birthplace, the sixth Dalai Lama is revered, but not really remembered.

She smells sweet of body
My sweetheart, the highway queen;
Like the worthless white turquoise
She was found, to be thrown away.
— Tsangyang Gyatso

Being ignorant of Tibetan history, I researched his tragic-romantic story later. The fifth Dalai Lama had died in the middle of messy politics involving Tibet, China, and Mongolia. The search for the next reincarnation was carried out in secret by the Dalai Lama’s regent. When Tsangyang Gyatso was found, he was already fourteen years old. He was administered the vows of a novice monk by the Panchen Lama. The rebellious teenager was said to be constantly at loggerheads with his instructors. He renounced his vows, dressed as a lay person, was seen to drink and often left the palace to visit prostitutes. He wrote love poems which are still known today. His lack of interest in governing destabilized the political balance in the region. A Mongol warlord invaded Tibet, and conspired to send the Dalai Lama to China. He disappeared at the age of 24, in the year 1706, on his way to China as a prisoner.

thringchenga verychanga

The murals on the walls were clearly religious stories. I took photos as Lobsang translated the caretaker’s words from Mon to Hindi. Unfortunately the stories mostly left out important details, perhaps the locals know the stories so well that they assume that we too can fill in the gaps. My notes mention Lappan Rinpoche, Thring Cheng and Tsokta. The person in the picture above to the left, is clearly a powerful being; he has on the yellow hat of the Gelugpa sect and holds a tiger in his left hand. The picture on the right could depict the entity whose statue is shown in this post.

serene monk

I could not make out whether those powerful entities were entirely benign. But what about these? The one on the left above is clearly a very powerful person. But he is not totally benign, judging by the three heads which he holds in his spear. The man in the red robe is clearly a monk. He too has the green halo of a superior being. Could this be a Dalai Lama? We did not get a full story, but the caretaker offered us interesting biscuits: salted crackers with cheese between pairs. They looked like they were ordinary sweet cream biscuits, but they were salty. The Family found them later in the market; they are made in Kolkata.

Still bemused, we followed our two guides down the external stairs to the lower level. This was the basement behind the prayer wheels. It was filled with chhortens. Lobsang and the caretaker lit some lamps here and changed the water for the flowers. We followed them out. We were led to two trees to the right of the entrance gate (visible as the middle tree behind the gompa in the photo on top). When Tsangyang Gyatso left Urgelling, he planted three trees and said that he would return when they died. One of them withered a little before the 14th Dalai Lama walked into Tawang in 1958. The other two seemed very healthy.

The place where the soul of the Dalai Lama is said to reside. Our guides are on the left, the caretaker closer to the camera.
The place where the soul of the Dalai Lama is said to reside. Our guides are on the left, the caretaker closer to the camera.

This would have been the end of our tour if Lobsang had not accompanied us. But the caretaker now decided to show us a little local secret. We clambered down the slope outside the gate. About a hundred meters down was a little pool of water with a stone in the middle of it. The area around it was covered over with colourful prayer flags. This is where the soul of the Dalai Lama resides, we were told. The unlucky boy, Tsangyang Gyatso, had good taste. The forest was calm and peaceful, and I hope it remains so, a little neglected, but alive in people’s memories; like a favourite old uncle you wish you could visit, but no longer have the time to.

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Author: I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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