The glorious Pemyangtse monastery

Detail of ducks from a painting in the Pemyangtse monastery

The Pemyangtse gompa lived up to its reputation. Some workers were busy repaving the front courtyard as we got off the steep entry ramp. They waited for us to walk past them to the stairs leading up to the monastery. A monk was sitting nearby with a book in which we had to enter our names. Behind him was a gigantic prayer wheel. We walked around it, and found it was pretty well balanced, and required little effort to turn. We walked round the main building to the inner courtyard. We’d missed the morning prayers. Many young monks were at their lessons in a side building. We took off our shoes and climbed the stairs to the gorgeous entrance porch.

Painting of a guardian deity in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of another guardian deity at the Pemyangtse monastery
Painting of the parable of the 4 friends in Pemyangtse monastery Painting of the benign monk in Pemyangtse monastery

This monastery was almost the last thing we planned to see in this trip, and the wait had been worth it. The paintings were gorgeous and overwhelming. On the pillars next to the steps leading up to the porch were paintings of two guardian deitys (top row in the table above). The fearsome guardians wear tiger-skins, a crown of skulls, and a garland of heads. Some of the heads seem to have pretty modern hair styles. One of the guardians rides and elephant, the other a white yak. They are surrounded by lighting and fire. The guardians carry maces while their left hand is folded into the karana mudra.

The two pillars on either sides of the door had gentler murals. The one on the left had a beautiful painting of the four harmonious friends. The rendering of the tree with fruits and birds seems specially beautiful. The other pillar has a blue and gold painting of a serene monk surrounded by deer and herons; his disciples throng around him, and one of them offers him tea.

Detail of Yama devouring the Bhavachakra in the Pemyantse monastery

The rest of the porch is full of large and beautiful paintings. One shows Yama, the god of death, devouring the Bhavachakra. A teenaged monk was passing by. I asked him in Hindi whether he could explain the meaning of the wheel. He gestured to a friend who came and explained to us that he could talk to us because he speaks better Hindi. He called the wheel by its Tibetan name Srd paikhor lo, and gave a quick explanation of the six realms of samsara. Then he pleaded that he had to go for his classes, and left.

Detail of a phoenix in a painting in Pemyangtse monastery

Glorious as the paintings are, they need restoration. Large parts of the painting o the powerful bird above, either Garuda or the phoenix, are fading. The people below him in the picture are just outline figures. In some parts of the murals the layer of paint above the plaster has fallen off, other parts are flaking. Clearly the murals are painted on to a dry plaster. It is time for the local monks to start restoring the paintings.

We walked into the monastery. Unlike the Tibetan monasteries, one is not allowed to take photos inside. At first sight, the empty cavernous space of the prayer hall looked very much like the Gelugpa monastery in Tawang. Then we noticed the differences. Amongs them are the statues along the wall. The large main statue is a many armed and many headed aspect of the Guru, Padmasambhava. It is interesting that in addition to the central statue, the Guru, in his many incarnations, gets more statues than the Buddha himself.

There are two floors above this. We walked upstairs under the gaze of cameras. The first floor has more statues and paintings worth spending time on. The theme of the Guru’s many incarnations carries on here. The top floor has many old books in Tibetan and Pali, and a wonderful painting of the heavenly palace of the Guru.

The Pemyangtse monastery was founded in 1705 by Lhatsun Chempo. Although built later than Dubdi and Tashiding, it now exerts administrative control over all the other Nyingma monasteries in Sikkim. That was consistent with the number of monks we saw here. The next time we visit, we will have to come here first to get permission to enter the Dubdi monastery. The temple festival occurs around the same time as the Bhumchu festival in Tashiding, namely around the Maghi Purnima. In most years that would be around the end of February. We’d missed it by about a week.

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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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