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.

Dirang Bazaar

punters tyresome

After a listless trip to Sangti valley we spent the rest of the day playing at being tourists in the bazaar of Dirang. According to the 2011 census there were 3750 people in the town. The number of army and para-military people probably swells the population a little beyond the 4000 mark. For such a small town, the center is bustling with activity, even on a Sunday.

shoes wool

During the day there was a continuous stream of visitors to Santosh, the most popular eatery in the bazaar. Seeing the turnover we went there and found that the popular thing to eat seems to be a samosa chaat. It went well with the tea. Santosh agreed to start up his jalebis for us. After that we walked around looking at the shoe shops. The relation between Arunachalis and shoes probably merits a separate post. So does the relationship with knitting wool.

superman monk

The idea of going to Dirang dzong did not sit well. We walked all the way to the end of the town where the garages and body-work shops were, and then waked all the way back to the other end where our car was parked. Instead of walking up and down the drag again, we took the car and went off to see the Gompa. The old gompa, Kalachakra, was closed. I got shots of the kids playing there. Most of them were happy to pose for the photos. We went to the new gompa, still under construction. A monk sat out in the cold lawn making an elaborate cement sculpture. I guess the old technique of wood-carving is no longer used; wood is too costly and has to be renewed too often.

We saw no state transport buses. The road had several "travel agents" selling tickets for a Sumo ride to Bomdi La, Bhalukpong, Tezpur and Guwahati. The Sumos all leave at 5:30 in the morning. The Victor asked about the trip to Tezpur and found that it takes Rs. 450 and eight hours. We had seen some of these Sumos on the way: about ten to twelve people packed into a vehicle which we would normally think of as holding no more than six. The price of the ticket seemed high compared to the price of food. Between this ticket and the lack of state transport buses, it seems that Dirang is pretty isolated.

market wineshop

We came back to the bazaar after sundown. The snack-sellers had gathered by the road. In spite of the cold there was a dense crowd around the guy with the pani puris. In contrast, the number of people buying at the "wine shops" was miniscule. We called it an early day. Our day’s stop had been meant for bird watching. Instead we spent the day people watching. It was a look into the life of one of India’s smallest towns: a completely foreign experience for us. The next morning we would cross the Se La into the high valleys.