The old monastery

Ghoom is a small town below Darjeeling which you reach by the Hill Cart Road. We arrived at the old monastery in Ghoom, Yiga Choeling, about an hour after sunrise. An old man sat on a bench outside the main shrine with his rosary. A few regulars went in and came out a while later. A lama came out, greeted the few people around, and disappeared. The Family came back and reported clean facilities. We went in, took off our shoes, and realized that we would have to pay for the cameras. The lama appeared, took the money, and ushered us in. The sunlight streamed through an open window and touched the feet of the giant statue of the Maitreya Buddha. A nice touch, that.

The Gelugpa (the yellow hat sect from Tibet) monastery building was completed in 1850, almost a century before many monks fled from the Chinese occupation of Tibet and took refuge here. The Darjeeling hills have become home to a significant Tibetan minority, just the latest of immigrants in this place. The building is peaceful but in need of repair, and I did not grudge the small payment I had to make in order to take photos. From what I saw, the local Tibetan population does not have a very high income, and the donations that they can make to the upkeep of this calm and peaceful monastery i minimal. The place needs visitors.

The monastery is small but exquisite. The murals are wonderful. The four images in the gallery above are just a small sample. I’m far from an expert in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism. The only one of them I recognize is the fearsome figure of the Mahakala (also called Yamantaka). This lovely panel in orange and blues faces the statue of the Buddha. The figure seated on the lotus has to be a representation of the historical Buddha, Gautama, the Sakyamuni. I cannot identify the other two, although one of them is definitely a benign and powerful being, given his green halo. If you are in the neighbourhood, this small monastery is worth a visit.

A long way to Trongsa

Tigers decorate the walls of Tronga dzong, Bhutan

We’d decided to break the long road to Trongsa into two days’ of travel by spending a night and bits of two days in the Phobjika valley. After seeing the Gangtey Goemba, we set out on the road again. It was past noon and we had a long drive ahead of us. There is a single highway between Wangdue Phodrang and Trongsa, so there is little chance of getting lost. We passed through a forest of blue pine, spruce and oak interspersed with bamboo. We passed a lot of yaks browsing and grazing by the road side (see the featured photo). Yaks are generally domesticated here, so there must have been villages nearby, although we did not pass anyone on foot.

Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan

Ten years ago there were no restaurants on the road. Now looking back at the photos I have of the afternoon, I realize that I must have been really hungry when we reached Trongsa between three and four in the afternoon. I remember climbing down the stairs of the dzong to eat in a little Tibetan restaurant and then climbing back up, but I have no photos of the village. Only after a meal did I begin to see the dzong.

Novice monks at study, Trongsa dzong, Bhutan

The approach had been circuitous. The road had nosed down to the fast flowing stream of the Mangde Chuu, and risen again steeply after a check post. I could see now that this was a very large dzong. The number of monks visible was large. I could see novice monks staring at us, but when I turned my camera on them, they went back to their books, like school children in a strict school in any part of the world. Somewhat older, teenaged, monks were not busy at this time of the day and stood in little conversational groups, curious about us. But they were polite, and did not stare at all. The Family pointed out that I was being more intrusive than them.

Monks in Trongsa dzong, Bhutan

In a courtyard near us I saw the usual organizational politics play out. The body language of the young monk, and the expression on the face of the older man, speak of a favour being asked which is not easily granted. I later found that this is inevitable. Not only is the Trongsa Dzong the home of the Wangchuks, the ruling dynasty of Bhutan, it is also the largest of Bhutan’s dzongs.

We didn’t stop for long. We had to move on. Another trip to Bhutan is needed to see the 18th century temple to the Maitreya Buddha inside this dzong. Perhaps the right time would be in January, during the tsechu (temple festival) of Trongsa.

Greek Buddhism

The story of Greek Buddhism seems to be largely forgotten except when events such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas hit the public’s consciousness. When The Family and I chased after a remnant of the neglected Indo-Greek cultures across a flooded river near Bhopal, I had not seen the magnificent schist statue of the Buddha in the National Museum in Delhi (featured photo). The history of the Gandhara kingdom is well documented, widely researched, easy to find, and seldom referred to. In these unsettled days the story is worth keeping in mind.

The Gandhara kingdom was centred around Peshawar and Taxila, and in the period between about 200 BCE and 600 CE it was the meeting place of three cultures: the Greek, the Indian, and the Persian. It was part of the Mauryan empire. The Emperor Ashok was introduced to governance as the satrap of Gandhara, during the reign of his grandfather, Chandragupta the founder of the empire. Buddhism came to Gandhara (and to the rest of empire) with the conversion of Ashoka. The influx of Greek artists and artisans to Central Asia which started after Alexander’s conquests settled into a constant exchange during the Seleucid dynasty, with spillage into the Mauryan empire.

Standing Buddha from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, delhi

The Indo-Greek melding which created the style we call Gandhara arose during the 1st century CE, during the reign of Kushan kings. The featured photo is of a magnificent example of this style. Another one which I liked is the plaster statue of the standing Buddha pictured here. The Kushan kings traded with Rome, and the influence of the imperial Roman style is clear in both the statues. The faces of the Buddhas and the flowing dresses remind me of the flowing robes of 2nd century Roman sculpture, and the faces of Apollo. The statues were often painted and occasionally gilded, but I could not see any trace of paint on the ones I examined.

Bodhisattva from Gandhara ca 2nd century CE, National Museum, Delhi

The head of a Bodhisattva that you see above was striking (in spite of being badly lit). The label did not say much beyond the fact that this is dated to the 2nd century CE. A little search later convinced me that this must be a representation of the Maitreya. He seems to have been very popular in the Gandhara tradition, perhaps almost as much as Gautama. The Maitreya sports a mustache in all the pictures that I saw.

The ascension to the throne of the Kushan Emperor Kanishka, who ruled during the period these three artifact were made, dates the beginning of the Saka calendar, the official calendar of the Indian state. Kanishka’s empire extended as far east as Pataliputra and northwards up to Turfan in present day Xinjiang province. Trade with Rome in this period opened up the silk route and is said to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism into China.

I understand that “most of the archaeological finds of Gandhara art have been the result of casual discovery or clandestine treasure hunts”. This explains the lack of provenance that I noticed in the labels in the museum. In the absence of modern field data, expert opinions on the history of Gandhara art diverge from each other. Unfortunately, this is a part of the world where the major archaeological sites of Peshawar, Taxila, and Swat valley in Pakistan and Jalalabad, Hadda and Bamiyan in Afghanistan have become less accessible. New scholarly expeditions seem to be unlikely in my lifetime. The full story of the flowering of an Afghan-Greek-Iranian-Indian melding will only emerge in a gentler future.