A Travel Diary
By Nicholas Roerich
[ Published by Claude Bragdon ]
Part VII : INDIA (1924)
In the first full moon after New Year, which fell this year on the twentieth of February, there was the annual festival in Tashi-ding. The miracle of the self-filling chalice occurs at the time.
Since ancient days—more than eight generations ago—this miracle has been ordained. From a designated spot in the mountain river a small vessel of water is drawn and poured into an ancient wooden chalice. In the presence of witnesses, representatives of the Maharajah of Sikkim, the chalice is closed and hermetically sealed. A year later at sunrise during the same full moon, the chalice is unsealed amidst due ceremony and the quantity of water is measured. Sometimes the water has diminished but sometimes it has increased considerably. In the year of the great war the water tripled in quantity, which meant war. Now the water has diminished by half, which means famine and disorder.
This evil omen has been intensified by another sign. On February twentieth there occurred a complete eclipse of the moon. Never has there been so evil a sign.
The trumpets sound, the whistles shriek, the people in costumes, as though from the “Snowmaiden,” proceed to the great stupa. The choir, singing, winds its way around the crowds. (extra space below – no indent)
Many prostrate themselves. The drums of the lamas resoundingly thunder. At this moment darkness falls athwart the clear moonlight ! The golden fires of offerings gleam out as though against black velvet. Occurs a complete eclipse ! The demon Rahu has stolen the moon ! Never was it so until this day of miracle in Tashi-ding.
Said Asura Rahu to the sun : “Because thou hast carried away Razayana by deceit, I shall swallow thee, god of sun, at that time when, on the thirtieth day, you will unite the knots of the orbit!” And further Rahu pronounced a prophetic threat : “In penalty that thou, moon, although recognizing me, commanded that I be cut asunder, I shall seize thee and devour thee on the date of the fifteenth, during the time of the full moon!” And attentively the people are watching the eclipse of the moon and sun and beat upon the drums and threaten Rahu.
But there was also one good omen. At sunrise the head lama beheld garlands of fire starting to glow upon the peaks of the mountains.
When the moon was restored to the world, the dancing commenced around the main stupa, a typical Russian round. The songs are also like the Russian; their import is spiritual. “In a monastery dwells our Lord Buddha. We bring to him our offering”—so begins one song; or “Mighty is the sacred book but I shall find a spot for it close to my heart” or, “I recollect the sacred monastery.”
In a white kaftan the artist who decorated the local temple approaches. We have arranged for him to go with us to paint the Blessed Maitreya. He will demonstrate the technique of the local painting.
Red, yellow, white, purple kaftans; women’s sleeves of crimson, green and white. Peaked hats, fur-edged. The people talk, sing, and for two nights walk around the stupa.
They are touching their foreheads to the stone upon which the teacher, Padma Sambhava gave his benediction of the site. They walk around another stone bearing the imprint of the teacher’s foot and the imprint of hoofs and paws of beasts. And again the chorus marches around the stupa, singing of the fulfillment of all desires.
Entering the temple, you walk along your left up to the wall of the altar. Within the temples of the Yellow Sect, in the center of the altar wall, is the statue of Buddha. Or now, perhaps Maitreya-Buddha is at the right. Sometimes the lower temple is dedicated to Padma Sambhava and the upper one to Buddha. These positions are closely related to the inner meanings of the teachings : Buddha represents heaven; Padma Sambhava the earth. Upon the side niches are images of Avalokiteshvara— a spiritual conclave of brotherhood, many-headed and many-armed, like our Russian Hundred-Armed One. There are also statues of the “Keepers of Lightning,” of the founders of Monasteries and of sixteen Arhats, sitting in carved caves. Upon the altar are lamps and various offerings, seven chalices with water, a saucer of rice, censers with incense, a shrine with relics.
The walls are generally covered with frescoes, especially one wall, that of the altar. At the entrance stand the images of the guardians of the four hemispheres. In every temple will be found an image of the seven treasures vouchsafed to humanity; among them on a white horse is the image of the miraculous stone.
In a special compartment are kept the sacred books. The common dream of the monasteries is to increase the number of books; but books are expensive—a sacred volume costs up to a thousand rupees.
Especially touching is the service of the thousand lights, in the evening, here in the low frescoed temple, with its columns and ornamented beams. In the center is a long table on which fires are set; along the walls also stand rows of lights, and this sea of fires caressingly undulates and sways, wrapped in a veil of smoke from the sandalwood, wild mint and other fragrances, which are consumed in the urns. During this service the singing, too, is of exquisite harmony.
Along all paths, the caravans of the pilgrims wind their way. High saddles are covered with bright fabrics. Wild white ponies are bearing the bulging-bellied luggage. There are crowds of pilgrims seeking a resting place for the night. Here and there are a few banners raised in memory of the living and oftener for the dead. A crowd up to 1,200 collects together—but a peaceful, good crowd.
At early dawn, long before sunrise, when the snows on the mountain are still soft amber, the camp begins to stir. The drone of life creeps along and broadens; the cadence of early prayer mingles with the stamping of horses and mules.
In the morning, a procession makes its way toward our tents. The head lama himself proclaims the bringing of gifts. After him follow high uplifted trays with rice, with the ribs of a ram, with sugar-cane, with ale and fruit. The lama himself makes the offering to our traveling kitchen.
Amidst the stupas are spread the tents of the pilgrims. Here under a green canopy are sitting lamas from Tibet. Women are turning for them the lengthy pages of the prayer book. The lamas are intoning Tantrik songs, to the sounds of hand drums and gongs. Where is Stravinsky, Stokovsky, Prokofieff, where Zavadsky, to portray the powerful modes of these stirring calls ? And how fine is the white-gold face of her who turns the pages before the singers.
Not far off, a group from Nepal are clapping hands in rhythmic beat and chanting. In the center, a woman, with features unmoved, ecstatically dances the Sherpa Dance, full of the fine gestures of conjuration. Sometimes she moves her hands in a fluttering motion like a bird and utters a weird birdlike call. It is indeed striking.
There the wanderers from Bhutan are praying under a red canopy. Before the distribution of the healing waters, a sacred procession walks around the stupas. In the front are trumpeters in high red hats; after them the lamas in tiaras, and behind are borne a long row of sacred books.
At sunset, within the tent, the head lama quietly speaks of the sanctuaries of Sikhim. He relates the “miracles” which he has heard, or has himself seen; of the buzzing of swarms of invisible bees; of the singing and celestial music; of the apparitions of sacred images. At our departure the lama pointed out two gracious omens. Upon our way, coming to meet us, were three brimming bamboo water-pails carried by water carriers and two woodsmen with full fagots of wood.
Tashi-ding is one of Sikhim’s prominent sites and belongs to the parish of a great monastery, Pemayangtse, and is a day’s travel away. It is also on the peak, standing like a bulwark. It has been newly rebuilt. Its renovation has been done with such sensitiveness that even the most recent painting gives you joy by its fine and ingenious decoration. And the carvings on the casements are fairylike. And the tall heavy doorways lead you into the wooden temples of Russia. Dignified are the head lamas with their festive purple garments and with their impressive red tiaras adorning their heads. Nevertheless one recalls with most pleasure the eighty-year-old abbot of Tashi-ding, ever zealous and careful to improve his structure, with his economical eye penetrating everywhere.
Behind the gates of Pemayangtse are standing as guardians three-hundred-year-old ancient trees—like the fairy forest of Berendey. A tiny street of the lamas’ homes is like the suburb of Berendey, painted and ornamented with its many-colored porches and stairways.
Here is “Heaven’s Sacred Mountain” and upon its peaks shines a small mountain lake. There is also a small temple erected on the spot where the founder of the Red Sect in Sikhim lived. From Dubdi, the founder passed to the Sacred Lake and thence into the ancient Sanga Chöling.
The four most ancient monasteries of Sikhim are Dubdi, Sanga Chöling, Daling and Robling. And the meanings of their names are noble ones : “Palace of Meditation,” “Island of Secret Teaching,” “Island of Lightning” and “Island of Happy Striving.”
An excellent monastery is Sanga Chöling; nor do we forget Daling with its blue-white, porcelain-like entrance amidst a bamboo grove. Here at the altar is preciously kept a sealed box containing relics of the founder of the monastery. There are banners—gold on a black background. In Sanga Chöling there are no relics, but there lies a stone made sacred by the blessing of the founder; when the life in the monastery is undefined the stone is firm, but each besmirching of life makes the stone crack.
Here are those tiny doors, beloved to me in Novgorod and Yaroslavl. Here is beautiful fresco painting. Here are the polychrome ornaments entwining all casements of the windows and doors. Here are the same rounded backs of pilgrims devoted to the faith, and the fires of dedicated offerings. Our coolies are also lighting a fire—a true widow’s mite. And above them adamantly rises “the Keeper of Lightning.”
Although the teacher, Padma Sambhava, was never in Pemayangtse, yet in the monastery are kept the things which belonged to this founder of the religion. The things are kept sealed but on some occasions are shown; a garment, headdress, beads, tiny bells of a wondrous chime, two magic daggers and a small exquisite image of Buddha.
And the trumpets sound more thunderous in Pemayangtse and the dragon guardians seem more terrifying and the influence of the monastery is greater. The ruins of the palace of the Maharajah are near. According to the biblical custom the first Maharajah was chosen to reign by the head of the religion. But there is no figure of Maitreya in the big monastery.
A few solitary temples with a single fire before them, surrounded by peach and rose flowers and intertwining orchids and wild peonies, indicate closer the path of simple attainment of the Teaching.
Out of the forest walks a peasant and his head is adorned with white flowers. Where is this possible? Only in Sikkim.