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Stranger than fiction

Unexplained theories abound in the Himalayas. The mystery of reincarnation and tales from the netherworld embody the myth and magic of these mountains.

As long as space endures,
As long as suffering remains,
May I too abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
           -Shantideva, Indian Buddhist mystic


With the words spoken by the Buddhist mystic, the present Dalai Lama sketched the outlines of yet another story of faith. Its narrative centre is the never-ending relationship between the millions suffering in the world and the hand-ful of enlightened beings taking birth to relieve them of it. Its emotive mainspring and motive power is compassion. And at its periphery is the strange theme of portents and predictions.


One such story is that of Pema Wongchen, a baby identified as a young reincarnate. His parents claimed that Pema Wongchen did not close his eyes for two days after his birth. He stayed awake and never cried. Beyond all these portents, were the remarkable words uttered by another revered head priest, Chatral Rinpoche, who had been invited to bless the newborn. “This child is a tulku (a reincarnation of a lama of high attainment),’ Wongchen's parents quoted the Rinpoche. ‘This is Chupo Padem. He has been reborn many times.’


If authority was not lacking to confirm Wongchen as a reincarnate neither were the elements. Two disciples saw dragons in the sky the day Wongchen was born, according to his father Ralo Rinpoche and his mother.


The people too accepted him as a reincarnate. On the day of his enthronement, hundreds of lay people, clutching blessing scarves and envelopes full of money offerings, filled the monastery behind the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu valley. Here Dilgo Khyentse, a lama of extraordinary presence, enthroned Pema Wangchen as a tulku . Eyes barely blinking, the young boy's head met the 85-year-old-master’s. Khyentse Rinpoche bestowed his own realised qualities on the child, following that with training.


At his dwelling place in a hillside monastery, the tulku is just another boy, screaming and waving his toy sword like an incarnation of the Bodhisatva Manjushri, the sword-wielding slayer of ignorance. Ralo Rinpoche explains how a realised consciousness chooses its birth, unlike the rest, who are thrown back into the wheel of life by the forces of greed, lust, attachment and anger.


Buddhist and Indian thought subscribe to the notion of death being only the end of the physical body, not of the mind or the ego. Both believe that an individual carries over the seeds of his actions into the next life, thereby reaping what he had sowed in earlier ones. In this sense it is not an escape from this illusory world of maya but a carrying forward of the psychological traits and the vast huddle of habits and unsatisfied desires that force the individual to be reborn again and again. It is a vicious cycle-birth and rebirth-tied in as it is with man’s seemingly infinite ability to forget lessons learnt amidst suffering and misery, and his resistance to forsake injury. Standing neckdeep in the quagmire of unbounded materialism, he is sucked in further by giving scant attention to dharma, that is, moral law and righteous action. His violation of natural laws and of his dignity and self-respect results in his spending more time in the tempting but treacherous penitentiary that is the world.


But there are those who distance themselves from ignorance: who remember, persevere and attain enlightenment. They, then return-due to their great love for humanity-to confer it on others. Such a person-a bodhisattva in Buddhism, an avatar in Hinduism-is a reincarnate, one who sacrifices eternal freedom for the bonds of flesh.


With such a belief system firmly in place in the East, a search for a reincarnate, hinted at by a man of spiritual stature, is hardly a surprise, though it can be controversial.


A snippet: In 1920, when repair work was underway in the eastern wing of the Potala Palace, the winter residence of the Dalai Lamas, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama instructed the artists to paint a blue bird on the walls of the stairs to the north of the West Chamber and a white dragon on the wall to the east. All the knowledgeable people gathered there, including the mural master, were perplexed by the instruction, which made no sense either historically or scriptually. The symbolism became clear later. The blue bird indicated that the Thirteenth Dalai Lama would pass away in the Water Bird Year (1933), while the white dragon in the east indicated the enthronment of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (the present one) in the Iron Dragon Year.


Two years after the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama passed away, the Regent and the Tibetan government took steps to search for the next Dalai Lama. They had their fair share of portents. Strange cloud formations were seen to the north-east of Lhasa. The body of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, facing south in the Norbulingka palace, was found facing the north-east-the direction in which, eventually, the next Dalai Lama was found.


Less dramatic but far more poetic, the unveiling of the Sixth Dalai Lama’s prophecy as regards his reincarnation. Though his lifestyle had given cause for consternation to Tibetans-wandering off on his own, roaming through the streets of Lhasa as he sang drunken songs (his own compositions). His note from exile, shored up his reputation:


Lend me your wings, white crane;
I go no further than Lithang,
And thence, return again.


No one knew what the verse meant at the time of his death but it was immediately heralded as prophetic when the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama was discovered at Lithang.


For the Hindu, the Himalaya abounds in pilgrimage spots. There are sacred sites near rivers, mountains, caves... The landscape is high in religious density, giving to the whole region a sanctity that permeates the casual visitor even as it astounds the religious-minded for whom a pilgrimage is the high point of their lives


In the religious barometer, Amarnath (3,888 metres) located in a narrow gorge in Jammu and Kashmir, has a high reading. Legend has it that Lord Shiva recounted to Goddess Parvati the secret of creation in a cave there. Unknown to them, a pair of mating doves eavesdropped on the conversation. It is believed that the pair of doves have made the cave their eternal abode and are reborn again and again. Even today many pilgrims report seeing a pair of doves at the end of their trek to the ice-lingam (the phallic symbol of Lord Shiva) at Amarnath.


During Shravan (July-August), the devoted flock to the cave where the ice stalagmite is flanked by two more ice-lingams , those of goddess Parvati and her son, the elephant-headed god, Ganesha. The regularity of the devotion is matched only by the pair of doves (the original couple?) that has, till today, not taken flight.


Yet another linga was found in Uttaranchal. Here, an over 100-feet deep cave forms the holy altar of Lord Shiva.


Patal Bhuvaneshwar in the Kumaon hills encapsulates in stone aeons of Hindu mythology. It is believed that a king discovered the cave and that the first guru, Shankaracharya, consecrated it. For the last eight centuries, the same family of priests has been performing worship in that spot. Each day, the priest descends 82 steps into the earth through a three-feet-high opening that serves as a comprehensive introduction to Hindu mythology.


The stalactites that loom ahead are said to be the jatas or tresses of Lord Shiva and the fearsome snake that can be dimly seen is none other than Sheshnaga -teeth, jaws and poison sac all in place as he keeps to his mighty duty of holding up the world.


Patal Bhuvaneshwar, in fact, has more than one connection with snakes. It is said to be the site of a havana kund (a sacrifice) held by a son whose father had been cursed with death by a snake bite. His father was a king-Raja Parikshat, much liked by the gods. But despite the havana, which destroyed all snakes, the curse came to pass. A snake hid in a flower basket given to the king, as an offering for the ceremony by Lord Brahma and stung the king.


However, death is hardly the theme of the cave, which is more a site for prayers to grant liberation. There is a hollow in the rocks that is said to represent the mouth of Kal Bhairav’s mount, a dog. If the visitor can go inside it and reach the tail, he is sure to end the cycle of birth and rebirth. If not, one can always go to the sanctum sanctorum and pray for eternal freedom to the copper-gilded Shivalinga, the symbol of a god who is the very embodiment of paradox and duality; who brings the universe to an end with his dance of destruction (tandava ); who grants moksha (liberation or nirvana ) with the mere bestowal of grace; who plays the besotted lover to goddess Parvati and is yet the supreme ascetic.


At Patal Bhuvaneshwar, his lingam resides in the womb of the earth, along with the figures and legends of mythology. No mortal has yet prised open their mouths to reveal who sculpted them in a silent frenzy of stone.