Hotels in India » Religion-culture in India » The Buddhist Boom

The Buddhist Boom

The glory of Ladakhi Buddhism is undoubtedly the gompa which means a ‘solitary place’ and a few places like Hemis and Ridzong are certainly that

Many others are situated near and usually above a village. Often built on a slope or near the summit of a craggy hill they rise tier upon tier as much as seven or eight storeys, dominating the landscape all around. With their massive walls and small windows they might be mistaken for fortresses, if it were not for the chortens and mani walls scattered all around about the approach and the prayer-flags fluttering gaily everywhere. The chortens are the stupas of ancient Indian Buddhism. Their origin is supposed to be the grave-mounds erected over the divided ashes of Gautam Buddha. They serve the purpose of reliquaries. Those near the gompas also contain sacred objects.

The spiritual leaders are the lamas who are seen everywhere in their bright terracotta robes. Although they look and dress alike, the lamas of Tibetan Buddhism are divided into a number of different orders. A simplistic division is that of the Red Hats and Yellow Hats. They have a great influence among the Buddhist laity, as preachers, teachers and in their role as priests and ministers on all solemn occasions of family — births, marriages, and deaths and the great new year festival of Losar. They are advisors on the efficacy of various actions and exorcists with powers to banish evil spirits. The lamas live congregated in the gompas. The head lama of each gompa is a kushok, the incarnation of some holy man of long ago. The kushok enjoys the courtesy title of Rinpoche, the Precious Jewel. Like the monasteries of medieval Europe, many of the gompas are supported by endowments of agricultural land. The rest of their requirements, they receive from the villagers in kind.

Buddhism is divided into different sects. The two main ones are Hinayana and Mahayana. While the aim of the Hinayanis is to look after their own nirvana, or enlightenment, the Mahayanis believe in nirvana of all living creatures to be their aim and objective. That is why they are named Maha or Great, and the other as Hina or inferior. According to Hinayana, in order to attain nirvana, one has to adopt the life of a sanyasi or monk.

The Mahayanis on the other hand believe that it suffices to love all creation and worship Buddha with one’s heart in order to escape the bonds of rebirth. Everyone — the ordinary labourer, businessman, a King — has an equal chance of attaining nirvana. Mahayana gave rise to a third sect — Vajrayana, the vehicle of the thunderbolt. In the 11th and 12th century, Buddhism was gradually losing ground to the onslaught of resurgent Hinduism south of the Himalayas. Meanwhile, Tibet emerged as an important centre of Buddhism in the northern Himalayas. For as long as Buddhism was a living religion in India, the land of its origin, Ladakh continued to look in its direction for inspiration but, when the decline set in, as it did in the 12th century, Tibet took its place and adopted a kind of pontifical authority. The early established system of novices being sent to monasteries in central Tibet for training must have been the most effective channel through which Tibet’s religious culture was transmitted to Ladakh. The overwhelming influence of Tibet on Ladakh’s religious culture is evident everywhere. Ladakh is part of the great Tibetan plateau and cut off from India by the formidable barrier of the great Himalayan ranges whereas it is separated from Lhasa, the cultural and political centre of Tibet by only 1,500 kilometres of comparatively easy road. The population of central and eastern Ladakh displays predominantly Tibetan racial features and the Ladakhi language is a dialect of Tibetan.

Thiksey is one of the largest and most impressive gompas in Central Ladakh. A motorable road connects the monastery to the road below. Thiksey was probably established in the middle of the 15th century and is modeled upon the famous Potala Palace of Lhasa, Tibet. There is an image of Maitreya in an unusual manifestation — sitting in the lotus position. The murals behind the image represent scenes from Maitreya’s life.

The village of Matho is situated at the mouth of a gorge running out of the depths of the Zanskar Range directly opposite Thiksey. The Matho gompa is famous for its annual festival of the oracles which takes place around the Buddhist New year. The oracles are two lamas chosen by lot every three years who when purified by months of fasting and meditation become the receptacles of the spirits of a particular deity. Once possessed by the God, the oracles perform all sorts of dramatic feats cutting themselves with knives, and cavorting blindfolded along the parapets of the gompa. In this state, they answer questions about the welfare of Ladakh and all other individual queries.

As a monastic site, Lamayuru is be-lieved to be the oldest in Ladakh and to have been a holy place of the Bon-chos before the advent of Buddhism. Perched on a spur high above the Valley, it is one of the most picturesque of the gompas.

But perhaps the most serene and beautiful gompa is that of Alchi. The village and chos-kor (religious enclave) of Alchi form an oasis cradled in a bend of the river just opposite Saspol. Alchi is one of the few places where there is formal provision for visitors to spend a night or two in an inn. The extent and richness of the chos-kor seem to suggest that in its day it must have been a religious centre of great importance. The extraordinary state of preservation in which many of its murals remain can be attributed to the fact that it was abandoned as a living centre of worship for reasons altogether unknown. Thus iconography of the earliest period of the spread of Buddhism in Ladakh is miraculously preserved here. The style is quite different from that of the later gompa-paintings whose inspiration came wholly from Tibet. The murals show the thousand Buddhas in a detailed and fine style and the ceiling is made of attractive, decorated panels.

How Alchi survived the repeated advances of the iconoclasts of Islam remains a mystery. But the mud-plastered walls with their murals remain a rich heritage and all the gompas of Ladakh stand testimony to a great culture with peaceful, non-violent and spiritual elements, which the consumerism-weary individuals from all over the modern world, are turning to, for the ultimate salvation — nirvana.

The Vajrayana way

While the central principal of Vajrayana Buddhism is not different from the other two sects, tantric elements adopted from Hinduism and introduced into it made it extremely complex. These elements were in the form of a feminine principle, in a state of simultaneous polarity and fusion with the masculine one. It was further complicated by inclusion of some pagan elements. In Tibet, the old religion was the pantheistic and shamanistic Bon Religion which was characterized by a highly developed cosmic system having a multiplicity of Gods and demons. Buddhism as it spread made no attempt to suppress this ancient cult altogether, but rather absorbed as many of its beliefs and practices as were not in conflict with its own. Thus many Bon deities appear in the Vajrayana pantheon as Dharmapalas — Guardians of the law. All this resulted in an immensely difficult and ramified system of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, Gods and Goddesses, beliefs and rituals, magic and mysticism, in which the whole cosmic order, and the human person in his totality — body, spirit, senses, mind, emotions — everything is involved.

There has developed in Buddhism a deep rift between popular practice and belief and the higher level of theology because of its inherent complexity. The Buddhist laity for the most part seems to be content with an uncomprehending observance of outward forms, based on a few simplistic beliefs and show little understanding of the complexities of their faith. The common Ladakhi spins a prayer wheel, scrupulously keeps a chorten or mani wall on his right as he passes without necessarily thinking of the turning of the Great Wheel of Life, yet he exudes a tranquility reflecting the central Buddhist attitudes of compassion for all living things.

The iconography of Vajrayana is very complex and adheres strictly to the dictates of its Tibetan authority. A great degree of symbolism exists in the way the characters are represented and the colours used. Some divinities recur in almost all the monasteries. Prominent among them are the Dharmapalas, Guardians of Law. Particularly noticeable is Mahakala, the divinity associated with time. Other guardian Divinities are Yamantaka, the God of death represented with many arms. These are the divinities, who with their fearful aspect play such an important part in the annual dance-dramas held by each monastery on the days of its own particular festival. These dances are carried out by the monks of the monastery and huge crowds of villagers gather to witness them. They wear massive masks of bizarre description and over their robes they wear fine brocades and silks. Accompanying music is also provided by the lamas who blow into immense copper and brass horns and play massive cymbals. It is indeed a colourful spectacle. Tangkhas are scrolls of cloth with paintings of the various deities. Some gompas house very old Tangkhas (paintings on silk scrolls) which are exhibited once every so many years — the huge Tangkha of Padmasambhava embroidered and adorned with pearls is ritually displayed every twelve years.