Pilgrimage (Part Two)

Rumtek Monastery 1971
- Russell Rolfe

Pilgrimage Part One is the Darjeeling Demon

At the meeting that night we learned that our permits to enter Sikkim, so generously secured by the Canadian ambassador, were not going to be accepted. Permits in India can be of dubious value at any time but especially so in 1971 when the country was at war with Pakistan. This necessitated our sending an emissary to Delhi and, through the ambassador, another request would be made, this time directly to Indira Gandhi. The group would wait in Darjeeling until new permits were secured, this time from the top. When the phone lines were working, His Holiness the Karmapa was also advised of our hold-up.

Our anticipation grew as the days wore on. I believe it was over a week but time was compressed as we explored the Tolkeinesque trails with their hidden abandoned relics of the British Raj in the misty forest. One had the sense of immense changes colliding with an ever reluctant past.

We couldn't imagine being turned back now, especially since the Karmapa, the Black Hat Hierarch of Tibet and honored as a Living Buddha in his sixteen successive incarnations, was aware of our plight at his doorstep. There was little surprise when the permits came through. What was astonishing was how they were secured.

The prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi, was presented the petition at the behest of the Canadian ambassador, Mr. George, but she had little inclination or time to worry about a large group of foreigners in a sensitive border region close to China. There was a war on with Pakistan over Bangladesh and, despite the nearly hysterical political clamor that surrounded her she would, as always, remain in control. She passed our request on to her Minister Of The Interior for his decision. This minister had just had a close relative pass away. He was a Hindu and, as such, was bound by tradition to grant the very first request that was made to him after a close relative dies. Our request reached his desk the very day he learned of the death in his family. Death is the essential condition of life and human life consists of mutual service with death.

It took several more days for our group of 108 Westerners to hire every available four-wheel-drive vehicle in Darjeeling. Then, early one morning, miraculously we were all off at once, a fleet of land-rovers that resembled some of the endless military convoys we had seen on their way to the front in West Pakistan. The 20 kilometers from Darjeeling to Sikkim commenced at a snail-like pace. The unpaved road had been severely eroded by the late monsoon rains and was being tested beyond its limits by our 15 vehicles. We were in the clouds crawling through enormous steep landslides where it seemed there was no track at all, only a slanting mushy scree listing off to impenetrable depths on one side. We ground to a halt. This wasn't just another of the many passport check-points though. Many of us, like myself, were standing on the back of our land-rovers hanging onto the canvas roof frame the better to jump off should the mountain ooze away underneath.

In fact, that is precisely what had occurred just in front. Our drivers were keeping themselves at least 400 meters apart in order to preserve what little remained of the road and not cause a landslide. Approximately 200 meters of road had reverted to steep mountain slope just ahead. We were awe-struck that none of our vehicles had been present when the land gave way.

Now we waited. We could see large rocks coming out of the mists and rolling down back into the cloud. We wondered how far down. I had seen enough of Indian mountain roads to know that the bottom was very likely a roaring river appearing from our heights as a tiny silver thread. We got down from our vehicles and began to mill about. It was apparent that we wouldn't be going anywhere soon. Every couple of minutes another boulder would come tumbling down across the washed out section, seemingly out of nowhere, and bounce off into the abyss.

Yet another singular occurrence in India is that no matter how remote you may be, people will promptly appear. Our train of four-wheel-drives filled with Westerners had a jaw-dropping effect on the local population. After the 10th or so vehicle passed they just stood staring, mouths agape. They had never seen anything like this and were quite curious. With their instinctive entrepreneurial nature, a tea shop appeared in short order. I have no idea where the chai and biscuits came from but there they were just where the road gave way several rovers in front. It was manna from heaven.

I then heard the unmistakable sound of a large piece of equipment being started off in the distance. Soon an enormous olive drab bulldozer appeared coming out of the fog. It was listing fairly heavily down the hill but as the driver worked back and forth the list subsided and he could proceed once again leveling out some semblance of road. The roads in these mountainous border regions are maintained by the army. Perhaps they had been put on alert knowing we were coming and that the road was perilous? But no, on closer inspection, it was not a soldier at the controls. It was one of our own! - Bryan Shore, putting some of his heavy equipment experience to work. (He had noticed an abandoned bull-dozer nearby, I later learned).

It took a while but in less time than I thought possible he had graded a track across the gravelly moraine. After several more passes by the dozer, it was deemed safe to proceed. Boulders and rocks continued to come hurtling down between us out of the cloud; any one of them large enough to overthrow a land-rover and send it crashing down into obscurity. Perhaps I had learned a lesson from my earlier night flight from 'the monster', or perhaps it was the belief that we were now in the realm of the Karmapas and no harm would come to us but I remember there was no fear.

As we pulled into the forecourt of Rumtek monastery, the mists cleared. The light took on the crystalline quality found only at higher elevations in the Andes and Himalayas. Monks were excitedly dashing about finishing their preparations. We were given the choice of a couple of rooms outside the main assembly hall or sleeping in the hall itself. I chose a shared room that was just off the kitchen which was closest to the outside shower. Others wondered why I would miss the opportunity to sleep in the temple which had never been used as a dormitory. I was told I would miss an exceedingly rare opportunity to sleep in the presence of hundreds of ages-old sacred Tibetan relics and Buddha rupas. I just wanted first dibs on the shower.

To be continued..

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