The Darjeeling Demon


Russell Rolfe

Lightening flashed constantly in the distance as our caravan of pilgrims drove towards the foothills of the Himalayas. We didn't have thunderstorms like this in Santa Cruz, California. It was 1971 and we were on a sacred expedition to Sikkim see His Holiness Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, the XVI Gyalwa Karmapa for three days of initiation culminating in a mystic rite of empowerment called The Black Hat Ceremony.

As we headed into the core of the massive storm, the scintillating entrancement that gave me goose flesh was soon replaced by awe and terror. The bolts were now striking so close to the cars we had hired in Siliguri that I feared the vehicle's electrical system would short out.

And the rain - no this was way beyond rain - this monsoonal downpour was like being in a carwash but instead of a smooth concrete track underneath, our little Ambassador car was lurching over a road that was being washed out. Watching the rivulets of water streaming down the glass as we bounced along, I longed for some covered wayside service station with clean facilities. Not only was it impossible to stop lest we get stuck, there was also an excellent chance of being struck by lightening. Mud was everywhere. Foundering in deep holes of liquid dirt was almost as nightmarish to me as electrocution.

We had hoped to board the famous toy train in Sukna that afternoon and puff our way up to Darjeeling for dinner. However, as with so many expectations in India, reality put on the brakes. When we arrived at the small inn in Sukna late that evening, we were blessedly between thunderstorms. I imagined our Canadian teacher already tucked into Darjeeling's Windermere Hotel cozed up by a nice toasty fire. Our inn was snug, dry and mercifully free of bedbugs. As it began to rain again I wondered if landslides would put the train out of commission, not to mention the road, and if we would ever get to Darjeeling.

The dawn breathed in the mountain mist which soon burned away. At the train station, I was amazed this tiny engine would take us up to Ghoom, the world's highest railway station for a steam locomotive. We were informed that it crossed the main road, Hill Cart Rd., 177 times and that there are over 500 bridges, four complete loops and six remarkable Z-shaped curves along which the train must go backwards at a tortoise-like pace.

Finally we were in Darjeeling. There were Indians but even more Tibetans. Their faces manifested the worry and hardship of a long and dangerous trek into India.

My hotel, a relic from the era of the British Raj, assigned me a huge, high ceilinged suite. I was amazed at how reasonably priced the accommodations were. The rate was about the same as overnight car-parking at home. I soon discovered however that it didn't include heat. Attempting to lift the temperature above 14C. by building a fire in the baronial fireplace with damp wood was like dropping a brick into the Grand Canyon to dam up the Colorado.

Someone had mentioned a settlement just above Darjeeling that was almost entirely Tibetan where one could purchase religious items and artifacts recently brought over the pass by refugees. It was suggested we do our shopping up there since the prices were lower and the money would go directly to the refugees, avoiding the more expensive shops in Darjeeling. Later that afternoon I walked up the trail to the village where I became lost in the mystical beauty of Kanchenjunga appearing and dematerializing through cloud windows. I purchased a rosary, a dorje and bell, and a pair of small cymbals. The cymbals were connected by twine and had a high pure tone that lasted almost a minute.

It was getting late and, since this was our first night, there was a meeting of our group to discuss the entry of all of 80 of us into Sikkim. I found the track back down to Darjeeling. I was grateful for the full moon which had risen. The trail wound steeply down through dense forest and boulders. I was walking along, my mind going lickity-split over how exotic it all was, then wondering why there were no houses or even any people on the trail. But how extraordinary and novel this whole trip was. Was this forest or jungle or a combination of both? It didn't matter. It was so unlike anything I had ever experienced in my native Sierra Nevada mountains. Suddenly, a slight hint of fear arose. This certainly wasn't the California foothills and there could be anything out there hiding behind that black wall of foliage. Even enormous snakes.

At the thought of snakes, I heard a distinct long hiss behind me to my right, coupled with the sound of movement through the undergrowth. Instant panic!

As I picked up my pace the hissing became formidable, with the sound of large bushes and branches being shoved aside. What ever it was, it was big and it wanted me. I began to run as fast as possible, stepping on rocks and weaving in and out of the boulders. A monstrous black presence now made heavy crashing sounds and its whiffing melded into the sound of something dinosaurian.

The terror was so complete that my body took over as I ran flat out down the rough trail over and through the boulder field as the dark presence loomed larger, and I now heard a growl that was a force of nature. I was close to tripping and passing out.

Finally I rounded a bend and street lights were just ahead. Relieved, I found myself in the uppermost street of Darjeeling. The nightmarish presence was gone. Vanished as if someone pulled a switch. Deeply shaken, I walked towards the brightest lights of 'downtown' Darjeeling. What animal or reptile did these hills shelter? Whatever it was it didn't like light or open spaces.

I went directly to a hotel where friends were staying and excitedly related my fiendish plunge down the mountain. "Oh, you didn't hear?" they asked in amazement. "The Bhikkhu didn't want any of us to go down that trail after dark. The rinpoches had informed him there was a demon, Maujjung, who lived near the main trail.

The demon manifested and fed on human fear. Since we students had barely started to subdue our fears, he had announced for word to be spread that anyone who ventured up to the village was to return to Darjeeling before sunset or take a taxi the long way around. Some were dubious but chose to return just before sunset anyway because the light was perfect for photography. My friends now realized that Himalayan demons are not to be taken lightly.

When I told Rinpoche about this he said, "Well if you had turned around and faced this in the natural state of love, it would have instantly dissipated. But nooooooo. You, (or what you identified with as you), gave it a nice hearty meal!"

Fear is a monstrous illusion.

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