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Buddha and Ganesh (India: Day Seven)

Started: 2010-03-24 20:41:51

Submitted: 2010-03-25 22:06:35

Visibility: World-readable

For breakfast on our last full day in Darjeeling, Willy wanted me to experience alu partha, so we looked around various restaurants serving breakfast until we located one with the appropriate cuisine. The alu partha turned out to be something like a potato pancake which we ate with a tomato sauce that resembled ketchup. (I ordered Darjeeling black tea to go with breakfast; Willy wasn't totally enthralled by the idea of tea but I did my best to broaden his horizons.)

Our plan for the day was catch a jeep to Ghoom, the next town to the south, and walk back to Darjeeling via the monasteries along Hill Cart Road. We didn't find much along the jeep stand at Chowak Bazaar, so we headed down the road to where we thought we could flag down jeeps that were already on their way, who would be less interested in saving seats for passengers going all the way to Kuresong or Siliguri. We didn't see any jeeps heading south from the train station, so after ten minutes we headed back and quickly found a jeep to take us to Ghoom. It turned out that the jeeps were taking a different road to Ghoom; they left Hill Cart Road and climbed through the city to Nehru Road and headed south to Ghoom from there.

The jeep dropped us off in Ghoom and we looked around to get our bearings and headed up the road, through town, and reached the train station at the end of the steam-powered joy-ride trains. The train station included a small train garden with historic engines and train carriages.

Baby Sevoke engine
Baby Sevoke engine

The first monastery we visited was Yiga Choling Gompa, a short walk off the main road in Ghoom. We entered the grounds and crossed to the prayer hall, where a robed monk appeared and invited us in. He reminded us to remove our shoes in the anteroom and unlocked the door for us to enter. The prayer hall was unlike anything I'd seen before. I walked clockwise around the room, trying to take in everything I saw without enough of a frame of reference to make sense of everything. The back wall was painted with various pictures of what I took to be bodhisattvas (enlightened beings entitled to nirvana who choose to be reborn to help others). At the front was a large statue of Buddha and many smaller statues. There was a lot to see, and I barely knew enough about Tibetan Buddhism to be dangerous.

Main gate at Yiga Cholling Gompa
Main gate at Yiga Cholling Gompa

A group of Indian tourists arrived as we left the prayer hall and begun their visit by spinning the prayer wheels on the outside wall. We followed their example (Willy observed that whomever came up with the idea of spinning prayer wheels was a kinesthetic person; spinning a long line of prayer wheels had a satisfying physical appeal) and headed up a path to a stupa on the hillside above the small campus, overlooking both the prayer hall and the valley. The stupa and the adjacent shrine were draped in prayer flags fluttering in the morning breeze.

Prayer flags at Yiga Cholling Gompa
Prayer flags at Yiga Cholling Gompa

We left the gompa, headed back into Ghoom, and watched the steam-powered joyride train pass on its way back to Darjeeling. We crossed a modern steel truss bridge over a trash-filled ravine to Sakya Choling Gompa. This gompa embodied the whitewashed medieval fortress architecture of Tibetan monasteries; it wasn't difficult to imagine the bridge as a drawbridge that could be raised to keep invaders at bay. We circled a giant lone prayer wheel in a little building overlooking the bridge and climbed the flight of stairs to a plaza surrounded by what looked like dormitories and the prayer hall. We circumambulated the prayer hall, spinning the prayer wheels as we walked, and found a group of robed teenage monks playing cricket. We entered the prayer hall, removing our shoes in the anteroom, and found a room much like the one we just left at the previous monastery. A young monk (whom I took to be in his twenties) asked if we would like some interpretation of what we saw and we readily agreed. This monastery seemed to subscribe to a different branch of Tibetan Buddhism than the previous one; this monastery was established by monks fleeing the Chinese invasion in 1950, and the first monastery was established a hundred years earlier. This prayer hall included a large statue of Buddha but the primary focus was a statue of an individual our monk-guide explained as the "tantric Buddha". (I did recognize just enough iconography to realize that the statue was holding a thunderbolt, representing tantric ideals.) The prayer hall also include photographs of their gurus, including the Dali Lama, and a series of offerings carved out of butter. Half of the butter-sculptures were brightly-colored, and half were in deep red representing human brains, complete with protruding eyes; together they formed two sides of the same whole, like yin and yang.

Sakya Choling Gompa
Sakya Choling Gompa

As we wrapped up the tour of the iconography in the prayer hall, the monk asked us about ourselves: what our religious backgrounds were and what we did in our day jobs. (Indians seem to see the United States as a majority-Christian country, which may still be true from a demographic self-identification perspective.) I think I lost the monk when I tried to explain the difference between atheism and agnostism; I self-identify as agnostic, which I define as not believing there is a god while simultaneously not believing there isn't a god. I said I worked on mobile phone software and the monk asked if that was the best job in America. I thought for a moment before saying that it was the best job for me.

Main steps at Sakya Choling Gompa
Main steps at Sakya Choling Gompa

We departed the monastery and continued north toward Darjeeling along Hill Cart Road. We stopped by Samten Choling Gompa, looked at the stupa at the entrance, and looked down onto the courtyard but weren't sufficiently inspired to enter, having just finished seeing two gompas in close succession. We walked along the single narrow-gauge rail track as it wound back and forth across Hill Cart Road; most of the time the rail track provided a better pedestrian right-of-way than the road itself.

The train track rose above the road and crossed a short bridge over itself, then continued toward Batasia Loop. The track spiraled around the loop, loosing perhaps ten meters of elevation in a serpentine fashion. It reminded me of Riflesight Notch on the west side of Rollins Pass. I tried to explain the path of the train at the notch to Willy, and was about to draw a map when I remembered that I had topographic maps of Colorado loaded into my GPS receiver, which I had in my pack. (Earlier in the day I had experienced problems with the LCD, so I had left it off for my walk so far.) I found an appropriate waypoint on the other side of the planet and showed Willy the map.

Rail bridge at Batasia Loop
Rail bridge at Batasia Loop

The train looped around a three-sided obelisk and a statue of a soldier at the Gorkha War Memorial. (The British army recruited heavily from the Gorkhas during the British Raj.)

Gorkha War Memorial
Gorkha War Memorial

We continued along the train track to the north, presently reaching the massive Druk Sangak Choling Gompa, covering a large swath of hillside above the road. An array of small stupas perched on a ledge halfway up the main stair. A large plaza sat at the top of the stairs, opening to the prayer hall and various other rooms. Teenage monks bounded up and down the stairs. There was a cloth hung across the lower half of the door to the prayer hall; it wasn't immediately apparent whether we were welcome inside at that particular time. We saw a group of young monks inside who appeared to be listening to an older monk and decided not to enter.

We reached Darjeeling early in the afternoon and set out to find lunch. We ate at Hasty Tasty on the main tourist strip, which did have some European tourists but we decided to risk entering anyway. I ordered my new favorite Indian food, a dosa masala (with onions and cappicum in the masala). I spotted one adjacent Indian family eating their rice and curry with their fingers, in traditional style. (Willy hadn't yet gone totally native; he ate his rice and curry with a fork.)

Willy wanted to draw the temple on Observatory Hill, so we headed up the hill and sat and watched the temple. As Willy drew, a parade of marauding monkeys bounded across the roof of the temple, and one came up to us for a handout. It sat on the back of the bench we had been sitting in and taunted us until we managed to shoo it away.

Temple monkey in prayer flags
Temple monkey in prayer flags

After Willy finished his drawing, we headed down to the grotto where there was a small shrine in a little cave. Willy crawled into the shrine for a look around; I stayed outside. When he emerged, the Indian hovering around the entrance to the grotto pressed his finger to Willy's forehead and chanted something in Sanskrit, affixing a tika dot. He gestured to me and did the same, then asked for an offering. I felt that I received a more complete temple experience, having received a tika dot and hearing an unidentified chant in Sanskrit.

Jaeger after temple on Observatory Hill
Jaeger after temple on Observatory Hill

We wandered around Darjeeling a bit more, heard the afternoon call to prayers at the local mosque, and simply ran out of things to do in Darjeeling. I went shopping for an icon of Ganesh (the elephant-headed Hindu god) and eventually found a five-inch-high bronze statue that spoke to me. Next on my shopping list was tea; we visited a tea retailer that had loose-leaf tea in containers on the counter, sorted first by type (white, green, and black), then by grade (which was equivalent to price). The saleswoman (whom Willy identified as having an upper-class accent) shook the tea and opened the containers for us to smell. (Willy wasn't as excited by drinking tea but confessed he really enjoyed smelling the tea. He has always had sensitive olfactory capacities, and I was pleased to see that he has figured out how to use his senses for good. India has many olfactory sensations on offer, not all of them pleasant.) I picked an interesting-looking mid-grade black tea, then picked a green tea more or less at random, purchasing 100 grams of each.

Ganesh at work, removing obstacles from my desk
Ganesh at work, removing obstacles from my desk

As darkness fell, the power went out. We headed out into the darkened city in search of an Internet cafe and found one with its power priorities straight: It was running its computers on a generator, leaving the overhead lights off. I checked my e-mail for the second time in India, assured Kiesa that I still existed, and posted the first two changelogs from my trip.

The power was still out an hour later when we went in search of supper. This limited our options, so we headed to our hotel's restaurant and ate a fine meal. The clerks recognized us as guests and inquired as to what time we were planning on leaving in the morning. They asked me to pay for our stay, as it wasn't clear there would be anyone at the front desk when we left. Their credit card machine wasn't functioning, and I didn't have Rs. 5400 in cash, so after supper I headed through the darkened streets, past shuttered stores and empty stalls, to an ATM to get the cash I needed.

I packed in preparation for heading home the next morning, happy with the way my Indian Experience turned out.

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