'Your ticket please.' 'Sure.' 'Seat number one. Over there sir.'
View of the mountains from Ajay Lamas jeep-taxi en route to Tashiding.
No problem. If you wanna give me the best seat in the house. Sure thing. I'll shift my butt. This always a grin in India. When it seems to have no place, purpose or possibility of existing Formality and some distant cousin of Order assert themselves. Nobody cares really where anyone sits and soon enough there'll be ten to a seat anyways. Just happy on buses when no-one else and their trussed-up chicken has a ticket for your lap. I shift to the front seat. Better views. 'Happy days!'
as my friend Paddy always says.
'Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear'
Besides, it's happened enough times that I've graciously given up the best seat in the house on buses and trains to cheeky nationals who've invariably poached them ahead of my arrival despite the numbered tickets that say this should not be so.'After today, alive tomorrow.'
- Border Roads Organisation (BRO)
A shared jeep from Gangtok
to Tashiding. I should have been starting a 4 day luxury tour of Sikkim yesterday in a private hire jeep paid for by the generous and gregarious Bob, a middle-aged Frenchman whom I'd previously only met for 5 minutes on Patna train station and whom upon our reunion in Gangtok had invited me along for his ride.
Superb luck! But sadly, yet again, India struck. When I pitched up at his hotel at 8.00am as agreed Bob was not there. Bob was in hospital. Which one his hotel did not care to know. We found him. He's okay(ish) after a sudden and violent onset of midnight vomiting and diarrhoea. A rehydration drip stuck in his wrinkled left hand. He laughs and jokes and is going to be alright but Bob's insurance company are nervous. Bob is being shipped home to France asap. Good bye Bob. Get well soon. Good bye luxury tour of Sikkim.
One chap sits squeezed between the driver and I, his legs straddled wincingly either side of the gear stick. A plastic Ganesha stares benevolently at him from his adhesive vantage point on the dashboard. Better pray for no sudden forward lurches buddy! Ganesha and a holographic, red-tasselled image of Krishna playing his bansuri flute for Radha hung from the mostly redundant rear view mirror.
Jeep number 7518 a relatively unadorned member of its often colourful tribe of gas-guzzlers. A tribe who proudly bear the innumerable scarifications and dents that denote a long service and passage of these road-battered vehicles into adulthood. Survivors. I can tell I am entering Nepalese culture again with its love for adornment of vehicles taken to a chaotic art form. Names, slogans and pithy phrases call out from windscreens and rear windows in bright vinyl text. ‘Experience is the mother of wisdom’.
Great big 'Oms' upon radiator grills. Below these, the single string of lemons and red chillies hang, a protective talismans common in India. Images of eyes and Gods and animals and symbols auspicious to Buddhism or Hinduism or both are painted onto exteriors.
Poinsettia 'idiot' Portrait
Moveable menageries of meaning. Inside countless strings of plastic marigolds, hibiscus, jasmine and other flowers bedeck the windscreen in such profusion as to reduce the driver's field of vision by at least 20% and once you also factor in the scarves of English football clubs tacked across them too (often Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United happy to rub shoulders within the same jeep) your chances of surviving the journey by probably a similar amount. 'Let this be an accident free day'
Jeep in gear between mans legs and we're off. Down into the valley from Gangtok and onwards west toward Tashiding. Sikkim is a hilly, mountainous region which imparts great beauty to the landscape whilst also making road development problematic and slow.
Another positive as this retards what would otherwise be devastatingly rapacious over-development for tourism. But it does make for some pretty twisting, windy, bumpy, jolty going. Not one for the faint of stomach - especially at the clip these boys sometimes drive along the roads, skirting valley drops, honking their horns to facilitate a pathological addiction to overtaking. The more traffic coming head on the greater the challenge and joy it seems. We pass a sign 'Village Area: Go Slow'
but Ajay Lama, our driver, hits the accelerator go, go, GO!'Drive don't fly'
One of the oddest pleasures to be gleaned from a drive in Sikkim are the endless roadside pronouncements of the Border Roads Organisation of Sikkim or BRO.
Prema (left) and brothers by their home.
Every kilometre or so and often with greater frequency, usually picked out in large black bas-relief capitals against a yellow painted background with black border, messages of almost poetic comicality expounding the virtues of safe driving. 'Life is short why make it shorter'
for example. Simple and to the point : 'No need for added speed'
. Or 'If you sleep, your family will weep'
and 'Fast drive could be last drive'.
They're hilarious. One of my FMFs (Five Minute Friends) in Gangtok, Pete and I had laughed about these and the idea of some frustrated Sikkimese poet laureate whose only means of making a buck one year long ago had been to pen these peons to public safety.
Many of them admirably warn of the dangers of drink driving. This is pertinent to Sikkim which unusually for an Indian state is perfectly comfortable with the devil's liquid and walking around it's towns one is often flabbergasted at the profusion of liquor stores. Two for every head of the population at my count... well, maybe I'm exaggerating. But alcoholism is a problem in the region. 'Drinking whiskey is risky'
, 'For safe arriving no liquor whilst driving'
and 'If you are married, divorce drink'
or ‘don’t flirt with drink’
to list but a few. And I'm thinking 'I hope all these p*ssed Indo-Nepalese know how to read English!'
I am also tickled on today's automotive blitzkrieg through the deep verdant forests by the sign 'Environment - I am guarding you, don't damage me'.
Beautiful old wooden prayer wheels at the Tashiding monastery
I had explained to Pete though that my favourite offering from the Poet Laureate of Public Safety had actually been a traffic police sign in Darjeeling
which read 'The rule of the road is a paradox quite, Keep to the left you are always right'.
Speaking as a Brit and therefore a staunch 'Lefty' on such sensitive issues of international foreign policy, I couldn't have put it better myself. Here me oh world of 'The Other Side', you're not Right, you're wrong! ;) 'Eager to last, then why fast'
But Ajay Lama seems pretty comfortable with his accelerator as we gun down and around another valley drop.
'Struggle for Prayer'
Luscious valley and hill scenery all around. The slopes of many hill banks cut into step terraces for rice and other crop cultivation. Workers cut and heft hay with huge pitchforks casting their treasure up into the sun.
In a crook of land nestled within a bend of a pretty, boulder strewn river two four storey concrete buildings painted lemon yellow 'Rehabilitation and Detoxification Society' Male and Female wings. The former far larger than the latter. An unusual open air admission of social dysfunctionality in India. Driving on up now we tango, flirt and pirouette around other equally life-laden jeeps and buses and lorries. We struggle behind a slow moving line of army vehicles of the region's Black Cat Eagles division. Trucks towing gleaming new 'Anti-Tank Telescope Hesh' guns. Ajay only too happy to obey the BRO advice to 'Blow horn, don't get torn'
Gigantic prayer wheel at Tashiding monastery
A honk. A SUDDEN BRAKE!
We pull up nearly smacking into a tank buster. My head, bent forward noting the most recent BRO masterpiece smacks into the windscreen "Ow!"
. The Black Cat Eagles though are soon eating our dust and it's now 'Men working : Drive Slow' Vrrrroooom!
We ramp up to first gear Ajay ignoring the next sign's sensuous request to 'Be gentle on my curve!'
. 'Live for your today, drive for your tomorrow'
Eventually and despite the odds I am safely deposited from Ajay's jeep at the roadside in Tashiding.
Apsara on prayer wheel (detail)
An agreement for him to pick me up on his same route through tomorrow. He spins off into the distance with the rest of his victims. The dust settles, the blazing sun tempts faeries to dance visibly in its motes. Soothing calm settles too. No more roar of engines and horns. Tashiding possesses a totality of peace and tranquillity that breathes into me the moment I set my bags down in the dust. Green and gold leaf trees shine brilliantly against the blues above as do the ruby red licks of Poinsettia leaves that colour this one street town.
Women with skin the texture and appearance of long-rumpled brown paper bags sort vegetables in front of the main grocery shop. Kids ingeniously ski down the high street, their feet on two crushed-flat mineral water bottles, dragged along by two friends. A glossy feathered rooster scratches and pecks about the town's single junction sign post.
Shadows thrown from stupas or 'chortens' at the Tashiding monastery
This sits above a painted public health notice : 'Leprosy is not a hereditary disease nor is it because of sin or curse. Leprosy is 100% curable'
. My first thought 'Still labouring under the blight of a 100% curable condition, yep, that'll be India!'
But I quickly administer a mental slap for such undue arrogance. The world entire continues to suffer and encourage symptoms of the 100% curable malady of environmental ruination though the remedies be well known. Requirements of money and will.
I check into the humble and homely Blue Bird Hotel where a dusty, sun-bleached laminate picture, bordered in black duct tape depicts a couple silhouetted on a yacht on a river and proclaims 'It is a long jump from the days of the Cradle to the Boat of Happiness'
After recovery time, I take off for a stroll along and up towards the Tashiding Buddhist monastery or gompa
as here known. I pass several white stupas or chortens
as here known and a huge brightly coloured stone relief mantra 'Om Ma Ne Padme Hom'. I stop to take some 'idiot' photos with the Poinsettia leaves. Kids squeal, point and laugh at today's only foreigner in town. The only one for over a week according to the Blue Bird Hotel guestbook. Moving up the stone-pitted grass walkway a large white washed rectangular construction of stacked rocks with small chortens on top. Slate carved mantras propped up against the flanks again. An ancient couple propped by their sticks circumambulate this structure with the same pace and quiet purpose as continental drift.
Bamboo prayer banners
Age, faith and serenity. 'Our grandparents'
explain Prema and her brother Gangchok. Their house is nearby. People live in beautiful homes in beautiful settings here. The long squat houses with walls made of layers of cross-hatched wattle or bamboo strips covered with cow dung daub and plaster bolstered by narrow exposed wooden struts and painted carefully in clear whites or pretty pastel shades. Part rusted corrugated metal sheets capping them off.
This is a perfect afternoon for me. Bliss. The calm around Tashiding touches my soul like a balm. To finally be somewhere where the only sounds audible are birdsong, the distant lowing of cows, an occasional dog bark and the leaves of the trees and the flutter of prayer banners raised high on bamboo poles in the breeze is a moment beyond price for me.
The mantra carver of Tashiding.
Coming from Britain and cities and such like it's easy to fear that serenity such as this has no place in the modern human world. Silence hunted to the outer peripheries of our lives. But silence can be found if you search hard and far enough. Even in Britain I'm sure.
As I climb higher a wooden construction houses two rows of five small tin prayer wheels, with metal paddle blades attached to their bases. This way when the winds pass over the hill the prayer wheels will be induced to turn and their Buddhist mantras within to be 'read' to the world at large and our general stock of merit increased therein. Prayer windmills. Prayer helicopters. I love the ingenious ways these mantras make themselves. Buddhists using their environment to create prayer. A closeness and partnership with nature. The simple prayer flags and banners printed with thousands of mantras flying in the breeze.
Some of the wizened old mantra carver's many thousands of efforts.
Also prayer wheel housings built astride streams so the passing water flow again is used to turn large prayer water wheels.
Tashiding Gompa is probably one of my favourite Buddhist monasteries I have visited. The walk to it through woods and past quaint homesteads with the path lined with bamboo prayer banners beautiful. Its elegant little lawn garden grounds enchanting. Its panoramic mountainous surrounds. Benches to sit in the sun and watch as the few visitors circumambulate the main prayer hall spinning the quaintly painted, chipped, palm-worn tin-plate and wood prayer wheels mumbling away 'Om ma ne padme hum... om ma ne padme hum...'
Mantras mixing with the buzzing of bees. A stupendously large prayer wheel of riveted sheet brass sits glittering with gilt relief Tibetan script and images of gods and Apsaras in a separate housing.
Stone carved mantras at Tashiding monastery
A tiny girl attempts to give it a spin but its more than her little muscles can do to muster some merit from this mantra making monster. Stevie gives it a good twirl though. The bell in the rooms ceiling struck once and loud every time a revolution is complete.
The gompa itself, dating from a founding of 1641 is a marvel of traditional Buddhist interior decor. The finest I have seen. The floor to ceiling infinitely detailed, colourful and painstakingly rendered friezes of the life and death and lessons of Buddha and the battles of good and evil, saints and demons beyond. Temptation and sin and the blazing fires and torments of the underworld rendered in images that'd make even Christians of the Middle Ages blanch with fear. Gigantic demons stand astride the corpses of men and tigers crushed beneath their feet.
Twenty one fanged faces and forty two arms. Chains of blood-dripping heads strung around their leopard skin covered torsos which salacious women straddle. Human skins peeled inside out and collapsed in piles like blood-soaked bananas to reveal the larger demons that had resided inside all along. Strange rubberised floating skulls with bulging eyes. Naked women lie inert on cliff tops whilst vultures beak out their livers and breasts. Men impaled by demons in ways and with implements unimaginable. In contrast to all the horror lotus flowers and floral pattering swirl around all these sadistic scenes picked out in raised gold filigree. Beatifically calm Buddhas and disciples contrast the pain and suffering too. The overall effect, complimenting the mystic charm of the shaded wooden interior of prayer mats and benches and bells and drums and draped textiles and butter-lamp candle light is beautiful aside from the devils in the imagery detail.
'Prayer Helicopters' and mountains
Behind the main gompa set amongst tall pine trees a garden area populated by a host of huge chortens. These usually built to contain and commemorate the relics of revered Buddhist teachers and saints. One of these large white structures, the Thong-Wa-Rang-Dol apparently removes all traces of sin from the observer on sighting. A clean moral slate to accompany my newly born peace of mind in Tashiding. Not a bad days work.
All about the dozen or so chortens (one of them blazing in brilliant gold) and covering the walls of the chorten garden hundreds and hundreds of slates of varying sizes carved out with Buddhist mantras. As I stroll around a ’tink-tink-tink-tink-tink’
sound brings me to the labours of a wizened old boy who sits cross-legged with a white scarf tied about his head and white-grey wispy beard straggling from his chin.
'Little Rosy Cheeks'
He remains oblivious to me as he stares through thick glasses and ’tink-tink-tink’
chisels away a new mantra onto a circle of red slate. Judging by the number of slates around the gompa grounds this has been his life’s work. That work now frequently interrupted by a debilitating, violent cough. I wonder to myself if the mantras, in defiance of being fixed in stone, transposed to dust work their way down into the old boy’s lungs, prayer inhaled deep into the very core of the man, where they will freely rattle around repeating themselves with every breath and cough until he one day sets his hammer down the final time. The many ingenious ways these mantras make themselves.
Heading back down, to the north of town the ever bright but lowering sun picks shadows out upon the sliver of snow-capped mountains visible at this, the town’s highest elevation.
Thin streaks of cloud now lend a little definition to the faultless blue sky. The tall white prayer banners ruffle and unfurl. Wisps of steam curl gently off the snow caps and eventually let go their timorous grasp of the rocky mountain peaks. Dissipating into air. Smoke rings and other tricks conjured from the nostrils of ancient dragons we all fear and know slumber in the mountains’ hearts.
I will leave Tashiding tomorrow and too soon. I should stay longer for no other reason than perfect calm. The best reason of all. But even with two months left my time in India has already taken on a certain inexorable quality of time running out. You think you’ve got so much of it left - but there’s always so much more to see and do in this huge and diverse nation and then suddenly the rate of grains slipping through the hourglass seems to accelerate with an exponential force and your slipping, slipping, time slipping from beneath your feet just when you thought you’d found somewhere to place them on solid ground.
'Om Ma Ne Padme Hom'
This is many ways will be the feeling, the travel impetus that defines this Year Of My Return Home. Time and experiences slipping away into the rear view mirror of my life. Gotta keep my eyes safe on the road ahead though. Like the legend imprinted on every wing mirror in the world and one that had accompanied my mildly terrified reflection every time I looked at myself in Ajay’s earlier today ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear’
this in a sense is true for endings too. But today is easy and calm and slow. ‘Shanti shanti’
as the Indian’s like to say.