Prayer Flags

Prayer flags are found wherever Tibetan Buddhism is found. As they flutter in the breeze, they use this wind to send blessings out into the world. Through many parts of the Himalaya they adorn monasteries and humble homes, chortens and bamboo flagpoles. They are tied in their hundreds and thousands to bridges, above mountain peaks, and in the courtyards of every conceivable building.

Elsewhere, they are to be found wherever exiled Tibetans live, and wherever their school of Buddhism flourishes.

The makers of the flags intend the prayers and blessings that adorn them not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of all beings.

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Prayer flags in the Yumtang Valley, Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India.

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Prayer flags outside a monastery in Sikkim, India.

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Prayer flags adorn a pair of chortens and walls of prayer wheels in Khumjung, Nepal.

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Prayer flags at Tengboche, Nepal.

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And adorning a bridge of the Dudh Khosi, again in Nepal.

Himalayan Foothills

I am going offline for a few days, since I need a bit of a break, so I will leave you with a selection of photographs from the Himalayan Foothills, Northern India. When I log on again in a few days, I’ll catch up with everyone’s blogs and comments.

By ‘Foothills’ I mean the ranges of hills and smaller mountains that guard the approach to the Himalaya proper, where the big beasties rise up to heights of over 8000m with permanent ice and snow cover. The old Raj hill stations such as Nainital and Darjeeling were built at heights of around 2000m – high by UK standards, but certainly not by Himalayan ones.

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Naini Tal, Nainital Town, Northern India. Morning Light. Nainital lake, (‘naina’ is Sanskrit for eye and ‘tal’ means lake) in Hindu mythology, is one of the emerald green eyes of Sati, Shiva’s wife. This was my first view of it after getting off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

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Gadhar Kunkyop Ling Gompa, Nainital. Unlike many other Himalayan towns, Nainital has no sizeable Tibetan population, and this Monastery, perched high to the North East, overlooking the lake, is the only one in Nainital and home to just seven monks.

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Morning mist, Nainital.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling. Darjeeling, unlike Nainital, has a large Tibetan population and many Gompas both in the town and the surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorje Ling, long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. The hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no Gompa.

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The ‘Toy Train’ stopped outside Samten Choling Gompa at Ghoom, near Darjeeling. This train runs for 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, rising a total of just over 7000 ft. It has numerous steep gradients and sharp curves, including the famous one at ‘Agony Point’ – originally the loop there was a diameter of only 59.5 ft and the train literally overhung the mountainside as it rounded the curve. All in all, quite a remarkable engineering feat and deservedly a World Heritage site.

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Druk Sangak Gompa, a large Buddhist monastery on the edge of Darjeeling, West Bengal. A fairly new gompa, it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1992.

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Not Chelmsford, UK, but Darjeeling, West Bengal). Many of the old British hill stations, such as Darjeeling, still retain much of their colonial character.

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A clash of cultures! And what a clash. East meets west, with brass band in the park meeting the Indian Himalaya, courtesy of the Darjeeling Police Band. The band played in a bandstand on the Chowrasta, the open square at the top of Darjeeling, close to Observatory Hill. In the days of the Raj, this would, no doubt, have been familiar to all who lived there. Close your eyes and think of England…

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Tea pickers, Darjeeling. Think of Darjeeling, think of tea. In the hills surrounding Darjeeling are numerous tea estates, where the job of tea picking, sorting, drying and packing goes on much as it has done for the last 150 years.

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Buddhist painting on rock wall, by open air shrine, Darjeeling. As well as the larger gompas, you come across small shrines and gompas unexpectedly around odd corners everywhere.

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Prayer Lags in Yumthang Valley, Northern Sikkim. This is as far north in Sikkim that you are allowed to travel, just a few miles south and west of Tibet. Everybody is still very touchy about borders.

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Crossing a bridge in the Yumthang valley. It should be safe, considering the number of prayer flags!

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Unnamed 6000m peaks overlooking the Yumthang Valley. We asked our guide the names of these peaks, only to be disparagingly told ‘They don’t have names. They’re less than 6000m tall.

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And more prayer flags…

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Young monks on a hillside, Phodong Gompa, Sikkim.

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Monastery wall painting, Lachung Gompa, Northern Sikkim. Lachung Gompa is about 2km above Lachung village, at a height of about 3000m. It is not a ‘working’ gompa, the monks living down in the village rather than at the gompa, so it is generally kept locked and only used on festivals and full moon days.

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Monastery door, Tharpa Choling Gompa, Kalimpong, W.B. Kalimpong, not far from Darjeeling, but 1000 metres lower, has also a large Tibetan population.

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Statue of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), Durpin Gompa, Kalimpong, West Bengal. Chenrezig (Tibetan) or Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva (a being who has partly or completely attained the state of enlightenment) of compassion. The well-known mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is dedicated to him.

Kalimpong market:

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I watched this gentleman for some time before I approached and asked for a photo. he was rapidly serving a succession of customers at great speed, making up little paper screws of spices and powders at a tremendous rate…

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…whereas this gentleman served his customers at a more leisurely pace, as if he had all the time in the world.

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This gentleman was delighted to be photographed with his fine collection of Kukris. As I prepared to take the photo, he picked up a kukri and brandished it with a none too convincing snarl, to the obvious amusement of most of the people around him.

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This stall-holder seemed to find it hilarious that I should want to photograph her.

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This lady, on the other hand, was delighted to be photographed; volunteering eagerly when a lady on a nearby stall refused.

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The Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel, in the grounds of the Dr Graham School and home, Kalimpong. Built in 1925, it looks to have materialised straight out of the Scottish Highlands. Dr Graham was a Scottish missionary, and built the home and school originally to educate the children of local tea estate workers. It now has a far broader intake.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir. Unfortunately, it is still probably unwise to visit most of Kashmir, and things will probably remain this way for some considerable time to come. A pity, because this really is a most beautiful part of India and Pakistan. I took these photos in 1989, a very short while before the area became off-limits to tourists.

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Panorama – Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir). In the distance is the Hazratbal Mosque, a comparatively modern mosque, enshrining a hair of the prophet.

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Hindu shrine. Near the shore of Lake Dal in Kashmir.

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Houseboats around the shore of Lake Dal, Shrinagar, Kashmir. In the nineteenth century, the British, who first developed Srinagar as a hill station to get away from the stifling heat of the Indian Plains in the summer, found that the then Maharajah refused to sell them land to build houses. The solution? They built boats to live on…great, elaborate, ornate carved and decorated houseboats. These same boats, with many more recent editions, now function as floating hotels to tourists. The majority are moored not on the actual shore, but a little way off, often on the edge of small islands. This gives the local shakira (a type of small boat unique to Lake Dal) owners a chance to clean up, as a taxi service.

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Shakira moored on Lake Dal.

My First Long Trip to India (6)

There seemed to be so much rain falling in Sikkim that I began to wonder whether they had their own private monsoon.

It sounded as though it was raining all night, although ‘raining’ does not really do it justice as a weather phenomenon; that would rather be like suggesting that Lapland has a little bit of snow in the winter, or that it could sometimes be quite sunny in the Kalahari Desert.

It was hammering down.

It started whilst I was out in the evening, and it only stopped around dawn. When I went out to find some breakfast, thick, black clouds were still filling the sky, and it was much cooler than it had been the previous evening. Small rivers seemed to be hurtling along the sides of all the roads, and random lakes occupied much of the lower areas.

At first sight, I was really disappointed in Gangtok. It appeared very modern, with lots of new buildings and virtually nothing that appeared to be old. It was very clean (possibly due to it being extremely well-washed) and tidy. There seemed to be really very little for the visitor to see.

I decided to arrange to go on a trek as soon as I could.

Just to make it a little more difficult, though, all treks had to be arranged through officially approved agents, and there was technically a requirement for a minimum of four people per trek, although it was possible to do it with less.

And it wasn’t cheap.

Eventually, I ended up with a three day trip to the Yumthang valley – as far north in Sikkim as you are allowed to go – leaving the following morning. There were three of us: myself and a pleasant Swiss couple. After a lot of form-filling and passport photocopying, I handed over my money, and walked outside into the torrential rain.

The next day at dawn there was a blue sky, or at least as much of it as I could see from my window. A rain-washed blue, I’d be tempted to say. I packed, and then went off to the hotel where I was to meet the others. There I had breakfast, stored a bag for my return, and sat around reading and waiting to go.

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We set off just after ten o’clock in a jeep, and I was excited to be travelling again among the high mountains with Nepalese style villages. We stopped for lunch at an inn, which again was very clean and modern. And so far, the weather had been good. We had a good view of Kanchenjunga when we left Gangtok, and by lunchtime there were just a few clouds over the mountain tops. By one fifteen we had reached Mangan, the capital of north Sikkim, and another police check post, to show our passes. Only, this time the check post was empty – apparently, the fellow was at lunch, so we had to kick our heels for twenty minutes.

I was making quick notes as we drove along, which seem to give a good snapshot of the area. And so:

Gangs of women breaking stones to mend the road.

Suspension bridges.

Huge clumps of huge bamboo.

Bell flower bushes.

Masses of butterflies.

Gompas.

Landslides.

Rivers rushing across roads.

Good and bad bits of road.

Bottlebrush trees.

Orchids!

Buddhist symbols painted inside and outside buildings.

Long, long lines of prayer flags beside the road.

We reached Lachang, at 4pm, at an altitude of 8500ft or so. The hotel we were booked into was very smart and new, constructed and decorated entirely in Tibetan style. They gave us a supper of Tibetan vegetable soup, cheese momos and fruit, and then I went off for an early night.

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I awoke to blue skies and snow covered mountain peaks, and at seven o’clock the sun was streaming around some awesome jagged peaks towering over the village.

Seven thirty and we were on our way by jeep again. The last twenty one kilometres was through an area that is designated a ‘prohibited area’ – no one is allowed in without a permit, and cameras are strictly prohibited. Naturally, when we got to the valley there were plenty of people snapping away, despite the presence of numerous soldiers. When I saw soldiers actually posing for photographs, I decided it was probably safe to get my own camera out.

More notes:

Glaciers.

There are thirty one species of rhododendron in Sikkim.

Landslips.

Tibet just a few miles away.

The valley is at an altitude of 11500ft.

There was a cold wind blowing up the valley from the south. Yumthang is 140km from Gangtok by road. I wonder what it is as the crow flies?

Butterflies – clouded yellow, painted lady, tortoiseshell – they all seemed to be ones that I knew from UK.

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We walked 8km back and then the jeep picked us up. It was beautiful.

Hot springs just below Yumthang – a malodorous, sulphurous pool in a stone shed!

Clouds were dropping down as we headed back to Lachang for lunch.

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There were a number of tall mountains to the south of the valley, and I asked our guide their names. They have no names, he replied. They are all less than 6000m, so they don’t bother naming them in Sikkim (although I’m sure that traditionally they must have had names – all the mountains seen from a town or village would have had names, even if just local ones).

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I think it was at this point that I decided I would have to visit Ladakh.

In the afternoon we drove up the other side of the valley to visit Lachang Gompa. It was not a ‘working’ monastery, since the monks live down in the village. Therefore it was locked, as it is only used on full moon days and festivals. But we could at least go around the outside, to see the huge prayer wheels (and spin them) and see the beautiful frescoes.

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The following morning we left at 6.30 on a fine, clear morning. The idea behind leaving so early was to go to a viewpoint high above a valley, but by the time that we got there it was the usual mass of clouds drifting above and below us. Some rain at times. Sunny periods. Outlook changeable.

And so back to Gangtok.

That night it poured with rain again, and the following morning, as usual, there was thick, low clouds filling the skies and the valleys. This was followed by another heavy overnight rainstorm.

Time to move on.

I had breakfast, checked out, and went straight to the jeep park. Just after midday, I was in Kalimpong. On the way, the sky soon cleared, and it was hot sunshine long before we reached West Bengal.