Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gangtok: Namgyal Institute of Tibetology.

I
t's our first full day in Gangtok and it promises to be an activity filled one!
I woke up well before the alarm went off and the first thing that I did when I got out of bed was to throw open the curtains.  I gasped at the sight.  A sunny day showcasing beautiful green mountains of the lower part of the Himalayan range and and the far, far distance,  snow capped mountains.  I wondered if one of those snow covered peaks was the famed Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world.  It's suppose to be visible from Gangtok on a clear day. Oh I do hope we do get to see it on this trip.


As usual, I arrived to the breakfast table late but not too late. I managed to down a ham omelet, a couple slices of toast and a cup of tea :-) A hearty breakfast in case we don't have a lunch break.


This would only be one *official* item on our tour agenda today - a visit to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology which is an important reference centre for Buddhist scholars from around the world. In addition to being a training center, it also houses a museum and a Tibetan library.


There are strict driving laws in Gangtok and one of them is that commercial vehicles are not allowed inside a certain area until after 8am. It was well before then so instead of taking our cars to the Institute, we had to catch taxis. 


The taxi stand was barely a minute walk from the hotel. Sanjeev negotiated for the cabs to take us to our destination. We crammed in and off we went. Uphill.


Gangtok was just waking up. People walking to work. Kids, some accompanied by their parents, walking to school. Stores weren't open yet.

We soon arrived at a small parking lot nestled in the woods.  The drivers dropped us off outside the driveway leading up to the Institute. It was a beautiful day in Gangtok, sunny and slightly cool, perfect for a morning stroll! I took my time and enjoyed the moment.

Prayer flags were strung everywhere in and amongst the branches of the trees.  I'm guessing we've arrived though I don't see any signs of a building that looks remotely Tibetan.

Seeing the monks walking along the road confirmed my guess.  Somewhere nearby is a monastery.







Instinct says to follow the monks but Sanjeev led us off in a different direction.  Up a long driveway.  Why is everything uphill here? :-)

Before I reached the top of the hill, I had already spotted the chorten.   But once I reached the top, there was no monastery or temple to be seen. 

Instead, we were standing in a chorten filled that was surrounded by buildings that were the monks' living quarters.

Sanjeev gave us a few minutes to walk around to see the chortens.  Monks were busy going about their day - scurrying back and forth between the buildings.

Two of the monks were hard at work cleaning one of the chortens....scrubbing off moss that had taken over the surface to reveal the white stone layer beneath.

We all milled about the courtyard.  There were plenty of chortens to look and hidden behind a shroud of khatags was a very small room that held several dozen burning candles.













We were allowed to walk the grounds on our own and so that's what I did. Somehow, I ended up talking to a Bhutanese gentleman who was at the Institute to pay homage to its founder who apparently many devotees believe is one of the reincarnations of Guru Rinpoche. The Bhutanese gentleman, who spoke very good English, had driven two days from his home in Bhutan to come and pay his respects. He pointed to the room where he left his offerings. Sanjeev asked the guard if we could go in and when he waved to me, I approached the room. I took off my shoes and entered in. I don't know what I was expecting to see but what I did see was a pretty drab looking room - can't even really describe it except to say that it wasn't much to look at so I walked out after about 30 seconds. On my way, I thanked the Bhutanese gentleman for his time and wished him a safe journey back home.

Back to the courtyard and it was more chortens but one can only take looking at chortens for so long so one by one, we started walking down a narrow walkway that was between two buildings.  Sanjeev pointed to a set of stairs that led up to a small bookstore. I followed the gang up and took a quick inside the room.  Nothing interested me so I headed out to enjoy the beautiful weather - temperatures cool enough that a light long sleeve shirt is all you need, no humidity and bright sunshine.  My kind of day!

As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I spotted a group of locals taking a break from their work.  One woman, in particular, caught my eye.  It was her nose ring that first caught my attention because it identifies her as either Lepcha or Bhutia though I'm not sure exactly which tribe she's from.

In any case, she just had a very friendly vibe to her demeanor.  Not at all shy.  She had something clutched in her right hand and when I tapped on her, she gladly opened up to show me her mid morning snack of sev and peanuts. 

After her break, she went back to doing her
work.....carrying bricks in a basket hung from the top of head.

The women would walk over to a large pile of bricks.  There, a young man would load up each of their baskets with bricks....about eight in each basket.  So, we have a strapping young man loading up heavy bricks into the baskets of women who were barely my height and probably about my age.  Uh....what's wrong with this picture?


As we stood and watched the women work, Mike and I were trying to estimate the weight they were carrying so we picked up one of the bricks.  It was heavy so we figured they were probably lugging somewhere between 35 and 40 lbs worth of bricks on their head....not including a few extra pounds for the wicker basket.

The women went back and forth between the pile of bricks and the location where they had taken their morning break.  On one of her roundtrips, I had the woman, who had so captured my attention, pose for a photo with me.  I stand barely 5' 3" so you can see how tiny she is.  She was so cute, I just wanted to wrap her up and take her home with me!


While we waited for the rest of the gang to emerge from the bookstore, Paul whipped out a tennis ball that he brought with him and he and Mike started playing a game of toss with some young monks who had been peering at us from a upper story window.  I don't know who had more fun....the monks or Paul :-)



When the whole gang was back together, we left this part of the Institute and followed Sanjeev back down the driveway.  Part way, we veered onto another driveway to arrive a Tibetan style building that houses the Institute's museum and library.
 
The museum is located on the bottom floor.  It was just one room and very small.  Displayed inside were various antique statues, scrolls, prayer beads, chanting instruments, etc.  They also had a small but very nice collection of Buddha statues.  I have to say that although there weren't many things on display, what was shown was very well presented and described in English.  As a result, I actually found myself spending more time in the museum than I had anticipated.

Next, it was upstairs to the library. This time, the room was larger and housed Tibetan scrolls inside locked glass front cabinets. As with many libraries that house antique books, this one had climate controls installed. The scrolls were marked for easy retrieval and there was a custodian in the room to assist researchers.


Up one flight of stairs from the library was a small rooftop patio.  From there, I could see a scenic view of Gangtok as well as the building.

On the way back down to the museum, I videotaped the paintings that lined the stairway.  I just love the way the Tibetan monasteries are so colorfully decorated.....not a bit of white wall space.


After everyone was done visiting the Institute, we all met back in the parking lot where the taxi cab drivers had originally dropped us off. There, we took a short drink break at little snack stand.

Yesterday, I had already decided what I was going to do for my *free* time so I took the opportunity to have Sanjeev negotiate the price of hiring one of the taxi drivers to take me around to see the sights in Gangtok. I had a few places in mind and after talking with the driver and Sanjeev, I had a full itinerary planned and it would cost me 600 rupees - about $15.


When I got back to my table at the snack stand, Mike asked me what my plans were so I told him what they were and that he was welcome to join me. He was interested and agreed to share the cost. Then Merle asked us both what we were planning to do and I told her what they were and that she was welcome to join both Mike and I. She too was interested and agreed to share the cost. So, were were a threesome and all it would cost us in terms of transportation was $5 each - what a steal!

With everyone in agreement with the game plan, we were off!  First stop.  Ganesh Tok.