Friday, 21 October 2011

Lumparing Buddhist Lamasery in Shillong- Day 4

I'm always fascinated by the Buddha and Buddhism. I still remember my childhood days when I first read the story of Gautama Buddha in Amar Chitra Katha series. Gautama looked so simple and beautiful. He was one person who remained beautiful despite getting old throughout the series. I was in Class 2 when I read that children’s series. I was so impressed by him that I had asked my parents if I can get a son like him. My grandmother had laughed at my query and my parents fondly remember those days. And now, even after crossing 30 years, my love for the Buddha has not decreased. Still I wish I had a son like the Buddha. If there’s any religion which has attracted me so much it is Buddhism and given a chance I would love to be a Buddhist! Ok, let me come to the point, I said all this because we were going to a Buddhist monastery at Lumparing, Laban.

Going to Lumparing was literally like travelling in Madikeri. With its austere beauty, this god gifted, pollution free, calm and quiet land of mountains cordially took us to experience its hospitality, to make our holiday an interesting chapter in our life. The wooded slopes, eccentric villages, colourful scenery and rugged landscape of Meghalaya just embraced us with whole heart. By this time I had acclimatized to some oxygen, as we all are used to carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to live in city! And where do we get to see so many greenery, trees and fresh air in Doha?!  The view as we moved to the top was pretty awesome. We could see lush green trees, houses in between and silver white clouds slowly unraveling their blanket over the sleepy town, and in the horizon we could also see several hills plastered with green.

Buddhist prayer flags, printed by hand using woodblocks and ink, blowing in the wind gave us a warm welcome to the premises. These prayer flags in different coloured pieces of cloth have Buddhist sutras printed on them. They were strung up to a pole here. At other monasteries, they are strung up at mountain passes, along trails and streams and are attached to chortens, temples and other sacred structures so their prayers can be released in the wind to purify the air and appease the gods. It is believed that when the flags flutter in the wind the sutras on them are released to heaven which would bring merit to the people who tied them. The wind horse is the main symbol found on prayer flags. On his back, the horse carries the Three Jewels of Buddhism — the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The colours on prayer flags is very symbolic. Red represents fire, green represents wood, yellow represents earth, blue represents water and white represents iron.
Prayer flags

Usually a huge bronze incense burner, a kind of bronze cooking vessel, will be seen for religious or ritual ceremonies and is found in front of the main Hall where people can burn incense for prayer, but here we found a concrete incense burner in the shape of a chorten or a stupa!
The monastery, I mean lamasery was closed when we went there. I still don’t know why they call it a lamasery instead of a monastery. Ok, I got the answer. I was scratching my head and one of my former colleagues told me the difference between the two. The difference is very subtle. A monastery can be a place for monks of any religion. Vivekananda's Baranagar Math was called a monastery. Lamasery is the one for the Vajrayana monks or the Tibetan Lamas. Secondly, a Lama is someone with some spiritual attainment while a monk can be a beginner. The terms are often used like synonyms.

After entering the lamasery, driver Ganesh went and washed his legs before entering the courtyard. He went to circumambulate clockwise around the prayer hall keeping the religious landmarks to his right. Then he clasped the hands in the prayer position and touched the hands to the head, mouth and heart. Then he raised his hands to the sky and prostrated by lying face-down on the ground and stretching out his arms and legs. Then he tapped his forehead to faded silk scarves hanging at the entrance of the hall. I wondered how he’s doing it all perfect. I asked if he’s not a Hindu, as his name if ‘Ganesh’! He said his mother is a Nepali Hindu and father is a Buddhist.
Lumparing Buddhist Lamasery

Then Ganesh went and asked a monk to open it so that we could pray. He told the monk that we were tourists and had come all the way from south India and the priest was more than happy to open the doors and let us in moreover it was their afternoon prayer time.

We saw drums inside the lamasery which would be beaten by monks while chanting mantras. There were yak butter lamps and incense burners with cypress leaves. The practice of burning incense is symbolic of a spiritual cleansing or preparation for approaching the Buddha and listening to the Dharma. When we burn incense it helps us to remember to think kind and beautiful thoughts. It is believed that when we burn incense, we are doing away our petty thoughts and selfish acts. The incense used in monasteries have gentle and lovely fragrance helping devotees to fill their minds with good thoughts.
Statues of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas

There were statues of Buddhas and Boddhisatvas in the prayer hall. In the main hall, we saw a smiling Maitreya set on the middle altar. Four fierce-looking Heavenly Kings or warrior guardians stood in two groups on each side. We found the Buddha trinity, the trinity of the three ages, including the Buddha of the Present, Sakyamuni, the Buddha of the Past, Kasyapa, and the Buddha of the Future, Maitreya. One thing was sure that the Buddhas or Bodhisatvas were supposed to be superior to others in the hall. All the statues were draped white and yellow gauze strips.
Statues of Buddhas and Bodhisatvas

Statues draped white gauze strips

In monasteries, as in Hindu temples they give prominence to flowers. They symbolize impermanence of life and they are always kept fresh at all times. There were rice and fruits in small bowls as offerings. Offerings of food are made as an expression of thankfulness and gratitude. Often sweets, vegetables and fruits are also offered on special occasions. Fish or any form of animal flesh is never offered.
There were Seven Bowls of Water on all the altars which are normally replenished twice a day. The seven bowls represent the Seven Examined Men — the first seven monks.
Seven Bowls of Water
There were also Votive offerings, including the Five Altar Offerings -- a Censer placed between two candlesticks and two vases -- and the Seven Regal Symbols -- the Wheel of the Law, the White Elephant, the Horse, the Precious Jewel, the Queen, the Minister of Economics and the Army General.
Votive offerings

Meanwhile, the prayer service began and six monks started to chant mantras. We sat back and watched respectfully as the Buddhist monks chanted sutras. A monk was striking gongs during service to call attention at the beginning of a sutra chanting and in dividing the sutra into portions. The little brass gong had a high tinkling ring. When struck on the inside, it seemed to signal the service was about to begin. The large black gong had a deep and a low ring. I observed how the gong was used by the monk. He used a wrist action and struck the gong lightly but briskly. He hit the upper part of the gong using a right to left motion and not up and down.
During rituals led by a major lama, incense and yak butter lamps were lit and tea was quietly served by servants to the lamas sitting on the stage. They offered tea for us too!

Another monk was using singing bowls while chanting sutras. He was rotating a stick around the outer edge of the bowl and the bowl was producing a chant-like humming noise. Don’t know which metal it was, but the sound was very soothing and melodious. They say these bowls are made from a secret blend of seven different metals!

All the monks were passing their prayer beads through their fingers, keeping careful count of their prayers. Even Hindus use the prayer beads and a bead is ticked off each time a prayer is recited. A second string is often used to keep track of the higher multiples of prayers. After 10-15 minutes, we got their blessings and came outside. We couldn’t stay for the full prayer session as Sajid and Shahid did not enter the lamasery. Umer came and took our photographs with the monks.

Unlike big monasteries, I didn’t find big prayer wheels here. They will be inscribed with Mani prayers and contain sutra scrolls attached to their axels. Each turn of a prayer wheel represents a recitation of the prayer inside and transports it to heaven. Varying in size from thimbles to oil drums, with some the size of buildings, prayer wheels can be made of wood, copper, bronze, silver or gold. They can be turned by wind or water or rotated by hand and are often stuffed with prayers handwritten in pieces of cloth. Some prayer wheels have handles and look like devices that take up string on a kite. Others are large and hang from temples with thousands of prayers inside that when unraveled are more than a mile long. Pilgrimage paths are often lined with prayer wheels. Normally, prayer wheels are allowed to slow down but never to stop. They are generally spun very quickly in a clockwise fashion. Yak grease is used on the handle to make them spin more quietly.

To the right side of the lamasery, there was the Hall of Lamps. We lighted some lamps making our prayers. The symbolism of light in the Buddhism is very much similar to the Hinduism.  Hindus light the lamp and chant a mantra from Upanishad: “Asatoma Sadgamaya, Tamasoma Jotirgamaya, Mrityorma Amritangamaya…”  meaning “ Lead me from lies to the truth, Lead me from darkness to the light, Lead me from death to immortality...” Buddhists light the lamp and chant a mantra which will mean “Tear away the darkness of illusion through the all-penetrating light of the Buddha”. As the Buddha is regarded as the dispeller of the darkness of ignorance, when lighted lamps are offered in his name this metaphorical contrast between the light of knowledge and the darkness of ignorance is taken as the theoretical basis for the ritual.
Hall of Lamps
Hall of Lamps
The huge kitchen was behind the lamasery hall. I have heard that they even cook yaks for meals. At the rear part of the courtyard we found Sutra Hall or a library where Buddhist sutras, scriptures and books were are kept. Living residences or quarters for monks were set at the corner of the rear part.

By the time we lighted the lamps and came out of the hall, it started raining heavily. A monk had offered tea to Umer, Sajid, and Shahid and he wanted us also to drink tea, unfortunately we both never drank tea and politely refused his offer. When I asked the monk to bless me, he said: “Aapka prartana devata sunchuke hain, dekhiye barish ho raha hai.” (God has heard your prayers, see it’s raining). We thanked the monks and left the lamasery.

After a brief spell of heavy rain our afternoon became pretty much green. The earthy fragrance, chilly breeze, the green environment, streams, all made me happy and sad at the same time, happy because I was enjoying it, sad because I’ve chosen a place to where I could never get all this and it’s too late to go back!

We went back to the hotel for lunch. Though the ride on the Bolero rattled the bones out of our body, driving was a pleasure on it, one especially in the hilly areas. Taxi drivers don’t have permission to ply beyond a certain point and Ganesh had to take permission from a cop to take us on a road as it was heavily pouring. Oh, wait, wait, I never mentioned earlier that Maruti 800 is a taxi here!

We had some veg pulav, rotis, mixed veg curry for lunch. I and Vij had only veg as we had been to the temple. Ganesh was waiting behind the hotel to take us to Lady Hydari Park.


  1. I was born there, i walked with my dad on those streets on a rainy dad is no more I am settled outside shillong ...quite far away. thanks for the refreshing post