Art & Culture · Heritage · Himalaya · Photography · Travel Writing

A treasure called Kungri


The Ugyen Choling Gompa  belongs to Nyingmapa sect – regarded as the oldest sect of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism. This monastery, situated at Kungri, Pin valley is the second oldest in Spiti and dates back to the fourteenth century. Being one of a kind for its sect in this region, the monastery houses a large number of young lamas who are initiated into this particular sect. To let off steam, they find avenues like young men do, world over – play a sport. The day I reached, in my Aimless wanderings in the region, they were playing volleyball.

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The monastery appeared closed but my driver for the day – Tashi, perhaps feeling a little guilty for leaving me earlier at Gulling, to visit his wife and taking forever to return,  helped with alacrity. He was able to find the lama who had the key. Lama was a bit unsure why I wanted to see the older section and asked, quite sincerely, if I would not be better off visiting the newer part – it was nice! I said, no, I really want to see the old temple. “Ok, your wish”, he said and led me through a corridor with snow on either side.

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The building was a small dimly lit low roofed chamber that had sunlight coming in from a single ventilation shaft in the middle of the room. There were no windows and that rendered the aisles of the chamber so dark that my camera struggled badly. There were no good surfaces to bounce the flash appropriately either – but whenever it bounced, it yielded pure antiquarian gold. The photo below is of the top left edge of the ceiling and this mural depicts dragons – these mythical creatures regarded as fearsome in European mythology are positive icons in Tibetan. They signify creativity, change, energy and wealth. Below, a row of kapalas – skull icon.

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Every time I tried to make out the details on the wall, with the insufficient torch light of my mobile phone, my only realization was, this was an old old place and the treasures – be it murals, sculptures or thangkas were priceless and some of the best Himalayan art I’ve seen, ever. Here’s a sliver plated statue of Mahakala – the wrathful deity of the buddhist pantheon. We see in his hand a scroll and his crown is made of five skulls. To its right hangs a penciled thangka – depicting a mandala – or the wheel of life.

As my eyes adjusted, I noticed on the left side the wall had a collection of the religious scriptures known as ‘Kagyurs’ (Buddha’s teachings). They are 108 in number, arranged neatly with coverings of orange silk (brocade) cloth covering them and a purple and yellow on top of that. Also seen in this photo are a prayer drum, prayer bells, incense holders, cymbals and then something that surprised me – open (and full) beer bottles! These are considered to be a valid votive offering for the Padmasambhava under the Tantric practices that are followed in this monastery. [The brand’s Zingaro, in case you’re wondering]

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I clicked as many shots as the man who opened the door would allow. He was getting a bit impatient as he wanted to close the area and help us see the other, main prayer hall as well. This last photo should give a better sense of the entire chamber – in the center in the ceiling is the ventilation shaft. On the left are the Kagyur (pronounced tan-jur) and in the center of the altar-space, the principal deity (guru Rin-po-che or Padmasambhava) along with two subsidiary stnading deities.

What I remember most from this view, the moment i photographed it, is it is an intimate space- where one or at best a few monks had prayed to their god over centuries. The ceiling is darkened with incense smoke, the lamps are still lit and a portrait of the last chief lama hangs next to the principal deity. Statues jostle with the donation box for space, khatas with scrolls. A round wooden pillar, well worn from hands touching it supports the ceiling beams and also a thangka and perhaps the lama’s personal clothing. The entire space came together as a whole and left me with a feeling that I was intruding – so I tiptoed out.

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Once out of the chamber, I followed the lama and my driver, passing by huge piles of snow on the ground. He opened the main door of the prayer hall for us – and this image should tell you a bit about the setting of the kungri gompa. The mountains are reflected off the glass front.

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Inside was a newish, large hall – appeared wider than the one in Kaza. It was not as impressive as the one in Sakya Tenggyu though, not as bright or eye popping (also as there was no power supply at the moment, it was the sunlight coming in through the windows that lit the space).

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But faith cannot be measured by visual appeal. The main altar had a symmetrical setting of wheat and apples, given as offerings to the deities. Also the discs seen in the photo that look like they would start rotating if the breeze were to blow at the slightest are actually tsampa – the Tibetan staple made of dough and hardened yak butter. It is said that before the arrival of Buddhism, Tibetans used to offer this food to their animistic gods – as they do now to the Buddha.

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What I thought most impressive was this four tiered silver structure – I cannot find the name for it – am sure it is something significant (might be a mandala but looks different). It was made of silver leaf, excellent craftsmanship and good detail that showed episodes from the life of Buddha. It stood ignored in a corner, overflowing with offerings such as wheat and currency notes. I really wanted to ask many questions of the Lama but he was quite uninterested, sadly.

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I came out into the main courtyard to find Tashi looking a bit lost and away at the horizon, perhaps he was just waiting for me to come out so we could leave. I asked him and indeed he was. So we left. I tried to explain to him that he could have visited his wife while letting me be at the Gompa instead of attempting that over lunch but he didn’t understand the logic. There was a wall of cold air that had descended out of nowhere between us.

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[In response to the daily prompt. Also re-released as it disappeared from reader for some reason, probably due to mistakes in tagging on my part]

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