By Vijay Kranti
Being near the Presence of HH Dalai Lama is always an outstanding privilege for anyone, especially for less than ordinary people like me. My 50 year long experience proves that each interaction with him has been heavily blessed with special kindness, blasts of laughter, wisdom and newer peeps into life and its philosophy. One such special occasion came in Aug-Sep 1980 when I traveled with him as his photographer on his personal invitation on his month-long tour of Ladakh. More than a month before this historic journey of my life began, a sudden telegram from Mr. Tenzin Geyche, Private Secretary to HH Dalai Lama, landed at our home in Bharat Nagar of Delhi. Those were the days when the fastest mode of communication was the telegram and was used only for very very special communications.
In those days when the Indian Post used to charge heavily for each word of the telegram this was an extraordinarily long message – typed on a thin tape of newsprint paper which was pasted in randomly broken rows under each other. Pasted with a mildly stinky glue on the signature pink paper envelope of the Indian Post, it still stands up as the longest telegram of my lifetime. Only other times when I had received personal telegrams were a bunch of short and crispy greeting telegrams from some friends and relatives when I got married. The name of sender Tenzin Geyche, who had become my good friend over the past eight years, was enough to make me excited. If my memory is not deceiving me 43 years later now, the telegram read something like this:
“I have been directed by His Holiness to inform you that he will be traveling to Ladakh for about a month from the first week of August. He will be happy if you join him for your photography. Please confirm at earliest.”
More than a kind invitation from His Holiness, this telegram reflected a much greater aspect of his personality – his concern for the feelings of every individual he comes across and his sharp memory about their expectations from him. It suddenly reminded me of a request which I had made to him during one of my interview audiences three or four years ago, and had conveniently forgotten too. I had expressed my desire to travel with him as his photographer while he was on a long trip to some distant place in near future. Those were the days when he would rarely move out of Dharamshala, his ‘second home’ in exile since he had left Tibet in 1959. Most of his activities used to be confined to Dharamshala and not many political guests or inquisitive media people would visit him. That had made me keen to see how photogenic it would be when he is traveling to some new places and meeting new people in an open environment. Although I had made this request, I was never sure if the protocols of the Tibetan establishment or Indian bureaucracy would leave any space for such a personal request of an ordinary freelance journalist to be accepted and allowed. So, I had hardly much hope that this request could ever fructify. But this sudden telegram with a personal message from His Holiness not only rocketed my excitement to the cloud-nine, but it was also the first time when I realized the depth of his sincerity, concern and kindness towards others – in this particular case, it was none other than this humble soul. It took me many more months to know that it was only on his personal insistence that despite resistance from some unwilling senior official/s of the Indian Foreign Ministry, His Holiness had got me included in the official list of his entourage.
I joined the retinue at the Tibetan Muslim community in Srinagar where the Dalai Lama was on the first halt of his tour. The excitement among the community members; their colorful reception to the Dalai Lama; and the enthusiasm with which he responded to them was a bold assurance to me that this visit was going to give the treat which I and my camera had been longing for. The ease with which he mixed up with the Muslim children, youths and women presented a new facet of his skill of winning friends and influencing people. Holding the long hanging beard of an elderly Tibetan Muslim from Barkhor of Lhasa he won every heart in the public meeting when he declared, “You all are my dear brothers and sisters from my own home town Lhasa.”
Each day of the following month proved to be equally exciting and colorful as it revealed so many other aspects of the Dalai Lama’s personality which I could have hardly ever witnessed in the formal environment of McLeodganj. From Srinagar we traveled to Kargil, Lankarche, Sankoo, Panikher, Rangdum, Penzela, Phey, Sani, Padum, Karsha, Stongdey and then on way back via Kargil I witnessed the personal charm of Dalai Lama at many places which included Mulbek, Lamayuru, Khalsi, Alchi, Nimmoo, Leh and Choglamsar. At every place he visited or had a stopover, crowds of Buddhists and Muslims thronged the venue for his ‘Darshan’ in the best of their traditional dresses. It was also my first ever exposure to the beauty of Ladakh which has been taking me back there so many times over the past four decades.
The longest halt of the Dalai Lama was at Padum, the heart of Zanskar Valley where he stayed for about a fortnight to give public teachings and initiation on Avalokiteshvara-Chakra. Interestingly, Avalokiteshvara (known as ‘Chen-rezig’ in Tibetan) is the compassion manifestation of Buddha. And the Dalai Lama is considered to be the human manifestation of Avalokiteshvara. Thanks to the warm hospitality of the Jammu & Kashmir government, a big tent town had sprung up in the Padum valley where Ladakhis from as far away as a week-long walk had gathered. The total number must have touched the 100 thousand figure. Dressed in their colorful and flower decked costumes, a sight rarely visible to people from other parts of the world, they were going to be the first ever generation of Ladakhis in centuries that was going to have the first ever glimpse of the Dalai Lama – the living Avalokiteshvara. An equally interesting bonus for most of the devotees was the first ever sight of an electric bulb and water tap flowing with drinking water which became regular centres of attraction for inquisitive and surprised crowds.
The daily public teachings would begin around 9am and conclude well in time before the daily storm of the Zanskar Valley would invade the entire tent township around 1pm. Blinding dust and gusty winds would vigorously test the threshold of the tents and the skill of tent pitchers everyday with clock precision. It was only after a two hour long show of strength by the storm that life would return to normal every day. It was therefore only after around 3pm that a chat group composed of members of the entourage like Ngari Rinpoche (younger brother of HH the Dalai Lama), some state government officers, police officers and others like me would gather in a dining room tent around Dr. Farooq Abdullah who happened to be the Chief of Protocol for HH’s visit besides being the state Minister for Tourism and ‘Tawazzah’ (hospitality) and was blessed with a charming personality and tons of hillarious anecdotes on every subject under the sun.
During one such sitting the curtain door of this tent suddenly opened and a desperate looking policeman entered. Seeing Dr. Abdullah in the tent, he stood erect nervously to salute him and asked, “Sir ji yahan koyi Mister Rangzen hai? Guru ji unko bula rahe hain.” (Sir, is there anyone with the name ‘Mr. Rangzen’? His Holiness is calling him.) I could see confusion on everyone’s face as they were surprised at hearing a name that no one had heard in the past one week but who was being sent for by none other than the Dalai Lama himself. I could see an electrifying smile on Ngari Rinpoche’s face who pointed at me and announced with a big laugh, “Yeh hai tumhara Mister Rangzen. Isko pakad kar le jao. Hathkadi laye ho naa?” (Here is your Mr. Rangzen. Catch hold of him and take him with you.I hope you have brought the handcuffs?). This was yet another opportunity for Ngari Rinpoche that he would always look forward to for poking fun at me. He was the only person in the group who knew that His Holiness loves to address me as ‘Mr. Rangzen” (Mr. Freedom). As a reflection of his love and liking for me since we became friends during my first visit to McLeod Ganj in 1972, Rinpoche had made special efforts to get some space created for me in his own small room which happened to be a part of the only pucca house, build especially to host His Holiness during the visit.
The policeman looked relieved as he said, “Arrey Sahab aap yahan baithe hain aur main saare tenton mein aapko dhoondh chuka hoon. Jaldi chaliye. Guruji ne kaha hai camera lekar aana.” (Oh Sir, you are sitting here and I’ve been desperately looking for you in all the tents. Please come with me. And Dalai Lama ji has asked me to tell you that you should bring your camera with you.) As I rushed to the main temple, I saw His Holiness surrounded with a group of Lamas around a large squarish wooden table. As soon as he saw me, he gave me a big smile and signed me to make my camera ready to shoot. Later he told me that as the monk artists were going to start making the Sand-Mandala he realized that this was an important step for me to take photos. That is why he has instructed the monks to hold on until I arrived with my camera. I was deeply moved by his concern for me and my photography work.
In the following days I would regularly visit the temple to shoot the unique and intricate progress of the making of the ‘Avalokiteshvara Mandala’ with sand of many colours. The monk artists would hold sand of a specific colour in a metallic cone. As the artist would rub an empty cone along the toothed length of this cone, the vibrations created in the lower cone would allow fine granules of the sand to fall over the Mandala board and the monk would give shape to this falling sand. Each cone end had a specific fine or wide hole to control size of falling granulated in order to create three dimensional elements of the sand painting in colours of innumerable hues. As an Indian who had been always mesmerized by the skill of our mothers and sisters who would create colourful ‘Rangoli’ at home and temples just by smartly dropping coloured flour through their fist and fingers on festive days, this Sand-Mandala art was many many notches above in that class of fine arts.
Over the next one week it was a unique treat for my eyes, my camera and, above all, my soul to see a beautiful and colourful Mandala evolving over a wooden board of about 7 feet square size. I noticed that the basic ground figure of the Mandala was first drawn in pencil with the help of various tools on the basis of some already perfected geometric formulas to ensure a ground for the aesthetics of the final Mandala. I soon realized that Mandala making was like a relay race which would keep on almost 24 hours each day. Every time a team of 3 or 4 monk artists would feel tired or exhausted, the next team would take over.
It was a great event on the day when the Mandala was finally ready and the consecration ceremony was headed by His Holiness Dalai Lama himself. On following days the Mandala room was opened daily for a few hours for the ‘Darshan’ (holy viewing) by the common devotees. They would slowly walk in a queue around the glass encasing of the Mandala. Quietly running the rosary or the ‘Mani’ prayer wheel in their hands and lips flickering humbly in prayers, one could easily see the awe of the beauty of the Mandala in their wide open eyes and smiling faces. It gave me satisfaction visualizing that the Mandal would become a permanent part of the temple after the teachings were over and the Dalai Lama had moved ahead on his remaining Ladakh journey.
But then came the sudden and shocking anti-climax of this process for me. His Holiness asked me one day to wait for yet another rite – the destruction of the Mandala. I could not believe my ears. Firstly creating such a beautiful piece of art and then destroying it? I could not understand the logic behind this strange ritual. Finally in this special ceremony, the glass encasing was removed and an elaborate and quite a photogenic prayer ritual was held. The ritual involved invocation of all the deities, residing in their respective ‘homes’ within the Mandala, and requesting them to return to their respective abodes. The monks picked up these homes in pinches to put them in a special bowl. At the final moment the Dalai Lama offered his prayers and politely but decisively drove his ‘Vajra’ (Thunderbolt) from one specific point on the periphery of the Mandala right up to its heart to mark the conclusion of its life span. The final part of the destruction process was taken over by the monk artists themselves who had laboriously created this Mandala over the past many days.
As small pieces of towel cloth and brushes swiped through the Mandala board to collect the sand in the centre, the layers of coloured sand, intermingled with each other, produced a beautiful sequence of waves – something like sea waves leaving soothing patterns on a gradually ascending shore. Finally the sand was transferred to an aesthetically decorated urn. The ultimate ceremony too was equally colourful when the urn was taken in a procession to a small tributary of the Zanskar river and the Dalai Lama himself offered and emptied the sand into the flowing water which further took it to the gurgling river a few hundred meters away.
Later, on getting the first opportunity to cool down my shock, I politely asked His Holiness the logic behind the destruction of such a beautiful piece of art.
With his usual naughty smile he fired back a counter question, “Why do you think it should not have been destroyed?”
“Because it was so beautiful. It could have stayed back in the temple,” was my response which, I thought, was really brilliant.
He gave me a big smile and asked, “Do you mean it deserved to be destroyed if it were not beautiful? Or only ugly things and people should die?”
Like any typical fool, I had no answer. I felt like a goalkeeper who had scored an own-goal or an embarrassed cricket batsman who had just bowled himself out with a hit-wicket.
Now his smile turned into laughter. But it was a laughter of kindness, not of victory. He looked straight into my eyes and said, “Everything is impermanent. It comes into existence to serve a purpose. It may be beautiful in the eyes of some and may not be so in others’ eyes. If it serves the purpose of its creation, then very good. But even if it could not, even then it is OK. Impermanence is the rule of life. Anyone who is born is bound to die one day. Beautiful or not beautiful. Beauty cannot be a license to permanence.”
I hope I serve the purpose I was made for – before I am gone.
(Views expressed are his own)
The author is a senior journalist, photographer and a Tibetologist – now in the 50th year of his love affair with Tibet. This article is the latest in his ongoing series “My Journey Through the Tibetan Mindscape” in PHAYUL since July, 2020.