Friday, August 21, 2009

Pilgrimage

(From the book "Shadow Around the Lamp")


Many centuries ago, until the invasion of Tibet in the nineteen fifties, the Bhutanese went on pilgrimage to Tsari Rongkor in Tibet. Unlike the annual ritual held in Bodh Gaya these days, the Tsari Rongkor pilgrimage was hosted one time every twelve years in the year of the monkey.

Tsari Rongkor, which lies to the south of Tibet, is a pilgrimage site dedicated to Vajra Warahi, a Dakini popularly known as Dorji Phagmo . This is a place of three-layered cliffs. Women and children can only go as far as the middle layer since the third layer is open only to men.

Bhutanese from all over the country traveled to Tsari Rongkor on foot carrying their own provisions of food which lasted for two to three months. All the pilgrims, coming from various parts of the country, met at a particular place on the appointed day before they finally began their pilgrimage. When all the people had finally gathered, they made an agreement with the locals residing in that area. The pilgrims would pay some cash, cattle and even some provisions of food to the local people in exchange for an assurance from them that they would not harm anyone coming on pilgrimage to their area. It was believed at that time that the local people of that area ate human flesh. However, killing anything only defeated the sole purpose of coming to Tsari Rongkor.

The paths were narrow, suitable for only one person at a time to cling and move on, but being the time of pilgrimage, many people walked alongside each other. They had to catch hold of creepers and walk forward cautiously. But despite the danger, people still visited this place. When they had finally finished going round all the holy sites, and had returned safely to the place they first began, the Tibetans who had also come for pilgrimage treated them to meals and wine.

Returning home, they brought back with them Tsari Nyugma, a species of bamboo, which grew abundantly in Tsari but was at that time non-existent in Bhutan. This Tsari Ngugma, which is used for rituals and as a talisman, was brought from Tsari as a gift for the relatives and villagers who remained at home. Since bringing Tsari Nyugma involved severe hardship, and also because of its rarity in Bhutan, many songs and poems were composed about it. Some songs even compare a beautiful lady to Tsari Nyugma. Although Tsari Nyugma is not beautiful, the hardship suffered in bringing it home makes it special and look beautiful mainly because of its rarity.

Today, we have one species of Tsari Nyugma growing in Bhutan which was brought from Tsari Rongkor and planted in Paro Chumphu, a pilgrimage site also dedicated to Dorji Phagmo.

The legend of Tsari Nyugma is slowly fading away with time. People have started going to Bodh Gaya, Varanasi, Sarnath, Raj Griha , Nalanda and other places in India. Some also go to visit caves like Ajanta and Ellora. At one point in history, the pilgrimage sites in India were completely destroyed but they were revived again later in the last century and over the years we have seen the number of pilgrims increasing.

While the increase in the number of people visiting these pilgrimage centres gives us an indication of an increase in religious or spiritual interest, many people have failed to make a pilgrimage within themselves. Buddhists believe in an “inner peace” which comes as a ‘prize’ for understanding self in the context of simple personal.

There is a need for every one going on pilgrimage to ask themselves why they are going and what they would like to learn to bring back home. While the people going to Tsari Rongkor staked their lives and brought back Tsari Nyugma as a gift, the gift today needs to change from the cheap locket of Buddha’s image pasted with crude glue to a perfect understanding of one’s purpose. Buddha has said that there is no eye like understanding and no blindness like ignorance.

If we do not understand why we are going and in the process do things that we believe are right but only hurt others, the purpose of going on pilgrimage is defeated.

Many go to pilgrimage centres to satiate their own wild desires. Some are on business trips while others are on some wild spree, but just going to holy places does not make anyone holy. Buddha said that if by going to holy places you become holy, what would happen to all the fish living in the Ganges? All the fish in the sacred Ganges would be in heaven by now.

Many people light butter lamps in thousands but how many really enlighten themselves with the simple purpose of why they are there? If there is no change in the person, crawling to the moon over one’s life time wouldn’t make any difference at all.