We started our exploration of Gangtok with a visit to the Rumtek Monastery located 23 Kms away from the city. The state of the roads made it seem longer than 23 kms, but the monastery itself was worth the time and the discomfort. It was a huge structure and not only did we see the main temple area, we also managed to get a peek into the lifestyle of Monks, which was and still remains a mystery to us to a large extent.
We came across these two monks during our long walk to the main complex of the monastery. They were engrossed in conversation while fiddling with their smartphones. In fact, we saw several monks sporting stylish shoes and smartphones. This was a revelation. Their lifestyles aren't necessarily as minimalistic as we had come to expect.
Another important detail of this trip was our Russian co-traveller. He works in an IT Services Company in Hyderabad and every now and then vacations in various parts of India. He doesn't decide the itinerary in advance and stays in basic hotels and explores the region properly. His approach towards photography is also unique. He only carries a smartphone, but we hardly saw him take pictures. I think that he likes to experience the places and hasn't yet got carried away with the current trend of (over)sharing on social media. Respect! In the picture above, that's him in the orange sweater.
Coming back to the Rumtek Monastery - not only is the monastery famous because of its size, but also because it is at the centre of a controversy. In order to understand the controversy, we would need to understand the monastery's history. The monastery was built under the direction of Changchub Dorje, 12th Karmapa Lama in the 18th century.
The monastery was the main seat of the Karma Kagyu sect for a long time. However, when 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje arrived here in 1959 after fleeing from Tibet, he found the monastery in ruins. He was so convinced of this being the perfect seat for him and his lineage, that he decided to rebuild this monastery despite many other options being available. The monastery's location, the mountains and streams around it made it the perfect place.
After the completion of its construction with the help of the Royal Family of Sikkim and the local people, Rumtek became the main seat in exile of the 16th Karmapa. Sacred items and relics brought from the Tsurphu Monastery, the Karmapa's seat in Tibet, were placed here. In 1966, the 16th Karmapa officially inaugurated it as "The Dharmachakra Centre, a place of erudition and spiritual accomplishment, the seat of the glorious Karmapa."
The controversy today is about who is the real 17th Karmapa. This battle is currently being fought in Indian courts. Two different candidates are being promoted by two different organizations as the 17th Karmapa, and both are staking their claims for the stewardship of the monastery. The Tsurphu Labrang supports Ogyen Trinley Dorje and the Karmapa Charitable Trust supports Trinley Thaye Dorje. At present neither of the two candidates resides at Rumtek. The Indian security forces made the monks supporting Trinley Thaye Dorje leave Rumtek, in order to prevent an outbreak of violence between the two factions. In fact, even today Indian army personnel can still be seen around and inside the monastery to maintain peace.
We took a round of the monastery and were delighted to observe the monks going about their businesses. Some monks were sweeping the courtyards, others washing their robes and hanging them out to dry, while others were busy studying scriptures.
We were also surprised to find that the living quarters of the monks were accessible to the visitors, so we went as deep as we could go without disturbing their schedules and activities. We found slippers lying outside their rooms, we saw them hanging out like regular teenagers, we saw them living a life so similar, yet so vastly different from ours.
Rumtek Monastery was a happening monastery, even though we only found out about its peculiarities when we read about it later. If we hadn't found out about the ongoing controversy, we would never have guessed that this monastery was at the centre of such unusual tussle in the otherwise peace-loving Buddhism.
If you plan to go to Gangtok, do visit Rumtek. You may want to plan half a day for travelling to this Monastery and back, but if you are interested in Tibetan architecture and the lifestyle of the monks, this trip will be worth it.