Postcards from the Past Lukshyama

Tenzin C. Tashi

Lukshyama was always on my researcher’s radar. Given our propensity to brush our past under the carpet, I worried that a time would come when no one would be able to identify which Chorten was constructed for which member of the Namgyal dynasty. So I took advantage of the glorious November sunshinetranslation, no leeches- to make a trip to the royal crematorium with two people of like mind. My mother, a septuagenarian was plucky enough to volunteer to come along to identify the structures while Pema would do the photography honours. Together we would try- for the first time, if I am not mistaken- to carefully document the structures at Lukshyama and identify them as the Chortens, Purkhangs, Tsakhang and Dablakhang they happen to be. The most recent cremation at Lukshyama was over two decades ago, the March 1987 cremation of the Gyalyum, Maharani Kunzang Dechhen Tshomo Namgyal, mother of late Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. Since then local papers have carried stories of Lukshyama being vandalized by miscreants who had dug out the Chortens there obviously hoping to find treasures buried inside. I don’t think they were ever traced and nabbed. It upset me that these vandals had desecrated the Chortens and it made me laugh too. It just went a long way in reaffirming that we locals ourselves know scant little about our own customs and traditions. Buried treasure, indeed! Lukshyama is located close to Apa Sahib Pant’s Mandir at Hanuman Tok. But there are no outward signs to indicate where the royal crematorium exists. One could drive right past and never know what secrets the ‘tsenden’ trees hide in their midst. Tall grass and weeds have overrun everything. The rough steps hewn into the path are practically non-existent. Thorny bushes and their spiked seeds rip into our jackets with alacrity as we trudge up slowly. Soon, we reach a clearing and the first two Chortens reveal themselves. They cut a sorry figure, more dark mossy green than the pristine white they should be. Their bases are halfhidden by the tall grass. The ‘nyinda’- the crescent and the sun at the top are also missing, long fallen off. The neglect is as telling as the moss is persistent. Nearby still stands the old tree with the peculiar hollowed-out inside. I remember this tree from photographs seen of earlier royal funerals, many locals perched on its mighty branches for an unrivalled view of the proceedings at Lukshyama. The facades of the Chortens are noticeably askew. Both Chortens have been desecrated. The cement at the centre of their base is newer, damper, an obvious patch-up job. I’m not sure who patched up the Chortens, the Palace Tsuklakhang Trust or the State Government. Whoever did it churlishly grudged the Chortens a scrub-down and a fresh coat of white. How much would a simple whitewash cost? These Chortens provide a sanctified structure within which are enshrined the mortal remains of two members of Sikkim’s royal family. In his iconic ‘Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs’, Robert Beer explains the symbolism of the Stupa or the Chorten thus: ‘As the receptacle of Buddha’s enlightened mind the stupa encapsulates a multitude of

symbolic meanings that reveal his enlightened qualities. Firstly, although it is not actually described in any Tibetan text on stupa symbolism, the stupa has ‘assumed’ the representation of the five purified elements. The square base or lion throne represents the four cardinal sides and four intercardinal corners of the element earth. The hemispherical dome or vase (Tib. bum pa) represents the circle or drop of the element water. The conical spire of thirteen umbrellas represents the element of fire. The upper lotus parasol and crescent moon represent the element of air; and the sun and dissolving point, the element of space.’ The upper Chorten was built for Crown Prince Tenzing Kunzang Jigme Namgyal who expired on 11th March, 1978, just three days short of his 26th birthday. Many old timers aver that had he survived, he would have probably changed the face of Sikkim’s subsequent history. Today, his Chorten is a monument not to his memory but to gross neglect. A youth, possibly the same age as the late Crown Prince when his life was cut off in its prime, has casually scrawled ‘Nitin’ on the Chorten. Slightly lower down is the Chorten built for the late Crown Prince’s mother- Princess Sangay Dekila, the stunningly beautiful first wife of Chogyal P.T. Namgyal- who also died tragically young in 1957. She was just 24 years. The two Chortens stand close to each other, commemorating two forgotten souls. Death is cruel, but Time perhaps more so. The Chortens are moss -covered and have been defiled by would-be looters but still retain their innate, simple dignity. That neither Time nor man can ravage. We now move to a higher ridge where the older Chortens are located. There are two Chortens close to each other, one at a slightly higher level. The symmetry of these Chortens is better, they have the crescent and the orb, as well as a pair of the Buddha’s eyes painted on, and someone has strung up ‘lungta’ prayer flags from their tops. One is the ninth Chogyal Thutob Namgyal’s Chorten, the other one is that of his youngest son, the eleventh Chogyal Tashi Namgyal who enjoyed the longest reign of all the Namgyal Chogyals. We first have a look at the lower Chorten. This Chorten has been badly ransacked, the plaque for the deity has been rudely hacked at with a crowbar, and the base has been dug out fully. There are mounds of earth piled up in front of the four sides of the Chorten and the grass that grows on top of this is a more recent, vibrant shade of green. We find a broken fragment of the top of Chagna Dorji’s figure tossed inside the base of the Chorten. So much time has passed and so many memories from the past assail the air that Amla is momentarily disoriented. She remembers that Sir Tashi’s Chorten has a marble plaque of the deity, Chagna Dorji, on its front. This fragment sure looks like marble. It doesn’t help that Pema and I have our own theories, he with how the older Chorten would be located at a higher level, and me insisting the fragment is marble. We mentally file away that this is probably Sir Tashi’s Chorten and then move up to inspect the other Chorten. We then realize that this second Chorten, the higher of the two, is Sir Tashi’s Chorten. Chagna Dorji fulminates from his marble plaque and it is intact. I also remember hearing that Chogyal Thutob’s Chorten had borne the full brunt of the looters’ efforts. Everything is suddenly clear. Besides, this Chorten is bigger and newer. It was obviously constructed after the other one. This is Sir Tashi’s Chorten. The one lower down is that of his father, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal. For the record, Chogyal Thutob Namgyal died in 1914 and Sir Tashi in 1963.

There is another square structure close to Sir Tashi’s Chorten. It is almost entirely covered by grass and pale yellow stalks. A vivid yellow structure is just about discernable at the top of all this grassy decay, curiously reminiscent of the top of a totem pole. Amla tells us this is Maharani Yeshey Dolma’s Tsakhang. It contains the ‘tsa tsa’, the mortal remains of Yeshey Dolma, my idol from Sikkim’s history! Chogyal Thutob’s Maharani was a spirited woman who left a lasting legacy, the History of Sikkim which she and the Maharaja commissioned in 1908. Claude White himself was rather taken in by her, describing her as, “Her disposition is a masterful one and her bearing always dignified. She has a great opinion of her own importance, and is the possessor of a sweet musical voice, into which she can, when angry, introduce a very sharp intonation. She is always interesting, whether to look at or to listen to, and had she been born within the sphere of European politics she would most certainly have made her mark, for there is no doubt she is a born intriguer and diplomat.” There seems a pattern replicated here, unconscious perhaps. Mother and son’s mortal remains lie close to each other. Higher up, Maharani Yeshey Dolma’s Tsakhang in close proximity to Sir Tashi’s Chorten which is on a gentle flat. Lower down, Princess Sangay Dekila’s Chorten watched over by Crown Prince Tenzing’s Chorten. When I comment that the lower Chortens lack symmetry, Amla retorts that these were built in difficult times. All the construction materials had to be carried up manually. Also, both Chortens were erected soon after the merger, and there was no external help. Ah yes, the late Crown Prince had not even been granted an obituary reference by the then Government. Lukshyama is a still standing testimonial of our pre-merger history. Under all the moss, under all the decay, unwritten layers of our history are alive. Choked with grass perhaps but then again grass grows where one allows it to. These mute Chortens articulate so much about the lives and times and changing fortunes of the Namgyal dynasty, they speak more eloquently than those who lived in the merger times ever will. Now we must locate the Gyalyum’s Purkhang. Amla walks purposefully to a fern- covered spot close to the Crown Prince’s Chorten, and tells us this is it. I’m skeptical; simple logic refutes that the most recent Purkhang is completely covered by earth while older structures are in better shape. I tamp the ferns and undergrowth with my hands. There is something solid underneath! Pema and I quickly dig at the spot and several levels of the base of a Purkhang emerge like ghosts from the past. My mother and I have a major disagreement. She insists this is the Gyalyum’s Purkhang. I beg to differ. I insist that this has to be someone else’s Purkhang. But whose Purkhang is the magic question. I don’t want to quarrel with my knowledge bank, so I move further down the slope in search of the cremation spots of the two Sikkim Princesses- Princess Pema Choki a.k.a. Kula, and Princess Sonam Padeun a.k.a. Jeanla- who were the daughters of Sir Tashi Namgyal and the Gyalyum. Many years ago, there were simple stones stacked on each other to mark where their Purkhangs were located. Time has again been a great leveler in more ways than one. Talk of trying to find a needle in a haystack! There is so much undergrowth I can barely tell how deep my foot will sink with each step, forget locate stones stacked some four decades ago. I admit the task is an exercise in self- defeat.

As I hike up the slope, the tiniest glint of white catches my eye from a really wild tangle of thorny bushes and tall grass. I charge excitedly into the little clearing where a Purkhang is almost completely hidden from view, with grass literally exploding from its bowels. Many vile thorns rip into my arms through my fleece but I am unmindful- we have located the Gyalyum’s Purkhang! This is built stolidly- that it is only partially destroyed speaks volumes of its constitution. Amla is not buying my theory. She insists the one on top must be the Gyalyum’s Purkhang. We now are rather confused. Whose Purkhang base forms a vertex of a triangle with the two lower Chortens? We bounce names off each other, but the question lingers in the air as we move on in search of one more structure. Look for the remains of a wall, a hermitage wall, Amla says. We ramble about but can only locate what looks like the cube of a Chorten. Someone has inscribed U.T.P. on it and this structure is visible from the road near the army camp. This is the Dablakhang. Chogyal P.T. Namgyal’s guru, Trulshik Rimpoche had a ‘tsamkhang’ or hermitage near this spot. Today all that remains is this structure. It is now time to return home to Gangtok from our tryst with the past. But before we go our separate ways, we have a look at the Gyalyum’s funeral album. There are photographs which show that her Purkhang was located at an almost 30 degree angle from, and lower to, that of Princess Sangay Dekila’s Chorten. Which means my assumption is right. But this whole exercise is not about who’s right and who’s wrong. The question that hangs heavy on all of us is, whose Purkhang did we then unearth? Amla zeroed in on the spot with amazing confidence; she did remember clearly something from another day but what was it? Sleep eludes me for most of the night. I want to solve the mystery. Barely a century has passed since the evolution of Lukshyama as the royal crematorium at Gangtok, the answer couldn’t be so elusive. Finally, at the crack of dawn, the answer literally dawns on me. It is Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal’s Purkhang! What threw us all completely off the track was the knowledge that Chogyal P.T.Namgyal’s Chorten was at Tashiding. We had all committed the same mistake of mentally dismissing him with, ‘His Chorten is in Tashiding’, forgetting all the while that he had been cremated at Lukshyama in a mammoth sea of grieving humanity! Lukshyama, one hears, has been given to the Nyingma Sheda. Whoever is in charge, I hope they are reading this. We discovered broken bottles of beer and remains of campfires at Lukshyama. The grass is tall, and dry. Good tinder. Perhaps someone will take up the issue of fencing the boundary to keep out dangerous trespassers. Finally, I have this to say. I have reproduced faithfully the entire sequence of events on our visit to Lukshyama. My mother, who by the way supervised the building of the two lower Chortens is a formidable fount of knowledge. I am a researcher-writer. Pema is a newspaper Editor. We all share a common interest in the history of Sikkim. Yet, even together, the three of us did not have a cakewalk at Lukshyama. Lukshyama challenged us at every stage, made us struggle to fit the pieces and make a whole. I have not glossed over the trial and error method we used to put together one tiny part of the massive jigsaw puzzle that is Sikkim’s history. There are other Chortens of other Namgyal kings in other places…for the time being, I am happy we went to Lukshyama when we did. Every day, every year, the grass will grow taller and aspects of our history will die another death in the wilderness.